Australia marking time IV: population

by Crispin Hull on January 28, 2018

THIS is the fourth in our four-part January series on how our politicians have not done a good job in adapting policy to changing circumstances or when policies do not work. This week we look at the related topics of infrastructure, population and environment, and briefly at defence.

(By the way, I have not touched on some major questions, particularly Indigenous affairs, in this series, mainly because I am not across those matters and others have greater insight – for example, my colleague Jack Waterford on Indigenous affairs and refugees and “homeland security”.)

The biggest circumstantial change in Australia in the past few decades has been population. In 1945, Australia had a population policy. It was populate of perish. Here was a wide open country that would welcome as many Europeans who wanted to come.

In the1980s we still had a population policy of sorts. Guilt ridden over the madness of our participation in the Vietnam War, the Fraser Government gave almost open slather to people fleeing the communist regime. Even in the late 1980s we had a population policy of sorts that said we would accept Chinese people (particularly students) in jeopardy because of the events in Tiananmen Square.

Since then, there has been no coherent policy on why we are taking people, why we are taking them from where we are, why we are taking the numbers we are taking, and more importantly, what is the optimum size of Australia’s population.

Logically, if Australia’s population grows at the rate it has been growing for the past 20 years in, say, 1000 years there will not be enough room on the Australian land mass for the people to stand in. So, logically, at some point we have to say, enough. The land mass cannot take any more.

In fact, we have gone well past that point already.

The good things in Australia are under threat.

Nearly all of our ills come down to over-population. We cannot keep up with the infrastructure demands: congestion, hospital queues, crowded classrooms, stressed infrastructure everywhere.

The Federal Government just signs off on a migrant intake that has no basis in economic reality and certainly does not reflect the capacity of the states to provide the infrastructure for them.

It is cruel and heartless on refugees for the sole purpose of ensuring that people do not turn against the industry-supported high immigration begun in the Howard years when the annual intake rose from around 70,000 to more than 200,000 every year. With natural increase added, it means that Australia has to build the equivalent of a city the size of Canberra every year, and growing.

There is no sense of direction or finality about it. It seems as though the people who make money from more people, the housing industry and retailers, urge the Government on, and the Government obeys. It seems that we have high immigration because we have always had immigration, without questioning its basis afresh. Few realise that if all immigration stopped tomorrow Australia’s population would still grow through natural increase.

There is also a moral imperative to limit economic immigration. At present a large number of our economic migrants come from countries where skills are more desperately needed than in Australia. We are depriving source countries of skills.

The people profoundly affected by high population growth – those the congested traffic or waiting for a hospital bed – do not get a say.

A population increase of 2 per cent a year seems small. But it is catastrophically large when you consider the real burden. Most infrastructure lasts an average of 50 years (a bridge, a road surface, a hospital a school). So just to keep up you need to replace 2 per cent of it every year. But if you increase the population by 2 per cent you need to provide 2 per cent more infrastructure for them. In effect a 2 per cent population growth means you have to double your infrastructure effort.

We are quite mad in Australia for government to allow such high population growth.

The answer to Australia’s infrastructure shortfall is not to spend more on the infrastructure supply side, but to lower the infrastructure demand size by reducing the immigration intake.

Housing estates are gobbling agricultural land. Water resources are stressed. And, of course, electricity networks are stressed.

We can now segue into the environment more generally. As in other areas mentioned in this series, the Federal Government has been and continues to be paralysed on the biggest issue of them all: climate change. It threatens the security of us all. So, instead of running fear campaigns against Muslims, African gangs, drugs and crime in general, we should have a campaign against the one thing we should fear most: climate change wreaking economic, social and human cost across the globe.

Turnbull should stop scratching in the sandbox looking over his shoulder at the coal conservatives and do what the states, local government, most corporations and a lot of individuals are doing on electricity: going for renewables. It makes economic sense, even if you do not care about the environment.

More importantly, unless Australia fulfills its international agreements on carbon reduction, it will be hit with trade sanctions. It is in our interest to abandon coal. We may have among the world’s largest coal reserves, but we also have among the world’s largest solar reserves and we have the highest percentage of households with solar on the roof.

We once led the world on solar power. We should have maintained the lead. We should not have abandoned the car industry. We should have transformed it to produce electric cars. The world cannot get enough of them.

Worse, having abandoned the car industry, the Coalition realised it needed a replacement to keep its South Australian seats.

So, it went with a massive military ship-building program to keep jobs in South Australia. Military spending, however, has much less trickle down than commercial spending. And worse still we are spending billions of dollars on the old technologies of manned submarines, fighter jets and warships when others are developing cheap missiles and drones that will make our assets so vulnerable as to be obsolete.

As with the earlier parts of this series, our politicians seem incapable of seeing the white elephant in the room and even if they saw it are, ironically, too paralysed by fear of electoral backlash to do anything. Yet the electorate is desperate for them to get on with it. May 2018 see a change of direction and some action.

CRISPIN HULL

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and Fairfax Media on 27 January 2018.

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