The issue of population growth occasionally gains brief political traction in Australia, and there’s talk about having a population policy, but it has never amounted to anything specific.
Even at climate change rallies I have attended, there is invariably vocal reference to fossil fuels, emission schemes, green energy, political inaction and international agreements—and rightly so. Though ultimately it is human consumption most responsible for degrading the environment and influencing the climate. References to people and our increasing numbers are typically non-existent.
In early 2018, after I had begun writing this essay, it seemed the population issue had become topical again, highlighted by ABC programs Q&A and Four Corners, and followed by several articles in daily newspapers. It could still play out, but so far, politicians have mostly been quiet.
Why the lack of real political debate? Is it due to fears about being labelled anti-immigration and/or racist, or that opposition to population growth could be seen as siding with the extreme right (or left)? Is it because business interests, including the media, control the discussion and have a big vested interest in growth? Even the Greens are mute, despite population and sustainability being one of their policy platforms.
Population growth, however, has long been a subject on public minds. During the 1980s, burgeoning environmental awareness and social change had Australians practising unofficial zero-population growth (birth rates dropped below two per female, after being closer to three in preceding decades), which in more recent times gave rise to concerns about an ageing population.
The push for a ‘Big Australia’ initially came from go-to media business representatives like Phil Ruthven, a self-declared futurist advocating an Australian population of 50 million by 2050—and at a time when we were probably nearer to 17 million.
In 2010, sociologist Dr Katharine Betts (currently Adjunct Associate Professor at Swinburne) examined research on Australian attitudes to population growth for an edition of the peer-reviewed quarterly journal People and Place. It collated data from over 50 years of polls and surveys.
Betts summarised: ‘The overall picture presented by this analysis is of growing disquiet about population growth in Australia, irrespective of feelings about immigration.’
On the lack of debate, Betts referred to commentators playing the race card who argued that ‘Green Australia’ might be the new ‘White Australia.’ The racism argument has echoed more recently with the real estate industry and concerns about Chinese property investments.
However, her scrutiny showed that those wanting population growth mostly did so for economic reasons, while those opposing increases preferred Australia train its own and protect the environment. Few were concerned about cultural diversity issues.
Humanitarian obligations aside, the two main positions can generally be described as: those who prioritise economics and the standard of living, versus those who prioritise the environment and quality of life. Holders of the former view appear to be the minority, but they have the most control of the direction population numbers take.
From 1990 to 2016, Australia’s population increased by nearly 50 per cent, far more than any other developed country of similar size. The fastest growth occurred in the years following the election of the Howard government in 1996, though not immediately. Some population increase was due to programs like the baby bonus (which saw birth rates quickly rise), but most was because of increased immigration through various visa schemes, as well as from traditional sources. This also coincided with less opposition to the increases.
I attributed this ‘acceptance’ to our asylum seeker policy. People felt if we were tougher about foreigners coming by boat, then we had to be more tolerant toward those arriving by other means, or if we were critical of asylum seeker policy, then we somehow had to remain silent about immigration increases, even if they were concerning, because it sent a contradictory message. The appearance of Pauline Hanson onto the political scene also confused matters, her racially-based anti-immigration stance having a dampening effect on those wanting to oppose increases, but not wanting to be seen as siding with One Nation.
Betts offered slightly different reasons. Following Howard’s election there was:
… an initial, relatively minor, cut to the intake which was nonetheless vigorously opposed by the growth lobby, meaning that many voters were likely to hear about it; restrictions on new migrants’ capacity to access social welfare; and restrictions on family reunion with an increased emphasis on skilled migration… In addition there was a gradual fall in unemployment and, after 2001, an increasingly tough border-control regime… from 2001 on, the immigration program began to rise again. But public opinion did not turn against it. … Why? It is highly probable that most Australians did not know that any change was underway. No powerful lobby decried it, the government kept a low profile and journalists ignored it.
As Betts observed, the business sector approved of increasing immigration, which, in my opinion, also had the political advantage of softening perceptions that the government, via its treatment of refugees arriving by sea, was insensitive to the plight of foreigners. The end result was that Howard, who opposed multiculturalism, probably did as much as any politician to hasten its advent.
The combined impact of the above government programs, the China boom, and the stifling of debate meant that conditions for growth were ideal, and the population rapidly increased. The budget, meanwhile, became dependent on the taxes, fees and duties this brought, and the business community, particularly real estate and education, relied on the increasing numbers to generate custom. These income sources have been propping up the economy in recent times. For this reason alone, governments have been hesitant to address concerns about population growth. The political cost of being at the helm when the recession drought finally breaks is too great when no party is making population an issue.
Almost 15 years before Dr Betts wrote her 2010 People and Place report, a parliamentary research paper was produced on an Australian population policy, authored by demographic consultant Professor Gavin W Jones. Apart from observing that Australia had the largest immigration program in the world at the time, aside from Israel, and that the majority of Australians would appear to prefer lower numbers, it noted:
Reports and commissions over the years have advised government that Australia should have an explicit population policy. There has been a notable absence of outside advice to the contrary. But governments have steadfastly ignored the weight of advice.
The paper also made reference to 23 million as a natural levelling-off point, while indicating that many (including the Australian Academy of Science Working Party) seemed to have made this figure a focus of discussion.
The period following the election of the Howard government and during the Rudd reign is informative. On politicians and population, Betts revealed:
In 1999 the then minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, said that there was no need for a population policy as the nation was on course to reach 23 million ‘by the middle of next century. At this point it would stabilise in both its size and age profile’. In 2007 Treasury’s Second Inter-generational Report increased this figure to 28.5 million by 2047. But in September 2009 Treasury announced a new projection for 2050: 36 million. And in October 2009 the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, told an astonished electorate that this growth had his blessing; he believed in a big Australia. From then on population growth became political; opinion leaders discussed it, polls were taken, television programs were devoted to it, Rudd was deposed and, in the August 2010 election, leaders of both major parties came out against the idea of a big Australia.
Or were they just against talking about it?
Betts was confident population growth had finally become a matter for public debate. The title of her concluding section optimistically asked: The End Of Ignorance And The Beginning Of The End Of Growth?
The population debate has led to a new openness, many new voices have been heard. …The effects of growth on Australians’ quality of life are too real to be smothered by the old shibboleths.
People and Place ceased publication in 2010, and the population debate suffered a similar demise. In 2015, Dr Betts conducted a follow-up survey, this time for Sustainable Population Australia. Results followed a similar pattern, with a majority of respondents believing Australia did not need more people and that future growth should be kept below 30 million.
But little else has changed since 2010. There’s still an absence of political discussion and growth-rates remain high.
In 2017, Fairfax’s Age newspaper published a series of articles about Melbourne’s rapid population expansion and the problems resulting from it, highlighting the environmental and social concerns, poor planning and the lack of debate. There was an immediate and pronounced readership response and questioning of our growth policies, but again no political take-up.
In their feature article, Royce Millar and Ben Schneiders described Melbourne as a city on steroids and compared its property-driven economy to a Ponzi scheme. Jessica Irvine responded with her piece ‘Why I love a Big Australia, and you should too’, and, interestingly, of the 200+ online reader comments, most opposed her proposal—as did this Macro Business article.
Notably, the Age has often editorialised in support of population growth, and its opinion amid this discussion was also pro-growth, focusing on the need to provide for it rather than prevent it. Of course, congestion in our major cities is sometimes compensated for with additional vibrancy and diversity, so it isn’t all negative, but there’s no reason we can’t have liveliness and liveability.
The Age’s editorial attitude is not entirely surprising: the privately-owned media has a vested interest in population growth too, for the additional reading and advertising revenue it can bring. The fact that news organisations, as businesses, also possess commercial ambitions is nothing new. However, the ABC has rarely made the issue of population more than a passing story as well.
In fairness, journalists and editors can often depend on issues such as population growth being generated as ‘news’, whereas the effects of population growth are gradual. It could be like global warming—we can feel the effects, but we might not discover the cost until it’s too late. In this analogy, instead of rising waters, temperatures and winds, the canaries in the cage could be increased dysfunction, homelessness and species extinction. Of course, human numbers and climate change are inseparably linked.
What is a sustainable population for Australia, one that we can live with? This appears to be a moveable goalpost. Those who want it kept below 30 million would possibly have been the same arguing for a figure fewer than 20 million when Australia’s population was below that. This implies that people want growth reined in as an alternative to the more difficult option of reversing it. With the crises of capital-city congestion and home affordability in Australia today, it seems the previously-mentioned figure of 23 million was close to the mark, given we have since passed it and are encountering significant problems in our capital cities.
The question is not just whether growth is advisable. It’s about having meaningful public and political discussions, especially given the amount of opposition to the increases. To have a population policy would at least give us a vision of the nation’s direction. Though, as the parliamentary report also mentioned, it’s false to suggest that there’s no policy: we have a pro-growth one by stealth.
Population growth is also linked to notions of economic progress, and that should be part of any debate. What kind of progress do we want? Can growth-for-growth’s sake go on forever? Does it just benefit a few, with temporary job creation being the continual justification? Perhaps it can go on forever unabated and we’ll always find ways to adapt?
Does population growth dilute democracy, as vested interests grow proportionally larger, louder and more influential, making it harder to implement change that would threaten their ambitions? Does it lead to a more impersonal society, with individual voices being muted? Looking to the example of a country with a large population like America, versus smaller nations like New Zealand and those in Scandinavia, it’s notable that social reform is more easily enacted in the latter countries—while the difficulty of making change in America, for instance, against the gun lobby, speaks for itself.
On a lighter note, and a much lesser scale of importance, it’s true that as Australia grows larger, we can no longer delight in punching above our weight.
People ‘proportions’ can also have other negative effects on perception. For example, behaviour such as violent crime might not be occurring more frequently as a percentage of a larger population, but might still be happening more often. Given how the media covers crime, this could lead to the impression that society is more dangerous, ultimately influencing an individual’s sense of security.
Arguments supporting population growth often follow the line that it leads to prosperity, improves economies of scale, and is needed to solve problems of an ageing population. Or, they imply Australia can’t enjoy low-population densities while the rest of the world lacks them, and that if we don’t occupy our vacant spaces, others will do it for us. This has often been the subtext behind justification for post-war immigration along the lines of ‘populate or perish’, with reference made to populous nations being at our northern doorstep.
From 1990 to 2016, Australia’s GDP has increased substantially, and no doubt population growth contributed, but economic benefits have hardly been reaped. As is often reported, there is more inequity now, less home ownership and job security, wages for many are stagnant, more foods are imported, levels of homelessness are higher, and violent crime has been on the rise and has become more extreme in nature. Some commentators suggest GDP per capita is a better economic measure. But, either way, these statistics are averages and not real indicators of individual distribution.
Regardless, we’re always told the standard of living is increasing, but for most people it hasn’t equated with an increased quality of life. On the contrary, for many, it has deteriorated. There’s more money about, but less of it going around.
This wealth disparity and dysfunction can’t simply be attributed to population growth though—political philosophies and globalisation are major factors—but with more people the share of resources and produce becomes smaller, and growing the economy in recent decades has, at best, only benefited many Australians indirectly.
When Melbourne’s population was closer to 3 million, a future number of 5 million was presented with little discussion. Now that we are nearing that amount, the target has been inflated to 8 million, and, more recently, 10 million. The media simply reports it as if it’s already been decided, and there’s nothing to be done. It’s often expressed in terms of a competition with Sydney, as to which city can be the biggest. Has a critical mass been passed from which there’s no turning back?
As previously alluded to, Australia recently congratulated itself on the longest-ever sustained period of economic growth in the developed world. Apart from getting lucky with the China boom, it was population growth and its consumer demand keeping us out of recession, rather than inventiveness or manufacturing. Are there better ways?
Japan, for example, is frequently derided for its stagnant economy. But is stagnation actually bad or just badly worded? Perhaps it is really another term for sustainability. Apparently it’s only a bad thing if the population is growing, and Japan’s isn’t.
Many credentialed analysts denounce the myth that Japan is an economic basket case. They claim that the country, in many meaningful measures including wage growth, is actually performing and providing better for its citizens than most ‘growing’ economies—including some of its harshest critics, such as the USA.
Japan’s birth rate is low, as is its immigration level, and its refugee intake is virtually non-existent: 28 people in 2016, up from 27 the previous year. The merits of this and its desire to be mono-cultural are debatable, though it attempts to compensate with generous foreign aid. When I visited Japan in 2012, what was immediately obvious were the high standards of customer service, and that people were employed to provide it, performing roles abandoned in Australia for reasons of cost or profit.
Japan has already experienced its population expansion, and so is not entirely relevant as a comparison to Australia. Our neighbour New Zealand is a more suitable reference. Its immigration program has typically been more restrictive than Australia’s, and its population growth and refugee intake are much lower—the latter increased to only 1000 in 2016 after 30 years capped at 750.
That’s not to say we should do similar. Australia can have a sustainable population and still meet humanitarian needs by increasing its refugee intake as a percentage of overall immigration, and by restoring foreign aid to previous, higher levels—or, preferably, even higher—to improve people’s quality of life so that not as many need to seek refuge. Furthermore, because we, a rich nation, have become less inclined to train our own workforce, much of our current immigration intake relies on importing the skilled citizens of poorer countries that can’t afford to lose them.
The First Australians survived on this continent for 65 000 years without feeling a need for large populations. As necessity is the mother of invention, the emphasis in that last sentence is on ‘need’. Their version of sustainability served well until Europeans arrived with a different ‘need’ yardstick. Now, our population necessity requires invention when prevention could remove the need. There’s much we can embrace from Indigenous Australia.
Former Labor NSW Premier and federal Foreign Minister Bob Carr has been one of the few politicians to speak out against population growth while in power (and in Carr’s case, generally). As Premier he warned that Sydney was already full and overcrowded. More recently he called for Australia’s immigration intake to be reduced by up to a half, and claimed we had the population growth rate of a third-world nation.
What Australia does is miniscule when compared to a world population approaching 8 billion. However, it could be argued that we can be part of the push for change, that we can be an example to the rest of the world and become a model for sustainability. Australia, unlike many nations, has the privilege of being in a position to make adjustments and learn from mistakes other countries have made.
Proponents of global population growth, meanwhile, claim scientific and technological advancement will always come to the rescue, pointing to past evidence to support their view. Of course, as wise investors should know, past performance is no guarantee of future success. Something works until it doesn’t anymore. In any case, the ‘adaptive’ argument can also apply to an ageing population, or to a declining one.
Further muddying the issue are advancements in automation technology and artificial intelligence—how will they be incorporated into our lives, minds and bodies? Will they create jobs or lead to mass-unemployment? Will they change what it is to be human? Along with improvements in medicine and nutrition, what are the future limits to human life spans?
From an individual perspective, it will be difficult to convince people to stop having babies, even if that’s what we have to do in future. Alleviating poverty will help, as will increasing education surrounding contraception. Changing people’s mindsets about this issue is not an easy task, considering the subtle societal expectations and pressures that have existed for a long time.
Social change will likely result from the creation of movements by those who choose to remain childless—perhaps by emphasising the other ways to nurture, that there are many people, including orphaned babies, the elderly and infirm that need caring for, not to mention a fragile environment. It could promote the notion of leaving a small footprint. It will likely open up deeper philosophical discourse about ego, the desire to reproduce, sexual attraction, the role of family, and the degree to which we are under evolution’s control.
At present, it seems we are mostly blindly going forth and multiplying. There’s a perverse logic in some of the aim to colonise Mars, for instance, which suggests we will invariably ruin a perfectly suitable planet then vacate it for an inhospitable world and try to make that one habitable.
Back on Australian terra firma: for this article, I sought clarification several times from the Greens regarding their population policy and why they never championed one, but received no further information other than what appears on their website. Here the party discusses it in vague, aspirational terms, along the lines of supporting sustainability while maintaining humanitarian obligations. It warns against simply cutting immigration due to the latter, and that population policy shouldn’t be primarily driven by economic goals, though fails to acknowledge that much of our current intake is based on economics rather than morality. There is also no mention of capital city expansion and its problems.
In 2016, Sustainable Population Australia sent out a questionnaire to six political parties about their policies on population. The ALP, the Nick Xenophon Team and Sustainable Australia complied. The Greens, Liberals and National Party failed to reply despite follow-up prompts.
The SPA National President Sandra Kanck lamented: ‘Is it contempt that has caused three political parties not to respond… ? Or are they just too fearful of the issue itself? Or are they too disorganised to respond?’
Back in 2010, Greg Berg, research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs (which favours high immigration), wrote an article for the ABC regarding that year’s federal election, claiming that Bob Brown and the Greens were no better than the rest in having a clear population policy.
Bob Brown offers nothing but equivocation and confused messages. …The Greens are torn. On the one side, they have supporters who value Australia’s role accepting more refugees and providing opportunity for migrants. But on the other side, they have supporters who see people as the ultimate environmental problem.
Dr Betts also made reference to a 2010 conversation between Dick Smith and then Greens leader Bob Brown:
Smith asked Brown: …‘Why don’t you kick up a fuss as the Greens, we hardly hear you about it?’
Brown replied: ‘Well, I’ll take responsibility for that because I can tell you that the single most common question I get in public forums out of the blue is about population. I bring it into this place [federal parliament] and you run straight into a wall of putty. …Why is the media so frightened to take up the issue of population?’
We can’t put all the blame on the media or the Greens for that matter, but little has changed since 2010—except our population numbers. The elephant remains in the chamber.
The above was the original end of this essay, but, as mentioned previously, the public debate resurfaced again on Q&A and Four Corners, and via newspaper articles related to those ABC television programs—even if the focus was unduly on addressing immigration numbers. Was it just due in the media cycle, or is it part of a real push for change?
On Q&A, the dearth of political action was decried but, unusually, no current politicians were on the panel. The only political representation on the ‘Big Australia’ special on Four Corners was Victorian Government Minister for Education James Merlino, who was commenting on the need for new schools.
Former politicians did participate, though. Bob Carr pushed his line on Q&A and referred to a recent TAPRI poll revealing 74 per cent of Australians believe Australia doesn’t need more people. Jeff Kennett, in the Herald Sun, took the populate-or-perish angle: ‘In a volatile world, find strength in numbers.’ Though the present debate may have been partly sparked by Liberal Party backbencher Tony Abbott’s earlier call for Australia’s immigration intake to be drastically cut.
Pauline Hanson, appearing on Channel 7’s Sunrise program, disclosed intentions to make population growth and immigration a campaign issue. Will this confuse debate again? Or will her political presence being more tolerated now allow others to speak out who may have previously feared appearing to be seen as siding with her?
In the Australian, meanwhile, Andrew Clennell revealed that when NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian was faced with infrastructure headaches, she baulked at raising immigration and population with the Federal Government because it may look like racism. However, an Age piece by Benjamin Preiss suggests population growth will become an issue in the Victorian November election (though, more likely regarding infrastructure and decentralisation rather than a national policy).
Even while updating, the media discussion has continued. The pro-growth forces have rallied—Treasury and Home Affairs released a briefing paper outlining the economic benefits of, and dependence upon immigration, which was roundly supported by some commentators and soundly criticised by others.
But one thing has become obvious, regardless of whether an article is pro or anti-growth, or published by Fairfax or the Murdoch press: the reader comments, when they’re provided, are mostly overwhelmingly anti-growth, not just about the current levels of population growth but about the economic reasoning behind it. If readers are pro-growth, they’re not as motivated to comment, though I suspect it’s because they’re a minority. The question begs: if so many people are opposed to our versions of growth, why do we continue down that path?
Part of the problem could also be that we’re overly dependent on the media for information, and that too much discussion is conducted via that forum in unproductive ways, or at least in ways that don’t lead to productive outcomes. Vested interests and ideology aside, politicians and governments can also avoid issues due to fear of how opponents will exploit their position and, exacerbated by having an eye overly focused on the next election, the subsequent media coverage around it.
That Abbott and Hanson are the only current politicians speaking out about population growth now raises concerns that the debate will be marginalised, politicised and trivialised in ways that will just make a population policy more untenable.
But the ultimate unlikelihood of Federal Government action supports Tim Flannery’s assertion, as a Q&A participant, that the issue needs to be removed from the hands of politicians, who will always allow short-termism to interfere with or deflect long-term plans. If a government was brave enough to introduce an explicit population policy, the chances are high that another government will reverse it.
Flannery argued a population policy should be decided by a citizens’ jury. I had raised such a possibility in an earlier draft of this essay, but perhaps deleted it for brevity and because it duplicated a recently published article of mine on New Matilda titled ‘Time for our baby democracy to walk’.
However, the two essays are linked—the current pro-growth-by-stealth policy also reflects limitations in our democracy—and on reflection, I’m more convinced that something like a citizens’ jury is the best course of action. The outcomes, though, need to be politically binding and/or a referendum or plebiscite held with options proposed for voters to choose from.
As Dr Katharine Betts observed in 2010, the debate has again led to a new openness, new voices have been heard (and old ones). But will it finally lead to action?
Paul Spinks is a Victoria-based writer with work published and performed in various mediums.