Perish The Thought That We Can Handle A Bigger Population

Perish the thought that we can handle a bigger population

Sydney Morning Herald
November 19, 2009

In the sprawling Austrian classic “The Man Without Qualities” by Robert Musil, famed for its unreadability, the anti-hero, Ulrich, reads in a newspaper about “the racehorse of genius”.

That a “racehorse” can be a “genius” triggers a flash of alienation. From that moment Ulrich cannot trust the values of his society.

Some Australians must have felt similar estrangement when they read federal Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner's defence of Australia's runaway immigration targets, playfully comparing our population densities with those of Bangladesh.

That Tanner is one of the best minds in federal politics will only deepen the rift between 90 per cent of Australians and their political and business leadership over population policy, or rather the absence of any policy except “more”.

In March the Australian Bureau of Statistics projected that one scenario, with ramped-up immigration, could mean a population as high as 42.5 million by 2056. Its mid-range scenario comes in at 35.5 million.

I need only summarise the indictments of such high-end population growth. It assumes rainfall reliability not reflected in any known data. It ignores evidence that high immigration has only a marginal impact on age distribution over the long term. It glides over the proof marshalled by Ross Gittins that high immigration worsens, not relieves, skill shortages. It also spikes the cost of land and cruels housing affordability.

It defies “carrying capacity” constraints. One windy day blows our onion paper-thin soil 1400 kilometres. Our rivers are mere creeks compared with those fed by the Alps, the Rockies or the Andes. Two capitals, Adelaide and Brisbane, have come perilously close to running out of water.

National security? Ramped-up immigration will never close the gap between us and the Indonesians.

Leave these arguments for another day.

In the meantime I would like Canberra and big business to level with us about the implications of soaring immigration.

Will they, for example, stand shoulder to shoulder with state planning ministers when prime farming land on the city fringe has to be ploughed up for housing and low-density suburbs rezoned for high-rise? Residents of Ku-ring-gai opposed to flats along their rail corridor should remember these rezonings were to help facilitate a Sydney population of 5 million. Now we are headed for 7 million. Their placards belong outside the Department of Immigration, not the Department of Planning.

Don't believe that there is a magic potion called Good Planning that will settle every argument. The Metropolitan Strategy, gazetted in 2005, defines Sydney as a city of cities; not just one CBD but regional and sub-regional centres based on public transport hubs (Parramatta, North Sydney, Chatswood, Strathfield etc).

Population growth will occur in these centres and along rail corridors, easing pressure on the fringe. The plan is based on an extra 1.1 million by 2031. The increased intake will add half a million to this.

The strategy is robust enough to cope – the fall in the size of households is now evening out – but planning will always be a rolling argument. Differences about where the densities go and how you accommodate unavoidable growth on the fringe will always be with us. It's the same with what you do with public resources that are always limited. Increasing numbers just makes these tensions more acute.

In fact capital city water is a bigger anxiety. Since 2006 every mainland state has thrown up a desalination plant; NSW as insurance against drought, the rest for everyday supply. Now Queensland will build two more. Ten desal plants in three years. If this drought lengthens we will need them.

Yet none of the Canberra bureaucrats who ticked off high immigration were required to link rising population numbers to water. Not to the fragility of the Murray and Adelaide's reliance on it for 90 per cent of its drinking water; to the unpredictability of south-east Queensland's rainfall; or to the unknowns about Perth's Yarragadee aquifer.

Melbourne is building Australia's biggest desal plant and drought conditions have already mandated use of its full capacity.

A single dam, as Anna Bligh now knows, requires an environmental impact statement.

But letting annual arrivals blow out to 500,000 a year required not even a one-page summary of environmental implications.

And an EIS on migrant numbers would have had to discuss the base-load energy to power the soon-to-be numerous desal plants.

We celebrate every advance for thermal and photovoltaic solar, clean coal, natural gas and energy efficiency. But there is a risk high population growth may mandate new coal-burning power plants, especially in Victoria. And they send any national greenhouse targets through the roof.

Unless we go for nuclear, which surely joins the checklist of possibilities. If an environmental impact statement on our new population target canvassed that option, you could praise the high-growth advocates for their honesty.

Tanner suggested people in high-density countries would consider strange our reservations about high immigration. The implication is that every last place on this battered planet should cheerfully sign on for the population explosion.

I think other countries can understand that Australia has a narrow fertile coastal strip and the rest is arid and semi-arid. We resemble North Africa more than North America. Curious as we are, I think Australians don't want to be packed tight, and remain attached to space, air, the natural world.

And instead of more coastal suburbs they may even prefer the glimpse of waves breaking on golden sand through the branches of a eucalypt. Funny that.

Bob Carr was premier of NSW from 1995 to 2005.