Since 2005, Australia has been adding a million people every two and a half to three years – equivalent to a new city the size of Canberra every year. More than half of this growth (around 60 per cent) has been due to ‘net overseas migration’ (NOM, the surplus of immigrants over emigrants). The rest is due to ‘natural increase’ (the surplus of births over deaths), although much of the natural increase is due to births to immigrants.
During the pandemic (2020 to 2022) population growth slowed due to the closure of international borders. The intake of temporary visa holders, as well as permanent migrants, virtually ceased. Now, however, pressure is coming from the business lobby to ramp up immigration again, to even higher levels than before the pandemic.
Continual, unending population growth in Australia is ecologically unsustainable. Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) believes it is time to rethink the Big Australia vision that is driving this growth. We must work towards a sustainable, inclusive and equitable society not premised on unending growth.
A sustainable Australia needs to be based on a realistic appreciation of Australia’s geography and landscape. Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth and its soil fertility is low. About 35 per cent of the continent receives so little rain, it is effectively desert. In total, 70 per cent of the mainland receives less than 500 millimetres of rain annually, making it arid or semi-arid. Most residents live within 100 kilometres of the coast, therefore any growth in population will further damage or destroy the denser bushland, habitats and scarce agricultural land confined to these wetter areas.
In 2020 Australia had the second worst record of land clearing with over 2.3 million hectares cleared. Currently, 531 native animal species and 1384 native plant species are threatened or worse, and we have the highest rate of mammal extinction anywhere in the world.
The 2021 official government State of the Environment report states that:
Human activity and population growth are major drivers of many pressures on biodiversity. Impacts are associated with urban expansion, tourism, industrial expansion, pollution, fishing, hunting and development of infrastructure. The impacts from population growth are extensive and increasing in many areas.
Early in March 2021, a University of Wollongong study determined that 19 Australian ecosystems were already collapsing. This included the arid interior, savannas and mangroves of northern Australia, the Great Barrier Reef, Shark Bay, southern Australia’s kelp and alpine ash forests, tundra on Macquarie Island, moss beds in Antarctica and the Murray-Darling Basin.
In terms of climate change, Australia’s total emissions of greenhouse gases from energy use increased by 49 per cent from 1990 through to 2019, due entirely to population growth of 8.3 million people (see SPA’s 2022 discussion paper on this topic).
There is abundant evidence that population growth causes environmental damage, places more demand on resources (e.g. water) and infrastructure, and weakens the bargaining position of workers.
The surge in Australia’s population since 2000
Since the turn of the century, immigration to most developed countries has increased but Australia remained among the highest. Apart from microstates and Middle East oil states, Australia has the highest proportion of foreign-born residents (30 per cent in 2019). Prior to 2014, Australia’s growth rate was around 50 per cent higher than North America’s and five times that of Europe. Even during the European asylum-seeker surge in 2014-2016, on a per-capita basis, Europe’s immigration was less than Australia’s.
Australia’s ‘total fertility rate’ (TFR, the average number of children per woman) fell below 2.1 in 1975, after the popularisation of the contraceptive pill from the 1960s. A TFR of 2.1 is considered to be the ‘replacement rate’, when children are just numerous enough to replace the parents’ generation, allowing for some early deaths and the natural slight excess of male over female births. However, natural increase continues for decades after achieving below-replacement fertility, because today’s deaths are mostly among the great-grandparents of today’s babies, and the great-grandparents are less numerous because they had larger families. This tendency for populations to continue growing after a fertility decline is called ‘demographic momentum’.
Since European settlement, Australia’s population grew rapidly through waves of immigration. However, the scale of immigration from 2005-2019 reached unprecedented levels. The average net immigration for the twentieth century was 52,000 per year. The average from 2006 to March 2020 (prior to the pandemic border closure) was 228,000 per year.
From 2004, the Howard Government embarked on a program to increase population growth. The “baby bonus” was introduced to encourage couples to have more children, supported by a propaganda campaign about the risks of an ageing population. The federal treasurer at the time, Peter Costello, famously told Australians to “have one for mum, one for dad and one for the country”. In addition, immigration quotas were steadily increased and temporary residence programs for both students and workers were expanded.
The result has been a vast demographic experiment. It was supposed to reduce skills shortages, increase productivity and improve government balance sheets, allowing them to deliver better infrastructure and social services. The opposite has been achieved on all counts. The wider negative impacts have become the leading concerns of Australians in electoral surveys: job insecurity, housing unaffordability, infrastructure congestion and the destruction of bushland and farmland caused by ever-increasing urban sprawl . Yet few Australians realise the cause of these escalating stresses.
Before this change in government policy, Australia’s population was on course to stabilise around 25 million (Intergenerational Report 2002-03). A decade earlier, an inquiry by the Australian Academy of Science, entitled Population 2040: Australia’s Choice (1995), had concluded, “In our view, the quality of all aspects of our children’s lives will be maximised if the population of Australia by the mid-21st Century is kept to the low, stable end of the achievable range, i.e. to approximately 23 million.”
The 23 million milestone was passed unheeded in April 2013. The 24th million was achieved by February 2016, the 25th in July 2018. If this rate of growth is restored after the pandemic, Australia will exceed 40 million by 2050 and 100 million before 2100.
What population path is desirable for Australia?
Sustainable Population Australia argues that the lowest, soonest achievable peak in Australian population is the best outcome for the wellbeing of Australians, for biodiversity and environmental integrity, and to maximise our contribution to ending climate change, poverty and conflict globally.
It is often argued that migration does not contribute to global population, so efforts to limit global population should not include migration controls. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world with benevolent global governance, which might pursue population stability in a coordinated fashion. We can only lead by example: to demonstrate the benefits of population stabilisation, we must stabilise our own population. In contrast, if our government continues its current habit of talking up false economic benefits of population growth, we severely undermine the commitment of our poorer neighbours, such as Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste, to address their own debilitating population growth and the reproductive rights of their women.
Since 1950, Australia has received some eight million immigrants, but this represents only five weeks’ worth of global population growth. Each year around 80 million extra people are added to the world population, and this pace of growth has not declined in recent decades. Almost all the extra people are added to urban slums in the developing world. We can’t reduce poverty by bringing people here – the numbers needed just to prevent growth of slums are many, many times higher than we could absorb. We can only hope to reduce poverty by helping people to live more prosperously and sustainably where they are.
We have a responsibility to protect the endemic species and ecosystems of this continent. We also have responsibility for the social and economic wellbeing of existing Australian residents. These duties should not be compromised in a futile attempt to relieve population pressure elsewhere through immigration to Australia.
SPA believes that further population growth on the Australian continent is neither desirable nor justified. Certainly not by any economic criteria, since past growth has only marginally increased GDP per capita and the infrastructure costs of population growth exceed $100,00 per person. Nor by human wellbeing criteria, since research on the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) shows that our wellbeing was greater in 1970 (when Australia’s population was about 15 million) and has declined since. Nor by ecological sustainability criteria, since our life-supporting ecosystems will decline even faster with more people. Only six per cent of Australia is arable (compared with, for example, 17 per cent of the USA), and 40 per cent is too arid for any agricultural/pastoral production. Moreover, water supplies are extremely variable and threatened by climate change in the southern half of the continent.
And, finally, further population growth is not justifiable by democratic criteria, since multiple opinion surveys show that a majority of Australians think we do not need more people. If protecting human wellbeing and ecosystems are our overarching goals, population stabilisation followed by slow reduction should be a principal strategy.
However, there are many instances were migration is appropriate and beneficial, and it is possible to have a stable population while accommodating considerable migration. Tens of thousands of people emigrate from Australia each year, which means that tens of thousands can immigrate while still maintaining zero net migration.
In addition, a low birth rate means that there will be more room for migrants to “top up” each generation. If Australia’s fertility rate were allowed to fall to 1.5 children per woman (about two for every couple who want children, and about Europe’s average), we could have a net migration of around 0.3 per cent of our population annually. This would maintain around the current proportion of people born overseas, which is among the highest proportions in the world. Thus it is possible to be very open to foreigners, to have a multicultural and multiracial society, and to accommodate a generous refugee program, while still having a stable population. Those who argue we should raise fertility to “replacement level” are the true xenophobes, as they would leave no room for immigrants.
How could Australia achieve lower population growth?
To stabilise Australia’s population soon, we need to reduce immigration and stop promoting larger families. Both are easily achieved by federal government, with minimal impact on any group within the community and vast benefits for government budgets and for the wellbeing of Australians.
Encouraging fewer births
The most common measurement for the birth rate in a country is the ‘total fertility rate’ (TFR) which is the average number of live births a woman will have in her lifetime (technically, if she experienced the same probability of having a child in each of her childbearing years as this year’s women of that age experience). The ‘replacement level’ TFR is often given as 2.1, providing a replacement in the next generation for each parent, allowing for child and youth mortality. In fact, in a country with such low early mortality as Australia’s, replacement fertility is closer to two. This is an academic point, since ‘replacement’ is not the optimum level of fertility for Australia to aim for, at least for many decades to come.
It is common to read highly emotive articles warning of the dangers of low fertility. Hyper-ageing of the population, a shortage of workers or of worker vitality, or an implosion of the population are all claimed. All are gross exaggerations. Fertility as low as 1.5 would cause the age structure to stabilise with less than 10% higher proportion of over-65s than it would if fertility was at replacement. Such a fertility rate, without immigration, would ultimately lead to a slow contraction of population, at a fraction of one per cent per year. This is a much smaller rate of change than we currently accommodate as we grow the population – and growing has much greater costs than shrinking. If immigration were used to top up each generation, a stable population would be achieved, with a higher proportion of ‘working age’ people. It is debatable whether more working age people is actually beneficial, but whether it is or not, there is no significant penalty for low fertility.
The benefit of lower fertility is that it enables population to peak sooner and lower. Even with no net immigration, replacement rate fertility leads to growth for many decades, until the size of the cohort of people reaching the end of their life equals the size of the cohort being born. This is when deaths match births and population growth ends. If some net immigration is desirable, particularly to accommodate refugees, then below-replacement fertility can compensate for this addition. Low fertility is a generous stance for a society to take, not crowding our resources while making space for others to share them.
Modern lifestyles can make it hard to balance the requirements of work and family life. SPA believes it is possible to be generous to families and supportive of working parents without encouraging large families. We merely need to limit government support for parental leave and tax benefits to the first two children. No penalty should apply to families who choose to have more children, but they should not expect the tax-payer to subsidise this choice. (Modern families can be complicated, and an even-handed policy needs to have sufficient flexibility to accommodate this. The death of a child may reinstate entitlement to support for a further birth. A person whose partner has had children with another spouse may be entitled to support for only one child, as would a woman who chooses to parent alone and not name the father on the register of birth.) All children would of course be entitled to the same access to education and health services – it is only payments to parents which would be affected.
The most important impact of these policy changes would be the message they carry, not the financial aspects. When Peter Costello introduced the ‘baby bonus’ with a plea to families to have ‘one for the country’, the message was that procreation was a service to the nation. Many parents with large families still believe this, and that it justifies the fact that they receive more in government benefits than they pay in taxes. Limiting parenting payments to the first two children conveys the message that causing population growth is not a service to the nation.
The scale of Australia’s immigration program is set annually by the federal government, usually announced in the federal budget. During the mid- to late-2000s, the quotas under most visa categories were increased, and a number of temporary work visa categories were introduced or extended, with effectively uncapped numbers. Most of these changes did not require any legislative change or public debate.
Migration quotas could be reduced just as easily. In the early-1990s, Australia had a net migration rate from 35,000 to 80,000 per year. The average for the 20th century was 52,000 per year. Returning to this level of immigration would still mean Australia receives more immigrants per capita than most developed countries. This level of immigration would allow Australia’s population to stabilise eventually, but we would add several more millions of people before reaching our peak.
An even lower peak could be achieved by rapidly moving to ‘zero net migration’, which means that the number of immigrants would approximately equal the number of emigrants. Each year, around 80,000 people leave Australia to live elsewhere, so around 80,000 immigrants could be accepted while maintaining zero net migration. This is sufficient to maintain Australia’s refugee intake, our multiracial and multicultural composition, and to allow family reunion and recruit specialist workers.
Once population growth has ended, either migration could be increased gradually to maintain a stable population, or the population could be allowed to decline to a lower and more sustainable level.
When it is recognised that further population growth is not in Australia’s interest, these options could be debated. While Australia’s leaders continue to pursue rapid population growth, there is little point in arguing which are the optimum settings to achieve peak and decline. The first necessary step is to reduce our population growth by a considerable margin, compared to recent high growth levels. A number of economic commentators (for example Professor Ross Garnaut) have called for a halving of net immigration compared to pre-Covid levels. This is not enough for sustainability, but would be a step in the right direction.
- In the decade to 2019, Australia’s population grew at an average of 1.6% per annum, very fast for a developed country, twice as fast as the OECD average and faster than the global population growth (around 1.05% in 2020). At this rate Australia’s population would double every 44 years. In the prior four decades (1980 – 2008), Australia’s population grew at an average of 1.3%.
- Australia’s population in mid-2020 was 25.7 million people. This is an extraordinary 34% increase from the population in 2000 of 19.2 million. To give an indication of just how large Australia’s population shift has been, in the year 2000 the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) projected that Australia would not reach 25.4 million people until 2051.
- In 2020 with the Covid-19 pandemic and the closure of international borders, Australia experienced an abrupt slowdown population growth due to the virtual cessation of immigration.
- Australia is a dry continent with insufficient water and fertile soil for a large population. Most of Australia’s capital cities are now depending on desalination for water security in droughts, and exports of irrigated crops have been reduced. Beyond 30 million people, Australia may not be food-secure in drought years.
- More than half (around 60%) of Australia’s population growth in recent decades has been due to immigration. The rest is due to ‘natural increase’ (births minus deaths). Around half of the natural increase is due to births to migrants.
- Tens of thousands of people emigrate from Australia each year. In the decade prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the number was around 80,000. We could receive roughly the same number of immigrants as emigrants without adding to our population.
- When the number of immigrants roughly equals the number of emigrants, we would have ‘zero net migration’. Even then, it would take several decades for Australia’s population to stop growing due to natural increase, and we would add two to three million more people (depending on the average family size).
- Australia’s population growth rate is largely controlled by the federal government through immigration quotas and incentives to have babies.
- Refugees have made up only 5-10% of Australia’s immigration in recent years. Australia has been resettling refugees at among the highest per capita rates in the world, and this could continue even with zero net migration.
- Impacts of rapid population growth include
- housing unaffordability,
- unemployment and deteriorating pay and conditions for workers,
- escalating personal debt levels,
- congestion of infrastructure including roads, ports, hospitals and schools,
- government debt due to infrastructure bills,
- cutbacks in government spending on social programs in order to pay for infrastructure,
- habitat loss or degradation endangering species and ecosystem services,
- water insecurity and expensive water options like desalination,
- loss of fertile soil to housing developments,
- longer and more costly commutes,
- more crowded beaches, parks and recreational areas,
- more regimented and stressful urban lifestyles,
- less access to green space and fresh air,
- more pollution, including greenhouse gases,
- less mineral royalties and other earnings from our natural resources per person,
- a bigger trade deficit,
- lower productivity due to congestion and high real estate costs,
- greater inequality between rich and poor, and less social mobility,
- the dilution of democracy.
- National, state and territory population. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ongoing).
- Demography and sustainability. Jane O’Sullivan 2022.
- Population and climate change. Ian Lowe et al. 2022.
- Population and infrastructure in Australia: the catch-up illusion. Leith van Onselen et al 2019.
- Silver tsunami or silver lining? Why we should not fear an ageing population. Jane O’Sullivan 2020.
- Future Dilemmas: Options to 2050 for Australia’s population, technology, resources and environment. Foran and Poldy 2002, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems.
- Long-term physical implications of net overseas migration: Australia in 2050. Jonathan Sobels et al. 2010. Report for the Australian Government, Department of Immigration and Citizenship.