How many is too many? Australia's people problem
The Sydney Morning Herald
February 18, 2010
Even a basic assessment shows that Australia's more recent high population growth causes or exacerbates many of our major economic, environmental and social problems. Yet successive federal governments push it higher and higher.
There is no consulting the electorate. No real democracy. Most of our population growth is driven by a high level of immigration. This is something that the federal government directly controls.
We know that Kevin Rudd favours “a big Australia”, with a population of 36 million by 2050. It was only a few years ago that the official 2050 projection was 23, then 28 million. The current growth rate would actually take us to about 45 million. What happens after 2050 on this slippery slope?
Major western countries average about 0.25 per cent population growth a year. Ours is 2.1 per cent, or about 450,000 last year, which equates to a doubling of our population every 33 years. This rate would take us to more than 100 million by the turn of the century.
Michael Danby, chairman of the Federal Parliament's joint committee on migration, recently wrote that “a long-standing 'vibe' has prevailed in both major parties that population growth is good for the nation”. Mr Danby could follow the lead of his colleague Kelvin Thomson, who clearly pays more attention to the “vibe” in the community.
We also recently found out that Tony Abbott favours “as many people as possible”. The Howard government's track record of high growth confirms this bipartisan support for unfettered growth, yet the case for a much larger population has never been developed at any length.
The profits of growth go to few. Property developers, media moguls. Everyone else picks up the tab. Is the pressure from big business political donors so great that the major parties are unwilling to consult the Australian people?
The Greens have largely ignored the population issue. It's a great pity. They could have made some real progress. After all, almost all major environmental battles will be lost in the long run if we fail to win the population battle now.
The results of high population growth have been dead river systems, near-permanent water shortages, increasing pollution, a surge in imports and skyrocketing foreign debt, reduced per capita value of our mineral wealth and exports, expensive rebuilding of our cities and infrastructure, impoverished government budgets, loss of limited arable farmland to housing, traffic gridlock, crowding of our coastal towns and resorts, loss of native species and wildlife, urban congestion, local suburb planning conflict, loss of personal security and open spaces for our children to play, just to name a few. What is all this in aid of?
The great Australian dream has turned into a nightmare of haves and have-nots. If Australians knew that it would have led to all this, they would have turfed governments pushing high population growth out of office.
Our extreme population growth has put enormous pressure on hospitals, roads, schools and other essential services. The federal government is pouring hundreds of thousands of people into Australia every year and expecting these services to cope. Large skills shortages and stresses are the direct result. We then get governments and vested interest groups calling for wait for it more skilled immigration and even higher population growth. The dog never did catch its tail.
In recently cancelling 20,000 foreign student applications, the government has admitted that “our highly selective skilled immigration program”, as Mr Danby recently put it, was nothing of the sort.
Incentives to train unemployed Australians diminish when you can turn on the immigration tap. It's not as if we're short of people when we have well over a million unemployed and under-employed Australians, including 100,000 aged between 15 and 24 who dropped out of the labour market last year. High immigration acts as a disincentive to train and employ them, as it does with older and indigenous Australians. We would be better off giving our fellow Australians a hand up, rather than a hand out.
Sure, our average age is creeping up. This happens when we survive into our 80s rather than just our 70s. Why are we not celebrating the fact that we live longer healthier lives?
Demographers have pointed out that we would need a massive influx of young immigrants to reduce the average age by even a small amount. What happens then, under this giant pyramid scheme, when this even bigger population ages? The house of cards falls down on the next generation. No wonder economists such as Ross Gittins and Richard Denniss have been scathing.
Even Mr Rudd has admitted that it is our policies in superannuation and savings incentives, as well as productivity and the retirement age, that will have the most impact on the challenge of baby boomer retirements. Let's get on with it and face this manageable challenge rather than passing a bigger issue on to our children and grandchildren.
Our GDP, or economic growth, has been outstripped and undermined by population growth. Per capita GDP has fallen for the past five quarters. How many successive quarters of negative growth do you need for a technical recession again? The $2 billion monthly trade deficits aren't helping. Our population growth is not having any significant impact on boosting our exports, but it is creating surging demand for imported TVs, cars, clothes and oil.
If you think that bigger is better, consider the fact that eight out of the top 10 per capita wealth nations have populations of less than 10 million. Also consider that Australia had virtually no foreign debt in the early 1970s, with a population of just over 10 million. Now, driven by large trade deficits and infrastructure borrowing, our foreign debt is fast approaching $1000 billion. That's $1 trillion.
Australians should always be free to choose their family size, not to be pushed by way of taxpayer-funded bribes and pro-natalist rhetoric. The baby bonus is an inefficient use of our money and should be redirected towards needy families, education and training.
A national population policy that is sustainable and stable is required. Hopefully the three major parties will take note of this when they, no doubt, re-consider their high population growth “vibe” in coming months.
The Australian Academy of Science has recommended that 23 million people would be a safe upper limit for Australia. That was before climate change and peak oil became hot topics. We're nearly there now.
With a balanced migration program, it is possible to stabilise Australia's population until 2050. This would entail an immigration level of between 50,000-80,000 people a year. Immigration would roughly equate to the emigration of a similar number who leave Australia permanently every year. Although we had an excess of births over deaths in Australia of about 150,000 in 2009, this is due to taper off as the baby boomer bulge passes through our population in coming decades. On current trends, the surplus of birth over deaths will add less than 1 million people by 2050.
Now for the really scary part. As outlined in Overloading Australia, it took all of human history for the world's population to pass 1 billion, some time in the 19th century. The second billion took only about 120 years. We are now at about 6.8 billion and added our last billion in a little more than a decade, mainly in the developing world. We cannot take into Australia any significant fraction of this vast increase. Rather, it's time to show global leadership by stabilising Australia. We can also help others through targeted foreign aid supporting women's rights and family planning. Overpopulation stalks many small Pacific nations. Targeted aid gives them the same free choice we have regarding family size.
Australia's population growth isn't inevitable. It is a choice. For that reason, I will soon launch a single-philosophy political party. Dick Smith recently said that he had never felt more strongly about an issue. Many other Australians feel the same way.
At the next federal election, we will finally have the choice between a stable, sustainable Australia, and a future Australia that we won't recognise and I strongly suspect we don't want. Population is the debate Australia has to have.
William Bourke is a Sydney businessman. He is launching a new political party with a focus on population.