4 November 2003 © The Sydney Morning Herald
There has been a barrage of propaganda in favour of Australia aiming for a higher population figure than that which demographic trends suggest will be the case. Will there be 25 or 30 million Australians in 2030? Should we aim for 40 million by 2050? If so, how can we achieve that?
Much of the debate has used invalid or emotional arguments both for and against population growth. One of Australia’s leading economists, Max Corden, gave a lecture in Canberra last week (in memory of another prominent economist, Dick Snape: http://www.pc.gov.au) in which he went over the population projections and the arguments.
In the process, in the clear and logical manner for which he is famous in his writings, he disposed of most of the arguments in favour and against. Moreover, he implicitly assumed that there is nothing we can do about the fertility rate (the net birth rate), and would have to depend on immigration.
But immigration is not a cure for the ageing of the Australian population – immigrants age, too. Unless, that is, we were to look forward to an exponentially rising immigration rate. He rapidly dismisses the chimera of immigrants competing for jobs – they do, but at the same time they create jobs.
He sees the need for far more rational policies than we have so far adopted towards urban planning, environmental and water problems. However, he believes that with sensible policies (including charging for irrigation water, not giving it away) population growth is manageable.
He is right. But the real issue is why we want our population to continue growing, rather than stabilising or even starting to reduce a bit by mid-century. Here Corden’s answer is rational, but not necessarily convincing. He favours considerably higher rates of immigration. This is a judgement of preference with which many of us would agree, even those whose arrivals date back a lot further than his (all of us, including Aborigines, in the last analysis).
Corden’s preference is in part based on his belief that immigrants, like himself, have benefited modern Australia greatly. In many individual cases, such as his own contribution, this is obvious. Even in less distinguished cases, the overall contribution of post-war immigration to our culture is undeniable. But this is not in itself enough to argue that we should increase our present rate of immigration.
This debate, however, has nothing to do with humanitarian or refugee issues – we could (and should) take many more of such people, and this could be done within existing overall levels. Why, however, should we aim to increase our population above the present trend levels? Corden’s argument is two-fold. The old “populate or perish” line is not totally invalid (though it must be remembered that this will not fill up the empty spaces of the outback); and the economies of scale and increased variety (specialisation) made possible by higher population in a country so far from its major trading partners. Both are valid, but not totally convincing.
Corden argues that a large population and economy would enable us to spend more on defence and anti-terrorism. True. But the same could be achieved with better policies and the promotion of higher domestic savings and investment – a population of 30 million could have, with good policy, a GDP as high as one of 40 million with the same policies we have today.
Second, the share of services in our GDP and world GDP is rising rapidly, and these are not governed by the “tyranny of distance” any more. Even for physical goods the tyranny is not absolute, and entrepreneurs like Chris Corrigan, who began the reform of the waterfront, diminish it greatly by adopting better practices.
Corden is, despite his terminology, a conservative – he is wedded to the social and immigration policies of the past 50 years. The true radicals are those prepared to face up to the challenges of population stabilisation and decrease, on a national and global level.
In any case, however fast our population increases it will be but a drop of water in the ocean of the world – by 2050 world population will be at least 3 billion higher than now, and a large proportion of this will be in Asia. Why should we not set out to become a social laboratory once more, and pioneer the policies of adjustment to population stabilisation?
This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/11/04/1067708147813.html