04 April 2010

Australia’s population

Today’s edition of The Age advises us on the front cover that the Prime Minister has done a backflip on the question of the size of Australia’s population (see Rudd flips on ‘big Australia’ here):

The federal government will consider slashing Australia's annual migration intake to help tackle concerns about traffic congestion, housing, hospitals, water and the environment.

Just months after declaring himself in favour of a ''big Australia'', Prime Minister Kevin Rudd yesterday warned of ''legitimate concerns'' with population growth and appointed Agriculture Minister Tony Burke as Australia's first Population Minister.

There is a debate to be had about the size of Australia’s population, to be sure: we live on an ancient and fragile landmass, with thin soils, limited (and over-allocated) water, man-made salinity problems, species extinction, loss of biodiversity and other problems. If Tony Burke is to find a way of addressing those problems, then all to the good.

But “slashing Australia’s annual migration intake” is a remarkably blunt instrument with which to tackle traffic congestion or concern about houses or hospitals or water and the environment.  We would be quite capable of making a mess of all of those without a single extra migrant.

Unfortunately the lack of political imagination is such that whenever there is talk of doubling the size of Australia’s population our political “elites” assume that this automatically means passively accepting a doubling of the size of Sydney, Melbourne and the other state capitals, crowding more and more people into taller and taller buildings spread along ever more congested transport corridors and dragging water from further and further away to provide for their needs.

Dear old Tom Uren had an alternative back in the 1970s, with his policies for Land Commissions to undertake orderly development (and provide for “affordable housing”) on the urban fringe, and designated growth centres to take the pressure off the capital cities.  This would be complemented by improvements to urban public transport.  Tom’s colleague Transport Minister Charlie Jones thought that action should be taken to develop fast rail to Canberra in order to avoid the need for a second Sydney airport.

Of course Tom Uren was not only from the Labor Party, but from the old guard Labor Left, so he was a crank by definition and no-one had to take his ideas seriously. The Land Commissions have gone, Albury-Wodonga was allowed to wither on the vine, the reserved public transport corridors were sold off, the urban sprawl continues, and housing affordability is one of the issues du jour.

Yesterday on her Radio National program Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue rounded off an interview with Louis Armstrong’s latest biographer by playing Velma Middleton and Louis himself singing the classic Loveless Love. There is a line about “dreamless dreams and schemeless schemes”. That just about sums up Australian politics today.

Or as another Labor Old Guard gentleman, The Hon. RFX Connor, was fond of saying, quoting Proverbs 29:18:

Where there is no vision, the people perish.

We do not need a plan to determine how large a population we can manage on the basis of the current lack of investment in vital infrastructure and the current scandalous incapacity of our state governments to develop and implement any coherent plan about anything. We do however need a plan to ensure that the needs of our precious environment and its embodied ecosystems are fully taken into account in providing for our future, so that whatever growth in the population takes place, and whatever the policy settings about population growth might be, it can be managed sustainably.

1 comment:

Winton Bates said...

Nice post, Paul. I followed the link from Jim Belshaw's blog.
Perhaps the first thing the pollies should do if they want to improve understanding of the issues is to stop talking about 'carrying capacity'. Do they really think their role is analogous to that of farmers trying to decide the optimal number of sheep to run per hectare?