Population clock is ticking for O'Farrell
Under the pump ... there's going to be a metro, and it is going to fit poorly with the city's heavy rail system. Unless Gladys Berejiklian (pictured) can fix the problem. Photo: Louise Kennerley
If you feel that everyday life in Sydney is increasingly more dense, with more of almost everything, you might consider the population clock kept by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
As I wrote this, the clock said Australia's population was 22,707,125. Today, it will be 22,708,000. With each passing day, almost 1000 more people reside in Australia. Or, as the bureau puts it, Australia gains one net person every 92 seconds.
By my estimate, at almost 1000 net persons a day Australia's population clock will strike 23 million by the end of next June. Not far away.
We're in the middle of a historic surge, driven by the federal Labor government. It's a big subject that remains largely ignored.
When the Rudd government came into office in 2007, Australia's population was 21 million. By the time Labor's second three-year term is scheduled to end next year, the population will be more than 23 million. It will have grown by 2 million people in just six years. That's never happened before, not even close.
It's almost a 40 per cent ramp-up on what, for the previous 60 years, had been a remarkably consistent and gradual increase in population of 1 million people every four or five years. According to the ABS, net migration is adding one person to the population every two minutes and 42 seconds, or 533 people a day, which more than doubles the natural population increase.
Why the hurry? The implications for Sydney are significant. If the majority of the population growth is coming from migration, and Sydney is the biggest single magnet for new immigrants, it is not surprising that Sydney's population is increasing by 60,000 a year. That's one large new regional city accommodated within greater Sydney every year.
We've become used to talking about Sydney and Melbourne as 4-million-people cities but it will not be long before Sydney is a 5-million city. According to the ABS, in the year to June 2011, Sydney's population was 4.63 million, having increased by 59,800 people in 12 months. At this rate of growth the city's population is now 4.72 million. At an increase of 60,000 a year, a rate that has been accelerating, the 5 million threshold will be reached by 2016.
Consider that it took Sydney 27 years to go from 3 million people, in 1972, to 4 million, in 1999, and it will have taken just 17 years to go from 4 to 5 million. Feel the weight. Sydney is already much bigger, by almost a million people, than Australia was when it became a nation in 1901.
Which brings us to the person who must bear more of this weight than any other individual, Gladys Berejiklian. Berejiklian is under the pump. She is the Minister for Transport and her top bureaucrat, Les Wielinga, the director-general of Transport for NSW, has abruptly resigned from the board of Infrastructure NSW, the body created to deal with our infrastructure backlog.
Worse, she's also discovered that the defining, reputation-making, iconic development of this still relatively new NSW government, the north-west heavy rail-link, is not going even remotely to plan. At this point, there is not going to be a heavy rail link. There's going to be a metro, and it is going to fit poorly with the city's heavy rail system. Unless Berejiklian can fix the problem.
By all accounts from my sources inside the NSW ministry, Berejiklian is doing a good job, perhaps the best of the ministers. But that job is getting harder as time passes and needs grow more urgent.
Sydney is approaching a dangerous point where it is a city dominated by the car, with all the inefficiencies and pollution this entails. This is not how very large, advanced cities function. How could Tokyo, population 9 million, or London, 8 million, plus their big commuter populations, survive without their dense networks of subways and railways? They would fuse.
The Premier, Barry O'Farrell, acutely aware of maintaining a reputation for competent leadership, will reap the downside of caution if he cannot get his Transport Minister a big win on rail, with the funding she needs. The Premier will not be defined or remembered for prudence, and a plethora of studies and balanced budgets. He and his government will be defined by big projects they can deliver that prevent the city from slowing into a crawl of congestion under a brown haze.
The drug of capitalism, endless material growth, has an unshakeable hold on our culture, so the city will thicken along the rail lines and major arteries as they sprout with more high-rise development. The urban edges will continue their spread. And the weight of the compression caused by this historic and unneeded population surge will be felt, and felt.