By Michael Bayliss, communications manager for Sustainable Population Australia and Co-founder of Population, Permaculture and Planning.
THE OUTER GROWTH SUBURBS of Australian capital cities are among the most rapidly growing areas of the OECD. Many growth corridors struggle with a lack of access to infrastructure and essential services as suburban sprawl relentlessly marches outwards.
While we can all agree that this is a huge concern, is this an infrastructure issue, a population problem or both? The community remains divided.
Many claim this is simply a lack of expenditure on infrastructure and that population and migration are givens that should never be questioned.
Others call for a revision of population policy, which remains a controversial position. Recently, Labor MP Kristina Keneally called for a temporary freeze in migration, attracting a dichotomy of support and condemnation.
One of the shortcomings in regard to the migration debate is that migrants themselves are so often left out from discussion. So often, assumptions are made on their behalf without proper consultation or platform to hear their actual views.
Arnav is a vocal advocate for both local residents and the Indian migrant community in the area. He is dedicated to his advocacy in improving the living standards of local residents and has run for state parliament on the issue.
Arnav is proud of his cultural background and the legacy and success of the Indian community in Melbourne:
“Indian culture is pretty much one of the most accommodating cultures in the world. We are diverse to the core and we coexist with anyone and everyone.”
Since moving to Melbourne as an international student 19 years ago, Arnav decided to call Melbourne home because of the people and the lifestyle.
However, after moving from Footscray to the outer suburb of Tarneit to be closer to family and community, Arnav observed some major problems:
“When I moved into Tarneit there was minimal infrastructure in place. This was insufficient to cater for our rate of growth.”
The suburb of Tarneit is within the local government area of Wyndham council in Melbourne’s far west. This is one of the fastest-growing regions in Australia, with an annual population growth rate of 6.28%. To put into perspective, Wyndham more than doubled in size from its 2006 population of 115,161 to 270,487 in 2019 — in just under 13 years.
We have seen the population of Tarneit double in the last six years and it will double again in another six. The infrastructure won’t match up with the needs of the residents living in the area.
The most pressing issue in Tarneit – people first and infrastructure later – this concept will not work for us.
Without a significant injection in infrastructure at all levels of government, Arnav is cautionary in regard to Tarneit’s future:
“I can really see Tarneit becoming a modern slum in the next decade if the infrastructure issues are not addressed now.
Unfortunately, funding is not easy to get especially when you are in a safe Labor seat.”
When asked about the most pressing day-to-day issues that affect his community, Arnav believes that travel and transport are the biggest concern for residents at present:
“The Tarneit station car park is usually full by 7:30 in the morning and people or residents have got very little option but to park at spots where they risk heavy fines.
Residents often complain of being packed like sardines and especially when the trains run with reduced carriages it adds to the chaos.”
Arnav shared that the lack of public transport in the area is a particular struggle for young families, who are the largest demographic living in Tarneit. This is due to the daily juggle of dropping children off to school and daycare before starting a lengthy daily commute to work that can often take up to two hours. There is also a particular strain on the Indian community who live with extended families, such as elders who rely on their family for transport.
Arnav suggests there is not much reprieve for those who drive to work as:
“Roads are congested to the core.”
Road infrastructure in Melbourne’s west has been a costly exercise that has ultimately done little to mitigate the growth pains. For example, the Melbourne Metro Tunnel project is forecast to increase the passenger-carrying capacity by 27% by 2027. However, the number of passengers accessing Tarneit train station rose by 17% in the past year alone.
Furthermore, $1.8 billion of Western Roads Upgrade was announced in 2016 to duplicate roads in the area to be completed in 2022. Unfortunately, by 2020, Tarneit’s population has already doubled. The cost of providing infrastructure is prohibitively expensive when a population in an area is growing this rapidly.
Tarneit’s health sector infrastructure is also struggling, says Arnav:
“Werribee Mercy, our only local hospital, has capacity to manage 33% of the health needs of the community. Imagine what it would be when Tarneit’s population doubles in under a decade.”
Arnav also shared concerns regarding education infrastructure:
“Housing estates in the area are built before primary and secondary schools are put in the place. Due to this, existing schools are overcrowded.”
To meet existing and projected demand, Tarneit will need an additional three primary schools and one secondary school within three years. Arnav believes that this demand is higher than the rate in which new schools are being built.
The question remains — is this an issue of lack of infrastructure funding or an issue of population policy?
From Arnav’s perspective, it is a bit of both:
“I think it should be quality over quantity when it comes to migration, striking the right balance by increasing local jobs focusing on local skilled workers.”
In the year 2019, international arrivals in Australia were 534,100, with skilled and economic migration the largest contributors to our population growth. As a higher population tends to boost aggregate GDP, this has provided an illusion of growth since the Howard era, even as per capita wellbeing indicators have been stagnating.
With the downturn of the post-COVID-19 economy and the surge in unemployment, some leaders such as Kristina Keneally have called for a revision to migration policy.
In Arnav’s own observation:
“Mostly what I felt over the last few years is we are competing against each other. Whether it’s the skilled migrant versus a local resident versus an international student — just maybe because of sheer numbers.”
Arnav shared that his views are shared by many in the Indian migrant community in Tarneit. It is interesting that these observations appear more nuanced and balanced than the rhetoric from many urban planners, economists and politicians when it comes to managing growth.
We are in the midst of late-stage capitalism, characterised by a stagnating economy, resource depletion, astronomical infrastructure costs and high unemployment. Therefore, it is essential that all voices and perspectives are put to the table. In doing so, we may just discover that revising our population policy may not be as controversial as some believe it to be.
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