22 years on and we’re still waiting for a population policy

By Leith van Onselen

Back in 1994, when Australia’s population was just under 18 million, the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) convened a symposium on a topic of scientific interest: the future population of Australia.

The analysis was extended to Australia’s resources of water, minerals and arable land, and the interactions between present lifestyle and present environmental damage, and between future expectations and the costs of increasing population.

Below are some key extracts from the Joint Statement of the Population Working Party 2040 (April 1994):

Historically, Australian governments have not developed policies to manage Australia’s population. Concerns for national security and economic growth have led to policies of population growth, but the question of the optimal population of the continent has not been a factor in those policies…

Economic analyses offer a range of views on the relation between population and prosperity. A conservative summary of these views is that population growth would be neutral in its impact on the economic welfare of families and individuals…

Demographic analysis from reasonable assumptions concerning the major determinants of population growth (fertility, mortality, immigration) shows that a population policy is of major importance. In the lifetime of our children, thus by the mid-21 st century, Australia’s population could be made as high as 37 million (and still growing), or kept as low as 23 million (and be stationary), by community decisions and governmental policy.

Australia’s land mass, though large, is less rich than other continents in many biologically important elements. As a consequence, its ecosystems are relatively fragile, and human impact on the environment is particularly severe…

If our population reaches the high end of the feasible range (37 million), the quality of life of all Australians will be lowered by the degradation of water, soil, energy and biological resources. Cities such as Sydney and Melbourne will double or triple in size, multiplying their current infrastructure problems and their impact on the surrounding regions of the continent. Alternatively, new cities of their present size and impact will have to be sited, built and serviced. Moreover, this large population would continue to grow for decades after 2040, and the quality of Australian life would continue to fall.

It is therefore essential that the issue of the continent’s population become part of national debates over our future. From such debates, the Federal Government must develop a policy on population, which should include the issue of population size.

In our view, the quality of all aspects of our children’s lives will be maximised if the population of Australia by the mid-21st Century is kept to the low, stable end of the achievable range, i.e. to approximately 23 million.

Fast forward 22 years and Australia’s population has already breached 24 million, thus exceeding the AAS’ recommended maximum.

Worse, the Intergenerational Report projects that Australia’s population will hit around 40 million by 2055:

ScreenHunter_15116 Sep. 26 15.29

Driven by annual population growth that is nearly twice as high as the post-war average, mostly via immigration:

ScreenHunter_15117 Sep. 26 15.30

Moreover, the lion’s share of this growth will occur in NSW (read Sydney) and VIC (read Melbourne), which are already straining:

ScreenHunter_15119 Sep. 26 16.01
ScreenHunter_15118 Sep. 26 16.01

Traffic congestion, lack of public transport, diminished access to open space, more limited availability of government services, and environmental degradation are all legitimate concerns of Australian residents.

These are all matters for public debate on which Australians have a right to an informed say. And yet 22 years after the AAS’ report, we are still waiting for a national population debate and strategy.

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Unconventional Economist
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  1. If one looks at the first two graphs provided, it is hard to think that there was no “population policy”.
    Observe big steps in late 40’s and early 2000’s
    Unless suddenly the whole nation decided to have Fibonacci sequence procreation, this was engineered – immigrants cannot simply decide to come here and approve their applications.
    To me, this *is* a form of a policy.
    Not the one desperately needed and which the article is calling for.

      • Was late.
        I meant the same, just missed to write it.
        A policy deliberately kept away from public scrutiny.

      • I thought that Peter Costello and John Howard were actually pretty up-front about their population policy, which is essentially the policy we’ve got today.

      • Really?

        They responded to the ABS’s 2003 population projection which showed a possibility of the Australian population peaking in 2065 by inventing the baby bonus, ramping up immigration, and, importantly, giving a series of speeches and interviews claiming it would be a disaster if that projection came to pass.
        Costello, especially, has been totally clear and consistent that his view is that population growth, as one of the notorious three Ps is essential for prosperity.

      • As far as I can make out, the new population policy appears to be to put some people in Parliament which loudly state offensive views on migrants, so any sensible immigration debate can be delayed for at least another 6 years. So we have lots of soul searching in Australia about why Australians would now vote for such candidates and the MSM finding a relatively small number of their supporters to megaphone all the while the population ponzi, which helps fuel housing price inflation, continues to roll on unabated…

  2. The UN has our population growth rate @ 1.57% – the highest of any Western country, double NZ, and 10 times that of Austria.
    Djenka is correct, our immigration program is the de-facto Population Policy that has never been publicly debated.
    A plebiscite on rate of population growth would be more useful.

    Meanwhile, Dick Smith is still taking it to Team Fools, a story 6 years in the making:
    “I have therefore decided on a special $5,000 prize for the first young person under the age of thirty who can get definitive coverage of the Wilberforce Award in the Murdoch press, including the fact that you can’t have constant growth of the use of resources and energy in a finite world.”

  3. Traffic congestion, lack of public transport, diminished access to open space, more limited availability of government services, and environmental degradation are all legitimate concerns of Australian residents.””

    One more MIGHT be our living standard as measured in pure monetary terms as the model, of selling national assets to foreigners to cover our increased consumption, comes to its inevitable end.

  4. Leith, you keep calling for a population policy, yet you consistently ignore the We Will Decide proposal which should form the major part of such a policy. See http://www.wewilldecide.info.

    My proposal would end the top-down approach where the Government imposes growth on areas which don’t necessarily want it, replacing it with a bottom-up approach where our own decisions about population growth in our local areas would be aggregated to determine the major part of our migration intake. In most cities, people would opt for no more growth.

    Why do you not even raise this for your readers to consider, even if only to explain why you don’t agree with it (if that in fact is your view)? I still have no idea what your ideal policy would comprise, and how it would be implemented. I suppose I should read more of what you write, but I feel disinclined to do so when my own well-thought out proposal is ignored.

    • Phil, I don’t think using a bottom up approach is a very good idea when you see business people renting out their properties to people from their original country at 10 people to a room. And because of the desperate situation many of these migrants come from they are prepared to put up with this. Its not to hard to imagine what would happen if a group of like minded business people took control of the council in a local area. In fact you can already start to see this happening…

      • Dear Notsofast,
        I agree developers have taken control of many local councils. The We Will Decide policy however takes some controls back from councils and gives them to the people. If a local area votes to keep the population stable, then the policy would prevent councils from approving developments likely to cause the population to increase. You have to read the detail of the policy to see how this would work.

        There are fewer landlords than tenants. If 10 people are crammed into the flat next door, I think the others in that block will probably support lowering the population in their area. Also, the 10 crammed in are likely to be short term visa holders who are less likely to bother contributing to the decision about an area to which they have no real commitment. Participation in the decision will be voluntary.

        There will be some areas where the results won’t suit you and me. That is inevitable, given that We Will Decide is really a mechanism for making a decision, rather than a policy advocating a particular decision. Ultimately in a democracy the people should decide. Local population is an issue on which locals are better equipped to decide than our representatives, even when those reps are not unduly influenced by the developer lobby.

        By the way, although it’s not part of We Will Decide, or otherwise written down yet, I would favour additional means of limiting the power of business groups such as developers. We should have a Democracy Act, under which (among other things) nominations to hold public office will be treated as an invitation to law enforcement officers to audit the nominee’s compliance with existing laws. So developers nominating for councils would face a tax audit, as would major political donors. One day I’ll work that idea into a more detailed proposal.

    • “Leith, you keep calling for a population policy, yet you consistently ignore the We Will Decide proposal…”

      This is the first time I have seen your proposal, Philip. So how could I have “consistently ignored” it?

      I will check our proposal out later. But on the face of it, it looks interesting.

      What I want is a national debate and policy crafted with community consultation. Not the current approach of ramming high levels of immigration down our throats without our consent, just because “bigger is better”.

      • Leith, I did send you an email about We Will Decide in April last year, and my recollection is that prior to that I’d commented a couple of times on the Macrobusiness site and drawn attention to it. So I thought you were ignoring it. If I’m wrong, that’s great!

        I also want to stop the Government forcing higher population densities on us. The trigger for me developing the proposal was a local dispute here in Western Sydney in 2011 where we locals objected to demolishing single storey homes for 5 storey flats. We lost of course, and now the home units are being built, with the walls about 2 metres from the boundaries all the way around.

        Under my plan, we would have local community consultations before each census, at which time we’d all decide whether to allow a higher population in our area or not. We must give people a sense of regaining some control over their areas if we are to defeat One Nation and similar groups.

      • Phil,
        I think what is needed is a presumption against increased density housing unless it is approved by both a local government body and a state level body. Too often you see a state or city level body over riding a local councils wishes in a head long rush for increased density where you see large scale developments taking place in locations without adequate consideration of amenity or of infrastructure. I agree with the argument that we need increased density in our cities but it needs to be done near locations where there is adequate infrastructure, particularly transport infrastructure. And as I see it there is one thing much worse than increasing our urban sprawl and that is urban density done badly (which currently it is).

      • We must give people a sense of regaining some control over their areas if we are to defeat One Nation and similar groups.
        That’s a bizarre comment to make.
        Surely if you want more democracy and more control of immigration levels then One Nation would be your friend. You should be trying to defeat the Liberal Party, the Labor Party, The Greens and similar groups.

    • What will happen is that on a local level, nobody will vote for higher density. So nothing that facilitates “more people” will happen.

      However, people will still migrate to certain areas. But since nothing can be done to accommodate those extra people (because the locals have voted to discourage growth), the result will be higher densities, more congestion and more expensive housing.

      • A couple of points in reply.
        Some areas, particularly in the country, are likely to opt for higher densities. So there will be a signal which areas are open for development, and development will tend to go where it’s wanted.
        People will only “migrate to certain areas” to the extent to which there is vacant accommodation there, or vacant lots available for development which will allow the population to grow up to the local limit. There will be no opportunity for them to migrate there at levels above that set by the people. And there will be no pressure from immigration to do so, because most of the intake will have been set by reference to preferences of people concerning their local areas.
        The detail of the proposal allows more flexibility than I can explain in these brief comments. For example, the local decision will set a legal limit in predominantly residential areas, with the decision in predominantly commercial and rural areas being treated as a guide only.

      • I concede a few areas might vote for higher population. But they will be few and far between.

        People go where jobs are. In your plan, what happens if some community has voted for fewer people, but local industry goes gangbusters and attracts people looking for work ?

  5. I agree with the argument that we need increased density in our cities but it needs to be done near locations where there is adequate infrastructure, particularly transport infrastructure.

    This sounds good in theory and had me fooled for a while back in the 1990’s. I’ve since realised the error.
    The first problem is that in 1990 transport infrastructure was barely adequate for the exising density. In Sydney the average commute of a 1st home buyer was already 1hr each way.

    Even if you find an area with wonderful infrastructure (for example near a railway line) and decide to build 300 apartments within walking distance. This is great for people who want to walk to the station, wait for a train and travel (perhaps standing) to another area which also has wonderful infrastructure (for example a CBD office).
    What then happens when these citizens are visited by friends who don’t live a short walk from wonderful infrastructure (eg a railway station), or wish to buy a sack of rice or maybe go to a park?
    What happens is that the roads jam up in nearby and not-so-nearby places, the streets overfill with parked cars, and the park is worn threadbare.

    • Infrastructure cannot be planned for or provided without first asking how many people is the infrastructure designed to serve. Determining population size and density is therefore the first decision to be made about an area.

      Logically, if we don’t decide how many people we want in our local areas, someone from outside our area decides. That is what is wrong with the present arrangement. Even if we start with presumptions either in favour or against higher densities, that involves imposing (or at least guiding) decisions on areas other than our own. Yet it is the locals who know local conditions best, and who are most affected by any changes. So I think densities are best determined at the local level, by the people who live in an area and have some commitment to it. (We Will Decide allows decisions on an area intended to be roughly comparable to that within sight and sound of where you live).

      Once densities are decided in this way, then the authorities would have a firm basis on which to plan infrastructure. Adoption of We Will Decide would probably lead to the cancellation of many contentious projects which are predicated on a continuation of high populatino growth from high immigration. In Sydney, we could say goodbye to the 2nd airport and WestConnex, and spend available funds on providing better for those areas which already have inadequate facilities relative to their population.

  6. Thank you for publishing this. Please keep hammering it. Please.
    I read this in the the 90’s probably in New Scientist.
    It plain and simple. WE are Full UP. Hanson to my knowledge is the only pollie to notice this and take the ridicule.
    I tried phoning the PM’s office years go.. they had never heard of it.