Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Thinking Big

Federal opposition leader Tony Abbott is not one to shy away from an opportunity to create a clear point of difference between his position and that of the government, so it should be no surprise that the latest point of contention is population policy, or more to the point, the lack of it. But is the opposition leader genuinely concerned about the question of sustainable population growth, or is he exploiting an undercurrent of xenophobia for political advantage? The opposition’s hard line on the asylum seeker issue has clearly enjoyed some success with many in the voting public, so could it be that the broader question of immigration, currently at historically high levels, is now being dealt with in the same way?

It is true that there are legitimate concerns about whether or not Australia’s natural resources and built infrastructure can sustain a population projected to reach 36 million by mid century. Water in particular could be a major problem for such a large population. The trouble is though that we just don’t know for sure. What has been missing has been any kind of rigorous examination of just what a sustainable population growth path would be. All we have had is Kevin Rudd observing that he thinks a “big Australia” is a good thing, and an opposition partial to taking a contrarian position on everything.

Now that the issue has become front page news, the government has allocated a minister to formulate population policy, while the opposition has supported a proposal for the Greens for an independent study. The fact is that population growth is taking place right now, so it would be prudent to start asking the sensible questions about natural resources, built infrastructure, population density and distribution now, and coming up with answers based on more than a gut feeling. It may well be that a population of 40 million is feasible, or even desirable, but the point is that we don’t know if we don’t do the study.

Without any kind of empirical assessment, all we have is politically driven ideas based on seeking votes. On the one hand we are told that a big Australia is the key to economic prosperity and national security, while on the other hand we are told that excessive population growth will reduce our living standards as more people compete for jobs, houses, and water. Throw in the temptation to appeal to fears of cultural invasion and it’s easy to see how the debate could very easily become driven by political expediency rather than any kind of rational assessment of just what is the best plan for our future.

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