Australia’s day of population reckoning

HOW apt that the debate which major political parties have tried to avoid for so long should become one of the major talking points of the week of Australia Day – our population.

The line-up was instructive. Philanthropist businessman Dick Smith, poet and author Mark O’Connor, former politicians Bob Carr and (less recently) Bob Hawke against large increases in population on one side and billionaire property developer Harry Triguboff and serving politicians Tony Abbott and (less recently) Kevin Rudd in favour of a large population on the other.

A four-segment series on the 7.30 Report added to the debate.

Maybe there is a bit of selfishness on each side. Those for higher population like the markets and money and political donations that come from industries that profit from higher population. Those against ask like Carr: “What’s wrong with a bit of space? What’s wrong with the possibility of being able to get to a beach and get onto the beach . . . where the opportunity of going for a walk in a national park is less than an hour’s drive from the centre of the city?” I prefer the latter form of selfishness, though.

Current projections on present immigration levels suggest a population as high as 50 million by 2050, with its attendant inevitable further doubling in the ensuing 30 years.

Abbott said he would like to see as many people as possible be given the chance to live in Australia (provided you are not fleeing persecution by boat), as if we are doing the world a favour. His morality is the wrong way around. We want to selfishly import the well-educated and their families from societies where they are needed by the hundreds and thousands and give no succour to a few hundred boat refugees.

Rudd, too, has his moral emphasis askew. He says climate change is the great moral issue of our time, but fails to mention population in this.

Australians should ask why are we heading for such a huge population – most likely unsustainable with present living standards. Who are we helping here?

Smith suggested that Triguboff’s desire for a population of 100 million might lead to starvation for some people. That might be a tad alarmist (and he will get ridiculed for it) but it is not completely fanciful.

So we won’t be helping the Australians of 2050. You do not need a large population to have high average incomes and standard of living. You only need it for a few people to be disproportionately wealthy. As Australia’s population has increased mainly through immigration since the 1970s so has Australia’s income inequality.

But the main moral reason for keeping our population lower is Australia’s food production.

Australia’s food exports peaked at around $30 billion in 2001-2002 and have been falling ever since (after making allowances for prices). Most recent Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry figures (2008) put exports at $24 billion.

The fall in exports is because people in Australia are eating more of our foodstuffs and consuming more of the water and land used to grow it.

We produced about $37 billion worth of food in 2008 and imported about $5 billion worth. So we consume $18 billion worth of food. At this rate we will become a net importer of food before long. And who knows how we will replace the $24 billion worth of exports that allow us today to import lots of goodies. We will become poorer.

Of greater moral import, the food we used to export will no longer be available to the hungry people of the world. Smith might be wrong about starvation deaths in Australia, but it is certain that the withdrawal of Australian food will result in more starvation in the rest of the world.

Abbott suggests that we have handled great population increases in the past, so we can handle them in the future. Only the incompetence of state governments prevents it.

This suggests no understanding of the perils of percentage growth. In 1960 a two per cent growth of 10 million was 200,000 – manageable in a wide open land. In 2050 a two per cent growth of 50 million would be a million – the population of Adelaide. Madness. You cannot build Adelaide every year, no matter how competent the state governments or how aggressive the property developers.

And once the population growth is set in train it is very hard to turn it around. We cannot wake up on Australia Day 2050 and say stop.

The other moral question is the destruction of habit for native animals, often driving them to extinction.

Most Australians oppose large increases in population, but are ignored by the major parties.

What can be done? It would be good to ban large donations to political parties, so they don’t get driven by minority interests that benefit from higher population.

But the major parties have long showed themselves to be prisoners of what amounts to little better than bribery. Given that, if you can’t lick ‘em join ‘em, perhaps with an Obama-style aggregation of small donations. Maybe Australians for a Sustainable Population could set up a pledge website where people pledge money to the first of the two major parties which makes sustainable population (closely defined) its policy.

It is not a question of hoping the parties always to be populist and always bow to popular opinion. But when the national and international good lines up with popular opinion, we have to ask don’t the political parties line up with it? It is because there is more to be gained by pandering the wealthy elite because the voters have nowhere else to go – single-issue and minority parties rarely go far.

Also some politicians like power and self-aggrandisement, liking “the idea of a big Australia”, in the words of the Prime Minister.

But as the debate this week shows, people are noticing water shortages, land shortages, higher food and housing costs, stressed infrastructure in cities, large class sizes and degraded rivers, among other things, and are slowly beginning to link them to one obvious cause – over-population.

Very few people who oppose higher population and high immigration want a Hansonite revival. Indeed, many would happily see more refugees and much lower general immigration. But we do want to see some sense and some moral purpose in Australia’s population policy.


This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 30 January 2010.

5 thoughts on “Australia’s day of population reckoning”

  1. You hit the nail right on the head, Crispin. When are our supposed political representatives going to listen to the masses. This surge in our population is lining the pockets of those in big business who are then using these funds to effectively “bribe” the major political parties into supporting high population growth. The ordinary person is the loser in this surge in population.

    Lindsay Tanner suggests we need high immigration to supply us with doctors and engineers. So we have to rely on the skills of developing economies to support our economy. Why can’t we train our own people to do these jobs?

    I am frustrated with the political process.

  2. Excellent piece, and so refreshing after “more customers can only be good” approach to this problem that is already dominating what we see every day around us. It is bad enough it is the whole tenor of the CT Business section, but at least it isn’t the whole newspapers as per News Ltd. It is so encouraging that your editor passed it. GPSO in action, perhaps.

    I’m pleased you used food production as an example. I’m writing to suggest another aspect of food supplies if you ever get the chance to expand on this theme. It is how future limited petroleum will further impinge on them. Not the obvious examples of fuel for large tractors, harvesters, and transport vehicles, since can all (dimly) visualise electric tractors, harvesters and (less dimly) transport so long as we don’t dwell too long on where all the electricity might come from.

    The thing you could focus on in another piece on food is the Haber Process. (Forgive me if the following is old hat to you: I have to take this gamble.) Without it agriculture would have wound down as mined saltpetre, and thus nitrogenous fertilisers, eg ammonium salts, were unprocurable in commercial amounts. And bingo, Malthus would have been right, then and there. With the Haber Process we can fix more and more nitrogen on demand, for as long as natural gas (supplies the hydrogen better than the original coke did) is freely available and affordable. But it has many uses, and many are competing for it. China was very keen to get its hands on $50B if it recently from WA, mostly, I gather, for the nitrogen fixation that high yield rice and wheat fields depend on.

    No doubt the nitrogenous fertiliser industry would love to give up the Haber Process (because of its dependence on petroleum) and rush to something better. The problem is that nothing is on the horizon. As petroleum, liquid and gas, get more expensive, so too will affordable nitrogenous fertiliser on the scale required. Food grown using it will become more expensive, and countries that can’t afford it will see their yields go down, big time, at the very time they need more food.

    What is needed is a way to isolate hydrogen on a massive scale and link it with nitrogen, also on a massive scale, without roaring through fossil fuel to do it. It is hard to be optimistic about this happening. Hydroelectrolysis, in theory, but needs truly buckets of energy, dominating its other uses.

    So every time we read of petroleum supplies diminishing, we should think of the consequences of worn-out saltpetre mines that fossil fuel, plus the ingenuity of Haber (and Bosch, with whom he shared the Nobel Prize, essentially for deferring Malthus’s prediction) saved us from. And watch what agricultural yields and prices do in response to oil and gas prices, and availability.

  3. Another excellent article Crispin. You have been a voice in the wilderness on this issue for some time but it does seem like the tide is turning. It all comes down to Population, population, population!
    Susan Nancarrow

  4. Very appropriate essay as we enter February, the month of Global Population Speak Out. So, thanks for speaking out. I found this line to be particularly salient:

    “You do not need a large population to have high average incomes and standard of living. You only need it for a few people to be disproportionately wealthy.”

    I suggest, in fact, that a large population is more likely to lower real incomes and standard of living. Yet the myth of the growth bonanza lives on. Around the world we must continue to raise the volume on logic and fact about overpopulation.

    Dave Gardner
    Producing the documentary
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

  5. Congratulations Crispin on your thoughtful analysis of what is shaping up to be the issue of the century – nationally and globally. I recall a ?CSIRO report that to feed the world’s growing population we would need to produce as much food in the next 50 years, as we have produced since the start of recorded history. The problem with the current debate is that that the growth lobby constructs population growth as a given, beyond our control, when they are the instigators of Australia’s massive immigration program. The 7:30 Report Special was a refreshing change – but that panel discussion got highjacked into the circular ‘we need to plan better so we can build more so we can squeeze in more people in, so we need to plan better….’ Pity you weren’t on the panel Crispin.

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