The Launch of the new Centre for Population by Population Minister Alan Tudge raised a flicker of hope of a remit to develop a population policy for Australia.
The hope was fleeting.
The proposal makes no mention of the constraints of climate change, water scarcity or the concept of sustainability, which are crucial to the long term maintenance of our present population and indeed the projected increase to between 37 and 49 million people by 2066.
Human existence, health and economic activity in Australia depend on water, the provision of food from productive land, a stable climate and biodiversity all of which are already damaged and further threatened.
The placement of this centre in the Department of Finance should be a cause for anxiety when the first stated objective of this plan is "economic growth".
In the media release from the minister it is acknowledged that "Australia has done well from our population settings over the decades. Our population growth, and the migration settings that support it, have been key drivers of our economic growth, both in absolute terms and on a per capita basis. It has made a significant impact on our workforce participation rate as well as our productivity. Treasury has estimated that a sixth of our per capita wealth over the last 40 years has been due to population factors".
It is important to note that in March the federal government said it would tackle the impact of increasing population in congested cities and back smaller towns and regions looking for greater growth to secure their economic future and the key public services they rely on. To this end the government had reduced permanent immigration.
There are numerous concerns about the centre's role.
Whilst a key function is to obtain facts on current population, a population plan or policy requires input on sustainable growth. For example what is the trajectory for climate change in all regions of Australia? Without this information and its implications for water availability, conclusions cannot be reached.
The centre's role should be part of the development of a national climate change adaptation policy. Its absence is negligent as a 2 degree temperature rise seems inevitable and adaptation for cities, rural areas, coast lines and the economy is vital. Current measures are left to each state where policy is varied, uncoordinated and sometimes does not exist. The Department of Defence has defined this as a national security issue and a bureaucratic "disaster and climate resilience reference group" has existed for some time.
There are also international considerations in policy. When some Pacific island states are inundated, will the refugees be classified under Duttonesque rules as economic refugees and transported to Christmas Island for deportation to heaven knows where? Or will the centre avoid thinking about the humanitarian aspect of world issues and in Prime Minister Scott Morrison's words "be squarely driven by Australia's national interests".
It must be possible to steer some financial policy towards more sustainable solutions and non-consumeristic forms of human advance.
The vital need in these deliberations is for governments to educate themselves to make decisions based on facts. Only recently has the Minister for Water Resources David Littleproud acknowledged the existence of climate change; it takes courage for a politician to change their mind and he deserves credit.
However, many of his colleagues - particularly those from rural Queensland - are also in need of relevant education. The recent LNP addition to the Senate, Gerard Rennick, concluded there needs to base-load power stations including a coal fired power station for northern Queensland, more dams, coal freight trains and port-generated income which could produce funds for schools and hospitals. Pumped hydro energy storage could use nuclear power and green and red tape should be abolished.
Whilst the Department of Finance with its instructions for "jobs and growth" might seem inappropriate for this study, undoubtedly there will be some minds in the department who understand that the continuation of this mantra is incompatible with human existence on this planet. It must be possible to steer some financial policy towards more sustainable solutions and non-consumeristic forms of human advance.
Australia loves being a leader. We have international experts in science, climate change, water, sustainability, fire, emergency demography and together with the Farmers' Federation, Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Medical Association, Australia could have a plan, that the government could never formulate by itself - a comprehensive national adaptation policy run by an integrated sustainability commission.
Hopefully we can then move on from the usual response to drought with a group of politicians on their hunkers in a dust-blown field knowingly sifting soil through their fingers and responding with financial relief distributed with a pork flavour.
- Dr David Shearman is emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Adelaide. He co-founded Doctors for the Environment Australia in 2001 and was awarded an AM for service to medicine and to climate change.