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.