Give or take a million, there's nothing to fear

Bookmark and Share Governance & Service Provision | Chris Berg
Sydney Morning Herald 19th December, 2009

The Australian population might reach 35 million in 2050, according to Treasury's latest intergenerational report.

Seems like a lot? Relax. That would make us just slightly more populated than Canada. This horrible possibility (As many people as Canada. Canada! Can you imagine it?) has been greeted with some angst.

In a speech in October, the Treasury secretary, Ken Henry, asked what seems like an obvious question: where will these 13 million extra people live? Clearly we haven't got around to building their houses yet.

Every time we talk about population growth, we seem to have this same fear: Australia doesn't have the infrastructure. It doesn't have enough roads, public transport, and council swimming pools to cope.

But from a historical perspective, these concerns are pretty silly. Infrastructure development doesn't pre-empt population growth, it follows. People build stuff when they need it.

Sydney's population jumped from about 40,000 in 1850 to having 482,000 inhabitants at Federation.

That's a growth of more than 1000 per cent in 50 years. But you'd have looked pretty stupid raving about the desperate need to control Sydney's growth back then.

By contrast, the Treasury secretary asked how Sydney will cope with just a 54 per cent increase in the next 40 years. And deeply serious commentators shook their heads and stroked their beards and pontificated on the "challenges" of the future. Where will the train networks go? What sort of jobs will these new folks want? (I suspect robot repair, flying car maintenance, singularity co-ordination; you know, things like that.)

It must seem hard to imagine how the human race will cope with the growth of the future. But anti-population activists have been preaching doom for two centuries. We've always done fine. If you think this time is different, you need to ask yourself one question: why has everybody in the past been wrong?

My point isn't to play down the tasks which will have to be completed if Australia is going to service the needs of all these new people. Stuff will need to be built, and some of that stuff will need to be built by government.

So it's good that there will be 13 million new taxpayers around.

But anti-development lobbyists and activists are a big problem. Urban growth boundaries have to be extended and restrictions on development in inner urban areas relaxed.

Population growth requires governments that are willing to build needed infrastructure - governments which are able to stand up to those who don't want infrastructure built in their backyards, and to those who don't want people to have backyards at all. Right now, it seems that state governments are leaning on population concerns to avoid taking the blame for failing to do their jobs.

Nevertheless, the anti-population crowd is a pretty diverse bunch. Maybe you shouldn't be judged by the company you keep, but they're not all very sensible.

A federal Labor backbencher, Kelvin Thomson, responded to the population projections by saying that growth would lead to "global warming, the food crisis, water shortages, housing [un]affordability, the fisheries collapse, species extinctions, increasing prices, waste and terrorism."

But we've had war, inflation, busy cities and expensive houses for pretty much ever. Dare I say that, even if the global population "stabilises", they won't stop.

And Kevin Andrews took the opportunity to urge the Government to slash immigration for the sake of population. Still, Andrews also wants to raise Australia's birthrate "back to replacement levels", so his concerns may be less about sustainability, and more about foreigners.

Those who oppose population growth because of environmental concerns are the most radical. Earlier this year the head of Sustainable Population Australia said Australia should adopt a one-child policy - you know, one like they have in the People's Republic of China.

Anti-population activists believe that we should get rid of things like the baby bonus, but also have the government actively discourage us - even force us - from making too many babies.

This view is anti-human in the most basic sense. One of our most basic instincts is breeding. Declaring you want to regulate this instinct away is declaring you are against the selfish gene: the basic foundation of life.

Should we have a "population policy" at all? The only people asking for one seem to be those who want to cut it back or slow it down. Those who believe that humanity should keep exploring, discovering, creating, inventing and expanding don't really feel the need.

Kevin Rudd responded to the population projections by saying that he believes in a "big Australia", and (of course) "makes no apology for that". The Prime Minister is right. An Australia of 35 million people sounds like a lot. But it's nothing to fear.