Why do we have a 'big Australia'?
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Why do we have a 'big Australia'?

Pruning migration is low-hanging policy fruit compared with reducing greenhouse emissions.

Recently, Bill Shorten wrote to Scott Morrison proposing a "bipartisan approach" to population policy, not the "politics of division". In my jaded interpretation, he meant: let's not budge on big Australia. Instead, let's keep making unattainable promises on infrastructure and decentralisation.

Is Australia's high population growth a logical fixture, endorsed by all, for the good of all? Tilting at these assumptions is the Australian Population Research Institute's report Why do we have a 'big Australia'?, released last month.

Sydney's western suburbs. Sydney and Melbourne house most of Australia's migrants.

Sydney's western suburbs. Sydney and Melbourne house most of Australia's migrants.Credit:Andrew Meares

I define big Australia as an inordinate appeal to high migration and high population growth as headline and future economic tools, with larger regard for GDP growth and smaller regard for the environmental and social consequences.

Put that way, no such program could have emerged in the aftermath of World War II. The global ascent of GDP was in its infancy. Neoliberalism was decades away. Rather, defence and development guided Arthur Calwell's pro-Briton "populate or perish" program. He wanted 2 per cent population growth; half would be natural increase, half immigration.

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Higher population growth accompanied the 1950s boom in Australia. From the 1970s to the 1990s, net overseas migration dipped; it averaged less than 100,000 a year. Population only grew about 1 per cent a year. But GDP growth, though volatile, was commonly 3 to 5 per cent. It was a period of economic reform.

From 2000, however, John Howard decided to crank up immigration. By 2005, the mining boom was being used to justify this surge. Howard and then opposition leader Kim Beazley clicked as self-described "high-immigration men".

In effect, the Gillard government's A sustainable population strategy for Australia, released in 2011, rubber-stamped Howard's policy shift. The official migration intake is now off its peak of 190,000. But net overseas migration is still running well over 200,000, a level never attained before 2007. Population growth is 1.5 per cent and more. That's much higher than most rich OECD nations – or even India.

This record population growth is largely removed from the party-political contest. But public opinion has shifted in recent years. Various polls (TAPRI, Essential, Newspoll, even this year's Lowy) now find 54 per cent or much higher majorities that favour lowering immigration or population growth. A couple of polls still find for a (very substantial) minority instead.

If the will of the people was ever going to count, why not on the number of migrants? Or should the people defer to those in the growth lobby, who are confident they know better?

And who is in the growth lobby anyway? Most of the influential interest groups you can think of – except the electorate.

The groupthink begins with the three main political parties. With varying emphases, all celebrate big Australia for its "jobs and growth", and for "multiculturalism" or rejection of racism. Professed public-interest motivations also apply to academics and professionals, and to unions, social or religious organisations.

The vaunted multiculturalism has its own racial signatures. India and China have now overtaken Britain as our top migration nations, but significant constitutional and policy arrangements remain decidedly pro-British or pro-Christian. Politicians launch incendiaries against refugees and "African" or "Muslim" immigration, though all three groups are statistically small segments.

The European migrant cultures are more respected now, lionised even. For Indigenous Australians, however, respect is a sometime thing. There are the gains of land rights and native title. Against that are high incarceration rates, remote work-for-the-dole schemes and cashless welfare cards. The Indigenous consensus on constitutional recognition was rejected out of hand.

By default, the Treasury is our key population agency. To help perpetuate the 27-year "miracle" in GDP growth, it limns each federal budget with high net overseas migration and high population growth.

The Reserve Bank, unlike the Productivity Commission, pushes the supposed demographic rejuvenation from high migration. Well over half of all migrants, and well over three-quarters of skilled migrants, go straight to Sydney or Melbourne. The RBA, however, suggests that "zoning restrictions" push up city house prices.

Most thinktanks side with big Australia. Industry and property groups also welcome more migrants. They dampen training and wage demands, and deliver more consumers and profits.

Australia's states, though they carry the tab for infrastructure and services, have scarcely been less enthusiastic. Their citizens, the report notes, "could be forgiven for thinking the tab is short paid". States' training, education and transport services become stressed because planners somehow get caught short by predictably rapid urban growth.

Many solutions are proposed, notably the ever-failed hope of decentralisation, but only after big Australia "has been taken off the table". NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian's recent heresy to slash migration into that state was therefore surprising. Labor NSW agreed with her. The Greens tarred her as "One Nation".

The growth lobby patronises the lived experiences of ordinary Australians. The data shows that voters aren't imagining the consequences: stretched infrastructure and services, stalled wages and severe housing unaffordability, heightened inequality and urban congestion.

Instead, voters are offered the official narratives. Look at these job creation and GDP numbers! The rejuvenating population! The vibrant city plans! Never mind if these "plans" cram 8 million people into Sydney and Melbourne, and nearly 4 million into Perth, by the middle of this century.

Globally and in Australia, climate change is the headline environment crusade. This obscures population growth, attendant habitat and species loss, and other critical environmental issues. The growth lobby has buried Australia's deliberations on carrying capacity. It discounts scientific warnings in Australia's five-yearly State of the Environment reports.

Among wealthy OECD nations, fast population growth is not a prerequisite for prosperity. Though Australians have high average wealth by world standards, our environmental health has worsened and inequality has widened. Under big Australia, future gains to the few (or older) look more assured than gains for the many (or younger). Mass migration isn't the program of choice to transform our resources and services economy into a digital and innovation economy.

Already, Australia has eclipsed the Bureau of Statistics' 1998 projections for mid-21st century population. This new normal is policed as if it is inevitable or inerrant. Quitting the treadmill for a substantially lower population trajectory, the report surmises, may be some way off, and may require a political circuit breaker. That happened in New Zealand. Unlike Australia, voters there had a choice: Jacinda Ardern's Labour Party went to the 2017 poll proposing a 30 to 40 per cent migration cut.

Compared with the difficulty of reducing greenhouse emissions, pruning population growth is low-hanging policy fruit. The report modestly proposes dialling Australia's migration intake back to the 80,000 to 90,000 levels of the 1990s, and reeling in net overseas migration. That would allow us to aim for population growth under 1 per cent a year. This would be more in line with our realistic carrying – and servicing – capacities.

We'd be approaching a population of 30 million at 2050, not at 2030. To get there, we might need an authentic population ministry. Something beyond the Treasury's approach.

Stephen Saunders is a former public servant and consultant.

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