Solution to asylum seekers? Find the real problem

The fundamental problem with democracy is that we are likely to vote for people who agree with us.

Politicians who try to tell us that there are real problems that dwarf our imagined problems will usually struggle. Politicians who simply tell us they ''feel our pain'' will likely do well. Really successful politicians will create the fairytales from which we draw our imagined fears.

Just as advertising companies help us to imagine that our problems include smelly lounge rooms so they can us sell us battery-operated room deodorisers, the most successful politicians help us to imagine that we have an asylum seeker ''crisis'' or a cost of living ''crisis'' so they can sell us their non-existent ''solutions'' to our non-existent problems.

Such salesmanship should not, however, be confused with statesmanship. Solving imaginary problems may get you elected, but it won't help society thrive. The more time politicians spend solving the imaginary crisis of asylum seekers, the less time they spend explaining the real problems the country faces.

While it is true that the number of asylum seekers coming to Australia has increased from 2222 in 2001-02 to 6765 in 2012, it is also true that our population grew by about 300,000 in 2012. Even in a week in which our population hit 23 million our senior politicians wouldn't talk about it.

Population growth isn't inherently bad; like all big issues, it has its pros and its cons. But just as the major parties only want to talk about the cons associated with asylum-seeker arrivals they only want to talk about the pros of rapid population growth.


Just as big business benefits from a big population so too do the big political parties. A rapidly rising population allows whichever party is in power to sell the ''magic pudding'' of lower taxes and greater spending. The fact is, if course, that magic puddings don't really exist.

If you want to maintain the existing levels of public service and urban amenity, high rates of population growth require even higher rates of government expenditure. The minute new residents arrive they require schools, roads, hospitals and housing. If the average quality and cost of those services is to be maintained then they have to be funded and built by the time the new residents arrive.

Of course new residents will work and pay taxes over their lifetimes, but population growth, like public-sector job cuts, costs a lot up front.

But our politicians, state and federal, have no intention of funding and building enough new infrastructure to maintain the existing level of service. That's why they love population growth, it allows them steadily to increase the tax base while gradually lowering the quality of services. They get the surpluses they want us to judge them by and we get the congested roads, congested buses and congested hospitals.

The steady decline in urban amenity and steady rise in housing prices and commuting times are fuelling a growing sense of frustration among the population. Surveys of public opinion make it clear that people feel that things are ''getting worse'' when the gross domestic product (GDP) figures assure us that they are getting better. People feel the cost of living is rising rapidly when, again, the official figures assure us otherwise. So, what's going on?

Spending hours stuck in traffic costs a lot. Apart from the extra litres of petrol we consume crawling down roads built and paid for by a previous generation, the time it takes drives up the number of hours of babysitting required and the likelihood of substituting expensive takeaway for home-cooked meals. The consumer price index (CPI) measures the cost of petrol, not the number of litres we waste crawling through peak hour traffic, just as it records the price of fresh vegetables and not the probability that we will have time to cook them.

Most politicians are all too happy to ignore the official data and fuel the belief that the cost of living is rising because only a handful of them are willing to disagree with the electorate. But the biggest problem isn't that the public is wrong about the data, it's that the politicians don't want to admit what is causing much of the frustration.

Rapid population growth puts pressure on the hospital system and the patient-to-GP ratio. An extra million people moving to Australia every four years can do nothing but push up the demand, and in turn the price, of housing. And the willingness to pour the equivalent of Canberra's population into our existing cities every 18 months places huge pressure on our transport system.

But just as politicians use asylum seekers to distract us from population growth, so they use our concern with the cost of living to distract us. Ironically, while minor parties such as the Stable Population Party try to fill the void left by the major parties, the major parties contend that most voters are more interested in things like housing, transport and the cost of living. Of course, the major parties are right about the concerns, but it may be that only a minor party can talk about the underlying cause.

Dr Richard Denniss is executive director of the Australia Institute, a Canberra-based think tank.