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The real sustainability issue

By Mick Keogh - posted Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Having a debate about Australia’s future population is a useful process if it leads to action to prepare for the future, but not if it simply remains an opportunity for philosophical arguments based on misconceptions, as seems to be the case at present.

A population debate needs to start from a factual rather than a philosophical basis. The notion that an Australian population of 30 or 40 million would be environmentally unsustainable is clearly ridiculous. Australia is one of the least populated nations on earth, and our agricultural sector currently produces sufficient food and fibre for between 70 and 100 million people each year, the bulk of which is exported. A larger Australian population would simply mean some of these exports would be diverted to the domestic market, without using a single extra hectare of land or litre of water for food production.

An increased population would also mean increased urban water use, however urban per capita water use in Australia has dropped by 20 per cent over the last five years. Sydney now uses the same amount of water as it did in 1974, despite the population having increased by 1.2 million over that period. This shows that a much larger urban population can be supported without a dramatic increase in water diversions, and Australian cities haven’t even started to seriously utilise water recycling.


The real sustainability issue, however, is not how many people Australia can sustain, but where that future population will be located. Australia is one of the world’s most urbanised nations, and as A.D. Hope observed in his poem Australia written more than half a century ago, has “… five cities, like five teeming sores; each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state where second-hand Europeans pullulate timidly on the edge of alien shores.” This description is even more relevant today, and the real challenge associated with future population growth is how to accommodate that growth without simply creating even more unlivable and unmanageable megacities that totally consume the coastal regions.

Part of the solution must be greater population growth in regional Australia, away from the coast. Creating larger regional cities with populations between 200,000 and 300,000 would help reduce pressure on the capital cities, ease population pressure in coastal regions, and bring real and sustained economic growth to regional Australia.

Decentralisation was a policy approach adopted during the 1970s to expand regional centres such as Albury-Wodonga and Bathurst-Orange. The policies eventually fell out of favour; perhaps because changes take much longer than a three-year electoral cycle to achieve. Despite criticisms of those policies at the time, anyone visiting those cities and regions today is immediately impressed with their “liveability” compared to the major capital cities, especially if the visitors are used to a two-hour commute each morning and afternoon.

Creating regional employment growth is obviously the key to bigger future regional populations, and is a major challenge. The current mining boom is achieving this in some areas, but this needs to occur on a widespread basis. Governments have a role to play in this regard, both directly through decisions about the location of government agencies, and indirectly through the provision of services and infrastructure.

While decisions to decentralise government agencies away from the major capitals create some short-term angst, in the longer-term this can work very well. Government agencies dealing with mineral resources, the environment, water, land management, primary industries and transport could, in fact, be more effective from a regional rather than a capital city location.

Regionally-located customer service and data processing facilities have also worked extremely well due to lower costs and the more stable regional worker base, and there is no reason these developments could not be accelerated in the future.


Indirectly, governments also have policy options that can be used to stimulate regional growth. These include differential taxes and stamp duties for regional areas, which need to be implemented on a long-term basis to have a real impact. Other measures could include facilitating increased regional tourism, providing proportionally more student places to universities located in regional areas, and establishing regional business, education and training “hubs” for industries that are already dominant in particular regions.

In parallel with regional population growth, however, there must be improvements made to the availability and quality of services and infrastructure in regional areas, so that regional residents have equitable access to taxpayer-funded services that most Australians consider “essential”. These include health, education, transport and telecommunications services.

Research conducted for the Australian Farm Institute by the National Institute for Economic and Industry Research (NIEIR) in 2008 measured the adequacy of essential services in regional Australia by comparing the costs of accessing these services for urban and regional residents. The research identified that people living in rural and regional areas have to spend between two and ten times as much to access the same “basket” of essential services as people living in urban areas, with the biggest cost differences being for health and education services. This cost disadvantage is a big disincentive for residents thinking about moving from capital cities to regional areas. It is also a big cost for regional families with young children, who are the future population base of regional areas. The extent of this cost disadvantage provides strong justification for differential taxation and other policies to redress the inequality, and at the same time to make regional areas more attractive for new residents.

Improving the accessibility of essential services for regional Australians is a major challenge for governments, and a key element of sustainable population growth. This does not mean that exactly the same essential services need to be available in every town, but it does mean that governments need to find new and innovative ways to provide access to services, or to adjust the cost disadvantage. The proposed National Broadband Network could be a very important part of better regional access to services, if regional areas were given priority in its implementation.

In conclusion, Australian can easily accommodate a much larger population, while at the same time enhancing environmental sustainability and the quality of life of its citizens. This will require new thinking about the role of regional Australia in sustainable population policies. It will also require an abandonment of some of the arid and unimaginative policies that have produced the five teeming sores that A.D. Hope so eloquently described half a century ago.

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About the Author

Mick Keogh is the Executive Director of the Australian Farm institute. The Australian Farm Institute is an independent policy research institute that carries out research into issues that impact on agriculture and regional Australia.

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