“Sustainable population” ruse fails water test

SUNDAY used to be the key media-manipulation day. Now it’s Friday.

Sunday used to be the day to put out “news” because the papers had the same size paper on Monday but not a whole business day’s worth of news to fill it with. So the “news” a government put out would assume greater importance. These days, the 24/7 news cycle and oodles of Sunday TV current-affairs makes the tactic less effective.

Friday afternoon is better, from a government perspective. The columnists – thoughtful and otherwise – and analysts have already filed. All the back sections, with longer, critical articles, have been put together by Friday early afternoon at the latest. Moreover, in sitting weeks, MPs, especially Opposition MPs and their staff have left Canberra. Often they are in transit and not amenable to detailed critiques of newly issued reports and policies.

Dump it on Friday afternoon. It gets a good run in the Saturday news pages and no detailed analysis.

And thus, the Friday before last we were treated to the release of the Government’s “Sustainable Australia, Sustainable Communities: A Sustainable Population Strategy”.

This time the tactic did not work because the report did not require any detailed analysis or thought. It was so self-evidently without clothes that even flat-strapped wire service reporters could point that out.

As Voltaire said of the Holy Roman Empire (it was neither holy, nor Roman nor an Empire), the Gillard Government’s Sustainable Population Strategy, is not a strategy, has no population aim and is certainly not sustainable.

It was more of the same – nothing to suggest any change from the present 1.5 to 2 per cent a year population growth. At the mid point of that, the population doubles every 40 years. What does that mean? Well, it is 223 years since white settlement. In another 223 years at that rate Australia will have a population of 960 million. Not what I’d call “sustainable”.

We should rid the public lexicon of the word “sustainable”.

Desperately as the Government wanted to control the news – to hose down concern about over-population – it utterly backfired. Indeed, the newsworthy point is that the government proposes to do exactly nothing about unsustainable population growth.

Worse, the government makes two blatant errors (among others) in the report.

First, it suggests that the things people are beginning to realise are caused by population increases — traffic congestion; queues for hospital beds; strains on class sizes; increased food prices; unaffordable housing and so on – are really caused by state governments’ failure to provide infrastructure.

Secondly, it suggests that insofar as our big cities are congested, chewing up agricultural land and unaffordable for nurses, police officers and teachers to live in, the solution does not lie in reducing the intake of people, but by making them go to regional centres.

Let’s take the second point first. It seems as if the government’s starting point is we must have the increasing population no matter what and we will provide any number of idiotic, unsustainable, living-standard or environment-destroying measures to allow for it.

Sending people to regional areas is utter folly – if only for one reason: water.

The more significant news reported on the same day as the population report was the one-paragraph article headed “La Nina blows out”. It said the weather system that gave us the Queensland and Victorian floods and Cyclone Yasi has blown out. It was thankful in tone.

But at least this La Nina filled up our dams and now we might return to the previous condition – another decade of what might be called “drought”, but which might easily turn out to be the “normal” rainfall pattern in the new changed-climate model.

If so, it would be madness to increase populations in regional Australia which almost ran out of water in the most recent dry. The two largest inland cities in Australia – Canberra and Toowoomba – were dramatically affected. Canberra now has permanent water restrictions. Toowoomba’s water storage dropped to just 7 per cent of its capacity. And the Murray River stopped flowing to the sea.

If anything, inland regional Australia is over-populated, not under-populated. The Murray-Darling Basin’s water is over-allocated, and that is based on pre-climate change averages.

Even after the big rains, farmers went ballistic when the Murray-Darling Basin Commission injected some reality into the water debate. They burned its report. They naively thought that the commission’s requirement for “environmental flows” were part of what Paul Keating would call the muesli-eating, sandal-wearing, cycling agenda.

But someone somehow has got to convince federal and state governments, farmers and city-dwellers that environmental flows are not some mad green folly that puts endangered fish and ducks before people. Environmental flows are a bit like maintaining the water mains in the city. If you don’t have them you cannot deliver water in the long term.

If you don’t maintain city water mains, they leak, and you lose water. Worse, if you don’t maintain 24/7 pressure, the pipes take in outside contaminants, and too bad if an equally bad sewerage pipe is nearby. Similarly, if you don’t maintain environmental flows in the rivers – they take in and cannot wash out any amount of animal poo and agricultural chemicals.

The reason people in Australia have clung to the edges of the continent is because that is where the water is. Increasing the population in inland regional areas has far more cost than dealing with population skills and ageing in ways other than increased immigration.

Back to blaming the state governments for not providing infrastructure rather than blaming the federal government for setting immigration targets way too high. The Federal Government only had a population inquiry because of electoral pressure as voters started to put two and two together and realised the health, education and transport pressures were directly related to population pressure.

The “inquiry” then turned logic on its head and said: “If only those state governments would provide more infrastructure we wouldn’t have to worry about the increased population.” In reality it should have concluded: “If only we did not artificially increase the population so much we would not have the infrastructure problems.”

It is madness that we do not have an overall population target when every year we set an immigration and refugee target.

It is madness that a city like Canberra, which barely got through the last drought and had to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new water infrastructure, is embarked upon another spurt of growth along the Molonglo River corridor which will only profit a few who make megabucks turning farmland into residential land but force higher costs and more restrictive water regimes on the rest of us.

Until at least the Murray-Darling water problem is solved, the “Sustainable Population Strategy” should be derided for what it is – an unsustainable, do-nothing agenda to profit the pro-growth property, business and mining lobbyists at the expense of everyone else.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 21 May 2011.

9 thoughts on ““Sustainable population” ruse fails water test”

  1. In his scathing critique of the do-nothing agenda of the Tony Burke sustainable population strategy, Crispin Hull suggests that we should rid the public lexicon of the word ”sustainable”. He is right, of course.

    Not all the animals in Animal Farm could cope with the seven commandments, and had to boil them down to the basic statement ”Four legs good, two legs bad”.

    We too adopt a simplification ”Sustainable good, non sustainable bad”.

    And that is as deep in thought as our Government can go.

    Christopher Dorman, Aranda

  2. Time to unite and overcome humanity’s fetish for growth
    25 May, 2011 04:00 AM
    Crispin Hull breaks the general taboo on attributing environmental destruction, and specifically water security for inland Australia, to population growth (”Spinners with Friday on their minds failed this population test”, Forum, May 21, p11).

    In his essay on population, published in 1798, Thomas Malthus was pilloried but correct in his long-term view that resources increase arithmetically while population increases geometrically, despite technological innovations such as the Green Revolution.

    Malthus has some distinguished supporters, including Kenneth Boulding, who, when economic advisor to president Kennedy, declared, ”Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical on a physically finite planet is either mad or an economist.” Sir David Attenborough concluded his article entitled ”This Heaving Planet” in a recent edition of the New Statesman with the words ”Every one of these global problems, social as well as environmental, becomes more difficult and ultimately impossible with ever more people”. Limited water supplies, population growth, climate change, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity and peak oil all pose challenges for a sustainable future.

    It is time we realised that we are children of the biosphere, with responsibilities towards its preservation, casting aside the growth fetish.

    Our leaders, present and aspiring, should address these issues in an holistic and sensible rather than a politically divisive way.

    Bryan Furnass, Hughes

    In his scathing critique of the do-nothing agenda of the Tony Burke sustainable population strategy, Crispin Hull suggests that we should rid the public lexicon of the word ”sustainable”. He is right, of course.

    Not all the animals in Animal Farm could cope with the seven commandments, and had to boil them down to the basic statement ”Four legs good, two legs bad”.

    We too adopt a simplification ”Sustainable good, non sustainable bad”.

    And that is as deep in thought as our Government can go.

    Christopher Dorman, Aranda

  3. Crispin, I had been working myself up to a response to the last few paragraphs of your article since it was first published. I don’t think the Molonglo Valley was an inspired choice for new suburban development in Canberra because of it’s topography and the ecological value of the river corridor. However, the new suburbs will not be built on valuable agricultural land but on burnt out pine plantation and farm land being used for low intensive animal grazing.
    You continue to overstate the problem Canberra has with water availability. Even if one was to accept forecasts of likely water flows in SE Australia being made by the BoM and CSIRO there is no reason to believe that the new water infrastructure being put in place will not supply sufficient water for the next 40 years and up to 600000 people and without any more demand management than can be achieved through education and a mild regime of water conservation measures.

  4. I’m with Adamsky – when do protest?
    It is obvious our government works for the pro-growth lobby.
    Not the people.

  5. Crispin, like many other people who are against population, your argument has a flawless logic. However, I am getting tired of folks pointing out the problems with our current population strategy or lack thereof. Most Australians already know and disagree with our current population growth. What I would like to read is information about how to force the government to slash population intake. Of course voting for the Stable Population Party is a big one, which I will surely do, but if the way the government has ignored the democratic will of the people recently is anything to go by, I doubt they would care even if the SPPA received 10% of the vote. What people would need to do is take action like strikes, protests and industrial action against the big Australia lobbyists and that sort of thing. Talking about our population growth is fine, but some form of effective passive resistance against population growth is what’s needed to back it up.

  6. Responding to Kate’s “when will people get the picture?”, I believe that ‘people’ is the operative word. Only by shifting the perspective of the mass public can sufficient influence be brought to bear on the politicians moving the policy levers. But how do you get the message out there? Over the past couple of decades of watching growth-driven interests take more and more control of what passes for public information media, I have come to despair of any such shift ever arising from there. One strategy that might have an impact is to displace some of the puerile pap from public entertainment and infiltrate the public mind with evocative good quality film and TV material, both fiction and documentary. The Pachacuti Project seeks to do this in a commercially viable way – and could use some high profile help.

  7. Thanks for putting up a beacon of common sense so lucidly – yet again. We are indeed back to the 1983(?) situation, a time when Bob Hawke epxressed his enthusiasm of doing what the people needed, not what the people want – with a bi-partisan (non)/policy of population growth (via immigration). The main difference now is that the present is on a greater scale.

  8. Great article Crispin. When will people get the picture?
    And regarding Stephen’s comment, I believe the Greens are hampered by their need to fit into the consensus view of economics, they can’t possibly challenge the “growth is good” mantra because to do that would mean having to question the whole basis of our economy. How would they explain that to the electorate? They really would be seen as loonies then.
    Also, I know there are people within the Greens who are fully cognisant of the population issue, but they are outnumbered by others who naively see the issue as one of consumption rather than population: “It’s not the numbers that count, it’s the level of consumption etc etc” I’m constantly amazed by the number of greens and environmentally “aware” people I have conversed with who hold this view, and who view any mention of lowering immigration as automatically racist or xenophobic.
    BTW I am an ex-Green member and state candidate.

  9. Thanks. I believe it’s the greatest disconnect between the Australian electorate and the polity – including the Greens. I tell my children it’ll take another generation. Some of us made pointless submissions anyway, just as a matter of honour. The relevant senior official is also devout, a good match for Burke in terms of developing population ‘policy’.

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