( A slightly edited version of this piece was published in The Australian of Feb 23 1999 as 'Labor's intake plan based on false premises')


Last Friday's (19/2) Australian reported statements from Labor leader Kim Beazley and immigration spokesperson Con Sciacca declaiming a bold new immigration policy for the party---120 000 immigrants a year with an increased emphasis on skilled migrants, although not at the expense of the family reunion quota. As it happens, that's not such a big jump from last year's net migration figure of 106 000 to June 30, a figure boosted well above the government's declared 80 000 target by a rush of visa-exempt New Zealanders.


In fact these announcements are not all that surprising. Like their opponents, Labor avoided the immigration question during the 1998 election but, late last year, Mr Beazley said that Labor would develop a population policy covering long-term population aspirations, population distribution and tourism, as well as immigration, the key determinant of long-term numbers in a country where couples are not replacing themselves. He hinted then that he favoured a strong migration program as part of such a policy but that nothing could be firmed up till the hard yards of policy development had been ground out.


The idea of a population policy springs from the 1994 Jones report in which a parliamentary committee on 'Australia's carrying capacity' chaired by Barry Jones disappointed many with its wishy-washy recommendations. One was that the community should debate the pros and cons of having a large, medium or small population---the very topic on which many hoped the committee would show leadership. The exercise had every appearance of a stalling tactic from a government that had brazenly defied public opinion on immigration for most of its dozen years in office.


Well, still no population policy, still no change in public opinion, but Labor is now openly declaring that increased migration is in the national interest. And the Liberals are making encouraging little snuffles in the background. So, what is happening?


Perhaps the arguments for and against the much larger Australian population that this policy would produce have changed recently? Well, they haven't really although Bruce Chapman at ANU has done some research suggesting that the economic effects of immigration might be a little more positive than the more-or-less neutral effects suggested by much previous work. Beazley and Sciacca did not draw on this though. They managed to roll out a vintage set of discredited one-liners that left me shaking my head.


No Bomber, we do not need more people to defend the country. We need sophisticated weapons. No defence white paper of recent decades even mentions population. Even if bodies did matter, a tripling or more of defence personnel would still be insignificant in a region where millions are under arms.


No guys, a much larger migrant intake will not noticeably slow the ageing of the Australian population. Ask any qualified demographer, or, better still, stop wilfully forgetting that you have been told this on many occasions.


Beazley and Sciacca concede that bigger populations stand to impose even more congestion and other strains on the places where migrants go, namely the big cities. Bob Carr thinks that is a powerful argument against high migration. But he doesn't have to worry on Sydney's behalf because his Labor colleagues are selling higher migration as a way of boosting the flagging regions. They will be looking for 'innovative ways' of diverting migrants from Sydbourne to Tasmania and rural Victoria. And if they can find how to keep people in places where there are no jobs, development economists from around the world will be flocking to learn their secrets. Truly a triumph of hope over experience.


If Labor want to change public opinion on migration, and hence on future population, they have to develop and present well-reasoned answers to the question "Why do we need more people?' It is insulting to foreshadow a major policy shift and justify it with 'sound bite' reasons that many would regard as long refuted.


I am left with only one conclusion, and I will try to state it politely. Labor has decided that, despite the electoral risks, their chances of winning next time are improved by adopting the high-immigration policy of business lobbies like the housing industry. These are the people who are the big short-term winners from rapid population growth. They have spent a fortune in the last year or so attempting to influence public and party opinion. Labor judges that their endorsements and financial support will win more votes than will be lost by this underdone policy. I hope they are proved wrong.


Doug Cocks, a Canberra human ecologist, was a consultant to the 1994 Jones inquiry. He is the author of People Policy: Australia's Population Choices, University of New South Wales Press, 1996. His next book, Future Makers, Future Takers: Life in Australia 2050 is being published by UNSW Press in March.