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 »
It’s easy to see why that most Whitlamesque of policies – decentralisation – has been revived in this election campaign. Not only does it offer the familiar prospect of more jobs and economic activity in regional areas, it can also be sold as improving the quality of life in our crowded, heaving cities.
However I think the Minister for Sustainable Population, Tony Burke, is stretching credibility with his latest claim about what’s driving decentralisation.
Speaking at the National Press Club debate last Thursday, Mr Burke argued that the decentralisation debate is different now to what it was 40 years ago. Then, he argues, it was all about moving people to regional areas by relocating government departments. Now however decentralisation is:
“being driven by the market through the movement of retirees, through the mining boom and through the roll-out of the National Broadband Network, which allows businesses that previously could only be located in the heart of the CBD to locate in other areas”
His use of the present tense is curious because there’s little evidence of actual decentralisation away from Australia’s two ‘super cities’ – Sydney and Melbourne – to regional centres over the last five years. Sydney grew 1.4% p.a. over 2004-05 whereas regional NSW grew by 1.1%. In Victoria, Melbourne grew 2% p.a. but the remainder of the State grew 1.4% p.a.
But it’s the drivers of growth he cites that I find even more curious. Read the rest of this entry »
The new Prime Minister’s minor renaming of the Population portfolio to Sustainable Population suggests there’s a political agenda in play and a new way of thinking about “big Australia”. The terms sustainability and population have been conflated so the Government can walk a new path through the “big Australia” and “boat people” minefields.
But what it’s also saying is that you can’t have one without the other – population growth and environmental sustainability have to be traded off. The two concepts are necessarily in conflict, always and forever.
While that’s perhaps true in a narrow sense, it doesn’t follow that Geelong is necessarily more environmentally sustainable than Melbourne (according to the ACF it isn’t!) or that both have a lower environmental “footprint” than New York.
In fact despite its considerably larger size, New York is substantially more environmentally sustainable than Melbourne. Large concentrations of people provide economies of scale in, for example, the consumption of energy by favouring travel by public transport and smaller, attached dwellings. Bigger is often more environmentally sustainable.
Of course bigger cities also tend to produce larger negative externalities. But the main reason that size is often accompanied by problems like traffic congestion and unaffordable housing is the failure of political and policy systems. Read the rest of this entry »
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. Read the rest of this entry »