Darwin is Australia’s only capital city with more men than women and it may stay that way after the COVID-19 pandemic and closure of state borders forced the Northern Territory government to put its multi-million-dollar population strategy on hold. 

Key points:

  • Darwin is Australia’s only capital city where men outnumber women
  • The NT government has halted a $50 million strategy to grow the population
  • Isolation from family is one of the main reasons women leave the Territory

In 2018, amid a national publicity blitz linked to its Boundless Possible campaign, the government launched a $50 million two-year strategy across multiple agencies to help boost the Territory’s population, drive economic growth and create jobs, especially for women.

The strategy included a range of incentives targeting women aged 20 to 39 years to move to the Territory, including cash incentives if they applied for stipulated “high priority” jobs.

But the scheme quietly wrapped up last year after only 101 women relocated to the Territory, among a total of 170 who received incentives to migrate.

In a statement, the office of NT Jobs Minister Paul Kirby said the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 had “impacted planned activities across government” and that interstate travel restrictions forced population growth initiatives to be put on hold.

It spent less than $12 million of the pledged $50 million on the scheme, with the rest of the money repurposed towards the government’s COVID response.  

“Despite this disruption, the targeted population growth marketing campaigns and the Masterbrand interstate advertising in 2018/19 promoting the Territory as a place to live, work, invest and study achieved positive results with the Territory’s population increasing by 0.2 per cent to 245,980 persons in the June quarter 2020,” it said.

Data released last week showed the NT’s population increased by 400 people in the year ending September 2020 — the first population growth recorded since 2018.  

Mr Kirby declined a request to be interviewed by the ABC about the government’s population strategy but issued a statement saying, “house prices and job ads are up, while unemployment is down … that’s why we are confident in the Territory’s future and our population growing.”

An aerial view of Darwin city.

Recent ABS statistics have confirmed the gender imbalance.(

Supplied: HC Blechynden

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There were 6,973 more men than women in Darwin in 2019, according to the latest statistics available from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Charles Darwin University demographer Fiona Shalley said research shows that while jobs drive people to migrate to the Territory, women are often motivated to move away, to be closer to family, who are usually interstate.

“When they start to have babies, that’s when they’re looking to their families for that extra support.

“That’s an extra seven men (per 100) and that’s really quite unusual compared to every jurisdiction in Australia.”

Isolation a major drawback for women

Kalem and Jessica Ficarra, pose for a picture at the beach.

About to give birth, Jessica Ficarra and her partner Kalem chose family over life in Darwin.(

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Jessica Ficarra, 28, relocated back to Geelong in regional Victoria with her partner after spending nearly seven years in the Territory.

She has a three-year-old daughter and left the Territory when she was pregnant with her son, who was born earlier this month.

She said the pandemic worsened the isolation and accelerated her decision to return home.

“With one child, it’s fine. You sort of can get by, but then with two, I was just like I need to have that family support.”

Ms Ficarra also said her Darwin support networks began to break down as friends in similar positions decided to move closer to their families interstate.

“I found three years ago, I had lots of friends with kids, and then the last 18 to 24 months, I had no-one,” she said.

“I had not one person that I knew who had a young child. Everyone left to go back to family.”

Carly Thompson, 35, moved to the Top End to advance her career, scoring a lucrative role in project management, which helped her get experience working on big commercial projects and in defence.

Ruby, a toddler, wears a cream coloured garment and pink shoes. She is looking joyfully at the camera.

Carly Thompson’s daughter Ruby enjoys the Darwin sun.(

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She said she loved the Territory and the lifestyle but after meeting her husband and having a baby, she found the growing expenses of childcare, plus flights back to see family, were too great.

Ms Thompson and her husband decided to return to Adelaide to have their second child.

“I could work more days if I had family support. It wasn’t worth me working more days and paying for childcare,” she said.

“Being close to aunties and uncles and cousins was a big part of my growing up.

“I wanted that for my children as well.”

Unbalanced gender ratio

For years, women in the Territory have been outnumbered by men. 

And that’s a problem, Ms Shalley said, because it creates a situation where the population cannot reproduce itself naturally.

She said the gender imbalance can contribute to a shrinking population and an ailing economy like what the NT has experienced over recent years, even though the rate of population decline appeared to ease during the pandemic.

Even with the Territory’s recent recorded population growth, the NT still lost more than 2,000 people who migrated interstate, but those losses were offset by births and international migration.   

“When we’re out of sync, particularly when we’ve got less females … it means we have to rely on migration to fill in the gaps to keep our population growth steady,” she said.

The government’s population strategy has aimed to shift outside perceptions of the NT — and reinforce it is not one-way traffic south for women.

Choosing life in Darwin

After five years living in Darwin, 28-year-old mum Charlemagne Whitehead and her partner moved back to Adelaide at the end of 2019 to be closer to family.

“It was tricky with our youngest who has a heart condition … she has so many appointments,” Ms Whitehead said, adding it was also hard to juggle the babysitting and childcare of her three young daughters.

“Having family around was easier,” she said.

A mother sits at a table with her three young daughters concentrating on colouring-in. Pens and paper are strewn across a table.

Charlemagne Whitehead says the appeal of the Territory’s low COVID-19 cases drew her back.(

Michael Franchi

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But after just over a year living in Adelaide, Ms Whitehead and her family decided to move back to Darwin, the city they now call home. 

While she enjoyed being closer to her sisters, she said being in a big city during the pandemic meant it was different from how she imagined, and she missed the Top End’s tropical lifestyle.

She said she now feels just as supported in Darwin as she did with family in Adelaide.

“There are so many people who are away from their family in Darwin,” Ms Whitehead said.

“When you do meet people and develop relationships and friendships, those relationships become so much deeper than somewhere else,” she said.

“We kind of make each other our family.

“I just missed my life in Darwin.”

Women keep leaving the Top End, so what’s Darwin’s problem?
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