Speech to the ACT Branch Sustainable Population Australia 12 May 2010
Earlier articles on population are here:
ONE of the encouraging things about Australian democracy is that governments very often make worthwhile changes. They get it right. From seat-belts to exchange-rate deregulation and from freedom of information to motor-vehicle standards. The list goes on.
They also get things wrong. Botched insulation schemes. Cruel treatment of refugees. Subsidies for coal mining and “clean coal” and so on.
We hope that governments get it right more often than they get it wrong.
More importantly we hope that they get it right on policies which matter most – the ones that affect us in significant ways.
When governments make major mistakes, the results can be catastrophic for millions of people – the Cultural Revolution; the foolish Five Year Plans in the Soviet Union; the failure of the US Government to avert Civil War in the mid 19th century; the invasion of Iraq; the failure of Argentina to curb population growth so the nation fell from one of the richest in the world to among the poorest, and so on.
We hope Governments do not make these mistakes. But we need more than hope. We need to understand why governments do the right thing and why do the wrong thing. We need to find the processes and influences that move governments from making bad decisions to making good decisions, so we as individuals and organisations can move them in the right way.
In a democracy, of course, we have a better chance of doing this. Sure, democracies have their drawbacks. The main one is that everyone gets the vote: the ignorant, apathetic and stupid as well as the intelligent, interested and well-informed.
Even more troubling is the fact that there appear to be more ignorant, apathetic and stupid voters than intelligent, interested and well-informed ones.
Nonetheless, in a democracy, ordinary people have a better chance of influencing government than in other systems, even if the rich and powerful can still disproportionately influence government.
I don’t want to preach to the converted here. But I will give some background to Australia’s population position before looking at how governments can be influenced.
Australia’s growth (2.1% in 2009) is ahead of the world average (1.14%) – almost double it. And more than double that of the US (0.9) and Canada (0.9).
It is ahead of the peak world population growth in late 1960s of 2 per cent – regarded then as a time bomb. The world’s population was then doubling every 35 years. Now Australia’s population is doubling every 33 years.
The world’s 6.8 billion will not double until 2070. Australia’s will double by 2043 to 46 million and to 92 million by 2076 and 100 million well before the end of the century.
We know it can’t go on forever like this. In a few hundred years there will be less than 100 sq m per person. You won’t be able to play tiddlywinks, let alone football.
Do we want to control it, or let it control us?
Some of us were writing, talking and warning about this long ago. I have got columns (available on my website) going back to the 1990s saying Australia’s population was about right, and that 50,000 immigration a year was easily enough to fulfill social, family and economic needs without causing population growth.
I was almost a lone voice. Almost lunatic fringe. Though for a while I had some influence as Editor of The Canberra Times and made lower population growth an editorial policy of the paper – very much a lone media voice then.
Then came the Hawke-Keating immigration boost (the import a Labor voter scheme) and Costello’s “one for the country” idiocy and Howard’s “import some cheap labour to help your corporate mates”.
People started to worry. In January 2009 Mark O’Connor published “Overloading Australia”.
The month before I wrote a column slamming the property and real-estate industries for profiteering on high immigration.
I pointed out that the Housing Industry Association in its monotonous and continuous whinge about poor housing affordability had never once proffered the advice to cut immigration. It had taken population growth as a given and argued for all sorts of self-serving measures to boost housing construction instead.
The HIA even threatened legal action. Perhaps the truth hurts. Fortunately, the 2006 defamtion reforms meant the HIA faced a formidable task so it never took action. Or maybe it thought that as an industry organisation engaged in public debate it would not look good to sue over a policy matter.
Slowly the issue was getting a bit more media attention.
Then in October 2009 came a political turning point. Kerry O’Brien on the 7.30 Report asked Prime Minister Kevin Rudd about the Treasury’s new Intergenerational Report. The previous report, issued in 2007, had estimated Australia’s population would grow from 21 million to 28.5 million 50 years hence. The new report projected that it would hit 35.9 million by 2050.
O’Brien said: ”A 60 per cent increase in Australia’s population over the next four decades . . . is a significant jump again on the projections that Treasury made only two years ago…”
Rudd replied, ”Well, first of all, Kerry, let me just say: I actually believe in a big Australia. I make no apology for that. I actually think it’s good news that our population is growing.
”Contrast that with many countries in Europe where in fact it’s heading in the reverse direction. I think it’s good for us; it’s good for our national security long term; it’s good in terms of what we can sustain as a nation.”
That triggered a fair amount of further media interest.
I think it was a turning point for Rudd and his Government. Most media commentators see more recent events (dumping of the ETS, the insulation and schools debacles and so) as the turning point, but I think media political commentators see federal politics like a football match in which there are two sides – one is winning and one is losing. The election is like the whistle at the end of the grand final. One team has won. We all go away for a bit and the contest starts again.
So when they look at the polls they only see the two-party preferred vote, which did not turn till later.
But I think the turning point came with the population comment. After October 2009, Labor’s PRIMARY vote never again rose above 50% in the Morgan poll (and others were similar).
That was the point when people started to question Rudd’s motives and beliefs, even if they were not ready to commit to the other side just yet in the polling.
The population statement revealed:
Rudd, once a man who researched and got in the information – or at least ordered research and information by setting up inquiries – laid out a plan and then in the best interest of the nation ordered in the bureaucrats to execute it, had changed.
Contrast that approach with the new population statement. It smacked of “I like a big Australia because it makes me the Prime Minister look big and important when I strut the world stage.”
Australians don’t like that.
Then the planning, careful, bureaucratic persona of Rudd got a further hammering when he said:
“I don’t have official advice before me as to what is, quote, an ideal population figure for Australia,” he said.
“I have simply taken the information provided to me as my predecessors have about where it’s headed.”
What. The leader of the nation who asked people to vote for him and trust him because he could plan the direction and improvement of the nation had no idea, no plan, no concern about the fundamental question of what Australia’s population should be.
The population statement was the first major chink in Rudd’s credibility as a national leader.
It also set him apart from the people he leads. The struggling commuters of Sydney and Melbourne, choked in traffic. The benighted young couples who keep saving for a deposit on a house which is never quite big enough. The people on the city fringe without public transport. The people in endless hospital queues. The people on water restrictions. The people who are concerned about global warming and species extinction.
It is all very well for Rudd to say the answer is to build the infrastructure to meet the population. But they know it is never going to happen. Suddenly a lot of ordinary people started to ask: why have all this extra population putting strains on everything? Some are starting to understand why: so a few profiteers can get ever more wealthy and privileged positions in society. And they don’t like it.
How did this come about?
I think we are seeing a new phenomenon in public life. I call it the “trickle across” effect.
In this instance the Government’s usual media management went haywire. Until the Howard Government or certainly under the Hawke Government, governments tended to deal with the media piecemeal. Ministers were allowed to be interviewed. Comment was much freer. Their media training involved learning how not to answer questions or how to put the best foot forward when asked questions.
Then Hawke Keating, and more masterfully Howard and Rudd learned total media management. The Government would decide what issue was to be spoken about and what was to be said – right down to scripting the answers. No other issue could be canvassed. Media questions were corralled back to the issue the Government had decided would be the issue.
Only some obvious disaster or revelation would divert the Government. And even these were quickly put under wraps with a series of stock replies that all government members would parrot. Everyone had to be “on message”.
Now, in that democratic world I painted above, in which there are many stupid, ignorant and apathetic people, the media has huge influence. The vast ruck of voters get nearly everything they think or feel about politics from media or from family and friends who in turn get it from a slightly more diligent consumption of the media.
If the Government stays on message in constant election mode, it can keep the voters with it for a long time.
And bear in mind the main aim of government is not to govern in the long-term interests of the Australian people, but to govern in a way that maximizes its chances of being re-elected at the next election and maybe the one beyond that, but not much more.
This media beast has been much tamer in the two decades from the late 1980s than it was before, and tamer than I suspect it will be in the future. Governments could hand out favours to the serious print and ABC media and it trickled down to the glib, shallow tabloids and commercial broadcasters.
But the population question has been different because of the links to everything else. A government looks silly when says it is trying to deal with congestion, housing, environment, greenhouse, infrastructure, roads, hospitals and schools and yet it ignores the elephant of population.
Successive governments of both persuasions have refused to acknowledge the elephant because their big corporate donors get cheaper labor, more consumers for their goods, more profit from rising land values, or they think that the people arriving will be more likely to vote for them. They took high population as a given. They were helped by the fact that in the past its benefits have outweighed its detriments.
But some people did not accept high population growth as a given, and started to say so. Many were articulate enough to knock down the previous presumptions and persuade others.
Enter the trickle across effect of the modern media. New websites (easy and cheap to set up) dedicated to this issue or dedicated to commentary in general; email subscriptions; comments on newspaper websites. These are not hampered by the usual idiocy of “balance” in the letters page, or space constrictions, or plain censorship of “fringe” views.
The sort of people commenting on them (at least those that do at some length) are often articulate, intelligent, well-educated and well-informed.
This stuff, then, is not restricted to dinner parties and the odd public meeting, as it was in the past. Its gets out into a wider public domain. Sure, it is not anywhere near as wide as the traditional media. But it is influential because it is easily accessible by journalists in the traditional media. They pick it up. They have been picking it up – and far more of it than they would in the days of the dinner party and public meeting. They use it.
Journalists have no compunction about picking up other people’s ideas and running them as their own or as a basis for “well-informed” questioning of politicians and people in power.
This is the “trickle across” effect. It works. I know. I’m a journalist and I’m part of the trickle.
This is why Kerry O’Brien asked his question, and others have followed suit.
Rudd might think the issue will “go away”. It won’t. A Minister for Population offers only a small respite.
The government will be grilled when the next population/immigration/affordability figures come out.
Moreover, I suspect the “trickle across” effect will apply to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. When it brings down its next GDP figures, it will either adjust them for population growth itself, or it will see some well-educated, numerate people doing it for them, and through the “trickle across’ effect will expose the economic growth fallacy.
If economic “growth” falls below 2.1 per cent (the population growth) the public will know we are in a per capita recession. They will know why they are “doing it tough” as the politicians’ phrase goes. And politicians will not get away with saying we are doing better when per capita (what counts) we are doing worse.
The trickle across effect works because well-informed people now have a platform. For example, they can put cogent arguments about why infrastructure demand doubles when you have a 2 per cent population increase. They can put vast amounts of material into the public domain which will be picked up by mainstream media.
And they are smart enough to brush aside the “racist” brush which the growth protagonists like to paint people concerned about population with — because most people arguing for sustainable population are the very same people arguing for a bigger refugee intake and more humane treatment of refugees.
I hope this persuades governments (or any persuasion) to change their ways because fear of voter vengeance or the force of the arguments will be more powerful than concern about upsetting their donors and the growth lobby.