In September the Federal Government announced that its updated Intergenerational Report will forecast that in 2049 Australia’s population will reach 35 million people. Ever since, we have seen near daily jeremiads issued by worried columnists, environmentalists and a couple of backbenchers. Even a top public servant, Ken Henry, secretary of the Treasury, weighed in with a pessimistic view of population growth.
Immigration - the key driver of population growth - has always been contentious in Australia. Only a decade ago, Pauline Hanson was attracting a large chunk of the electorate with an anti-immigration message. But lately some mainstream voices have joined the xenophobic lunar right to demand a less generous policy. For the first time in history, Australia might actually be at risk of shutting its doors.
The population pessimists make three important claims: that immigration is unsustainably quick; that a growing population threatens our quality of life; and that it threatens the environment. All three claims are dubious.
As for the pace of immigration, reaching 35 million in 40 years will actually represent a slowing down from our historical rates of population growth. It means adding an extra 60 per cent on today’s 22 million. If you take any other 40-year period staring at federation in 1901 and ending at 2007, the lowest rate of growth you’ll find is 78 per cent, which occurred between 1967 and 2007. In our first 40 years of nationhood we grew 88 per cent, from 3.8 million to 7.1 million. Our 40-year growth rate peaked at 115 per cent, from 1947 to 1987.
In its historical context, 60 per cent over 40 years looks pretty modest. Australia has a history of very fast immigration growth, managed with remarkably little disruption or antagonism. Our economy, amenity and social services have grown with the population, each wave of immigrants quickly paying for themselves. Given this track record, there is every reason to be optimistic about more population growth.
Concerns for quality of life are similarly misplaced. Only the most reactionary would argue that the Australia of 1969, population 12.5 million, was a better place to live than the Australia of 2009.
Immigrants have added so much since. They have helped our economic life, not just in providing labour and consuming goods and services but also by adding dynamism and entrepreneurial vigour. In cultural terms, immigration has helped to make Australia a more vibrant and interesting place where ideas from around the world combine to inspire creativity. Propelled by this energy, both Sydney and Melbourne have grown into globally-recognised cities of cultural significance.
Even with our continuous population growth, or possibly because of it, our economy and public services continue to provide for the well-being of our residents. Australia is ranked second only to Norway on the Human Development Index, a rounded index of human welfare that takes into account education and life expectancy as well as wealth. We can always do better to guarantee the welfare of our citizens, but by relative standards we are doing very well.
No matter how much we like to whinge about our “over-crowded” cities the rest of the world seems to love them, frequently ranking Melbourne and Sydney in lists of the world’s most liveable cities. Compared to the great metropolises of Europe, Asia or the Americas, the claim that our cities are full is nonsense. Our cities are marked by their low density, spacious properties and quiet spaces.
Some pessimists claim that we simply won’t have the water to support more people. None have produced solid evidence to back that claim. We have such a long history of water wastage, misallocation and mismanagement. We should continue trying to solve those problems, and substantial progress is being made, before declaring the well is too dry to support any more people.
Environmentalism is a 21st century concern recently added to the anti-immigration armoury. It is misdirected. Immigration doesn’t create more people, it just lets them relocate. Just because we don’t let people into Australia doesn’t mean they won’t be placing their environmental footprint somewhere else on the planet. The Australian environment is no more valuable or strained than the environments from which people emigrate. In any case the most significant environmental challenge, climate change, is global in nature. We can shut out foreigners but the weather pays no attention to the edicts of the immigration department.
Some, such as Ross Gittens, have gone further to connect the dots between immigration and climate change. Gittens argues that when people immigrate to Australia they become less poor and are therefore likely to use more carbon. This is an extraordinarily uncompassionate attitude that wills the poor to remain poor. If we can’t find a way through climate change that simultaneously improves the lives of the world’s poorest people, what hope is there for either the planet or humanity?
Gittens’ glib disregard for people is sadly too common in this debate. Most population pessimists, left or right, tend to ignore these moral dimensions of the issue. Leaving aside the hypothetical pros and cons to Australia, immigration brings very real and tangible benefits to very real and tangible people. By relocating to Australia, immigrants can expect a better quality of life and more opportunities for their children. For as long as we have space, peace and resources some people from crowded, violent or poorer countries will want to make a home here. Who are we to stop them? We are nearly all descended from people who made exactly the same choice. We should be proud to share this continent with people so brave they would give up everything they know for a new start.
Accommodating another 13 million Australians will pose a variety of challenges. So did accommodating 22 million, or 12.5 million or 7.1 million. These are challenges we have been meeting for a very long time. There is every reason to be optimistic that in 40 years Australia will be an even better place with 13 million extra people to share it with.