What the Population Strategy should do

I’m not surprised the Prime Minister has appointed a Minister for Population now that Australia is projected to accommodate 35 million people in 40 years time.

This is turning into a hot political issue. For example, it seems like every third comment on The Age website related to the Project Melbourne series is about population. A surprisingly large number of people think Melbourne is already too big and that issues like traffic congestion will be exacerbated by further growth.

The new Minister, Tony Burke, is charged with preparing a Population Strategy.  Let’s hope it will be much more than just a political response. Here’s what I think Mr Burke has to do.

He needs to build a consensus around a desirable level of population growth. He and the PM must be able to ‘sell’ a level that in net terms is good for both us and future generations in economic, social and environmental terms (and probably foreign policy terms too). That’s the main mission.

Then the Strategy will need to win support on how to go about delivering this level of population growth. More particularly, the Minister will need to examine five key areas:

  • Growth from natural increase
  • Growth from migration
  • Geographical distribution of growth
  • Infrastructure required to support growth (including financing)
  • Implications of growth for policy

It’s hard to see how an effective Strategy could avoid redefining immigration policy in crucial areas such as the appropriate level of migration, the geographical origin of migrants and skill requirements (although by keeping the Immigration portfolio separate, the PM probably hopes otherwise). It would be desirable however to set this task within the context of policy aimed at increasing the fertility of the existing Australian population. Given recent discussion of proposals for paid parental leave perhaps there is more scope here than is usually assumed.

The geographical distribution of growth could potentially be a disaster if it is presumed that Government can easily direct growth to preferred locations such as smaller cities and regional areas. I’ve previously written about some of the potential pitfalls of attempting to decentralise population growth. Regional areas have to be underpinned by some organic economic force such as a minerals or tourism industry – a successful regional community can’t be built just on the basis of population.

Equally, there are other pitfalls in the idea that our major cities are necessarily too big already. There are many cities in the world that are larger than Sydney and Melbourne. Some of them seem to be very desirable places judging by the number of people who want to live in them. There is also ample evidence that that the productivity of cities increases with size.

And big cities provide economies of scale in reducing the impact of population growth on the environment e.g. public transport. One of the key things that I’d like to see come out of the Strategy is a broader understanding that many of the ‘costs’ of growth like traffic congestion, overcrowded public transport and water shortages are risks – not inevitabilities.

There will be an enormous challenge in providing and financing the infrastructure required to support growth in our cities, but there’s no lack of technical solutions to issues like energy, water and transport. As ever, the main problems will be political. I have some views on what our priorities should be in equipping Melbourne to accommodate growth and I’ll post something shortly on that score.

Estimating the infrastructure required to accommodate growth and how to finance it will be hard enough, but identifying the impact of population growth in important areas like social cohesion and housing affordability, and articulating appropriate policy responses, will probably be much more difficult, both technically and politically. It’s hard to overstate just how many other policy areas will be affected by how fast and far we grow.

The Prime Minister has made the right call in deciding to develop a national population policy. This could be the most important and far-reaching initiative his Government takes.

5 Comments on “What the Population Strategy should do”

  1. […] a comment » The new Prime Minister’s subtle renaming of the Population portfolio to Sustainable Population suggests there’s a political agenda in play and a new way of […]

  2. […] No, Sydney and our other cities are not “bursting at the seams”, as I’ve argued before (here, here and here). But, nor is it accurate to characterise the ageing donut suburbs as “empty”. […]

  3. […] Given how fundamental this issue is to the future of Australia I’d expect to see some pretty sophisticated analysis. There might even be some data, some numbers, some theory and even some analysis. I’d expect to see the economic issues laid out and analysed with rigour – something like this. I’d expect to see immigration discussed in a meaningful way given that for practical purposes that’s the only aspect of population growth that we have much choice about. And I’d expect it to start with the strong likelihood that Australia will reach a population of 35 million around 2050 despite what governments do (I set out my expectations of the strategy 12 months ago). […]

  4. Johnyboy says:

    I do not think australia is going to reach that population. Why? I know alot of people who seem to get australian citzenship and or permenant residence and leave. I think its a dream that will not come into fruition. I think the recent changs to make it harder foreign students to stay will make this a reality.

  5. Johnyboy says:

    Again the rubbish about were the people should live. People go where the work is. That simple. When I say work. I mean work that is sufficient for them to live on. NOt the rubbish dished out in the media of hundreds of jobs in the country side where the pay is so low that the people have to live hand to mouth

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