Witches hats make governing too hard

LABOR MP Kelvin Thomson made an unintentional blunder in mid 2007 that almost certainly cost him a place in the new Rudd ministry. His subsequent backbench position, however, has given him the freedom to chime into the debate over what is perhaps the most important federal policy area – population.

Moreover, he has been free range broadly because he is outside the normal rule that MPs must uphold party policy – for the simple reason that Labor (nor the Liberals, for that matter) do not have a detailed articulated policy on population.

For some years Thomson has opposed former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s liking of a “big Australia” and the Gillard Government’s continuation of that same policy albeit softened with the misnomer “sustainable population”.

Last week, Thomson published a paper called “The Witches’ Hats Theory of Government: How increasing population is making the task of government harder”.

Thomson argues that to stay in power Governments have to keep the people happy. The voters have to feel things are getting better.

But that task is made harder in societies with high population growth, Australia among them. He likens the task to an advanced driving course where the driver has to negotiate around witches’ hats. Each hat is a voter expectation – shorter hospital waiting times; higher quality public education; better roads; better public transport and so on.

The faster the car goes (or the higher the population growth) the more difficult it is to negotiate the course and the more witches’ hats fall over. As the hats fall over, the electorate gets more dissatisfied and, in democracies, votes the government out. In non-democracies they rebel.

He points to many examples of a correlation between high population growth and political instability. Of course, governments fall for a multitude of reasons, but high population growth certainly makes the task of government harder in all cases except where there is vast under-capacity such as in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand until around the later 1960s.

In the non-democratic world, Thomson writes, “Rapid population growth means lots of high-testosterone young males, who are prepared to risk bullets and oust dictators. After decades of exporting oil to pay for grain, Egypt now needs to import both oil and grain to meet the needs of a population that doubled under Mubarak.” They rebelled.

There was high population increases at the times of the French and Russian Revolutions.

Thomson cited research showing that the population of the recently rioting London suburb of Tottenham had grown by nearly eight per cent between 2000 and 2005, with a high percentage of new immigrants and young people – three times the British average for this period. Governments simply cannot keep up meeting these people’s expectation.

You can cite others factors for voter dissatisfaction, but often these come back to population pressure.

“When that conflict occurs people may well band together, or divide, on religious or ethnic lines – that is indeed human nature – but whether we have that conflict in the first place, or whether people of different ethnicities and religions live harmoniously together, often comes back to whether there are enough resources for all, or whether there are simply too many people for the available resources,” Thomson wrote.

Lobby groups for business, however, keep urging governments, especially in Australia, to keep high immigration and high population growth. It suit their aims. They get richer with more consumers and higher property values.

But the evidence is showing the bulk of people are becoming worse off. Financial journalists and business usually cite Gross Domestic Product as the measure for human improvement. Provided GDP growth does not falter for more than two successive quarters, they argue, all is well. But GDP in a growing population is misleading.

Just this week, for example, the Australian Bureau of Statistics published its latest figures on disposable household income. They give a better idea of how the bulk of people are faring.

And we are going backwards. Disposable household income per went down between 2007-08 ($859) and 2009-10 ($848). And those figures do not account for all household outgoings caused by high population growth.

Governments are taking a higher percentage of GDP in tax now than in the 1970s to try to keep up with the infrastructure demands of the growing population. Various development charges, rates and land taxes – which were lower or did not exist in the 1970s – are pushing up housing costs, leaving less for other things. Water and electricity costs rise under population pressure.

You might get some economies of scale in some places with more population, but after a time you need a whole new dam, power plant, hospital or school and the economies of scale balance out or are lost.

Population pressure on public schools mean more parents feel they have to go private and pay for education. The pressure on the public health system imposes high health insurance costs. City congestion means longer commute times and suburban development in what was once the market garden belts around cities is pushing up food costs.

Yes, a whole lot of consumer items from China are cheaper, but the fundamentals mean people are worse off despite ever rising GDP.

Thomson argues that governments are stupid listening to the lobby groups. By doing so they are the authors of their own downfall. He cites cases of long-serving governments in countries of small or no population growth – where governments can negotiate the witches’ hats because they are not going at break-neck speed.

One might think Australia an exception to the rule because of the longevity of the Menzies, Hawke and Howard Governments. But Menzies (and other long-serving state premiers) led during a time of no population pressure in a relatively empty Australia. And the Hawke and Howard Governments should have been much shorter lived. Hawke lost the popular vote in 1990 and Howard lost it in 1998. Australian politics was much more volatile than the record suggests.

Rudd’s popularity plummeted virtually from the moment he publically embraced “big Australia”.

People are becoming less tolerant of governments in countries of high population growth because those Government have made governing too hard for themselves. Their immigration policies mean there are too many people to house, feed, transport, educate and medicate at the existing standard than the available resources allow.

Voters may not articulate that as caused by high population growth but many of the things they cites as causes for turning off a government are a direct result of it.

A smart government would make things easier for itself and its people by steadily reducing population pressure. But we don’t have smart governments. We have political parties who take the short-term view that it is better to fill party coffers with donations from the big-Australia brigade so they have campaign funds to propagandise about how good they are instead of providing the real thing.

The immense irony of this is that Government beholden to donations from the pro-population-growth lobbies, suddenly find their corporate funds drying up as their chances of re-election become self-inflictedly more hopeless. Ask federal Labor’s party treasurer.


Thomson’s blunder was to give a reference (as MPs often do, and often with third-party help) to a person who was later revealed to be the notorious criminal Tony Mokbel.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 3 September 2011.

6 thoughts on “Witches hats make governing too hard”

  1. Brilliant points. I agree with all of the above. And it’s about time legislators and decision makers took care of what may be our species’ ultimate undoing, the unbridled explosion in human population that is engulfing this planet.

  2. Hello Crispin,

    Thanks for writing this excellent article on this elephant in the room. I have seen Perth grow from the 1970’s as a child until now and I believe we are certainly worse off as a result of this insane population growth. Wages have grown on an average 6.8% pa while housing prices grew at 8.2% pa. There are limits to growth and there are real costs assoicated with it as you clearly demonstrate. Ian Lowe’s book “Bigger or Better” analyses the cost of population growth. There is an appropriate ratio of people to resources (ie arriable land, land for housing, land for transport, sources of water, open space, energy, mineral and food resources) that will determine an appropriate population for Australia consistent with maintaining basic human rights and our standard of living.

    This is an ongoing public debate that must be taken to Canberra and to raise public awareness on how serious the issue is. Exponential growth is unsustainable, we can choose to control it or it will control us, minus our human rights with a degraded standard of living. Unfortunately I see Australia being degraded for future generations as a direct result of pro-growth government policies on either side of politics.

    Kevin Rudd’s brainless comment “Bring on the big Australia” without so much as a thought for its consequences was staggering. He might be good at Asian studies but maths is clearly not his strong point.

    David Godfrey Perth Bayswater.

  3. Thank you for the article and an earlier one on 6/8. It seems so obvious that runnaway pop growth is negatively impacting on our way of life and leaving a mess for our children. Surely there is some way to get more people to listen to the message ?????
    Yours in frustration

  4. Dear Crispin,
    Thank you for the article. I admire your tenacity in plugging away at the population issue although it is an anathema to big business and shunned by government and parliament save for Kelvin Thomson’s lone voice.
    Regards Keith Ross.

  5. Hello Crispin,
    Loved the article. It is just a pity that more people don’t read it, but what can one expect from the public, after all they are busy watching the X factor and other such mind destroying programs.

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