The decisions now about our population are literally determining what Australia will look like in 2050. So we should be making informed choices about our future.
When Kevin Rudd calmly told Kerry O’Brien that he believed in “a big Australia”, his off-hand comment created a storm. One insider said, “The focus groups went ballistic”. The fundamental reason is that most of us living in or around our major cities see our quality of life steadily declining as population grows. All the important environmental indicators are getting worse as a direct result of the increasing demands of our growing population.
The water has been muddied by some widespread misconceptions: “we aren’t replacing ourselves”, “our population would decline if we didn’t bring in migrants”, “our ageing society is a problem”, “population growth is good for the economy”. I set out to identify some facts.
First of all, we don’t have a problem replacing ourselves. Each year births outnumber deaths by about 150,000, so the population would grow by about 400 a day if there was no migration. The birth rate has increased since the Howard government offered financial incentives to have more children, but the so-called “natural increase” – births minus deaths – has never been less than 100,000 a year for decades.
Of course, we do also bring in migrants. Each year some people leave Australia and others arrive. The net migration, the difference between numbers arriving and leaving, varied from year to year with political decisions between 20,000 and 200,000, averaging about 100,000 – comparable with the “natural increase” – until the Howard government increased immigration levels to over 300,000. There has been some tightening up of education” schemes that were really back-door visa programs, but the annual net migration is still about 250,000 a year.
Adding together birth rate and migration, the Australian population is now growing by about 400,000 a year, or another million every two and a half year. While Kevin Rudd celebrated the calculation that our population could grow to 36 million by 2040, on current trends it will be even larger than that. So we are right to be asking whether that sort of growth is manageable. In fact, infrastructure in our major cities is not keeping pace with the growing population, so our material living standards are declining steadily.
One reason for the unpopularity of the Bligh government was its fire-sale of public assets to fund infrastructure. A second problem was that those measures did not solve the problem, so roads got more congested, public transport vehicles got more crowded and so on. Ironically, the backlash against the government brought to power a Coalition administration headed by Campbell Newman, who as Lord Mayor of Brisbane ran up a huge public debt in an orgy of road-building to try to dilutepublic disquiet about growth.
The claim that we have a problem of an ageing population is completely false. UN statistics show that we are comparatively young for an affluent country. We rank 43rd in the world in a listing by average age: not just younger than European countries but also younger than Canada, Cuba, Hong Kong and Singapore. In any case, even if we did have an ageing society, migrants are typically about the same age on average as those already here – and they age at the same rate!
The economic question is complicated. There is no doubt that population growth makes the total size of the economy greater, but there is vigorous debate among economists about whether it increases wealth per person, which is the factor determining whether you and I are better off. The general view is that there is a small net benefit, but quite a small one that needs to be offset against the negatives of more crowded roads and public transport, less access to open space and recreation areas – and the huge cost of providing infrastructure for the extra people.
Surveys regularly show that the majority of Australians do not support the current high level of immigration. The debate is confused by an inflated emphasis on the relatively small numbers of refugees arriving by boat – about 6000 in a typical year out of a total migrant intake of over 200,000 – but it is clear that the majority are worried by the rate of growth.
The choices we are making now are determining what Australia will look like in 2050. If we continue to encourage large-scale migration and a high birth-rate, the population will be over 40 million and still growing rapidly. Holding migration below 100,000 a year or lower and phasing out incentives for larger families would enable us to stabilise the population below 30 million. There is no more important issue for an informed public debate.
Ian Lowe is emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.