There are two things the new population strategy the Federal Government released on Friday gets right. First, it dismisses the concept of a specific population target and instead focusses on making Australia more resilient to change (I’ve discussed this before). Second, it points out that population size is not the sole cause of problems like traffic congestion or lack of skilled labour.
But overall Sustainable Australia: Sustainable Communities is underwhelming. In fact whatever else this document might be, it’s not a strategy. ‘Strategy’ was originally a military term and refers to a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal. Whereas tactics are concerned with the conduct of an engagement – how a battle should be fought – strategy is concerned with the terms and conditions that it is fought on and, crucially, whether it should be fought at all.
I expect a population strategy for Australia should be looking at the range of possibilities for where the country could go in the future; the warrant for different choices; the costs and the benefits; and the various implications and knock-on effects. It should assess whether we want to embark on any of them and, if we do, what is the best way forward.
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 – maybe 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).
What is offered up to us with this document is none of those things. It’s a lot of very high-level and inoffensive motherhood statements and ‘principles’, combined with a lengthy description of a vast range of existing Government programs, from health to skills development to the NBN. If I were uncharitable I’d describe it as vacuous. This quote typifies the tone:
A sustainable Australia is made up of sustainable communities: communities that are vibrant, liveable places that have a mix of affordable housing, employment opportunities, access to services, transport and natural amenity.
That’s fair enough as far as it goes but the trouble is it doesn’t even take us to the front gate. Population growth is a serious business for Australia – we need a discussion that is couched in concrete terms and a strategy like this should provide direction and leadership. Population policy is essentially about immigration because that’s the only variable that can practically be affected by government action. Most of the concern with growth is around the impact on the functioning of our cities. Yet the strategy devotes considerably more attention to talking up regional development than it does to examining immigration. Read the rest of this entry »