While Population Minister Tony Burke may be new to the debate, the population debate itself is certainly not new to politics. In 1994 the Commonwealth commissioned an inquiry (the Jones inquiry) into Australia’s population and carrying capacity, yet the inquiry failed to make firm recommendations. One of the inquiry’s authors then wrote a book in protest of the ‘government’s timidity’ and concluded that “that a sensible population policy for Australia would be to aim at stabilising the population within a generation or so and that this was quite feasible if net immigration of something below about 50 000 a year (say 100 000 migrants in gross terms) could be maintained. Population would then more-or-less stabilise somewhere between 19 and 23 million (depending on actual immigration) sometime before 2050.”
Now, Tony Burke is faced with twin challenges of developing a policy position on population that keeps enough people happy to keep him in government.
We can easily run through some of the options available to Minister Burke – stimulate or dampen population growth. I suspect he would also like to encourage migration away from capital cities due to the ‘obvious housing shortage’, but as far as I can tell the Federal Government has little power to influence such regional migration (maybe an income tax relaxation depending on how remote your residence?)
To stimulate growth we could increase migration intake, and encourage higher birth rates – maybe $15,000 per child would do it? Or Burke could moderate population growth by reducing immigration quotas and discouraging high birth rates (by removing the baby bonus or even having a ‘child tax’).
But which option is best for Australia? Are there strong economic arguments in favour of either higher or lower population growth? I would argue that on balance, economic principles strongly favour a declining rate of population growth (even a negative rate of population growth not a problem).
For a start, we need to discredit some of the nonsense economics floating around. Bigger is not better. China and India both have plenty of people, while countries with the highest per capita incomes and standards of living generally have fewer people. China has greatly reduced population growth with its one child policy and seen vast economic growth – shouldn’t China have failed to grow because its population stabilised? The map above shows a pretty clear inverse relationship between population growth rates and standards of living.
Nor is a comparison of population density meaningful in this debate, or we could argue that any region with a low population density is ‘underpopulated’ (like Antarctica or the Simpson desert) because we have compared the region to Hong Kong or the Netherlands.
One core economic argument in favour of a greater population is that utility theory suggests that a trillion people living in poverty and slavery are better that one million happy and fulfilled people, leading lives directed by their own desires. It is known as the repugnant conclusion. I doubt anyone believes this is a good outcome, nor is claimed to be a good reason for greater population – it just happens to be at the heart of economic theory and can spawn unusual conclusions.
A second argument appeals to economies of scale and suggests that with greater domestic consumption industries can expand to a point where they have economies of scale that make them internationally competitive. Why domestic population is currently a barrier to industry development is beyond me. If there are no artificial constraints on trade, shouldn’t the world be the marketplace of any industry even in its infancy? This argument only works if you couple high population with protectionism (the infant industry argument, which itself is often challenged).
A third argument, that may be the focus of this debate, is that the demographic shift towards a flat population pyramid means that the proportion of people in the workforce will be much lower, and that public welfare support for the elderly will become a burden on a smaller workforce. However, one does not need to think too hard to realise that stimulating population growth simply delays this inevitable demographic shift. We have known this shift was coming for decades yet have failed to act. But it is not too late to implement solutions more practical than stimulation population growth.
Another argument is that of national security. Unless we have enough people, we won’t be able to defend our borders. To truly defend Australia from all others, how many people would we really need? 150million? More? This is a ridiculous argument and a reason we have strong allegiances with countries with large defence capabilities.
Apart from these arguments for high population growth over low growth or declining populations, Chris Joye cites the following reasons for a population minister, all of which have confusing and possibly contradictory implications including:
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