16 September 2011

Panel discussion on population, radio national breakfast program

Dr John Coulter is Vice-President of Sustainable Population Australia and a former leader of the Australian Democrats. Nick Minchin is a former Finance and Industry Minister in the Howard Government and he’s set to retire from the Senate next year after 18 years in that chamber. They both join us in Adelaide this morning. Also on the panel today Bob Carr, Premier of NSW between 1995 and 2005, he’s in our Melbourne studio. Good morning to all of you.




I want to ask all of you what a federal population policy should look like. Nick Minchin, Senator Minchin, can I ask you that first, what should it include, a population policy for this country?



Nick Minchin: Well what I don’t think it would be would be to say we want a particular nominated numerical target in a particular year and when we reach it we’re just going to stop. I don’t think that is realistic but it should be a very deliberate and clear framework within which decisions affecting the population are made. And it should be responsive to both inevitable trends that are not responsive to levers, like the birth and death rates, and certain givens in the immigration rate, but it also should be proactive in trying to influence outcomes, and it should be about the sustainability of particular rates of population growth, and I think the problem we have at the moment is that in the absence of any formal population policy all we have is a responsive component which simply seeks to respond to whatever goes on with the natural increase and the immigration rate. So I think we need a much more proactive component in a formal population policy.



Fran Kelly: Proactive in trying to influence where our population policy heads?



Nick Minchin: Yes. Exactly.



Fran Kelly: OK we’ll come to that in a moment but first let me ask all our panelists this simple question, what should a population policy look like – John Coulter?



John Coulter: A population policy should begin with a recognition that Australians are not living sustainably now, environmentally sustainably now, either with respect to the Australian environment or with respect to the global environment. Moving on from that there needs to be a recognition from all governments that the drivers of this unsustainability are continual population growth and economic growth and both those levers need to be tackled. There is no magic number, I agree with Nick on this, there’s no magic number to which we should be aiming by a particular date because of that particular relationship, so the shape of it should be a direction rather than a particular number.



Fran Kelly: OK, and Bob Carr to you now just on that particular number the Minister Tony Burke did make it clear yesterday that Labor will not be coming up with a target, no number. He says a population policy target is not central to that, he agrees with John Coulter that it should be more about direction than number.



Bob Carr: Yes that’s my position as well, I think though the population policy has got to detach us from the idea of endless growth because the only policy we allow for now has been more – M-O-R-E. I think it’s got to acknowledge that there’s some validity, some truth in the notion of the carrying capacity for a continent with Australia’s characteristics and I think there’s an opportunity to link population growth to a number of variables – I’ll give you three: energy efficiency, limited or cautious population growth until we cease to be such a major emitter of carbon. And that could await the arrival of nuclear fusion for example or another endless non-polluting supply of baseload power. Water – the efficiency with which we handle water, the advent of new technologies for desal, again, a cautious approach on population growth, or restrained approach on population growth, until we make progress on that front. And I think the third very quickly is urban consolidation until cities like Perth and Brisbane achieve the urban consolidation rates that Sydney’s got, i.e. the ratio of apartment dwelling to single detached cottage dwelling I think has got to be linked to population growth.



Fran Kelly: OK so all three of you think we don’t need a target, but all of these things are contingent on numbers, arent’ they? Bob Carr as you said there, a notion of a carrying capacity that is just a target by another name, isn’t it?



Bob Carr: I think we’ve got to discuss the context in which carrying capacity constraints cut in. We’ve got to say carrying capacity constraints are there until we’ve achieved the levels of water efficiency, energy efficiency and efficiency in land use that are desirable. I think that’s a way of dealing with that and of linking that to policy outcomes.



Fran Kelly: Nick Minchin the point you made in your initial answer there, we need to be proactive in trying to impact where our population is headed – what do you mean by proactive? That’s presumably pulling some levers and not others. What would you be proactive in?



Nick Minchin: Well obviously the rate of immigration is the most amenable lever available to governments. Despite Peter Costello’s colourful rhetoric I don’t think governments do have levers over the birthrate and they certainly don’t have and shouldn’t have levers over the death rate. So the natural increase I think is largely a given and not amenable to the government, but the immigration rate is definitely amenable and I’ve sat round our Cabinet table for 10 years where we had the annual discussion of the immigration program and that is entirely within the hands of the government. And I don’t want to be party political today but Mr Rudd just saying ‘Oh well 36 million it’s just going to happen and we just have to work out how to deal with it, that’s ridiculous because the rate of immigration is entirely a function of federal government policy and is a direct lever over which it has all the authority it needs.



Fran Kelly: In fact, let’s stay with that it is a direct lever, a lever that governments pull. It’s our only formal population policy we’ve had really from one year to the next is alterations and changes in the immigration policy. Earlier in the program we spoke to ANU demographer Peter McDonald, he’s given advice to the federal government that the immigration intake in this country should be around the annual intake of 180,000 people a year in order to be able to economically support our ageing population. Let’s have a listen:



Peter McDonald: Yes we have given that advice to the government. Obviously it’s not 180,000 every year, that can’t possibly work. But broadly in the range of 160,000 to just over 200,000 averaging out at about 180,000. This result produces the best impact upon ageing in the population and that then contributes to growth in GDP per capita for Australia.



Fran Kelly: Nick Minchin do you like that number, do you like that advice?



Nick Minchin: No I don’t I think that’s ridiculous. With great respect to Mr McDonald he is well-known as a high immigration guy and none of what he said has any foundation. We all know that the ageing of the population is not amenable to change by dint of the immigration policy because immigrants by and large come in at an age profile not dissimilar to the current profile of the Australian economy.



Fran Kelly: That’s not true for the large number of temporary entrants?



Nick Minchin: No but by and large, every study that’s ever been done on this shows that you’re not going to change the age profile of Australia in any realistic way by altering the immigration program in any realistic way, so that’s nonsense. And the productivity commission has made quite clear that … the real economic determinant for me is real GDP per head. That’s the economic variable in all this, and for Mr McDonald to say that will be maximized by 180,000 is also nonsense according to the Productivity Commission which shows that high rates of immigration will not enhance real GDP per head. That is 50% more, 180,000 is 50% higher immigration than the average under the Coalition government of around 125,000 so it is a massive increase in the immigration rate we’ve had for the last 10 or 15 years.



Fran Kelly: John Coulter, what’s your response to that advice that Peter McDonald has given the government. 180,000 immigrants per year.



John Coulter: Look I agree with you Fran and I’ve looked at the figures which came from the ABS just a couple of weeks ago on per capita growth of gross state product and in fact that states that have performed worst were Queensland and Western Australia with a minus 2.3% and WA with a minus 2.1% growth and that was simply due to the very rapid rate of population increase. And if you look at that over a longer period of time you find exactly the same thing. Could I just pick up on what Bob Carr was saying – whilst it is highly desirable to use various technological techniques to try and improve our energy efficiency and find alternative means of energy and to improve the efficiency with which we use other resources, unfortunately humanity over the last couple of centuries has always taken those improvements as a way of increasing its population so the total impact on the environment was actually increased. So while we do those things it is absolutely vital that we recognise that we are not living sustainably now and consequently we need to do those things now which will reduce both the per capita impact and also the number of capits. And picking up on one of the things that Nick Minchin has said in relation to the birth rate, in fact the Howard government followed by the Rudd government has provided a very large baby bonus and that has certainly had some impact on the fertility rate. That should be reduced, we should not be rewarding people in Australia for having babies, particularly when we have the highest emissions per capita of greenhouse gases in the world.



Fran Kelly: OK now these are real political hot button points, now John that you’re saying. Bob Carr do you think any politician would willingly suggest we need to cut our birth rate?



Bob Carr: I think it’s quite feasible for politicians to say that. I think Australian people are responsive to the argument that we are not serving the country’s environmental or economic interests by running such an ambitious policy of population growth. And look I agree completely with what’s been said about ageing of the population and immigration. Every study I have seen has made it absolutely clear that you’d have to run immigration at absolutely unsustainably high levels and for a very long time to have an impact on population ageing profiles.



John Coulter: You’re putting it off to the future



Bob Carr: Yes, you’re putting it off to the future. My challenge to the people who support a big Australia, a constantly growing population on both fronts, immigration and natural growth, is this: when are you satisfied? Are you satisfied when a population of 50 million or 60 million, all the east coast of Australia, every last inch of it, is urbanized? Because that’s what this debate is about. In land use patterns, in terms of planning, the idea of a bigger Australia, a population of 50 million, is a concept for the total, heavy, intensive urbanization of the east coast of Australia. That’s what this debate is about. The idea that we’ve got a population distribution that remotely resembles that of north America – we’ve got no Chicagos, we’ve got no Oklahoma cities or Kansas cities, we haven’t got sizeable population centres in inland Australia and given the water and other constraints, the aridity of the land we never will.



Fran Kelly: OK, we’ve only got a couple of minutes left. I’ll come to all of you one more time before we go but Bob Carr just a political question to you from all your experience is it possible to have an immigration debate in this country without it becoming overloaded with racist overtones. Already again this week it’s got muddled up with asylum seekers.



Bob Carr: Absolutely. The Australian public have got the highest political IQ of any electorate in the world and what we’ve seen in the last six months since this 36 million figure started to alarm people and render them anxious is a sophisticated debate where people haven’t opened up the issue of multiculturalism or where migrants come from. There’s been no Hansonite element whatsoever in this, it’s been a debate about population targets, about carrying capacity, about water and energy use, about planning the shape of our cities and these super ambitious immigration targets that governments have signed up to. This is a debate not about the value of immigration but about the costs of surging levels of immigration that Australians find very disturbing.



Fran Kelly: OK Nick Minchin a final question to you, I’m wondering what you make about the hints that our Population Minister Tony Burke is putting out there about our two speed economy and the answer to our population programs might be a greater spread of population? This has been tried before and has failed hasn’t it?



Nick Minchin: Well I was going to say, every immigration minister in living history has said oh what we need is a better distribution of the population. In a country that doesn’t have internal passports it is of course utterly ridiculous. You might give concessions to people to go to Kalgoorlie but they can hop on a bus to Sydney the very next day. That’s an absolute nonsense and we’ve heard it all before and it won’t work.



Fran Kelly: And John Coulter we’ve heard from you, you keep making the point that we’re not living sustainably. The fact is however we’re living here, the world is populating at a massive rate. Human population will increase from 2 billion to 9 billion in a single lifetime, with that sort of potential overload, it’s almost irrelevant what policy we opt for here and more people will ultimately come anyway won’t they?



John Coulter:  No, I don’t think so, and I’ve held this view for the last 40 odd years that Australia should be deliberately setting itself on a target towards a sustainable future, not in isolation but being very very prepared to share its knowledge and its technology and its success and its failures with other countries. And just picking up on the issue of racism, the most racist policy we can possibly pursue is this one of high immigration. Because what we’re saying to the rest of the world is ‘You bugger off, we’re going to just continue to consume more and more and more, and we don’t care what happens to the rest of you’. So it’s the high immigration people who are in effect the most racist people.




Fran Kelly: That sounds like a great place to leave it. John Coulter, Bob Carr, and Nick Minchin, thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast.



Scroll to Top