4 May 2017

Population: have we made any progress at all?

Jenny Goldie

This title was prompted by a recent question from a member of SPA, who wondered whether the considerable money he had donated over the years had been cost effective.

It led to my reflecting on whether SPA has indeed made any progress over the past 29 years since the organisation was founded.

Let’s go back to 1988. The population of Australia was 16.6 million and growing by 1.6 per cent. It is now 24.6 million and growing at 1.5 per cent. Although the growth rate now is slightly less, the base is nearly 50 per cent bigger and so the actual number of people added to the population annually is more than in 1988.

In 1988, Australia’s fertility rate was 1.83 births per woman. In 2016, fertility was 1.79, a very slight reduction but in the intervening years it swelled to 1.98 in 2008, probably due to Peter Costello’s baby bonus. The increase in fertility was associated with a moderate increase in the birth rate.

In purely demographic terms, a fertility rate close to replacement of 2.1 is desirable so these figures, even 1.98, are not in themselves a source of concern. If, however, you seek to lower overall population numbers, as our objectives say, then a curtailment of immigration is required plus a lower fertility rate. You don’t want to go too low or you distort the age structure too much; but even demographer Peter McDonald doesn’t worry if fertility falls to 1.5.

What has happened globally in the past nearly three decades? After all, our objectives do include global population as well as national. In 1988, global population was 5.1 billion and growing by 1.8 per cent. In 2017, it is 7.5 billion and growing by 1.1 per cent. In 1988, 94 million people were added to the population annually, while now it is 82 million. That drop is welcome but hardly where we need to be, which is zero or negative.

Cognisant of the manifold existential threats bearing down on us, not least climate change, I look at these figures and occasionally get depressed. In answer to the question, have we (namely SPA and our like-minded colleagues overseas) made any progress at all, the answer has to be some but not much and certainly not near enough globally. 2.4 billion extra people, or 32 per cent more, in 29 years is not acceptable.

Nationally, 48 per cent growth in 29 years as against the global 32 per cent is a worry. Had we grown by 32 per cent instead of 48 per cent our population would have been around about two and a half million less than we actually have.

It is illustrative to compare the Netherlands which, in 1988 had a population of 14.8 million and is now just over 17 million, in other words, it grew by two million or so while we grew by eight million. Was this a problem for the Netherlands? Well, no. In the 2017 World Happiness rankings, the Netherlands had risen to sixth while Australia had slipped to ninth.

I would like to digress for a moment and consider AESP/SPA itself. When nine of us founded the organisation in Canberra, we met in the Environment Centre where we had a pigeon hole for our mail. Our environmental colleagues were sceptical about whether we would survive. They were then confounded by the large amount of mail that would arrive in the pigeon hole. We took off and before too long had 500 members to the amazement of the other groups. For many years we hovered around the 1000 member mark and more. The years when we got most publicity was when we found the money to employ a national director – first Edwina Barton and then myself – because that person could devote themselves to the issue: write letters to editors, articles, give speeches and go on talk back radio. Then came a time when we had to spend that money on administration as it all got too much for one or two people. Nevertheless, we soldiered on as volunteers, giving papers at conferences (and I single out Jane O’Sullivan here for her excellent work in this respect), providing input into the UNFCCC with respect to population’s role in climate change, running our own conferences and producing books out of them, interacting with our overseas colleagues, writing submissions to countless inquiries, and so on. Nevertheless, volunteers can only do so much. It was only a couple of years ago that a generous donor allowed us to employ an editor – Steve Williams. We are in a situation now, however, where we are providing for the needs of the members through the newsletter and enews and the occasional public meeting organised by branches, but aren’t really doing enough to reach those outside the organisation. This is not a criticism – just recognition that volunteers have limits.

What do we then need to do? If our sister organisation Population Matters in the UK is the model, we need to attract big donors such that we can employ full-time staff, even if it is only one or two. Population Matters, once the Optimum Population Trust, had numbers comparable to ours for years until they got a large donation which allowed them to employ a CEO and an editor, and now they growing and not looking back. It does help having David Attenborough as a Patron of course.

But let us now revert to the bigger picture and consider to what extent we in SPA have managed to influence things, despite our sailing right past the 23 million that the Academy of Science, back in the early 1990s, deemed the appropriate size for Australia. I may be wrong, but personally I think we have managed to influence public debate on the issue, if not by nearly enough.

First, let us consider that we have survived, if not flourished as we had once hoped. This is no mean feat – it requires a fairly sophisticated level of commitment and expertise to keep going for decades. A similar organisation set up not long after AESP by Prof Stephen Boyden, Nature and Society Forum (now the Frank Fenner Foundation), is now foundering because of lack of funds. On an individual level, one close friend of SPA, Dr Doug Cocks, wrote five books on population and resources and organised Barney Foran and Franzy Poldi to write the CSIRO report: “Future Dilemmas”. He died last year disillusioned and disappointed that he had not been able to achieve more on the issue. So let us try and avoid that fate.

Second, we are respected. The Academy of Science deemed us worthy enough to allow us to run the 2013 conference on population, resources and climate change. CSIRO Publishing deemed us credible enough to publish the book Sustainable Futures, arising out of that conference as well as an earlier one, In Search of Sustainability, which arose out of the 2003 conference we helped run of the same name. I remember when we were holding the 2008 conference in Canberra, one of the overseas speakers was Joan Castro. She was being interviewed by local host Genevieve Jacobs on ABC Radio who announced loudly and confidently that “the conference was being run by Sustainable Population Australia!” I was driving my car through the city at the time, listening to the interview on the car radio, and thought: “We’ve finally arrived!”

I think we are respected in a way that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party is not. It has one excellent policy, namely zero net migration, but they cloud the issue by bringing in a xenophobic element – wanting to ban Muslim immigration being the latest manifestation. What enrages me about One Nation is their truly appalling attitude to climate science. Hanson’s deputy, Malcolm Roberts, the el supremo of climate denial in this country, even had the gall to suggest that NASA’s climate data had been manipulated, prompting a polite reply from NASA’s director Gavin Schmidt who directed Senator Roberts to a number of links on the NASA website that published the entirety of NASA's raw data and the code they use to analyse that data. How profoundly embarrassing that the Australian public should have elected such a person as Roberts!

Third, we provide support for a few journalists who are really doing the hard yards for us. Crispin Hull has been writing on population in the Fairfax media, especially the Canberra Times, for years. More recently, Leith van Onselen has been enormously prolific in his blog MacroBusiness, pushing out articles on an almost daily business in support of our cause. Every few months I tell Crispin and Leith they’re wonderful – more of us should as they are wonderful – and I believe the latter is now communicating with some of our more academic members who have great depth of expertise.

Just this week, Leith railed against the Greens policy on immigration. He said for 20 years they failed to protest as annual permanent immigration soared from 80,000 to 200,000 today, driving the huge acceleration in Australia’s population growth. This has put a huge strain on the nation’s environment, which is meant to be the Greens’ core concern. He noted that the recently released 2016 State of Environment Report stated that population growth and economic growth were the two main drivers of environmental decline. It wasn’t just environment, but population growth was also affecting living standards in the big cities – such as packed trains, worsening traffic congestion, and deteriorating housing affordability. Leith pointed out that Greens’ new immigration policy which seeks to increase the humanitarian component without a concomitant decrease in skilled migration, would mean Australia would have 43 million people by 2060, two million more than if the current 200,000 permanent immigration level is maintained.

Leith also highlighted an article in the Australian Financial Review by William Bourke, leader of the political party Sustainable Australia who wrote that our record permanent immigration program of around 200,000 is diluting our skills base. Although the so-called “skilled” category is two-thirds of the annual program, the government hides the unskilled families of the skilled migrant inside that category. Thus only around 50,000 (25 per cent) are bringing in designated skills and, worse still, many of those primary skilled migrants are not even working in their area of expertise.

Speaking of Sustainable Australia, if we are to maintain our tax deductible status, we cannot endorse any political party. Nevertheless, SPA is pleased that a party that clearly advocates stabilisation of population is now part of the political landscape, providing a rational and non-xenophobic alternative to One Nation. Many of SA’s candidates were and are members of SPA which imbued them with the right principles.

And now it is not just journalists who are coming out on our side. Take the issue of housing affordability, for instance. As you are all too aware, there is a housing bubble in Sydney and Melbourne in particular with demand hugely exceeding supply. Neither leader of the two main parties will address the demand side, namely, an extra 100,000 people in Melbourne every year and 80,000 or so in Sydney. But now there is a growing chorus of “halve immigration for the sake of housing affordability” that includes Judith Sloan, Tony Abbott, Mark Latham and, just this week, former NSW Treasury secretary Percy Allan. Some of these people make uncomfortable bedfellows (for me anyway) but, if they are getting the message across, then good on them.

And then there’s been Gareth Aird, the Commonwealth Bank’s senior economist, who in October last year said that while it is undoubtedly true that Australia is comfortably ahead of most of advanced economies in the most commonly used statistic, GDP, it has not been doing so well on more meaningful measures. His bank's economics team released a report at that time questioning the overwhelming focus on the headline GDP number. It expressed concern that there was relative ignorance around other indicators that better reflect how households are doing. He said on RN breakfast that the fundamental problem with the GDP figure is that it ignores population growth, which automatically “grows the economy but not the standard of living”. What was a better measure he said was real net national disposable income (RNNDI) per capita. Aird said that while population growth had been good in the past, without commensurate spending in public infrastructure, the benefits had started to wane.

In March this year, Gareth Aird was invited onto the ABC’s Lateline program along with pro-immigration activist Bob Gregory and Deloitte Access Economics’ Chris Richardson who had previously advocated a boost to Australia’s immigration program. There followed a fairly rational discussion on whether immigration is boosting living standards on a per head basis; whether immigration can prevent Australia’s population from ageing; and the deleterious impacts on infrastructure, traffic congestion and housing affordability. Aird was unsurprisingly good but what was interesting was that pro-immigration Gregory and Richardson admitted that immigration did have negative effects and that “bigger is not better” for living standards. Aird disputed Richardson’s claim that immigration could off-set ageing, saying that it merely “kicked the can down the road” as migrants age as well as native-born.

This was not quite the revolution, nevertheless, it moved the debate along in the right direction. SPA will never win the day until the dominant paradigm of unending economic growth is no longer the dominant paradigm. People are starting to question whether population growth is worth it if their children can’t afford to buy houses in the same city; when commuting times exceed an hour each way (sometimes up to two hours in places); when schools are impossibly crowded; when waiting times are excessively long.

Has SPA been a significant player in this new community discussion? Well not overtly, not as Dick Smith has been. We do need to raise our profile. Nevertheless, by persisting, by informing our members we give them the information to speak up in whatever forum is their choice, be it letters to editor pages in the mainstream press, on talkback radio, in the pub, or the comment section of on-line media such as The Conversation.

Finally, what are we doing internationally? For the past decade we have built networks with like-minded organisations in the US, Canada and the UK. Jane O’Sullivan has made a number of presentations at international conferences and I too, but to a much lesser extent. It is distressing beyond words, though not surprising, that president Trump reintroduced the Global Gag Rule, depriving not only US organisations like Planned Parenthood of much needed funds, but also the UN Population Fund. We are now seeing famine in four countries: Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria, all countries which are badly in need of family planning services. With their very high birth rates, it means there are more mouths to feed when Saudis bomb you (as is the case of Yemen) or climate change shifts rain patterns and there is not enough food grown.

Some of you may have seen the documentary “The Age of Consequences” on Four Corners about four weeks ago. While primarily about climate change as a threat multiplier, nevertheless, it kept coming back to the image of the various stresses that are all interconnected. One of these is population growth. Interestingly, one of the people who best understands the gravity of all these interconnected problems, not least population growth is retired Admiral Chris Barrie who was once head of our Defence Forces.

It might just be that SPA will have to cooperate more with the military, if indeed it is they who understand the issue best of all.

Have we made progress? Yes we have, not enough, but things are moving. Unfortunately, however, we still have a long road ahead. There is much work still to be done.  

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