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An Australian population policy?

By Max Rawnsley - posted Wednesday, 5 December 2018

We have recently heard from Prime Minister Morrison and NSW Premier Berijklian on population and immigration. There is a growing concern at how quickly we have reached 25 million, its concentration in major cities and the strain it has placed on infrastructure in the wider sense. Not just roads and public transport but schools, tertiary education, energy, water, health service, housing, skill inventory etc. The populist conflation of ‘population’ with ‘immigration’, is likely to impoverish any rational discussion. No apparent discussion of the intended and unintended consequences of unmanaged population growth.

This should not be a revelation. There have been numerous references from parliamentary inquiries, public service and parliamentary committee papers and informed comment from demographers and peak bodies etc since 1949 at least. Politicians are unwilling to engage on the question of population.As John O’Sullivan commented in Quadrant November 2013, ‘’Immigration is one example of policies excluded by silence in many countries”.

 In February 2018 the Future Cities’ paper under then Minister Fletcher had a lengthy reference to infrastructure, closing with specific exclusion of‘The impact of population growth on other infrastructure sectors’ as well as other highly relevant issues stating “Their exclusion is a reflection of the inherent uncertainty that surrounds them and the bounds of what can be feasibly modelled and considered within one report’. The excluded components are relative to population, raising the question as to “Future Cities” relevance at all despite the defence proffered.


Minister Tony Burke’s portfolio failed to present Labor’s perspective. ‘Population’ was in his portfolio for nearly three years, 2010-2013, without any tangible result.

Andrew Leigh, Labor's Shadow Assistant Treasurer and Shadow Minister for Competition, canvassed many of the key issues in determining a population policy speaking at the Lowy Institute 13 March 2014. He favoured, on balance, a bigger population, calling on politicians to act on the challenge, he says is ‘rightly an immigration debate’. I suspect we will hear little of this apparent truism from Labor in the run up to the next Federal Election, a veritable Pandora’s Box in more than a few Sydney Labor held electorates.

Noted demographers Bob Birrell and Katherine Betts commented on the 2015 IGR in relation to the 2014-15 Federal Budget. They identified shortcomings that go to the substance of the 2015 Intergenerational Review, "Political elites have reached a tacit agreement not to debate the numbers.” They cite the IGR as being "a lukewarm endorsement of massive immigration fuelled population growth, an endorsement that ignores the equally massive costs".

IGRs incorporated Treasury ‘population’ estimates used in Federal Budgets. Notably IGR ‘population’ estimates under Swan Labor Budgets increased by circa 5m for 2040 between the 2007 IGR and 2010 IGR. 25m being projected for somewhere between 2019 and 2025. Maybe that was how he got the promised surpluses? Does Treasury set population policy?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) issues periodic ‘population’ assessments based on a series of net overseas migration assumptions.

Home Affairs published population assumptions

Where is the overarching Population Policy to guide Federal, State and Local government infrastructure planning and funding?


Is it not good planning to adopt and regularly test assumptions for such a critical projection as ‘population’? How should a ‘population’ policy relate to our major urban and regional centres? Where is the public consultation? Successful government includes carrying the people in key decisions.

Minister Tudge (with ’population’ in his current portfolio) recently returned to the idea of directing immigrants to regional places. It makes little sense until we know the detailed basis on which immigrants may be selected and directed. A useful approach but needs to be assessed in terms of local coping capacity, socially and economically. Yes, he spoke of infrastructure but that takes time, funding and planning to move beyond the thought bubble stage. And that is where the hard work of assessment of population options, forward planning and funding necessarily begins.

The Business Council of Australia’s 2015 submission identified 190,000 as the desirable immigration level with conditions. BCA indicated 35m  a likely population by 2050 and produced a clear statement of its ‘population’ perspective that is well worth consideration.

Where is the national, state and local ‘population’ policy coordination?

 At present and recent rates of immigration we need the equivalent of sizeable city created every year. There is an argument that infrastructure may absorb part of this demand.  However, we seem wedded to the cargo cult mentality based on hope and guesstimates.

There seems to be a reluctance to undertake an optimum population assessment despite, even in recent times, representations from demographers and others outlining why a population policy is important, stressing the need for it to be integrated into policy formation generally. It seems that the 1991 National Population Council conclusion ’It is inappropriate to enumerate an optimum population level or carrying capacity for Australia” has carried the day, thus far.

There is no apparent serious nationwide planning with well-considered input from Regional Development following Warwick Smith’s work and the Government response tothe Independent review of the Regional Development Australia program September 2016. Under Federal Minister Paul Fletcherthere has been a substantial focus on roads and an airport much of which deserves credit, but where is the population policy underpinning this work?

Ian Harper suggested we accept the big cities as a fact, an economic necessity. Let’s test that perspective.

The point of the above recitals is that we have more than a few Government sources of forward ‘population’ estimates. And some private perspectives well worth putting into the assessment of the optimum number.

Former Productivity Commission chair Gary Banks tells us, “Any policy not informed by evidence is guesswork.” He is correct; his assessment is a basis for concern. In this instance, at the lack of an Australian Population Policy based on a cohesive plan that serves the wider community.

The Productivity Commission is well placed to undertake population coping capacity assessment and to monitor progress of a population policy and the coping capacity development at Federal, State, Local Government and non-government investment level.

A first step is to wind back immigration until we have a plan that relates population to coping capacity. Then get the assessment underway by calling for submissions and co-opting government resources.

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About the Author

Max Rawnsley has an active interest in political economy. He has a commercial background as a CFO and COO in a listed US corporation as well as managerial and advisory experience in private education with a major interest in governance, legal and financial management. He has served as a local government councillor.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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