Communication for Sustainable Development

We do not need sustainable population policy

Parliament House, Canberra: the seat of the Pa...Image via Wikipedia
THE federal government's so-called sustainable population policy contains no number and no timeframe. This is a good outcome, so far.

Australia should just get on with making do as Australia grows. As demographer Peter McDonald remarked recently: "We should not be wasting a lot of time and energy on debating what the population will or should be in 2050. We are the only country in the world that even raises the question."

Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities Minister Tony Burke has just released a discussion paper, A Sustainable Population Strategy for Australia.

In it, Burke points out that since the 1970s all population inquiries sponsored by Australian governments have rejected the notion of a population target or national carrying capacity.

Indeed, he states: "A growing population does not have to be an unsustainable population."

Nicely said.

The sustainable population strategy paper is a good start but it needs to be tested. Three tests come to mind.

First, can it help solve the political problems evident at the last election: crowded cities exacerbated by a large spike in temporary migration, and the visible problem of boatpeople? Will a sustainable population assuage voter anger?

Second, can it provide a framework to solve long-running debates associated with the size of Australia? For example, the Australian economy has always required a migrant contribution. The policy consensus for many years has been "skilled and steady wins the race". Does a sustainable population strategy help?

The cost per head of defending Australia is generally lower with a larger population. In an Asian century, the policy consensus of "remaining vigilant" will be assisted by growth. Does a sustainable population strategy help?

Migrants represent 25 per cent of the Australian population, making Australia one of the most significant immigration countries. There are challenges to liberal democracy in being overly accommodating to groups who may not wish to assimilate. Does a sustainable population strategy help?

In terms of environment and amenity, sustainability as a concept provides no ready answers to indicate whether restraint or technological innovation will be our saviour. Do we follow Thomas Malthus or Bill Gates? Does a sustainable population strategy help?

Third, in terms of actual policy tools, are any in the kitbag still available?

Many of the policies that would address the problems associated with population growth have already been abandoned.

The baby bonus was expensive and had many unpleasant unintended consequences, nursing home bonds are too hard, congestion pricing is too hard and relocation incentives are ineffectual. Effective marginal tax rates as a means of encouraging workforce participation appear too hard.

As for a carbon price, retail electricity prices have soared 40 per cent in the past three years. These prices are attributable to state government; under a carbon price further rises will be attributable to the federal government. This is too hard.

Using population policy to frame important issues such as immigration and infrastructure is simply firing blanks.

Migration has its own dynamic. As McDonald argues, Australian governments are remiss in estimating future labour demand. At present, there is a huge surge in temporary migration, so that one in every 10 workers in the Australian economy is a temporary resident. But students, New Zealanders, 457 visa workers, working holiday-makers and tourists do not necessarily have the skills the Australian economy requires. Yet Skills Australia projects a need for an additional four million plus workers in Australia during the next 15 years.

Better to get on with the hard work of the demographer than appeal to vacuous concepts such as sustainability.

Solving the myriad actual problems associated with population growth is not helped by immature advocates such as the Anglican Church of Australia, which has warned of catastrophic consequences of global overpopulation and unsustainable levels of consumption by the rich.

The church's General Synod has called on the Australian government to adopt a sustainable population policy and "avoid any reliance on continuing population growth to maintain economic growth". How does that help?

The synod wants a sustainable population policy that is "fair and just" and sustainable immigration. What does that mean?

One of the key issues in managing an increased population is the movement of people.

One of the reasons the Victorian Labor government lost was its failure to keep up with suburban rail improvements.

Pouring money into a National Broadband Network, services the private sector would have supplied by other means, displays an appalling ignorance of the proper role of government. If Labor is going to spend money, spend it on urban rail in crowded cities.

Santa Claus will not deliver the sort of policy that Labor wants this Christmas; a sustainable population policy is the wrong package. Burke knows the best he can do is hide the true policies under the tree to be pulled out later when the children have gone to bed. Merry Christmas.
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