Reflecting on the population debate

                                                                              Doug Cocks

(Published in Australian Mosaic, the magazine of the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia
 Issue 7 Number 3, pp 5-8)


As with the Palestinians and the Israelis, deeply mired in tit-for-tat conflict, there may be no way of elevating the population-immigration debate in Australia from arm-wrestling to dialogue.  A crisis or an externally imposed shock of some sort could perhaps re-orient the debate, but not necessarily for the better.

I developed a negative view of the politics of population policy during the six months of 1994 I spent on secondment from CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) to the House of Representatives Long Term Strategies Committee chaired by Barry Jones.  I wrote a draft report for that Committee’s inquiry into 'Australia's population carrying capacity' (the Jones Inquiry) and was less than impressed by the Committee’s unwillingness to make firm recommendations.  And I have an equally negative view of the way in which population policy has been and is debated in public fora in Australia.  To wit, partisan groups aggressively present one-sided arguments for policy positions which, directly or indirectly, stand to favour their own interests.  Fancy that.

Where have we been?

Historically, the population debate in Australia has really been two debates; one about annual immigration numbers and the other about total population levels.

The central question in the immigration debate concerns the number of people to be granted permanent resident visas each year. The central question in the population debate is whether Australia should set itself a target population level and target rate of population change to be achieved by some future date and, if so, what should that date, rate and size be?

The link between these two questions is that answering one implies an answer, or at least a fairly narrow range of answers, to the other. Thus, given a prediction of net immigration intakes every year till (say) 2050, and assuming no changes in the demographic composition of that intake and the fertility-mortality parameters of the resident population, it should be possible to predict, moderately well, the size of the Australian population and the rate at which it would be changing in every year up till 2050.

Conversely, given a target for the size and rate of change of the Australian population at some future date, it should be possible to ascertain whether that target could be achieved by adjusting the migrant intake in each of the intervening years and, if so what the successful sequence or sequences of annual targets would need to be.

At least until fairly recently, opinion polls consistently showed the Australian public to be strongly (around 70 per cent) in favour of low immigration and hence, by implication, in favour of a population of much the present size. Indeed, poll evidence shows the percentage favouring a reduced migrant intake as increasing from 16 per cent in 1961 to 73 per cent in 1991.  However, despite some difficulties in making the comparison, the percentage currently favouring reduced immigration is certainly much lower and the percentage favouring increased migration modestly higher.  Part of that switch probably reflects a confounding of the immigration and refugee issues. In one recent poll, 15 per cent said they preferred migrants to be refugees, compared to 10 per cent a decade earlier.  Another part explanation might be falling unemployment levels.

Notwithstanding such community views and several government inquiries into developing a population policy,  no recent Australian government has taken an explicit position on how many immigrants will be admitted in future years, nor established any formal process for setting immigration targets for one year ahead, let alone decades ahead. Similarly, the government has no position on size and rate of change of population in the longer term.  In short, Australia does not have an explicit population policy.

It was in protest against government timidity and dishonest public ‘debate’ that I wrote People Policy: Australia's Population Choices (UNSW Press) in 1996.  In that book I concluded that a sensible population policy for Australia would be to aim at stabilising the population within a generation or so and that this was quite feasible if net immigration of something below about 50 000 a year (say 100 000 migrants in gross terms) could be maintained.  Population would then more-or-less stabilise somewhere between 19 and 23 million (depending on actual immigration) sometime before 2050.   To get to that conclusion I examined, as disinterestedly, as honestly, as I could all the environmental, economic and social arguments I could find both for and against a much larger population.  I did have a prior predisposition in favour of a stable population but I bent over backwards to discount my own prejiduces (pre-judgements).

Now it is 2004.  Very little has changed in ten years.  It is true that migrant intakes have crept up and attitudes towards ‘legitimate’ migration have softened somewhat even as attitudes towards asylum seekers have (been) hardened.  But the same arguments continue to be trotted out by the same protagonists.  I have been told by people on both sides that the only way to ‘win’ is to be prepared to go round and round the block, shouting potted messages louder than your opponents. Eventually, public opinion will decisively tip one way or the other and policy will follow.  It was when I realised I was not going to change this grotesque parody of policy debate with my ever-so-reasonable writings that I turned my research interests elsewhere.  

It may be of course that people genuinely believe that the world is black and white, not grey; and that the world evolves along a linear path of causes and effects, not round complex cycles of positive and negative feedbacks (so-called vicious and virtuous circles).  But they are wrong.  In a grey and complex world, the longer-term results of any policy are largely unpredictable and in the shorter term there will be both winners and losers.


A suggestion

Still, let me be more cheerful and make a suggestion which, if it worked, could vastly improve the quality of the population-immigration debate, even lift it to the level of a dialogue where participants genuinely listen to and respond to each other. 

It goes like this.  FECCA, in collaboration with several university departments of demography or population studies, sets up a website focused on the question of what Australia's population-immigration policy should be.  Various stakeholder groups, such as environment and business groups, are invited to contribute to an online discussion, provided they conform to certain guidelines, they must:

·        Explain their policy agenda

·        Explain how their policy agenda promotes their own interests.

·        Explain what they understand by ‘the public interest’ in the context of population-immigration policy and how their agenda would promote the public interest

·        Identify who would ‘win’ and who would ‘lose’ under their policy agenda

·        Suggest how losers might be compensated

·        Be willing to respond explicitly to subsequent critiques of their arguments (no arm waving, no bluster)

·        Be willing to explain their understanding of what other stakeholders are trying to say and to keep explaining until those others agree that it is a fair statement of what they are arguing (this is called ‘reflection’ amongst people who understand what dialogue is).

Why ever would stakeholders participate in such a process?  The answer, in a word, is credibility.  Or perhaps the word is legitimacy?  If a group is not willing to have its ideas put under the spotlight, why would we waste time listening to them?  I am reminded of those talkback programs where the host says ‘X was invited to come on air but a spokesperson was not available.’  Usually that is code for ‘We don’t want to be questioned.’ and X’s credibility suffers.  Unlike a radio program which is ephemeral, there is a readily accessible record of web discussions.

But there is more to the web-dialogue idea than clarifying, for the benefit of the public, the various stakeholders’ arguments for and against particular policy suggestions.  One of the principles of conflict resolution is that when those in conflict develop a genuine respect for each other through structured dialogue, and find that the other has underlying needs similar to their own, resolution tends to emerge spontaneously. 

In talking about underlying needs, it is useful to remember that immigration and population targets are instrumental and not intrinsic values.  That is, these numbers do not matter in themselves, only for the trains of consequences they trigger.   For instance, population growth is often lauded for promoting economic growth but economic growth is just as much an instrumental value as population growth (or decline).  If all parties could agree on one or more intrinsic national goals, such as high quality of life for most Australians (my favourite), then the debate becomes one about the best instruments (population growth? economic growth?) for reaching the things that intrinsically matter.  Alternatively, if such agreement does not come easily, debate about what does intrinsically matter to the nation is an important pre-requisite for orienting policy debates in all areas.  It is currently fashionable to sneer at such ‘navel gazing’ about our identity but remember, dear reader, if you don’t know where you’re going, it doesn’t matter which bus you catch!!

In the end, personal responsibility

While the idea of a web dialogue between stakeholders is very attractive, it is not a process which could ever deliver the ‘correct’ population-immigration policies.  It is not possible to 'prove' that (say) a population of 19 million in 2045 would be better than a population of 37 million, or vice versa.  Proof is possible only in closed mathematical and logical systems of inference from undisputed assumptions.

So how do people become convinced that one policy is better than another, eg that a high population would be better for Australia than a low population?  My understanding is that open-minded people faced with making a choice between options for action, when each option has a range of arguments for or against, intuitively use a 'weight of evidence' approach to the 'proving' task.  This is a process which can be thought of as piling argument after argument on either the 'large population' or the 'small population' pan of a balance.  At some point the balance will tip to one side or the other.  The process has much in common with a jury reaching a degree of conviction that, beyond reasonable doubt, the accused is guilty.

Each person, quite subjectively, values each argument as carrying much or little weight.  For example, economists particularly value economic arguments irrespective of which 'pan' they fall into; ditto for environmentalists, demographers etc.  People who have a strong private interest in a particular choice have to try even harder to recognise and discount their biases.  Some people's balances will tip after only one or two arguments have been loaded.  Others' balances might never tip; these are the true agnostics.  Prejudiced people are those who have prejudged the arguments and come equipped with a 'pre-tipped' balance.  Not all arguments are positive; sometimes they take the form of unloading a piece of received wisdom from its pan. 

A web dialogue would be invaluable for producing nuggets of evidence in a comprehensive way but, in the end, it is up to each individual to weigh whatever evidence is available, piece by piece, and come to their own thoughtful, honest conclusion about population-immigration policy.  The greater the number of Australians who are prepared to do that, the better our prospects, I would like to think, of ending up with good policy.


Doug Cocks is a Canberra-based human ecologist and author.  He is a Special Research Fellow in the CSIRO Division of Sustainable Ecosystems.  See