How Australia’s Labor Party Lost The Population Vote And Hung The Election

How Australia's Labor Party lost the population vote and hung the election

Mark O'Connor
Tuesday, August 24, 2010 6:17 AM

Australia's first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard is now struggling to stay in power. Having deposed the previous PM Kevin Rudd in late June, she promptly called an election for last Saturday (August 21st). In this her party lost ground badly. Labor suffered a 4.9% swing against it, and now looks like having equal lower-house seats with its rival the conservative “Liberal-National “Coalition. The balance of power will rest with one Green and perhaps 4 independents. And in the Senate the Greens now have the balance of power. A minority government is inevitable, though it is not yet clear which major party will lead it.

This was the election in which Australia's population growth first emerged as a major issue. What troubles people is not just what's happening to the natural environment. There is also the stress suffered by city dwellers who face impossible house prices and rents, developers invading quiet streets, and constant traffic jams.

Australia's current population growth rate, fed by baby bonuses and bizarre levels of per capita immigration, is over 2% a year, which is well beyond that of most third world countries. For instance Indonesia, next door, is said to have only 1.2%, and falling. And Australia's 2% is six or more times the growth rate of most developed nations.

Infrastructure lasts about 50 years, which means that a country with fairly stable population needs to replace about 2% of its infrastructure each year. But when population grows at 2% a year, the annual infrastructure bill doubles. About a quarter of all GDP then needs to be put into infrastructure; but this is more than governments and private firms can, in practice, cream off from the taxpayer or the customer (respectively) for a single purpose. Hence services and infrastructure are slipping badly in the faster-growing areas of Australia.

And Australian electors are angry. According to the Australian newspaper, when Kevin Rudd told the Australian Broadcasting Commission in October 2009 that he was a “big Australia” man, “Labor's focus groups went ballistic”. Rudd's once high approval ratings slid rapidly. And they slipped even faster when he abandoned his keynote promise to act on greenhouse emissions–a promise that most Australians supported. Rudd appointed one of the party's most skilled spin doctors Tony Burke as “Minister for Population”, with a brief to sound sympathetic but to kill off the population issue. Burke proceeded to talk nonsense about how it wasn't the size of Australia's population that was the problem, but the fact that it wasn't in the right places! In fact it is far from clear that reversing the long-standing drift to the cities, even if this could be achieved, would reduce environmental damage, or make it easier to supply the population with its material wants and needs. Wherever Australians live they will require heating or cooling, and under current circumstances large amounts of food and materials trucked in from elsewhere.

In June 2010 Rudd was deposed by his very personable deputy Julia Gillard. She made a bright start by saying she personally rejected “big Australia”, and changing Tony Burke's title to “Minister for Sustainable Population”. This opened up the population debate remarkably, and infuriated the growth touts ( no more neutral term would be accurate) of the Murdoch press, especially The Australian newspaper. These thundered that they understood politicians succumbing to a little “popularism” while in election mode, but that they expected “rational debate” to return straight after the elections — “rational debate” being code for giving big business the growth rates it wants.

Julia's accession brought her party a boost in the polls. Labor expected victory, since the polls during much of the election period showed male voters 50-50 for Labor and for her as preferred PM, but female strongly inclining to Julia.

She also expected to garner votes on the population issue, since 70% of Australians say they don't want population growth. But first she had to fend off a rival party that might have claimed that issue. The new Stable Population Party of Australia was known to be within a week of electoral registration when Julia decided to call not just an early election but an election 1 week earlier than most commentators had thought she could or would. This effectively disenfranchised the Stable Population Party.

Julia also had in her favor the fact that the Opposition leader was Tony Abbot, a conservative Catholic with a history of backing population growth, opposing abortion and promoting “virginity”. Julia Gillard by contrast is an atheist, childless, and has not married her partner — and none of these things seemed to be doing her much harm with Australian voters, especially with women.

However cracks soon appeared in Julia Gillard's credibility. The influential website Can do Better had long blamed Kevin Rudd for getting the Labor Party into bed with the property development industry, and indeed with turning the party itself into a major investor in real estate. Unfortunately it turned out that Gillard herself was not far from being in bed with that industry. It emerged that her partner, though a hairdresser by trade and without experience in real estate, had recently been given a job by a real estate magnate who donates heavily to Labor funds.

Perhaps more damagingly, rather than promise a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme, Gillard let her minders persuade her to promise a bizarre assembly of 150 ordinary citizens who would in some way determine government policy on climate change. She spoke not just of sustainable population but of sustainable population growth, as if growth could continue indefinitely. In the words of one of Sustainable Population Australia's founders, Jenny Goldie, “Gillard was so good on population in the beginning but reverted to talking about 'sustainable population growth' which meant she didn't have a clue really.” Perhaps for Gillard, as for many politicians, “sustainable” means not “what we can do indefinitely without destroying the quality of life or the resources of ourselves, other human groups, and other species” but simply “what we can get away with in the short term.” She and Tony Burke refused to nominate any figure at which Australia's population could or should be capped, or any maximum figure for net migration. Their push to trap the population vote was stultified once they were effectively outbid by the Opposition, which promised to reduce net migration to 170,000 a year — a little over half the figure currently recorded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, though still likely to cause Australia's population to double in 50 years.

As Minister for Population, Tony Burke produced a version of Gillard's “national assembly”. Rather than offer any policy on population, he proposed to postpone all decisions till after the election when he would receive reports from not one but three advisory committees: one drawn largely from the growth lobby, one composed of those opposed to population growth, and one composed of those concerned mainly with planning to accommodate population growth. Clearly his aim was to commit the Labor Party to nothing and to retain total flexibility. Yet had Gillard had the courage to replace Tony Burke as Minister for Sustainable Population with his fellow Labor MP, the population campaigner Kelvin Thomson who has proposed a 14 point plan for capping Australia's population, Labor would probably have got across the line.

Meanwhile the media offered a strange pseudo debate on sustainable populationbetween the three main parties: Labor, Conservative Coalition, and Greens. Each of these parties knew that there were votes to be got (but campaign “donations” to be lost) by seeming to oppose big Australia, but none of the three (except possibly the Greens) had any commitment to lowering immigration or removing pro-natalist policies.

As a result the Stable Population Party had planned to preference the two major parties equal last, and the Greens third last — not because the Greens' population policy was worse than those of various minor parties, but because it was particularly bad for a party that claimed to defend the environment. Although the Australian Academy of Science has stated that 23 million people (scarcely above the country's present 22.4 million) is Australia's safe upper limit for population, the Greens' population policy contains no numbers, and describes no mechanisms.

As Adelaide university academic Michael Lardelli puts it, “Population growth undermines environmental sustainability. Growing populations ultimately overwhelm any efforts to reduce our use of resources… The Greens policy on population is disappointing and reads more like an apology for daring to have a policy at all.” See “Can we trust the Greens on Population?”

In fact the policy says only that the Greens will support, after “extensive community consultation”, an [unspecified] “ecologically sustainable” population policy”, subject to conditions of “global equity” (a phrase which appears to be code for the notion that Australia has no right to be less overpopulated or less resource-pinched than countries where most people have irresponsibly large families). Yet, as Lardelli remarks,
National parliaments are responsible primarily for the quality of life of their own people. They have no authority and little influence over what other nations do. It should also be obvious that achieving a world where every nation agrees to end population growth is a remote goal (albeit a worthy one). What willing countries can do now is to bring their own populations under control, and set a potent example by demonstrating the social and environmental advantages that result. This is the free enterprise model, which surely offers more hope – not only for ourselves but for our ability to influence other nations – than the “socialist” assumption that no one has the right to escape overpopulation until everyone does.
It is also far from clear that Greens will oppose the high-rise developments that are invading and destroying Australia's suburbs. Many Greens seem mesmerised by the argument that denser populations will be less dependant on the motor car, without noticing that there will in the foreseeable future be far more cars in that denser population. As well, such high rise cities may prove helpless and virtually unsuppliable in a future shortage of oil.

Because such inadequacies were not publicised, the Greens wound up getting most of the population protest vote that Julia Gillard had counted on, as well as the greenhouse protest vote. They got a lower house seat for the first time ever, and the balance of power in the Senate.

Long before the brief election campaign was over there were complaints on all sides that the two major parties seemed identical, that neither leader appeared to believe in any particular policy except to promise whatever the public seemed to want, and that the ministers whom the parties considered good public performers were simply those prepared to deny inconvenient issues and twist the truth in order to stay “on message”.

Gillard's gender remained an electoral advantage to the end, but less and less so as voters noticed her lack of policies.

A vignette that summed up the campaign was Penny Wong, the Minister for Climate Change and already famous for her ability to brush aside or “de-link” inconvenient facts, like that population is growing much faster than per capita emissions are dropping, being interviewed about gay marriage. Though publicly gay herself and living in a gay relationship, she flawlessly followed the Labor Party's official line that marriage could only be a relationship between heterosexuals. “On the issue of marriage, I think the reality is there is a cultural, religious and historical view around that which we have to respect,” she told Channel 10. (See “Married to the Mob”, by

Tim Dick, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 July 2010). In the words of Richard Denniss, Director of the Australia Institute,

“Voters sick of fights over trivia have delivered their verdict: a pox on both. … Some of the best debaters in the country have been trained to ''stay on message'' whenever a microphone can be seen, rather than speak like humans. It's banal.”

Faced with a choice between tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum, Australia's electors have taken a fair revenge, leaving the two main parties marooned, at least for some weeks till all seats are decided, on an evenly balanced see-saw. The Greens have been the big winners, and may well succeed in forcing action on climate change; but they too may be headed for a fall if it becomes clear they have no policy on population and hence no long term plan to prevent damage to Australia's cities and natural environments.