March 10th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Family home in cities soaring further out of reach

EDITORIAL Australia: sleepwalking towards the precipice

CANBERRA OBSERVED Population debate needs development debate

NATIONAL AFFAIRS We need a development bank and a higher population

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Russians were spoilers: U.S. election rap sheet

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Bob Santamaria and free trade agreements

LAW AND FREEDOM Exemptions are far cry from protection of religious freedom

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS China v Professor Brady: intimidation or coincidence?

POLITICS AND SOCIETY Defending biological man and woman from transgenderism

SOUTH AUSTRALIA Swing to minor parties expected in SA poll

ASIA Burma: ignored and misunderstood

HISTORY The improbability of progress

MUSIC Playing the pitch: being in tune is a sometime thing

CINEMA Wonder: Our deeds are our monuments

BOOK REVIEW Exploring our own recent archives

BOOK REVIEW Rising in a society fractured at heart

BOOK REVIEW A dubious thesis but deserves a read

NEWS Pat Byrne elected new NCC president

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Liberals return for second term in Hobart

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Population debate needs development debate

by NW Contributor

News Weekly, March 10, 2018

If Australia’s long period of uninterrupted growth were to come to an abrupt end, one crucial immediate question would be whether the country’s political stewards had used their country’s period of good fortune prudently.

This applies particularly to infrastructure, which at present is geared towards trying to keep pace with a rapidly growing population, rather than laying the foundations for the country of the future and the lives of the generations of Australians that are to come.

Blessed with abundant natural resources, especially iron ore, coal and gas, and its proximity to the emerging super power of China, which is undergoing the most transformative period in its history, Australia has enjoyed an extraordinary period of extended prosperity.

Ironically, China’s forward-looking infrastructure program is vastly superior to Australia’s.

Australia is forecast to pass the 25 million people mark as soon as the end of this year. Since 1990 the population has grown by an astonishing 8 million people, who have had to be powered, housed, schooled, policed, hospitalised and transported.

This has placed enormous pressure on state and federal government infrastructure works.

In a thoughtful and measured speech to the Sydney Institute recently, Tony Abbott called for a reduction in immigration numbers to ease infrastructure pressures in our cities, take pressure off housing prices, improve employment prospects and wages for Australians who already live here, and to assist with the issues of integration.

On a per-capita basis, Mr Abbott pointed out, Australia’s immigration remains about the highest in the developed world.

“At the subsequent and current rate, every five years, we’re letting immigration alone increase our population by about the size of the city of Adelaide,” he said.

“Just 16 years ago, in the first Intergenerational Report, it was expected that our population would not reach 25.3 million till 2042. But due to current immigration levels, we’re going to achieve that figure next year – or 23 years early.”

Regrettably, Mr Abbott’s speech created friction with his former cabinet colleagues, who shot down his slower-immigration thesis on the basis of conventional big business and Treasury thinking that a larger population is always “good” for the economy.

Mr Abbott further argued that until infrastructure, housing stock, and integration had “caught up”, we simply have to move the overall numbers substantially down.

“A strong migration program in the long term doesn’t preclude a smaller one in the short term, especially when there’s acute pressure on living standards and quality of life,” he said.

Rather than embarking on a plan for a future nation with a much larger population, Australia’s infrastructure planning is about playing catch-up, such as building new roads to ease congestion, and rail links to transport commuters from the new outer suburbs.

Infrastructure spending is indeed quite large and in many cases straining the ability of government and the private sectors to meet promised deadlines. For example at the last budget the Federal Government committed to spending $75 billion through to 2026–27.

Yet the list of slated projects does sound impressive and includes $5.3 billion for the new Western Sydney Airport at Badgery’s Creek. There is $10 billion for a National Rail Program, $8.4 billion for the Melbourne-to-Brisbane Inland Rail Project, $1.6 billion for the North-South Corridor in Adelaide, $1.5 billion for the WestConnex project in Sydney.

Other smaller but important projects include $700 million for the Perth Metronet rail project, $500 million for regional passenger rail in Victoria, and $844 million for the Bruce Highway in Queensland.

The Inland Rail, a pet project of the Nationals, is to be funded through an $8.4 billion equity investment in the Australian Rail Track Corporation and a public-private partnership. Proponents say the Inland Rail will have “enduring benefits” in terms of greater export opportunities and access to markets for regional communities.

However, apart from the Inland Rail, there are few projects that seek to build new cities or population centres outside the existing large capital cities.

Infrastructure Australia, the independent statutory body that assesses and prioritises national projects, boasts that all projects it ticks off are based on “transparent” decisions, that its conclusions are all “evidence-based” decision making, using “consensus” between governments, while its list remains “a living document”.

It sounds like script from the ABC’s satire Utopia rather than an integrated plan for the future.

Mr Abbott’s warnings about a too rapid immigration program may be dismissed, but if the current rapid population growth policy is to be pursued, it is absolutely essential that the Government (and the Opposition, for that matter) take Australia’s long-term future infrastructure needs and population far more seriously.

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