– Is the new Population Strategy…. strategic?

Hmmmm......so, this is the sort of useful guidance a real strategy provides?

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.

It conveniently sets up early the idea that “where we live” is one of the key policy variables in the population debate. That might be true in the trite sense that there’d be less pressure on the capital cities if migrants settled in the country, but that’s not very useful. As the document itself notes, immigrants have a strong preference for urban areas. After all, that’s where most of the jobs are. Yet the strategy persists with the fiction that regional development will play a huge role in smoothing the path of growth. Decentralisation might play nicely to country seats and to the Government’s strengths like the NBN, but it’s unlikely to contribute much to alleviating growth pressures in urban areas.

Amazingly, the strategy says little of substance about the issues that dominate people’s concerns about coping with growth – issues such as housing affordability and inadequate public transport in the capital cities. It says little about the need to improve efficiency through initiatives like congestion pricing. Instead, the Budget throws some spare change at a Suburban Jobs Program ($101 m), Managed Motorways ($61 m) and Urban Renewal in outer suburbs and regional centres ($20 m) – yes, “motorways” and “outer suburbs”. These programs won’t necessarily be bad in themselves, but they sound somewhat bizarre in the context of the priorities implied by the population growth debate.

There are a number of assertions in the text that I’d take issue with – for example the claim that commuting times are too long – but they’re sideshows given the strategy’s bigger failures. But one matter of  ‘style’ really gets to me – the devaluing and demeaning of the term ‘sustainable’. There are 218 instances of ‘sustainable’ and 97 instances of ‘sustainability’ in a document that’s only 86 pages long (with heaps of graphics). That’s probably not surprising given the over-kill in the title, Sustainable Australia: Sustainable Communities. In this document, ‘sustainable’ is applied to anything and everything. It’s thrown around like confetti.

I acknowledge life is hard for a minority Government. However I do expect a serious, reasoned analysis, not a piece of utter fluff.

5 Comments on “– Is the new Population Strategy…. strategic?”

  1. brisurban says:

    I guess they realised that they have bugger all control over population and have quietly resigned to shifting the focus to what infrastructure etc might be needed to manage that- in other words business as usual…

  2. Simon says:

    Governments have some control over fertility as well as immigration. Funding child care and mandating parental leave and giving baby bonuses and family tax benefits etc. are all policies that transfer wealth from the childless to those with children, and are associated with higher rates of fertility in advanced economies.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Simon, see this quote from the Productivity Commission’s Submission to the Taskforce on the Sustainable Population Strategy for Australia (May, 2011, page 4):

      Migration is the component of population growth that is most amenable to influence by government policy, albeit with some constraints (such as limited influence over the rate of emigration)…….

      In contrast, natural increase is much more difficult to influence through policy. For example, government policy promoting medical research or subsidising diagnostics and treatment, might increase longevity and reduce death rates, but the effects would be indirect and uncertain. And the effect of targeted policies adopted in Australia to increase fertility, such as the Baby Bonus, is likely to have been modest (Lattimore and Pobke 2008).

      Therefore, the population debate is essentially a debate about the size and composition of migration flows, and about the best policies to manage these and the consequent domestic impacts. Policies to influence the natural increase component of population growth are, accordingly, not dealt with here.

  3. Alan Davies says:

    A view from University of Qld researchers on population projections

  4. I am not quite sure what you are talking about. However, this query should be taken under strict control of authorities.

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