The Drift South: The Changing Face of New Zealand Population

One of the defining aspects of New Zealand population dynamics since European settlement was the so-called Drift North. People relocating from the South Island to the North Island, in search of economic opportunity and of warmer weather. The early years of settlement saw most Europeans head for the South Island, on account of the 1860s Otago and West Coast gold rushes, and because the North Island at the time was both heavily forested and embroiled in land wars with local Maori. But that changed. From 1879 onwards, the Northern population started growing faster than the South, and since 1896, the North Island has been the more populous island. Amongst other things, it also has the commercial (Auckland) and political (Wellington) hubs of the country, the former accounting for roughly a third of New Zealand’s population.

But something strange has now happened. A reversal of one of the historic laws of New Zealand society: the Drift North is over, and the Drift South has begun.

These past four years, the South Island population has been growing faster than the North. For the first time since 1878 at that… a situation all the more curious, given that the Southern population remains older. The North has more young people, more births, and receives more overseas migrants, so the South Island Renaissance is basically entirely down to internal migration. People literally starting out in the North Island, and drifting South for their own reasons.

(It turns out this trend has been going on longer than the past four years. Purely in terms of internal migration, there has been a Drift South for some twenty or thirty years, but the North was still growing faster overall – the drift being disguised by birth rates, and overseas arrivals. It has only been since 2018 that the sheer magnitude of the Drift South has outweighed the North’s natural increase, allowing the South to grow faster than the North).

Which raises the obvious question: why has the Drift South grown to such remarkable levels? One suspects the weather is not a factor, not unless people are deciding to seek out cooler climates in the era of Climate Change. Economics is a more likely proposition, but here too we have question-marks.

One economic feature of the South Island versus the North is that there is far less wealth disparity in the South. The North Island has some extremely wealthy areas, but it also contains the poorest areas of New Zealand – Northland, Bay of Plenty, and the East Coast. The South Island, by contrast, has plenty of decay (we shall get to that), but it is not grindingly poor in the way parts of the North are. The South is more equal.

So could we simply be seeing people move from poorer areas to richer ones? Well, no. It is not that simple. For a start, poor though it might be, Northland is actually seeing gentrification, as many Aucklanders relocate there, perhaps to escape Auckland house prices. Other poorer North Island cities like Gisborne and Whanganui are growing healthily. By contrast, Auckland – the commercial hub of the country – has actually been shrinking in population this past year. One might posit the effects of the Coronavirus, and that is a fair point, but it is probably not the only factor. Central Wellington, wealthy and well-educated, is also in demographic decline too, and Wellington never had Auckland’s 2021 lockdown.

House-prices and cost-of-living then? That would go a long way to explaining Aucklanders and Wellingtonians rediscovering their love for poorer North Island provincial areas. Northland is just a cheaper place to live. But it does not actually explain the strong Drift South, because it turns out the Drift South is actually in very specific parts of the South. And that brings me to what might be called the Dunedin Paradox.

Dunedin – my home-city, of course – is a strange beast within an Australasian context. In the era of the 1860s gold rush, Dunedin was the commercial hub of New Zealand. It is home to New Zealand’s first University (1869) for that very reason. But then the gold ran out, and the Drift North began. Dunedin long retained its status as one of New Zealand’s four main centres (along with Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch), but the decline never stopped, until Dunedin became just another provincial city, having now been overtaken in population by Hamilton and even Tauranga. Dunedin has been decaying for nigh on a century and a half, something fairly common in the industrial centres of Europe, but downright peculiar in Australia and New Zealand. Small wonder then that Dunedin just lends itself to gothic horror. Decay and the shadow of a more glorious past are part of Dunedin’s DNA.

So this means Dunedin is fairly cheap to live, despite it not being overly poor (Dunedin might not be rich, but it is not poor. It is, after all, a well-educated university city where Education and Public Health are major sources of employment). This also means that various mentally ill people end up living in Dunedin, since it is a place one can live while subsisting on a government benefit. And this also means that if the Drift South were being driven by cost-of-living issues, Dunedin ought to be a decent candidate for a twenty-first century Renaissance. Right?

Bizarrely, no. In an era where the South Island is outgrowing the North for the first time in 140 years, the South’s “second city” has still contrived to actually lose population. Dunedin has fewer people in 2022 than it did in 2018, and in fact the city has the worst rate of population decline anywhere in New Zealand, apart from Buller. Dunedin is being outgrown by Invercargill, albeit it is not as if Invercargill is actually booming either. And so we have the Dunedin Paradox – in a New Zealand of the Drift South, Dunedin still manages to be Drifting North.

So if Dunedin is still declining (as ever), where is the South Island growing? It turns out we can pinpoint three areas:

  • Tasman.
  • Mid-Canterbury, specifically the rural areas surrounding Christchurch.
  • Queenstown and Central Otago.

In contrast to the North Island internal migration, where we are seeing gentrification of dirt-poor areas, or just growth of generally poor areas, the South Island’s growth areas tell a different story. Mid-Canterbury and Queenstown are extremely wealthy, with the former being a sort of rural refuge for rich people leaving the Christchurch urban area proper. The latter is more a destination for wealthy relocating Aucklanders. Tasman – the sort of place I’ve always imagined as having copious Hippies – strikes me as a combination of weather (Golden Bay is a sunny part of the country, while also being temperate) and life-stylers. Plus it’s apparently acquired something of a dairy industry, and there’s suburban overspill from the city of Nelson too.

So if had to pinpoint a justification for New Zealand’s change in population distribution, I would offer a single, admittedly speculative, hypothesis. Namely that well-off people don’t want to live in cities any more, and haven’t for some time (hence the twenty/thirty years of southwards internal migration). It is just the rise of remote-work in the era of the Coronavirus has enabled people to fulfill their rural desires like never before, strengthening the prior Drift South until it overcame Northern birth-rates and overseas migration. Queenstown and the Central Otago Lakes aren’t just for holiday homes any more. They’re now for living.

In the North Island, this means Aucklanders are buying up tracts of rural Northland or retiring to the rural Coromandel. And the ones who are looking for established comfort, rather than just cheapness… well, they’ve got the scenic and comfortable places in the South Island. Queenstown is pricey, but it’s pretty. And Tasman is great if you want to own your own orchard. The rural areas around Mid-Canterbury fulfill a similar escape for the wealthier inhabitants of Christchurch.

Which, of course, has the implicit effect of putting New Zealand’s traditional urban centres into a comparative decline… in the process sort-of explaining the Dunedin Paradox. Perhaps the only thing propping up Auckland in the coming era will be the international migrants, of which Dunedin gets substantially less. One might also recall the fate of the major British cities after 1945, which decreased markedly in population relative to the country as a whole.

There is also one other aspect of this peculiar phenomenon that needs commented on. The political one. Traditionally, the South Island has been the somewhat more left-leaning of the two islands – a phenomenon most recently seen in 2017, when the rest of the country conspired to impose a Labour Government on Auckland. My hypothesis would suggest that those Drifting South are disproportionately wealthy and right-leaning, so the South Island as a whole might become a bit bluer – albeit that would suggest the urban areas of Christchurch and Dunedin (passed over by such migration) should trend red. Which, given that Dunedin does actually seem to be trending Right, asks some puzzling questions about Dunedin Labour (and the Greens). The decade-long blue-shift of Dunedin makes little sense for an average-income, declining, but thoroughly well-educated city, dominated by a public sector workforce. Dunedin is not Greymouth, nor even Invercargill (itself trending solidly Right these past twenty years).

But a curious question is what happens to parliamentary seat allocations as the strength of the Drift South becomes more apparent. For many years, New Zealand’s Parliament was fixed in size, which led to the South Island losing MPs over time. Eventually, we adopted a system whereby the South Island is guaranteed a fixed number of electorates, and the North Island gains or loses seats depending on its growth relative to the South. Traditionally, this meant the North Island gained electorate seats… but with the South growing faster, the North will start losing them.

There are two ways this scenario might resolve.

The first is that the North Island simply starts dropping electorates. The prime candidate for this being Central Auckland. Now, this might make the MPs themselves rather grumpy, but they still have the backstop of the party list. It also means that Parliament will not need to be increased in size to maintain overall proportionality – hitherto a hypothetical worry if the North Island were to keep adding seats at the expense of the list.

The alternative would be to increase the number of fixed South Island seats from sixteen to seventeen (or eventually higher), which makes electorates smaller, and hence saves the North Island from losing seats. This also has the virtue of addressing certain issues that have arisen from the geography of the South Island. Namely that if you are in one of the still-declining areas of the South, your electorates look increasingly mad. Waitaki and Kaikoura, for instance, are gigantic in geographical area. My own electorate of Taieri has already consumed most of the rural Clutha District, and will need to consume the rest at the next boundary change. Eventually, one could conceive of Taieri stretching from South Dunedin to Gore, which would be just surreal in terms of its communities of interest. By contrast, increasing the South Island quota would allow Otago-Southland to stave off this insanity, at least for now.

4 thoughts on “The Drift South: The Changing Face of New Zealand Population

  1. Rich people want to move south. It happened in California, in France, the UK, in the US as a whole, and now it’s your turn. Which means that the standard explanation here is wrong. It’s not because of air conditioning. Something in Antarctica must be pulling them.

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  2. When you suggest that remote workers are moving to rural areas in South Island, do you mean that they are keeping their North Island jobs while residing in South Island, or that they are getting jobs not too far from their new location? Because affluent folks moving to a poorer location while theoretically remaining employed in a much more expensive area sounds like a recipe for disaster.

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    • Remote-working is definitely more common these days. I know someone who worked as a university lecturer out of Dunedin for months, while teaching remotely at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Depends on the job, I’d imagine.

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