The population of the Northern Territory (NT) is on average much younger and more mobile than the Australian population in general. In this section, analysis is provided on the key components of the NT’s population growth. This includes the estimated resident population, natural increase (births and deaths), net interstate migration and net overseas migration. It also looks at population trends by regions and the Aboriginal population.

 infographic showing aboriginal population   

Background | Population growthRegional population | Aboriginal population l Explanatory notes


The estimated resident population (ERP) is the official Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) measure of Australia’s population at a given point in time. It quantifies the number of usual residents of Australia and locations within Australia. The ERP provides the best available estimation of the NT’s resident population. The ERP is based on the results of the five‑yearly Census of Population and Housing, updated quarterly between censuses using information on births, deaths, net interstate migration (NIM) and net overseas migration (NOM).

Most ERP data in this section is reported on a financial‑year basis (as at 30 June). For the latest available data and analysis about the NT’s population, see the Department of Treasury and Finance’s Population economic brief. DTF also produces Population Projections, which are estimates of the future size and characteristics of the NT's population.

The 2018-2028 Northern Territory Population Growth Strategy is a framework for attracting people to the Territory, and encouraging those already here to stay for the long term. For more information on the strategy, visit the Northern Territory Government’s Population Growth Strategy website.

The NT’s population, comprising 1% of the total Australian population, is spread over the third largest Australian jurisdiction by geographical area, making it the most sparsely populated jurisdiction, with 0.2 persons per square kilometre. Over half (59.6%) of the NT’s population resides in Greater Darwin and the remainder is dispersed over remote and very remote areas. About one third of the NT’s population is Aboriginal, around 80% of whom live in remote and very remote areas.

The NT has a younger age profile than Australia as a whole (Chart 1), with a median age of 32.9 years, in comparison with 37.3 years for Australia. The large number of persons aged 25 to 34 years in the NT is indicative of the NT’s economy, dominated by mining, construction and defence. These industries also typically employ more men than women, skewing the NT’s gender balance, with 108 males for every 100 females, compared to less than 99 males for every 100 females for Australia.

Population change within the NT is volatile, driven by movement of the non‑Aboriginal population to and from the NT, largely in response to changing employment opportunities within and external to the NT. Variations in NIM and NOM highlight the volatility in mobility of this population (Chart 2).

Population growth

Population growth is the sum of natural increase (births minus deaths), NIM (population change through the movement of people from and to other states) and NOM (population change through the movement of people from and to overseas). Chart 2 depicts the contribution of each component to total population growth for the NT over the 20‑year period to December 2018.

The NT’s ERP was 245,562 people as at 31 March 2019, a decrease of 0.4% (1062 persons) from 31 March 2018. Annual change in the NT was well below national growth over the same period (1.6%) and below the NT’s 20‑year annual average of 1.2%.

Natural increase is the most stable of the three components to the NT population and has been the major driver of growth over the past 20 years. In the year to March 2019, natural increase added 2,540 people to the NT population, below the 20‑year average of 2,825 people. NOM added 654 people, down from 1,125 in the previous year and below the 20‑year average of 1,467 people. NIM, the most volatile of the three components, detracted from population growth with a loss of 4,256 people to other jurisdictions in the year to March 2019. This was the highest annual net interstate loss of people from the NT in over thirty years, and was significantly greater than the 20-year annual average loss of 1,379 people.

Natural increase

Natural increase is the difference between the number of births and deaths, which shows whether a population will grow or decline in the absence of migration. The ABS obtains birth and death information from state and territory Registrars of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

The NT differs markedly from the rest of Australia in respect of the impact of natural increase on total population growth. In the year to March 2019, natural increase contributed 1.0% to the NT population. This was lower than the 20-year average of 1.3%, and continues a slight but clear decline observable after 2011-12, which is a result of fewer births as a proportion of the total population (Chart 3). Nevertheless, natural increase’s annual contribution to the population in the NT remains higher than its contribution to the Australian population, which was 0.6% in the year to March 2019, also slightly below its 20-year average of 0.7%.


The contribution of births to population growth in the NT has declined over the last 10 years (Chart 3). This decline is largely attributable to a fall in the number of women aged 15 to 49 years resident in the NT.

Despite the proportionate decline in births in the NT, the NT’s fertility rate remains high. Fertility is measured by the total fertility rate (TFR), which represents the average number of children that would be born to a woman if she experienced the current age‑specific fertility rates through her reproductive life (ages 15 to 49).

In 2016-17 the NT recorded the highest TFR (2.0) among jurisdictions followed by Western Australia (1.9) and above the national TFR of 1.7 for that year. The 2016-17 TFR for all jurisdictions except the NT and Western Australia was lower than their respective five-year average TFR. Key reasons for the NT’s high TFR are the relatively high proportion of non‑Aboriginal women of child‑bearing age relative to other Australian jurisdictions, and greater fertility among Aboriginal women combined with the relative size of the Aboriginal population in the NT compared with the rest of Australia.


The proportionate impact of deaths on the NT’s population remained relatively unchanged at an annual average of 0.5% over the previous 10 years. However, there was a slight decrease in the proportion of deaths in 2016-17 (to 0.4%) that contributed to the slight increase in the contribution of natural increase to overall growth in that year (Chart 3).

Age‑standardised death rates enable the comparison of mortality between jurisdictions after accounting for the different age profiles of each state and territory. In 2016-17 the NT recorded the highest age‑standardised death rate (7.2 deaths per 1,000 persons annually) among jurisdictions, followed by Tasmania (6.2), and Queensland and South Australia (both at 5.4). The NT’s average age‑standardised death rate over the past five years (8.1) was also the highest across all jurisdictions and much higher than the Australian average of 5.4. The NT’s higher age‑standardised death rate can be attributed to its relatively large Aboriginal population and the lower life expectancy of Aboriginal persons.

Interstate migration

NIM is based on Medicare interstate change of address information with adjustments for defence personnel not covered by Medicare. NIM in the NT is highly volatile and it typically detracts from population growth. In the year to March 2019, there was a net loss of 4,256 people from the NT to other jurisdictions, a significantly greater loss than the 20‑year NIM average loss of 1,379 people annually and the largest 12 month loss in the available time series, which dates back to 1981-82.

These NIM flows are relatively modest in comparison with the component flows of people that move to and from the NT each year, typically averaging between 15,000 and 17,000 people per annum, both arriving and departing (Chart 4). These movements are concentrated within the non‑Aboriginal population, with most Aboriginal population movements limited to within the NT. In the year to March 2019, 187 more people arrived in the Territory from interstate than the same time last year, while there were 880 more departures.

The Territory generally has a much higher churn of migrants moving in and out than any other jurisdiction.

Chart 5 shows the annual turnover (total migration) for 2018 of all state/territory populations as compared to net migration over the same period. Total migration (%) is the sum of overseas and interstate arrivals and departures as a proportion of state/territory population, and net migration (%) is the difference between overseas and interstate arrivals and overseas and interstate departures as a proportion of state/territory population. In 2018, the Territory and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) reported rates of churn (total migration) far higher than the states, which all had a turnover rate of around 6 per cent. However, unlike the ACT, the Territory was the only jurisdiction to report a net outflow of overseas and interstate migrants.

In 2018, the Territory’s total turnover of 41,870 persons was 17 per cent of the total population. In contrast, Victoria’s total turnover of 403,950 persons was 6.3 per cent of the total population. Had Victoria the same turnover rate as the Territory, over a million people would have moved in and out of the state in one year.

Migration to and from the Territory varies by sex and age group . The largest cohorts moving in and out of the Territory in a given year are those who are in their 20s and early 30s. In 2018, the total number of arrivals to the NT increased slightly, up by 30 people to 14,140. Despite this increase, the number of arrivals to the NT was still well below the 20 year annual average rate of 15,629 arrivals. The small increase in arrivals was reasonably well spread, with the exception of 35-49 year old males (down by 70 arrivals compared to the previous year) and 20-34 year old females (down by 130 arrivals) (Chart 6). Both of these groups have reported three consecutive years of declining arrivals.

The number of departures  from the Territory increased across all age groups in 2018 (Chart 7), with people aged 20-34 years the largest contributor to the overall increase in departures.  In 2018, the number of males aged 20-34 years old departing the NT increased by 170 people to 3480, while the number of 20-34 year old female departures increased by 190 to 3260. There was also a large increase (140 males and 120 females) in the number of people aged 50-64 years old departing the Territory, mostly from the 50-54 year old age group. The large increase in the working age population departing the NT in 2018 is reflective of the completion of the construction phase of the Ichthys LNG project and subsequent lower workforce requirements.

At a more detailed level of five year age groups, the latest interstate migration data has shown that the trends in migration have shifted slightly, with the largest increases in interstate departures amongst those aged 30-34 and 35-39, rather than concentrated amongst slightly younger age groups. There has also been an increase in the number of 0-4 year olds departing the Territory. This increase closely follows the increase in the number of 35-39 year olds departing, suggesting that it may be family groups who were large contributors to the record NIM to the Territory.

Overall, only 20-34 year old males made a positive contribution to the NT’s interstate migration, on a net basis, contributing 30 additional people to the Territory’s population (Chart 8). All other cohorts detracted from the NT’s population.

Overseas migration

NOM has been a positive contributor to population growth in the NT over the past 20 years and, while more volatile than natural increase, is substantially more stable than NIM. In 2018, NOM added 526 people to the NT’s population, below the 20‑year annual average of 1,455 persons.

The decline in NOM was largely driven by  a decline in the number of arrivals into the Territory in 2018 (Chart 9). The number of arrivals by 20-34 year old males declined by 330 to 1,670, while the number of female arrivals in that age group declined by 330, to 1,150. This is partly reflective of a decline in the number of arrivals on higher education visas and temporary and permanent skilled work visas in the year. The only group that reported an increase in arrivals in 2018 was in females aged 65 and over (up by 10 to 40 arrivals).

Partly offsetting the decline in overseas arrivals to the Territory was a fall in the number of overseas departures in 2018. This partly reflected a return to a more normal level of departures of those aged 65 and over (to 130) in 2018 after an unusually large number of departures in that age group the previous year. There was also a decline in the number of departures aged 50-64 years and those aged 0-19 years.

Over the past few years the NT’s NOM flows have diverged from Australian NOM flows, with the increase reported nationally not being reflected at the Territory level. In 2018, the NT’s NOM declined by over 50% compared to the previous year, whereas nationally it increased by 2.8%. As a result, the NT’s NOM in 2018 was just 0.2% of the total, well down on the ten year average of 0.9%, which is much closer to the NT’s share of the total national population (Chart 10).

In early 2019 the Commonwealth announced  a number of changes to its migration program, including a reduction in the total number of migrants to Australia, but also including plans to direct a greater share of migrants to regional areas. These changes have not yet been implemented, but could have an impact on the Territory’s overseas migration rates into the future.

Regional population

Greater Darwin

Greater Darwin’s population decreased by 0.1% in 2017‑18, with the decline mostly concentrated in Darwin city and its surrounding suburbs. In contrast, the population of the rest of the NT increased by 0.2%. with the population decline widespread across the region. Prior to the most recent data release, Darwin’s population growth had outperformed the rest of NT every year for over a decade (Chart 11). Greater Darwin’s population is likely to continue to decline into 2018-19 as the Ichthys LNG project, based in Darwin, reduces it labour force as it transitions from the construction to the operational phase.

The concentration of population growth in Greater Darwin reflects a similar pattern observable in greater capital city areas across Australia, and the broader global trend of increasing urbanisation and spatial concentration of populations.

Within the Greater Darwin region, population growth in 2017-18 was weak in Darwin City (down 2.7%), Brinkin-Nakara (down 4.2%) and Karama (down 2.2%). Palmerston south (up 21.6%) and Lyons (up 6.9%) had the strongest growth in the region, reflecting the construction of new housing in those areas.

Rest of the NT

Table 2 shows the ERP (at 30 June 2018), population share, and the annual and five-year average growth rates for the regions and major towns of the NT. Chart 12 details the annual population change for each of the regions from 2013-14 to 2017-18.

Alice Springs (up 0.3%) and Katherine (up 0.4%) reported the strongest results in the rest of the NT in 2017-18. This was the second consecutive year of growth for both regions and reflect the differing economic drivers in the regions compared to Darwin

The population in East Arnhem was stable in 2017-18, following four consecutive years of decline due to the closure of the Gove alumina refinery, which led to the population of Nhulunbuy falling from 4520 in 2011-12 to 3274 in 2017-18. The end to the declines from the refinery closure and associated loss of businesses, coupled with ongoing strength in the mining industry in the region, suggests that the population will be stable, if not returning to growth over the near to medium term.

The population declined in the Barkly (down 0.3%) and Daly-Tiwi-West Arnhem (down 0.1%) in 2017-18, slower than the five year average rate of decline of 1.2% and 0.6% respectively.

Aboriginal population

The ABS estimates the Aboriginal population every five years following a census. The ABS uses census population estimates to project Aboriginal population numbers for the intercensal years. Final Aboriginal ERP following the 2016 Census was released in August 2018, including estimates for remoteness areas

At 30 June 2016 there were an estimated 74,546 Aboriginal people living in the NT, which represents 30.3% of the NT’s population and 9.3% of the national Aboriginal population.

Between 2011 and 2016, the NT’s Aboriginal population grew by 8.3%, the lowest rate of growth among jurisdictions and below national growth of 19.2% (Table 1). A key contributor to the higher rate of growth in the Aboriginal population in other jurisdictions were people being newly recorded as identifying as Aboriginal. In addition, children born to parents of ‘mixed heritage’ with one parent identifying as Aboriginal are increasingly identified as Aboriginal. Both of these factors tend to be more prevalent in Australia’s metropolitan centres.

At June 2016, 76.6% of the Territory’s Aboriginal population lived in remote or very remote areas, down from 79.7% as at June 2011. This decline reflected a general trend nationally of declining Aboriginal population in remote areas and a related increase in Aboriginal population in urbanised regions. Nevertheless, a far greater proportion of the Territory’s Aboriginal population live in remote and very remote areas than the jurisdiction with the next highest proportion (Western Australia with 38%). Nationally, the proportion of Aboriginal people living in remote and very remote areas declined from 21.3% in 2011 to 18.7% in 2016 (Chart 11).

Explanatory notes

Population statistics are based on data reported by the ABS. These include: quarterly results of headline population figures, including ERP, births, deaths, total NIM and NOM; annual releases such as detailed migration and regional population estimates; and less frequent data releases, such as Aboriginal population estimates which are released by the ABS every five years.

ERP is a measure of population based on their usual residential address. It includes overseas residents who are in Australia for a period of over 12 months, as well as Australian residents and citizens who are outside of Australia for a period of less than 12 months. State and Territory ERPs includes residents whose place of work may be in another jurisdiction, but whose usual place of residence, and their address registered with Medicare, is in that jurisdiction. This means that the Territory’s large fly-in, fly-out workforce is not included in its population statistics. Adjustments are also made by the ABS to allow for residents who may have been born, or died, in another jurisdiction to the one in which they are usually resident.

Census data differs from ERP in that it is a count of people, on a particular night, rather than a measure of population flows. ERP is an estimate derived from the census count, which is then adjusted for any undercount or overcount in the census, residents overseas and other adjustments, including backdating from the date of the census to 30 June 2016. Census data is available in much finer detail than ERP data and is therefore useful as a relative measure, for example, comparing smaller geographic areas. Commencing mid-2017, the ABS has been releasing the results of the 2016 Census, including updated ERP data, as well as more detailed information which is not available for the inter-censal period.

The Department of Housing and Community Development produces detailed information on remote communities in the Territory, including population estimates. For further information, see the NT Government’s Bushtel website.