ACTPO President on population, published in News Limited

We seem to be hurtling down the path towards an out-sized Australia

In June 2010, Prime Minister Julia Gillard famously said: “Australia should not hurtle down the track towards a big population.”

She was distancing herself from her  predecessor Kevin Rudd, who had famously said on ABC TV's 7.30 Report that he believed in a “Big Australia”, of 36 million by 2050.

Ms Gillard then indicated she would be putting the brakes on immigration. “We need to stop, take a breath and develop policies for a sustainable Australia.”

Bravo Julia, we said at the time.

Figures just released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) tor the year ending March 2012, however, suggest that we are indeed hurtling down the track to a Big Australia.

The overall population growth rate of 1.5 per cent is up from 1.4 per cent. The increase is largely due to a rise in net overseas migration, 197,200 people -18 per cent higher than that for March 2011.

So much for putting the brakes on immigration.

Australia’s population increased by 331,200 people in one year to reach 22.6 million people in March – the 23 million milestone will be reached later this year. This was the figure that the Academy of Science agreed in 1994 was a safe upper limit for Australia’s population. Given we are now growing by a million people every three years, we will only be enjoying that ‘safe upper limit’ until 2015.

But we have probably exceeded it already. The State of Environment report that was tabled in the Australian Parliament last December, painted a bleak picture and cited population growth as a driver of environmental decline.

While its authors said the situation could be turned around, there is little indication, with the possible exception of the clean energy package, that we are doing so. If population growth is a driver of environmental decline, the latest figures from ABS suggest we are putting the foot on the accelerator, rather than the brake.

A growth rate of 1.5 per cent is very high by OECD standards. Few countries are over 1 per cent and most are below, some with virtually zero population growth. If you look at the world rankings, apart from oil-rich states, the highest population growth rate countries are also the poorest: Niger, Uganda, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Timor-Leste. It’s not a good direction to be heading.

Australia may have iron ore, coal and natural gas resources, the exports of which are making us temporarily rich. But if we keep growing at 1.5 per cent, we will double the population to 45 million by 2060 and will have passed that 36 million figure well before mid-century.

Will there be minerals to export then to maintain our population? Probably not. Solar energy is expected to have parity with coal by 2020 so coal-importing countries are unlikely to want much after that. Let us hope so for the sake of the atmosphere at least. Australian coal exports are helping to cook the planet.

The US author Richard Heinberg is touring Australia at the moment, speaking to his latest book: The End of Growth. He warns that the combined effect of higher oil prices, the debt bubble and climate change are bringing an end to economic growth as we know it.

Energy alone may cause it to end with production of conventional oil supplies peaking around 2005. Supplies are only being maintained by expensive unconventional oil such as from tar sands, ultra-deep water and from ‘tight’ oil that requires fracking.

Some analysts predict oil prices will double to $200/barrel by 2020. Given the Global Financial Crisis was partly precipitated by oil prices of $147/barrel, we can expect the economy to go into a tailspin with a doubling of price.

It is climate change, however, that is the most worrying. With trend lines suggesting the Arctic will be ice free as early as September 2015, positive feedback mechanisms will be set off causing further warming. We are likely to go to 3.5o C. warming at least, which will wipe out agriculture from much of the Australian mainland.

Even without the converging crises of debt bubbles bursting, peak oil and climate change, however, the simple fact remains that if more people are to be provided for in this country, whether migrant or native-born, money has to be spent on infrastructure.

Assuming schools, buses, trains and hospitals have to be replaced every 50 years on average, it means 2 per cent of the value of all infrastructure must be allocated from income each year just to
maintain infrastructure for a stable non-growing population.

There is an infrastructure backlog right now that manifests itself in inflated housing prices, congested roads and long waiting times. Add a third of a million people every year and it all gets just that much harder to deal with it.

We are entering a period of uncertainty. The future will not be like the past. We need to keep our doors open a little to welcome the most desperate people in need of refuge, but we simply cannot sustain net migration levels of nearly 200,000.

We have to adopt policies “for a sustainable Australia” as Julia Gillard once said but, on the population front at least, we are going in the wrong direction.