16 September 2011

Bigger isn’t always better for Australia

Successive Australian population inquiries – some independent, some commissioned by government – have all recommended the adoption of an Australian population policy. Successive Australian governments have all rejected those recommendations.

The Keating Government took the unusual step of refusing to respond to the tabled report of the 1994 Jones Inquiry into Australia’s population “carrying capacity”. And the incoming Howard Government, once safely entrenched in office, declared that it would not respond either. The Jones Report was successfully pigeonholed.

Burying this issue simply does not work. The NSW Premier, Bob Carr, has recently breathed life back into the population policy debate, and Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population (and a host of other environmental groups) will be calling for the development of a population policy in their submissions regarding the setting of the 2000-2001 immigration intake.

Even the newly formed business lobby group Australian Population Institute (APop), which seeks population growth through significantly higher levels of immigration, is calling for the development of a population policy. Predictably it calls for a threshold population in the 30 million to 50 million range. APop wishes to insulate big business from change. It wants assured growth in the domestic market and intends to mount a major media campaign to achieve this.

Yet at least one senior Government minister, Senator Nick Minchin, has pointed out that business should look to the world market for expansion opportunities. Speaking at Master Builders Australia National Building Industry Awards in October, Senator Minchin said higher immigration was not the answer for growth in the building industry.

He pointed out that our population is increasing by almost a quarter of a million people a year, and added that: “This gives us the fastest growing population in the developed world. Yet no matter the scale of our immigration program, the size of our domestic market pales in comparison with the international one.”

Moreover, the high immigration levels desired by APop are not politically possible in the face of continuing public hostility. Councils all over Sydney are being encouraged by their residents to defy State Government-enforced urban consolidation (pack ’em in) policies, which are seen as the inevitable result of contrived population growth.

Such hostility will certainly grow as the public realises that Australia’s immigration program is not delivering significant benefits to disadvantaged peoples. Australia accepts only 4,000 refugees per year within the 12,000-place humanitarian program. And Australia’s overseas aid programs provide less than half the amount of funding requested by the United Nations. Our support of overseas aid directed towards population stabilisation is a miserly one quarter of the amount the UN recommends.

Anyway, the Howard Government has already presided over a massive, yet little understood, increase in immigration. Net overseas migration to Australia for 1998-99 was 117,300, significantly above the previous five years’ average of 80,848. The formal immigration program has been maintained at modest levels, but the total number of people staying in Australia has increased dramatically.

It would therefore be reckless and dismissive of the needs of future generations to further increase Australia’s human population, for there is abundant, well-documented evidence of ecological decline caused by human impact on the environment.

A recent report by The Australia Institute argues that the obligation to limit greenhouse gas emissions under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol should prompt Australia to reconsider high immigration levels.

The Murray-Darling basin, which produces 40 per cent of Australia’s agricultural production and up to 80 per cent of Adelaide’s drinking water, is under serious threat from salinisation. Further demands on the Murray/Darling system could see Adelaide without potable water in as little as 20 years.

Australia’s population will continue to expand due to natural increase for the next 30 years. Beyond that time it’s possible that deaths may outnumber births, unless some family-unfriendly policies are changed to encourage couples to have the number of children they say they’d like to have.

Business should use these 30 years to follow Minchin’s advice and develop overseas markets.

Governments, similarly, can redirect investment away from the infrastructure provision that a growing population requires, and instead provide funds for better educational, environmental and health services.

In its submission to the Jones Inquiry, Australia’s leading scientific organisation, the CSIRO, warned that: “Australia can carry its present population or a higher one in an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable way only if the nation is prepared to change the way it does things. Australia lacks the necessary knowledge and understanding to manage effectively its current population at current living standards. Every extra person and every unit increase in consumption increase the need to rectify this situation.”

But both population and per capita consumption are increasing. Development of a population policy will allow the various issues, environmental, social and economic, to be openly debated. The CSIRO’s warning should be heeded. The development of a population policy is both sensible and urgent.

© The Sydney Morning Herald 

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