Australia: How big?

Notes for a Science Week panel discussion Aug 20 2010

I am probably here this evening because in 1996 I wrote a book called People Policy:  Australia's Population Choices.  If my publishers had allowed it I would have called it People Policy: The Case for Stabilising Australia's Population.

 It is a book in which I tried to assemble, comprehensively and fair-mindedly, the arguments for and against two feasible population scenarios, testing them against the criterion of their quality of life implications for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren:

·        Doubling the population every few generations, which is what happens, and has historically happened in Australia, if population grows between one and two per cent a year 

·        Stabilising the population within a generation or so.  At the time of writing, the population was about 18 million and the calculations showed that if net immigration could be held below 50 000 a year then one might anticipate that, around 2040, the population might stabilise for a while at around 23 million.  That horse has long bolted.

I canvassed five sorts of benefit-disbenefit arguments---economic, social, environmental, natural resources and international---which I don’t have time to repeat here.  To assuage your disappointment I photocopied a few pages of book-extracts which some of you might like to pick up later.

Very briefly, I came to the conclusion that a much larger population would have no obvious benefits but, quite plausibly, could have some pretty nasty disbenefits.  Conversely, stabilising the population within a generation or so would, plausibly, help us avoid some of those disbenefits and, more positively, allow us to switch our energies from coping with, struggling to manage, the disbenefits of strong growth to focussing on how to build a progressive, civilised society.

It is the word coping which brings me to tonight’s discussion---Australia: How big?  What are the challenges raised by population increase in Australia? And what should the public policy response be? How big can we get? 

We can thank Kevin Rudd for that title.  There I was, slumbering away for years after concluding that the population debate was unwinnable, when Kerry O’Brien asked Mr Rudd what he thought of the Intergenerational Report’s projection of a population of 36 million in Australia 2050.  Rudd’s reply is now famous. , "Well…Kerry, let me just say: I actually believe in a big Australia. I make no apology for that. I actually think it's good news that our population is growing.”  He went on to give one vacuous reason for his belief---that a big Australia would be good for our security. That was the beginning of the end for Kevin, not the ETS backdown.  He certainly rattled my cage. I was cranky enough to write an opinion piece for the Financial Review entitled “The Honeymoon is Over.”  The subbies turned that into “PM must face real posers on population.”

One poser I had for Rudd was this.  As a result of growing the population rapidly, rather than stabilising it, will quality of life improve more or less rapidly for the average Australian?  Are there ways in which quality of life could actually fall under a 60 percent increase in population?  In particular Mr Rudd, could you comment on urban water quality and quantity, noise, carbon and other pollution, biodiversity losses, wilderness losses, urban sprawl, housing affordability, sunlight security, traffic congestion, public transport, crime rates, food security, oil security and, given that Australians don’t want this scenario, social unrest?  

And I am cranky tonight too.  The tacit premise behind tonight’s discussion, if I can doff my hat to Alliance Francaise, is that a big Australia is a fait accompli a lay-down misere, and the task is to work out how to best cope with that reality.  If I can draw a parallel with the climate change debate, the assumption is that mitigation is just too hard so let’s put all our energies into adaptation.  I’m all for coping with reality, but let’s make sure we recognise all our policy options as we puzzle out how to achieve high quality of life for our children and grandchildren.