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Red faces over the Immigration Departmentís 'Red Book'.

By Mark O'Connor - posted Tuesday, 11 January 2011

It seems that DIAC, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, can't grasp the idea of sustainable population.

The Australian Financial Review (6 January 2011) contained a scoop that has left red faces in the Immigration Department. [‘Bigger Australia a must: Immigration’, Steven Scott, 5 January 2011]. Under Freedom of Information, the Fin. Review has got hold of large chunks of the Department's "Red Book", the briefing papers it offered to the incoming Gillard government after the 2010 federal election. Though much was censored, even what remains is an eye opener. Steven Scott reports:

The Department of Immigration said "it is unclear what level or range of NOM (net overseas migration) is compatible with sustainable population growth". But it warned a figure of about 180,000 a year would be needed to "enable the labour force to continue to grow at around 1 per cent per annum, offsetting the impact of population ageing".


If the Red Book’s authors had been writing an undergraduate essay they might well have been failed for their failure to grasp the concept of a sustainable population. This has the well-understood meaning in biology of a human population that can live off its environmental "interest" without running down its environmental "capital". They also fail to mention the Australian Academy of Science’s advice that to push population beyond 23 million (not far from the present 22.5 million) would be irresponsible, and would damage both the environment and the quality of life of future generations. Why, despite computerization and automation, we need an ever-increasing workforce, is also not explained.

Nor do the authors of the Red Book seem to understand that there is no such thing as sustainable population growth, at least not if by growth you mean (as they do) steady percentage growth, a form of compound interest that rapidly accumulates - or rather, multiplies exponentially. The statistician Professor Albert Bartlett has pointed out that at a steady growth-rate of 1% a year (which the Red Book seems to regard as modest) it would take less than 18,000 years before the number of human bodies in Australia exceeded the estimated number of atoms in all the stars in all the galaxies in the universe! On a shorter scale, Java in 1800 had a sustainable population of under 5 million and a largely intact natural environment. It took less than 200 years of growth, at rates less than the Department has presided over in Australia, to turn it into one of the most crowded places on Earth. On a still shorter scale, Bartlett points out that our current 1.8% annual growth would, if continued, produce an unfeedable 100 million Australians before the end of this century.

It seems the authors of the Red Book tried to deter Gillard from her promise to the electorate that if re-elected she would discard Rudd’s “big Australia” in favour of “sustainable population”. Scott reports Labor has been told it faces a budget black hole from a large and protracted drop in foreign students wanting to study in Australia that will not be offset by increased business appetite for skilled migrants.

Note the assumption that immigrants bring major economic benefit, which the Department re-erects as an assumption despite repeated refutations, most recently from the Productivity Commission.

Scott continues:

Changes to the Migration Program have a direct budget impact through revenue lost from visa application charges and an indirect effect through migrants' net revenue contributions," the red book says. "This indirect effect is large and positively associated with the size of the Migration Program.


Note the absurd attempt to raise concern by suggesting that the Department’s visa fees are an important part of the national balance sheet, which will be lost if NOM falls. The Red Book fails to mention a crucial point made by Jane O’Sullivan in Online Opinion last year. Each extra Australian, whether added by natural increase or by net migration, imposes infrastructure costs of over $200,000. (Indeed William Bourke has since argued that the costs may be as high as $500,000 per person. Such costs utterly dwarf any economic benefit immigrants bring to the department's budget through visa fees, or indeed any contribution to campus budgets.

If living standards are not to fall, this extra infrastructure ought to be provided in advance of each newcomer’s arrival, in which case the pre-existing population will pay in full. If the provision of infrastructure is allowed to slip into arrears, then the newcomers (through taxes) will pay some of the cost; but both they and the pre-existing population will also pay in a different way, by suffering the frustrations of inadequate infrastructure (e.g.over-crowded trains, traffic jams, hospital queues). It is no secret that the areas of Australia with highest rates of population growth are showing exactly this problem. Moreover, even if one takes the lower figure of $200,000, O’Sullivan shows that at recent population growth rates it is simply not possible for governments to raise enough money through taxes to pay for the infrastructure required.

The Red Book's claim about the crucial value of "migrants' net revenue contributions" is thus an untruth. As reported in my book This Tired Brown Land, the Department made repeated attempts in the 1980s and 1990s to prove that immigrants are (on average) net contributors to consolidated revenue. The most that could be proved was that immigrant Australians eventually become, like the rest of us, net contributors. (After all, how would the law-courts or diplomacy, or indeed, government, be funded if citizens did not on average give the government far more money than they get back from it?) However the Department’s most thorough study, carried out by Professor Russell Matthews, showed just the reverse: that new migrants are a large net cost and have strong impoverishing effects on government budgets. It is alarming to find the Department implying otherwise.

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About the Author

Mark O'Connor is the author of This Tired Brown Land, and co-author of Overloading Australia: How governments and media dither and deny on population, by Mark OíConnor and William Lines. He blogs at He blogs at

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