Australia’s humanitarian and migrant intake 2002-03 – submission by SPA national office to the dept. of immigration, multicultural and indigenous affairs (DIMIA), Feb 2002
1 February 2002
SUBMISSION TO DIMIA ON THE
2002-2003 MIGRATION AND HUMANITARIAN PROGRAMS
SUSTAINABLE POPULATION AUSTRALIA inc.
National Director SPA
PO Box 297
CIVIC SQUARE ACT 2608
Ph: 02 6235 5488
Fax: 02 6235 5499
Sustainable Population Australia (SPA), formerly Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population (AESP), is a community based environmental group primarily concerned with population growth. We have nearly 1000 members nation-wide, many of whom are professionals and academics working in the biological or related sciences. We have seven branches in six states or territories.
SPA seeks an ecologically sustainable population and thus, given that all environmental indicators suggest we are not living sustainably with the population we have now, we want an end to population growth as soon as practicable. It may be necessary for the population to go into slow decline once stabilisation has been achieved. (See SPA press release: Attachment A)
To that end, we do not want to see any marked increase in the fertility rate and want net overseas migration to drop to or below 70,000 pa immediately, with a further drop to 50,000 within two years. Ideally, we seek zero net migration but understand the difficulty of implementing that without some gradation. We note emigration is currently over 40,000 pa, so that achieving net 70,000 this coming year should not be too disruptive. Although there is some variability in advice about what figure the net migration figure should be in order to lead to stabilisation (assuming fertility stays about the same), we believe that that should be the absolute maximum figure for net migration for the coming year. We believe it is somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000.
We note that ABS reports that net overseas migration for the year ending June 2001 was 109,700, considerably more than the program intends. It appears that the discrepancy comes from New Zealanders who are not part of the official program yet are included in the net migration figures. We reiterate that we believe New Zealanders should be included in the official program so that greater control over the whole program can be achieved. We welcome, however, the Government’s efforts to partially “tighten up” the permanent settlement of New Zealanders.
Recent months have seen Australian society split over the treatment of illegal entrants. By and large we support Government’s actions in its deterrence and mandatory detention policies. While the Government has enjoyed around 80 per cent support for these policies, we note that the passion felt by the remaining 20 per cent is extreme and that the Government must consider some compromise measures if it is to retain the support of the majority. Such measures might include the speeding up of assessment procedures, more case-workers in detention centres and the recognition that there may be 100 per cent mental illness amongst detainees – illness that requires appropriate medical response.
We also believe that, while it will cost considerably more, that a doubling of the Humanitarian Program at the expense of the Skills must be considered primarily for genuine humanitarian reasons but also as a public relations measure. While we believe the adverse international reaction has been over-stated, nevertheless, there has been some denting of Australia’s image in the eyes of some whose opinion we should normally consider. This is not to say we should give permanent residency to unauthorised arrivals, but there are very many people who seek more than temporary refuge for quite legitimate reasons who could be taken in under an expanded Humanitarian Program. We also believe there will be increasing need to take in environmental refugees, not only from desertification or degradation as a result of overpopulation, but as a result of rising seas from global warming. Latest reports suggest a 20 cm rise in sea-level by the end of the century, an amount that will see the inundation of many Pacific atolls such as Tuvalu. As Australia is failing to come to grips with curtailing greenhouse gas emissions and has the disgraceful record of being the world’s highest emitter per capita, there is an added moral obligation to take in people rendered homeless by the effects of global warming.
We support the non-discriminatory nature of the Migration Program. Our primary concern is numbers. We do not believe, however, that a large program is needed for the purposes of promoting diversity since nearly one quarter of Australian resident are born overseas. There is, instead, a need for a time of consolidation to ensure that national unity does not suffer at the hands of excessive diversity. A smaller program will ensure that.
Three documents that we would like to have presented as supporting documents to this submission have not been published at time of close of submissions (February 22, 2002 – today). These are 1) the State of Environment Report 2001 that we understand will be tabled in Federal Parliament in March and available thereafter, 2) the CSIRO/DIMA report on “Future Options to 2050”, and 3) a paper by Prof Ian McDonald and Ross Guest to be published in the March 2002 issue of the Australian Economic Review, called “Is low fertility a threat to living standards in Australia?”
With respect to the State of Environment Report, we believe it will show that most environmental indicators are declining in this country which means we should be taking a precautionary approach to population growth, not actively increasing it which is the current trend.
The publication of the CSIRO/DIMA study appears to have been delayed for political reasons. While familiar with the findings of this study and in mild disagreement with some of its recommendations (we support the lowest option for future population – not the middle one), we are deeply concerned at the hold-up of its publication.
The answer to the question posed by Ian McDonald and Ross Guest was a clear “No”. Their findings contradict those of Peter McDonald and Rebecca Kippen who have concentrated purely on demographic data. McDonald and Guest, on the other hand, have used much broader economic parameters to reach their conclusion that low fertility is not a threat to living standards.
We note in the Discussion Paper that natural increase is declining and deaths will exceed births in 30 years. We do not believe this is a matter of concern and indeed, the ending of population growth from natural increase is to be welcomed. It is understood that in 30 years time, if fertility rates do not revert to replacement rate, immigration will be necessary to off-set any population decrease. What we do not understand, however, is why immigration must be so high in the meantime if offsetting population decline is its main rationale.
SPA does not know what an ecologically sustainable population for Australia is, however, we believe it is lower than 19.3 million at current living standards. We believe there is an imperative to take a precautionary approach to population growth in light of calls by the UN and the World Business Council for a ten fold decrease in resource consumption by first world countries. This will be much harder to achieve if the population continues to grow (see SPA press release of 21 Feb 2002: Attachment B).
We note that the graph on page 9 of the Discussion Paper shows population to be 28 million in 2051if fertility is 1.75 and net overseas migration 110,000 annually. While fertility has dropped to 1.7, nevertheless, net migration was nearly 110,000 last year so we might expect a population of more than 27 million in 2051 if these trends continue. This is somewhat more than the 24 million that the Minister alludes to in public statements. We understand the ABS has predicted a population of 30 million by the end of the century. We do not believe this is a sustainable population for Australia, particularly in light of global climate change. Calls by the business lobby for net migration to equal 0.67 per cent of the population. leading to a population of 85 million in 2200, simply deserve derision. They smack of the worst kind of vested interest.
We believe the comment on page 11 in the Discussion Paper about zero net migration (ZNM) as leading to excessive ageing and declining population is unfairly dismissive of ZNM. Please note the March issue of Australian Economic Review and the paper by McDonald and Guest (mentioned in the Introduction- see Attachment C for a SPA press release referring to it) and also the recent paper by Dr Pamela Kinnear of the Australia Institute, a precis of which is in Attachment D. She makes the point that the problems of ageing have been overestimated in this country and says, as others have including the Discussion Paper, that only very large immigration would off-set ageing.
As said in the Introduction, the new regulations for New Zealanders moving to Australia to meet visa requirements etc, while welcome, do not go far enough. A net gain of 30,000 in one year throws the whole immigration program out of kilter. New Zealanders can also still work here without fulfilling various requirements. As unemployment has climbed back to 7 per cent, we have to ask: how much of that is caused by an excess of workers and to what extent has the relatively free flow of New Zealanders contributed to this?
Economic and Social Objectives
SPA rejects the idea that a growing population is necessary for economic wealth. Indeed, many of the wealthiest countries as judged by GDP per capita have small and stable populations (see Attachment C).
Skilled migrants will, of course, have better “labour market outcomes” as the Discussion Paper says. There are, however, skills that Australia needs but can only be supplied from overseas in the short-term and others that we can and should supply from our own residents. In the medium to long-term, however, the vast majority of our skills should be products of our own educational institutions. Thus, we would argue that where skills cannot be found from within the resident population, that we seek them overseas for the time being. We believe, however, that these people should only be offered five-year visas, rather than permanent residency, until our educational institutions catch up. If there are not enough students entering a tertiary institution to study a skill, for instance nursing, then incentives should be offered to get people to train, or re-train, in that area.
The Discussion Paper notes that migration has brought 100 languages and cultures to Australian life. While, undeniably some diversity is good, the question must be asked about the time it stops being good and starts being divisive. SPA does not know the answer to that, only questions whether Education Departments, for instance, in high immigration cities such as Melbourne and Sydney, are keeping up with educating children for whom English is a second language. Anecdotal evidence suggests, that in some schools at least, they are not.
As for increasing the contingency plan for an additional 4000 places after 2001-2002, we can only plead “No”. Family reunion has the least justification of all streams in the Migration Program. As for the 8000 contingency places to accommodate overseas students who successfully gain a qualification in an occupation in national shortage in Australia, may we ask if we are not “poaching” from Third World countries in doing so? The UN and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development have called for a rapid transfer of knowledge and technology to the developing world (see Appendix B, second paragraph). This is going to be difficult if we let overseas graduate students stay on for any length of time. A few years in industry may be justified before returning home, but permanent residency is quite another matter.
The decision to increase the Skill stream to 45,500 was a step in the wrong direction. We would like to see it cut quite dramatically and confine it to skills where there is a very real shortage. (We note on page 15 of the Discussion Paper that half of the skilled migrants now have an occupation that is in national shortage – we would prefer that to be closer to 100 per cent). Five year visas in general, however, should provide a bridge until our training institutions catch up. We have no problem with Distinguished Talent category, but once again, five year visas could cover them as well.
Regarding the 2500 places that were reserved for overseas students in information and communication technology (ICT), we understand that those with those skills are now finding difficulty gaining employment. A recent report in the Sydney Morning Herald, for instance, showed unemployment rising in the eastern and northern suburbs which was associated with a decline in employment in the IT industry.
On page 16 of the Discussion Paper, there is the claim that changes that the Government has made to the Migration Program will enhance living standards by some $323 per head by 2007-2008. We would argue that this is not very much to compensate for the loss of quality of life that is associated with population growth: increased pollution, congestion and real estate prices. We believe the government has very much overstated the benefits of Skilled Migration.
On page 17 of the Discussion Paper, it is noted that unemployment rate for Skilled Independent migrants has come down to 10 per cent from 28 per cent in the mid-1990s. While the drop is welcome, unless these people have a lot of capital on which to live, it must cause a great deal of suffering for the 10 per cent. They are also contributing to Australia’s overall unemployment rate of seven per cent, so clearly too many people are being pushed onto the job market. This Category must be better tuned and more focussed.
In response to the question about assisting states and territories to attract and retain migrants in their regional areas, the question must be asked as to what regions are we talking about? There are many places in Australia that cannot support a higher population for economic or environmental reasons. Perth and Adelaide have very real water constraints. Population growth in the hinterlands of northern New South Wales and South East Queensland is destroying ecologically valuable rainforest. Much of the interior of Australia is too dry to sustain a big population. Mechanisation of agriculture has caused a drop in population in rural areas that has probably evened out now. While small centres have declined, the medium and bigger regional centres have not and do not necessarily need more people. As long as people have access to these medium-sized centres, there may not be any call for reviving the smallest towns.
This is not to say more people should go to Sydney and Melbourne, on the contrary, they are full up already. Tasmania is about the only part of the country that could have more people. It has reasonable water and electricity supplies and could sustain a somewhat higher population, so it is up to the Federal Government to provide subsidies to industry to set up there to provide employment. The panic about the general depopulation of regional areas, however, has been unjustified. The population exodus in recent years is probably an indicator that these areas were overpopulated in the first place, or populated appropriately until mechanisation of agriculture reduced rural employment.
This is an area that should be cut but it is difficult to not allow spouses and dependent children to enter the country. We welcome the Government’s efforts to stop the ‘rorts’ but feel the only appropriate measure to stop a blowout is to restrict this whole stream to 30,000 annually. Anyone who cannot get in one year simply goes to the queue the following year. Family stream has traditionally been the source of chain migration and it is imperative that a cap be put on it. This too, is about the only way of curtailing costs to the welfare and health systems.
Changing the size and composition of the Migration Program:
SPA would like to see a substantial reduction in the Migration Program and a doubling of the Humanitarian Program. We would like to see the Family stream capped at 30,000 and the Skills cut to around 15,000. If five year temporary visas are offered to people where there are real shortages of skills, then the overall economic effects should be minimal. We would also say that there would be substantial savings in infrastructure costs that would offset economic benefits of the Skilled stream. There may also be savings in health costs which rise as cities become more polluted and congested. Sydney, for instance, has increasing incidence of asthma with a substantial number of children affected who require medical care and hospitalisation.
THE HUMANITARIAN PROGRAM
SPA has said in a number of letters to editor and articles that the Humanitarian Program should be doubled (see Attachment E). As said before, however, this should be at the expense of the Skills Program We appreciate that this will cost the country more financially, but there will be gains to made in other ways, not least in terms of how the rest of the world views us, and also to quell the rising backlash against current policies relating to asylum seekers. This increase in the Humanitarian Program, we believe, should go hand in hand with an increase in foreign aid that is specifically directed to poverty alleviation and to family planning. An area of priority should be the Indonesian Family Planning Program (see “The future fertility of mankind: effects on population growth and migration” by professor R V Short FAA FRS, in Reproduction, Fertility and Development Vol 13, 405-410. CSIRO)
We note the statement on page 25 of the Discussion Paper that resettlement is least desired by the majority of refugees. It is thus imperative that resources go to facilitating the restoration of peace in their home countries so they may return after temporary refuge in Australia. More aid should also go to the UNHCR and countries like Pakistan that are the countries of first asylum.
While we support in general the Government’s deterrence policies, we remain open-minded about the efficacy of the so-called Pacific Solution. We remain uncertain about whether Australia is complying with its international obligations under the 1951 Convention on Refugees by diverting people to other countries. (There seems to be conflicting legal opinion on this).We are not sure whether it has been cost-effective because of the huge backlash against it. Nevertheless, if it ultimately proves to be a deterrent to people smugglers and it does allow us to fulfil our international obligations, then we are in support of it. Given that the anticipated extra three billion people in the world will come from developing countries in the next 50 years, countries that can least afford this burden, we can only surmise that the problem of boat people is going to get worse so strategies have to be put in place now to maintain an orderly program to Australia.
In answer to the question about removing incentives for people without humanitarian claims to attempt to achieve migration outcomes, we can only say stepped-up education programs and warnings in countries of first, second and third asylum (before they reach Australia) is all you can do beyond current deterrence policies.
In terms of prevention, increased foreign aid and diplomatic efforts to maintain peace around the world are best. It should also be noted that many wars or conflicts – that which gives rise to genuine refugees – is the result of a population growing beyond the resource base required to sustain it. (While Thomas Homer-Dixon of Toronto University has done the most work on this, Robert D Kaplan’s article in the Atlantic Monthly of February 1993 remains the definitive description of the phenomenon.)
In answer to the last question posed in the Discussion Paper, we question whether there really is a need to disperse those in the Humanitarian Program to regional centres. They may be the very ones who need the support of kith and kin in the major centres.
SPA seeks a significant reduction in the Migration Program and a doubling of the Humanitarian Program. Cuts to the former can be made in the Skills stream. The Program needs to be better directed to provide only those skills which Australia cannot provide itself in the short-term, and to fill gaps, five year visas should be issued rather than permanent residency visas.
SPA seeks an end to population growth in this country and is anxious to see net overseas migration fall from the current 109,700 fall to less than 70,000, or whatever figure above which the population will continue to grow. Ideally we seek zero net migration but appreciate the difficulties of reducing the Program too quickly, particularly in the Family stream. Nevertheless, fall it must in the interests of ecological sustainability. If the population continues to grow, scientists warn that we may not be able to feed ourselves within a generation. A precautionary approach to population growth is thus imperative.
SUSTAINABLE POPULATION AUSTRALIA inc
19 February 2002.
RECOGNISE ENVIRONMENTAL CONSTRAINTS ON GROWTH
A population policy must recognise the environmental constraints of our land, according to Sustainable Population Australia (SPA).
National President of SPA, Dr Harry Cohen, said today that some of the organisers of the forthcoming Population Summit in Melbourne seemed unaware of these constraints when they called for a population of 50 million.
“The Australian Conservation Foundation and National Farmers Federation estimate the cost of repairing existing land degradation in this country is $65 billion over 10 years,” says Dr Cohen. “Add to that the potential for dryland salinity to increase to 15 million hectares. The effects on agriculture, rivers and wetlands will be catastrophic.”
Australia has already lost more mammal species than any other continent in recent times and continues to lose its biodiversity, largely through habitat destruction.
“The main drivers for biodiversity loss are population growth, personal consumption patterns and real estate development,” says Dr Cohen.
Two years ago, the Australia Institute warned that a policy of high population growth based on high immigration would see Australian greenhouse gas emissions increase twice as fast compared with a policy of zero net immigration. Australian emissions are already per capita the highest in the industrialised world.
“The Institute said at the time that those advocating 50 million for Australia clearly had not considered the impact that a high population policy would have on greenhouse gas emissions and on our international commitments,” said Dr Cohen.
“In 1995, the Australian Academy of Science working group also warned that, given the major unresolved ecological problems already created by the human population of Australia, it is essential that we adopt policies which minimise population growth,” concluded Dr Cohen.
Harry Cohen 08 9381 9729 (w) 08 9386 5268 (h)
Jenny Goldie 02 6235 5488 (w) 02 6235 9190 (h)
SUSTAINABLE POPULATION AUSTRALIA inc
21 February 2002.
END AUSTRALIA’S POPULATION GROWTH FOR GLOBAL SUSTAINABILITY
Australia must cut both population growth and consumption in accordance with the principles of sustainability, according to Sustainable Population Australia (SPA).
Recently, the United Nations and World Business Council on Sustainable Development have estimated that industrialised countries like Australia need to achieve a ten-fold reduction in consumption of resources and a 20-fold increase in resource efficiency by 2040. At the same time there must be rapid transfers of knowledge and technology to developing countries *
National Vice-President of SPA, Dr John Coulter, said today that any talk of increasing Australia’s population was irresponsible in light of the deteriorating global environment.
“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been saying for 15 years that, merely to stabilise the atmosphere, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 60 to 80 per cent,” says Dr Coulter. “Given that Australia has the highest per capita emissions, for the sake of equity, we must bring them down to eight per cent of current levels.
“This is in line with what the UN and the World Business Council want. If we increase our population, however, there will have to be an even greater reduction in consumption and in greenhouse gas emissions,” he says.
Dr Coulter believes it is vital for both first world and developing countries to stabilise their populations, the first world because of its disproportionately high levels of consumption.
“To advocate a population of 50 million for Australia is to ignore the mounting evidence that humans are causing irreversible changes to the Earth’s natural systems,” he says. “If the environment deteriorates, so too does the economy and the welfare of people. You can’t separate the three.”
Dr Coulter added that those who wanted more people in Australia for humanitarian reasons, should consider that increased foreign aid is far more cost-effective means of helping people, and should include transfer of knowledge and technology to developing countries as the UN and World Business Council recommend.
* “Focus on the Future: Opportunities for Sustainability in Western Australia.” page 3. A consultation paper for Western Australia. Government of Western Australia, December 2001. Available at www.sustainability.dpc.wa.gov.au
John Coulter 08 8388 2153
Jenny Goldie 02 6235 5488 (w) 02 6235 9190 (h)
SUSTAINABLE POPULATION AUSTRALIA inc
18 February 2002.
KEEP THE POPULATION LOW FOR GREATER WEALTH
Were greater wealth for Australians the real objective of the organisers of the forthcoming Population Summit in Melbourne, they would advocate an end to population growth immediately, according to Sustainable Population Australia (SPA).
National President of SPA, Dr Harry Cohen, said today that anyone looking at the world rankings in terms of GDP per capita, could see that most wealthy nations have stable and low populations while those with rapid growth rates are the poorest.
“Premier Bracks, Tony Berg and Jeff Kennett are calling for an increase in the population growth rate yet Australia’s current rate of 1.2 is already above that of the 15 wealthiest nations,” Dr Cohen says.
The wealthiest nations (GDP per capita), most of which are European, have population growth rates ranging from minus 0.1 to one per cent. Apart from the United States, Canada, Japan and France, all of the top 15 nations have populations lower than that of Australia. The wealthiest country, Luxembourg, has only 442,000 people.
“If Mr Bracks and his friends would look at the 15 poorest nations, their growth rates range from 2.1 in Rwanda to 5.5 in Liberia. The poorest country in the world, Sierra Leone, has a growth rate of 4.5 per cent. It is patently obvious that there is a high correlation between rapid population growth and poverty,” says Dr Cohen.
Dr Cohen says that the organisers of the Population Summit are confusing total GDP (that rises in line with population growth) and GDP per capita, the factor that mattered.
“What is more, there is a differential between different groups of people as total GDP rises. Blue collar workers tend not to benefit while property investors do. What with increased pollution and congestion that follows most population growth, however, everyone loses when it comes to quality of life,” he says.
Harry Cohen 08 9381 9729 (w) 08 9386 5268 (h)
Jenny Goldie 02 6235 5488 (w) 02 6235 9190 (h)
SUSTAINABLE POPULATION AUSTRALIA inc
20 February 2002.
WE NEED NOT FEAR AN AGEING POPULATION
Australia can cope with an ageing population without boosting fertility or immigration, according to Sustainable Population Australia (SPA).
National Vice-President of SPA, Dr John Coulter, said today that although there will be more people aged over 65 in coming years, increased aged dependency will be largely off-set by a decline in youth dependency.
“In a recent paper published by the Australia Institute, Dr Pamela Kinnear argues that fears of an ageing population are based on negative stereotypes of older people as frail, dependent and burdensome,” says Dr Coulter. “In fact, the vast majority are healthy, active and live independently in the community.”
Only seven per cent of those aged over 65 require residential care and even fewer require assistance for daily living. The Australia Institute paper claims that in 50 years, because of the decline in youth dependency as the population ages, the dependency ratio will be approximately the same as it was in the 1970s.
Other studies corroborate what Kinnear has found. John M Legge, writing in the Summer issue of “Dissent”, says an ageing population has less dependency than a young, growing population. If people stay economically active into their sixties or longer, the dependency ratio will fall even further, according to Legge.
Dr Coulter says that Professor Ian McDonald of Melbourne University and Ross Guest of Griffith University, have found that low fertility will not reduce future living standards, indeed, it will slightly increase them. Their findings will be published in the March 2002 issue of Australian Economic Review.
“Using an economic model rather than purely demographic data such as numbers of old people per worker, their findings contradict current propaganda that without a growing population our economy will stagnate,” says Dr Coulter. “They found, in fact, simplistic interpretations of demographic data could be quite misleading.
“McDonald and Guest found that the added costs of an ageing population were more than off-set by anticipated growth in labour productivity and smaller investment expenditures when employment growth is smaller.
John Coulter 08 8388 2153
Jenny Goldie 02 6235 5488 (w)
NEW STUDY ON AGEING
The Australia Institute has recently published a paper by Dr Pamela Kinnear entitled “Population Crisis: Crisis or Transition?” She argues that, despite a significant proportion of older people in the population, the future may not be as daunting as it seems.
Kinnear says that fears about an ageing population are based negative stereotypes of older people, as frail, dependent and burdensome. In fact, she says, the vast majority are healthy and active and live independently in the community. Only seven per cent of those aged over 65 require residential care and even fewer require public assistance for daily living. Indeed, she says, most older people give more than they take, contributing to adult children and their families and participating in voluntary activities.
Research indicates that because of a decline in youth dependency as the population ages, in 50 years the dependency ration will be approximately the same as it was in the 1970s. While governments meet more of the costs of the aged than for the young, nevertheless, Kinnear says that if resources are to be distributed properly to those who require support, then account needs to be taken of the total private and public costs of caring for dependents.
While it seems inevitable that health costs increase as the population ages, Kinnear says that health care costs are highest in the few years prior to death, rather than extended over a longer life span. In fact, ageing contributes only a small amount to rising health costs. Instead, rising costs are the result of the expansion of medical technology, rising consumer demand and escalating prices.
According to the paper, Australia is well-placed to cope with the future pressure on pensions. The non-contributory flat-rate and means-tested system in place will grow from 3% to only 4.5% by 2040.This is well within manageable limits and far below that of other OECD countries, Kinnear says.
She also says that increased immigration is a very ineffective means of slowing population ageing. Increasing fertility is a more efficient means of off-setting ageing, but policies are required to support the combination of motherhood and paid employment.
Far from being a threat, Kinnear concludes, Australia’s population ageing is quite manageable and is an opportunity to ensure decent living standards for all.
To obtain a copy of the paper, contact The Australia Institute: Tel: 02 6249 6221, fax 02 6249 6448 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
DAMAGED ENVIRONMENT DEMANDS WE CUT OUR POPULATION
by Jenny Goldie
(This article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 17, 2002.)
As more and more asylum seekers press on our shores, we need to know how many people this country can sustain. Social and economic considerations have dominated the debate but ultimately it is an environmental matter. No nation should grow beyond its resource limits.
Tony Berg, focusing primarily on the economic, calls for an increased population through much higher immigration.
It is a familiar cry from the business lobby and smacks of vested interest. More people means pressure to keep wages low. It also means spiralling real estate prices that benefit existing property owners but not the young or poor trying to break into the market.
A bigger population, however, whether derived from natural increase or from immigration, is not necessarily in the interests of the country as a whole. A greater GDP does not always translate into more wealth per capita, and even when it does occur, this income may have to be directed into higher rentals or mortgage repayments. In addition, any income gain, particularly in our major cities, is offset by loss of quality of life in the form of increased noise, pollution and congestion.
Over a million Australians are currently either unemployed or under-employed. To put another 84,000 every year into this labour pool as Mr Berg suggests is to increase competition for scarce jobs. Surely we must absorb our own into the workforce before bringing in more.
This is not to say that the humanitarian component of our immigration program should not be increased from its current 12,000. With so many millions in the world in need of refuge we must double or even triple that number, but only within a reduced immigration program overall.
By all means, bring in skilled workers while our own educational institutions catch up, but give the skilled five year working visas, not permanent residency. And let us refrain from poaching graduates from poor countries who have trained here. Surely their own nations need them more.
How many people we bring in through immigration, however, whatever the category, must be set in the context of how many people this country can sustain. For that we must look at our resources. Those who watch the ABC weather report will see from the map that Australia is not a green continent, it is largely arid. Its soils are poor and the weather erratic, and becoming more so as climate change bites.
Dryland salinity is threatening to wipe out vast swathes of Australian farmland if nothing is done. Most rivers in the southern part of the continent are degraded and increasingly salinised. The River Murray will be undrinkable for Adelaide residents 40 per cent of the time within a mere 20 years.
Despite not wanting one, Immigration Minister Ruddock is letting immigration policy be a de facto population policy. If current trends continue, we will have 27 million people and still be growing by mid-century. Last year, net migration was 107,500. With annual natural increase around 120,000, this means we are growing by a million every four to five years.
Australia’s population can only grow within its ecological limits. Unfortunately, with our population of 19.4 million and at our current standard of living we are not living sustainably. We know this because all the environmental indicators, soil, water, forests, biodiversity, and atmosphere, are declining.
Thus, we must allow our population to stabilise as soon as practicable through lower immigration and being content with our current fertility of an average of 1.7 children per couple. Even demographer Professor Peter McDonald has said publicly that he is not worried by this figure. It is only the European levels of 1.2 and 1.3 that lead to “hyper-ageing” that concern him.
Once we have achieved stabilisation, we should let our numbers slowly decrease until we come within the bounds of ecological sustainability, that is, when all environmental indicators have recovered. Indeed, it will not be unusual. Many developed countries in Europe are allowing their populations to contract to more comfortable levels.
Only a generation ago, in 1970, Australia’s population was 12.6 million. Standard of living was good, the quality of life high. We need not be afraid of returning to such a time.