10 July 2010

Puff’s the magic population target

His comments come as Prime Minister Julia Gillard this week continued to press the phrase ”sustainable population” into the pre-election political lexicon.

In a speech targeting apparent voter concern in a swag of Labor marginal seats, Ms Gillard conceded the population would continue to grow.

But the issue for Australia was the speed of that growth, she said, and whether – and where – it could be sustained.

In a telling passage that some say marks a politically expedient approach, she added: ”In many faster-growing parts of Australia – like western Sydney, south-east Queensland and the growth corridors of Wyndham and Melton, in my own electorate in Melbourne’s western suburbs – people would laugh if you told them population growth was intended to improve living standards.

”People in these communities are on the front line of our population increase and they know bigger isn’t necessarily better.”

Ms Gillard last month rejected setting ”arbitrary” targets of 40 million people, or 36 million, and rebadged population minister Tony Burke as the Minister for Sustainable Population.

But despite the Prime Minister’s apparent signals to the contrary, the Australian National University demographer Peter McDonald says it is inevitable that in the next 10 years migration will remain high in Australia.

”It is an inevitability because labour demand, especially from pressure from the resources industry, will remain high,” Professor McDonald said. ”The reality is that no government, including this Prime Minister, is going to say no to labour-force growth.”

He also gently suggests it is ”not a good idea” to politicise debate about how big Australia’s population will be in 2050.

For one, it is an exercise in hypotheticals, he said. ”The births in 2050 are themselves going to be born to women who will be born in the 2020s. How can we predict what that number is going to be?”

Treasury, in its latest intergenerational report, forecast a population of 36 million by 2050, based on a calculation that net migration would be stable at 180,000 a year for the next 40 years.

But Professor McDonald said that just seven years ago, in its first intergenerational report, Treasury had forecast a population of 26 million by 2050, thereby underscoring the absurdity of this kind of long-term guessing. Australia’s current population is 22 million.

A more sensible approach, he said, was for the government to turn its mind to a 15-to-20-year time-frame and engage in ”proper planning”, taking into account labour shortages, the broader economy and the environment.

”We should be planning the environment for the population we will have,” Professor McDonald says.

”That means getting the right infrastructure, alternative energy sources, good housing and rapid transport systems.”

His approach differs markedly, however, from that of environmental advocates such as the Australian Conservation Foundation, which seeks to reduce overall migration to achieve sustainability.

Professor Hugo, meanwhile, says there is a danger in simply equating increases in population with environmental degradation. But environment and population policies should be integrated to account for realistic future needs.

”Theoretically elegant” ideas advanced by the no-growth camp – such as returning Australia’s population 8 million to 12 million – were not tenable, he said.

”What is an optimal number? One of the problems with the debate in the past has been a fixture on numbers.”

Monash University demographer Bob Birrell, however, is prepared to take a contrarian approach: about 27 million is a sustainable population for 2050, he says.

”From an environmental point of view, we are already straining the natural capacity of our country and diminishing the quality of our lives. I would like to see Australia’s population stabilised as soon as practicable,” he says.

”We should aim for an immigration program to deliver the number of migrants necessary to equal the loss in natural increases – that is, deaths minus births.”#

The Age – National at http://www.theage.com.au/national/puffs-the-magic-population-target-20100709-1046d.html

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