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Much more than a 'thought bubble'

By Dick Smith - posted Wednesday, 20 April 2011


I read with interest and not a little dismay the recent On Line Opinion article by Ross Elliott. Mr Elliott is a property developer and his views are consistent with those few who stand to benefit from ever-increasing population growth in Australia: developers, media companies and of course retailers. But for most Australians, the advantages would be few and the negative effects would be many.

I don't mean to be unkind to the developers. In fact, I suspect secretly many of them agree with me that our headlong rush for crude population growth is undermining the quality of life of many Australians and doing nothing to help the rest of the world either. Recently I addressed a gathering of the Property Council of Australia, and privately many of the attendees said they agreed with me. We simply haven't thought through the negative consequences of population growth for Australia or the world.

Far from being a mere 'Thought Bubble' as Mr Elliot suggests, I have given the question a great deal of thought in recent times, and will be expanding on them at length in a book, The Population Crisis, to be published next month. Let me give you a hint of what it contains. But first, I would like to dispel a myth or two.

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Firstly, Mr Elliot repeats a whopper first put out by the Murdoch Press which deliberately misreported my recent comments on the subject. I have never called for a 'two-child policy' as if there should be some kind of government edict setting a limit on the number of children Australian families should have.

Quite the contrary. I believe that once they are well-informed, Australians will make up their own minds about what they believe to be the right number of kids they have. What I do believe however is that it is high time we dump the wasteful baby bonus and other tax measures which currently cost us well in excess of $1 billion annually in artificially encouraging Australians to have three or more children. There are many good reasons to drop this silly scheme, not least of which is that it disadvantages those who choose to have small families, or none at all. Governments should get out of people's bedrooms full stop.

Again and again as I tour Australia discussing our failure to have a sensible plan for population, I ask simple questions: Why would we want to rapidly increase our population? What's so great about constant growth? What are the advantages for average Australians? I fail to ever get a convincing answer. The best the "pro-growthers" come up with is "because we can", and that of course, is no answer at all.

It's often claimed by the pro-growth lobby that Australia can never run out of land, because we have very low population density compared to our land mass. This is a really useless concept for making decisions about Australia's future. As has been well-established in report after report, Australia is best looked upon as two geographical nations: one a vast and arid interior with little value for settlement or agriculture; the other a narrow coastal strip with limited resources of soil, water and a fragile ecosystem. Necessarily it is this thin strip we must inhabit and it is far from being in endless supply.

Most mainland Australian capitals are now building highly expensive desalination plants just to supply drinking water for our existing population. Much of Australia is only just now emerging from a decade long drought that brought devastating consequences to our agricultural system. The history of climate in Australia - and the predictions of climatologists – suggest it is only a matter of time before drought returns and we must sensibly consider ourselves to be in a more-or-less permanent state of water scarcity. Dreams of turning back the northern rivers are nothing more than wishful thinking.

A lack of certainty with water means we must always be cautious about ensuring food security, not only for Australians, but for the millions of people around the world who depend on Australian grain and meat for their livelihood. For those who scoff at the idea of Australia one day running short of locally produced food, or having little or nothing to export, I urge you to read the report on our food security recently released by the nation's top scientific advisory body, the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council.

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The report sums up the challenge neatly, and makes it clear that our future is inextricably linked to population decisions:

The likelihood of a food crisis directly affecting the Australian population may appear remote given that we have enjoyed cheap, safe and high quality food for many decades and we produce enough food today to feed 60 million people. However, if our population grows to 35-40 million and climate change constrains food production, we can expect to see years where we will import more food than we export. We are now facing a complex array of intersecting challenges which threaten the stability of our food production, consumption and trade.

Like many developers, Mr Elliott sees our thin coastal strip as an abundant resource fit for exploitation. He has even previously written on the benefits of urban sprawl.

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About the Author

Dick Smith is one of Australia’s most recognised individuals. After a successful business career in retailing and publishing, Dick has become well known as a restless adventurer, making many pioneering and record breaking flights by helicopter, aeroplane and balloon.

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