Australian census: booming Western Australia must embrace its new diversity

The Perth CBD showing the corner of William Street and Hay Street. (AAP/Tony McDonough)

AUSTRALIA BY NUMBERS: The Australian Bureau of Statistics has released the first batch of its census data. We’ve asked some of the country’s top demographers and statisticians to crunch the numbers on Australia’s population: how we live, where we work, who our families are and how we spend our time.

Here, Paul Maginn looks at the rise and rise of Western Australia, and how the state will cope with its new, multicultural population.

The 2011 census data has confirmed that Western Australia is the fastest growing state in Australia, increasing by 14.3% between 2006 and 2011. This is significantly above the national growth rate of 8.3%.

Perth is the fastest growing greater capital city statistical area, also growing by 14.3%. This was closely followed by Darwin (13.8%) and Brisbane (11.5%). New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and their respective capital city areas all had growth rates below the national figure.

Such growth is impressive and reinforces WA’s role as the economic power-house of Australia. The 2011 Census data also reveals some interesting changes in the ethnic and religious make-up of WA, especially within the greater Perth metropolitan region.

Perth is a city that has tended not to be seen as multicultural as Melbourne and Sydney, despite having always been a diverse city. The new census data clearly indicates that Perth is becoming a significantly more cosmopolitan city.

So, where are West Australians from and what faiths, if any, do they tend to follow?

The Asian-isation of Western Australia?

Whereas 69.1% of the Australian population was born in Australia this figure falls to 62.3% for Western Australia. As for Perth, 40.8% of the metropolitan population were born outside Australia. Comparable figures for Melbourne and Sydney were 37.4% and 40.7% respectively. In simple demographic terms, then, Perth is more multicultural than Melbourne and Sydney.

However a close look at the top three countries of origin across Perth, Melbourne and Sydney shows that in Perth the list is dominated by people from the UK (11.3%); New Zealand (3.0%) and South Africa (1.7%).

Slightly more than one in four British migrants who live in the Perth metropolitan region, for example, can be found in the adjoining outer local government areas of Joondalup and Wanneroo.

The UK population is the largest overseas born group in both Melbourne and Sydney but they only account for 4.1% of the metropolitan population in both regions in 2011.

The Chinese and Indian communities are comparatively larger in Sydney (3.4% and 2.0%) and Melbourne (2.3% and 2.7%) than in Perth (0.9% and 1.6%).

However, Perth’s Chinese population grew by 210% between 2001 and 2011. This is compared to 154% in Melbourne, 81% in Sydney and 123% nationally.

Some of the other fastest growing overseas born populations in Perth included: the Philippines (209%), Korea (177%), India (129%) South Africa (117%) and Thailand (116%). All of this is a clear sign that the so-called “Asian century” is gathering demographic and economic momentum in Perth/WA.

The growth of these various “Asian” communities and other groups will no doubt add to the rich economic, social and physical tapestry of metropolitan life across Australia. At the same time, however, rapid increases in certain migrant communities are likely to provoke resistance and opposition from some “established” communities as these “newer” communities seek to develop social and physical infrastructure that reflects and sustains their cultural practices.

From an urban planning perspective, the changing religious landscape in Perth/WA suggests that the state planning department and local government offices are going to have to develop more culturally sensitive policies in order to prevent proposals for places of worship, religious schools and community facilities being politically hijacked.

In the Gods we (dis)trust

The 2011 Census shows that Christianity remains the dominant faith in WA (57.4%) and Perth (57.9%). These figures are below the national level of 60.5%. They are also down on the 2006 census levels of 58.7 and 59.3% respectively.

Buddhists represent the largest minority religious groups in WA and Perth accounting for 2.1% (47,500) and 2.5% (42,700) of the population respectively – just below the national figure of 2.4% (529,000) – in 2011.

The Muslim community ranks as the second largest minority religious group in WA and Perth accounting for just 1.7% (39,160) and 2.1% (36,350) of the state and metropolitan population in 2011. The Muslim population more than doubled in WA (101%) and Perth (108%) between 2001 and 2011.

As can be seen from these figures, the Muslim population is predominantly metropolitan-based. Hence, it is within this space and especially amongst those metropolitan councils experiencing rapid and significant increases in the Muslim population, that the political and community rhetoric over development applications for mosques and Islamic schools can be expected to be most pointed.

There have already been a number of cases within Perth where development proposals for Muslim prayer halls and community facilities have been rejected in the wake of community opposition.

The fastest growing minority religion in WA and Perth was Hinduism which increased by 324% (up from approximately 5,000 to 21,800) and 322% (up from 4,700 to 19,800) between 2001-2011. Hindus only account for 1.1% of Perth’s population and 0.9 for WA overall.

While the overall number of Hindus is relatively small this rapid population increase points to increasing demands for culturally-appropriate services and facilities from within the Hindu community in the very near future. Again, such demands are going to be most pressing in those local government areas with relatively high concentrations of Hindus.

Responding to cultural change

The ethnic and religious landscape of Perth and WA has changed quite dramatically over the past 5-10 years and will continue to do so over the next 10, 20, 30 years. Perth is clearly on a pathway to becoming a more substantive multicultural city.

However it is unclear if policy-makers, especially planners at the state and local government level, are sensitised and responding appropriately to this fact.

Policies and plans appear to be more concerned with regulating land-use via sub-division, zoning policies and town planning schemes that take a traditional and conservative view of the world.

Western Australians will soon have to acknowledge that planning is about people, and that those people are increasingly diverse in terms of their cultural background.

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