January 12th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: Eyewitness in East Timor

Editorial: Population - time for a new approach

Canberra Observed: Howard understands ALP better than it knows itself

Straws in the Wind: Cries for help / Political terrorism / Opium of the children

Public policy and the family

Books: Demons and Democrats - Re-evaluating Labor's disastrous 'Splits'

Media - Selective indignation / Ideological consistency

US welfare cuts coming home to roost?

Trade: Debt will return to haunt us

The search for meaning

Books: Don't despair: 'The Skeptical Environmentalist', by Bjorn Lomborg

'Queen Victoria: A Personal History', by Christopher Hibbert

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Editorial: Population - time for a new approach

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, January 12, 2002

After many years of being virtually ignored, the issues of migration and population have forced themselves onto the national agenda.

There is a volume of evidence which shows that increasing population is accompanied by improved living standards, longer life expectancy, and increased employment.

Conversely, countries with stagnant or declining populations - such as those of Russia, Japan and some of the nations of Western Europe - suffer from rising levels of unemployment, shorter life expectancy and declining living standards. As a result, many West European countries are anxiously reversing policies to address these problems.

It is therefore surprising that there is a politically influential body of opinion in Australia against any increase in population, against immigration and Australia’s intake of refugees, when arguably, all of these should be increased.

While some people have blamed this on racism or xenophobia, in my view, the principal cause is that Australia’s population is crowded along the coastal fringe - around Perth in Western Australia, and in a narrow band stretching from Adelaide to North Queensland, between the Great Dividing Range and the sea. This has created the appearance that Australia is overcrowded, when most of the rest of the continent is sparsely populated, or empty.


If present policies are continued, this trend will simply worsen.

The Bureau of Statistics’ population projections suggest that Sydney’s population by the year 2050 will rise from less than 4 million to over 5.3 million; while Melbourne’s is expected to grow from about 3.3 million to 4.3 million over the same period. Brisbane’s population is expected to almost double, to about 3 million.

Can anything be done about it? About a year ago, the then Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock emphatically told the Australian Population Association’s Conference that "the government plays a key role in population issues. It is a fallacy that governments only govern within the context of the electoral cycle.

"The most cursory glance at policy decisions in many fields including immigration, the environment, health and age care, retirement income and the labour market should demonstrate as much to any reasonable observer."

Mr Ruddock added that "ageing leads to the labour force diminishing as a proportion of the total population. This means fewer workers and more dependents. If the gap between the size of the labour force and the size of the population keeps expanding it will ultimately have very significant economic repercussions.

"The amount of economic output per person - GDP per capita - will be affected unless the output of each worker increases to make up the difference.

"Public spending is also affected, with fewer workers paying tax and more older people calling on services such as health, age care and pensions. This is why countries such as Germany and Japan are currently attempting to reform their retirement income schemes. Without reform, Germany will be spending 18.5 per cent of GDP on pensions by 2035" (APA Conference papers, December 1, 2000).

While the Government is clearly concerned about Australia’s demographic problem, and the need for continued migration, it has been almost completely silent about several important policy issues, including the excessive centralisation of population in the capital cities, the decline in Australia’s primary and secondary industries, and inadequate family policy.

Unless Australia’s population is more widely dispersed throughout the inland of the continent, there will be increasing political pressure - and not just from the anti-immigration forces or the Greens - to stop the urban sprawl.

This can be addressed by a strong decentralisation policy, designed to make attractive living in rural and regional Australia.

Such policies have been important for the development of rural Australia over the past century; but in recent decades, have been abandoned in pursuit of national competition policy and economic rationalism.

Additionally, there is a strong need for the Australian government to follow the example of the United States and Western Europe, to encourage the growth of viable primary industry and manufacturing, preferably in rural and regional Australia.

This could be achieved by a concerted policy of developing Australia’s food processing industries, instead of relying on imported processed foodstuffs.

The most recent OECD figures show that manufacturing industry in Australia produces only around 12 per cent of GDP, compared with 19 per cent in other advanced Western economies. If Australia was at the OECD average, there would be around an additional 600,000 jobs in manufacturing industry in Australia.

Finally, current policies have clearly made little impact on the problem, and some - such as the $1.4 billion on child care, to get mothers back into the workforce - worsen them. Government policy must end the disincentives to women, particularly young women, having children.

  • Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council

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