Informed discussion of population issues is vital to the development of policies that will enable us to best manage our future. However, discussion needs to move beyond simply barracking for a particular population target.
Before we start picking targets, even if that were appropriate, we need to focus on developing a better understanding of the impact of population change on many critical public policy areas. The lessons that Peter McDonald has taught us about what is demographically feasible and what is not are also important to an informed
The Government has invested very significant resources into research and policy development into a range of policy areas impacted by population change. For example, in addition to the extensive research into these issues that I have commissioned, my colleague the Minister for Family and Community Services has commissioned
significant research into the impact of an ageing population on the social security budget as well as into the causes of fertility decline.
The Minister for Health has developed a National Strategy for an Ageing Australia which is a framework to address the economic and social impact of ageing.
The Minister for the Environment will be issuing the next State of the Environment report which will complement the work that the CSIRO is currently doing on the relationship between population and the environment.
In accordance with the Charter of Budget Honesty, the Treasurer will be producing the Intergenerational Report which will assess the long-term fiscal sustainability of current government policies, taking into account, among other things, the financial implications of demographic change over the next 40 years.
It is this type of research and policy development that will continue to guide the Government's approach to population issues.
Australia's Population Directions Australia's population of about 19 million is currently growing at around 1.2 per cent per annum - this is one of the highest population growth rates in the developed world. A critical part of this growth is that in 2001-02, the Government will deliver the largest migration program in a decade and
the largest and most rigorously tested skill stream on record. In addition, long term movements to Australia have hit record levels and for the first time contribute more to net overseas migration than permanent movement.
Based on sound demographic research and reasonable assumptions regarding current trends in immigration, fertility and life expectancy, Australia may reach a population of around 25 million by mid-century. However, I do not regard this as a population target.
Two major population inquiries in the past decade have found that an optimum population target is not appropriate for Australia. Both inquiries also highlighted the very limited range of policy levers available to governments to influence population size and distribution.
In a liberal-democratic society such as ours, with an open trading economy, a high level of people movements (both internal and external) and a focus on free enterprise and individual choice, we have very limited capacity to ensure any particular population target is actually delivered. We know that demographic forces are slow but
inexorable and very difficult to divert.
It is against this background that the three population scenarios being considered by this population summit should be examined. While 25 million is about where Australia's population may reach by mid-century based on current trends and assumptions, the other two scenarios require zero net overseas migration (and low fertility) or a
possible tripling of net overseas migration (and a major increase in fertility).
This is an edited version of a speech given to the Population Summit in Melbourne on 25 February, 2002.
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