Fortress Australia: Groundhog Day


A decade ago, politics in Australia lurched to embrace all things rural, happily demonizing urban interests. This happened in response to a renegade Politician – Pauline Hanson – who for a time captured public sympathy with populist anti-immigration sentiments, threatening to unseat entire governments in the process.

Now the result of the recent National Election in Australia has seen not only the return of anti immigration sentiments, but the ascendency of anti-growth statements in mainstream politics. For a large country with only 24 million people, it’s a dangerous development.

Two things are shaping in the aftermath of the 2010 Federal Election as portents of things to come for our economic future. One is the rise of an increasingly orthodox view that Australia at 24 million people is reaching its maximum sustainable population. The second is toward appeasing the agrarian socialism and social conservatism of rural politics. Together, this could mean we are about to usher in an era of low growth, high protection policies. Fortress Australia could easily become a reality no matter which side ultimately claims the keys to the Government benches.

Prior to the recent Federal Election (August 2010) both major political parties have become shy of the country’s long term population growth patterns. In September 2009, Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan released some early findings of the Intergenerational Report, which predicted Australia could reach 35 million by 2050. Although this rate of growth was pretty much the same as the preceding 40 years, the figure was greeted with alarm by media, the community, and much of the political herd. ‘Australia Explodes’ went the headlines and the lemmings followed over an ideological cliff. (See this blog post from a year ago).

A month later, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was proclaiming that he believed in ‘a big Australia’ but by mid 2010 his later nemesis Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard was proclaiming she ‘did not believe in a big Australia.’ Gillard replaced Rudd in a Labor Party coup, and then as Prime Minister declared we shouldn’t ‘hurtle’ toward 36 million but instead plan for a ‘sustainable’ population, renaming the recently created portfolio of ‘Population Minister’ the ‘Sustainable Population Minister’ in the process. The word ‘sustainable’ in this context stands for ‘slow down or stop.’

Then came the election campaign with Opposition Leader Tony Abbot promising to ‘slash’ the ‘unsustainable’ immigration numbers (that his mentor John Howard had been responsible for as conservative Prime Minister for over a decade) and to ‘turn back the boats’ of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers, mainly from south east Asia or Afghanistan. Population growth was to be cut to 1.4% (a long term trend anyway) and migrants potentially forced to settle in rural areas (some dodgy form of zipcode migration policy).

The message from both political leaders was clear: support for a ‘big Australia’ (35 million population by 2050 or the same rate of growth we’d seen in the last 40 years) was gone.

Add to that the quixotic Australian entrepreneur Dick Smith and his population TV documentary ‘The Population Puzzle’ where he alleged Australia was at risk of running out of food, out of space and out of control, comparing us (oddly) with places like tiny Bangladesh (population 160 million). Smith might be mad but you can’t discount the impact he has on Australian popular opinion. People believe him, politicians included.

Could it get any worse for the prospects of maintaining even modest levels of population growth in Australia? The last election outcome means the answer is yes. The balance of power in the Senate of the Australian Parliament will now be controlled by ‘The Greens’ (a left wing environmental party). The Greens’ view on population growth is clear: they don’t support it (unless oddly if you’ve arrived illegally, by boat). "This population boom is not economic wisdom, it is a recipe for planetary exhaustion and great human tragedy” said Greens leader Bob Brown when the Intergenerational Report was released last year.

In the House of Representatives, the balance of power is now held by a handful of independents, representing rural seats. Socially conservative but economically protectionist, the independents’ views on population suggest they would lean toward the Abbot view: turn back the boats, and slow the overall rate of growth. They are quite likely to also push for a redistribution of economic riches to a range of projects for rural and regional areas. The irony that the election result hinged on big swings in urban seats but that a handful of rural independents are now trying to call the shots shouldn’t be lost on anyone.

Joining the growing chorus of slow or no growth chants is municipal government. The Local Government Association of Queensland’s annual conference this year talked of limits on population growth unless bountiful riches are showered on local governments to cope with ‘unsustainable’ rates of growth. Association President Paul Bell says “councils cannot let population growth exceed infrastructure needs.”

"Where we find water supplies no longer match the size of the community, where we find roads are congested, where we're seeing other infrastructure whether it be health or education are falling behind," he said, population growth was by implication to blame.

The bottom line? Population growth is now a dirty word in politics and for any business which relies on growth for its prosperity, this is not good news. Everything from airports to property to construction to farming to retailers, manufacturers and tourism will be affected by slowing growth.

Even social services could suffer if growth is deliberately slowed. Why? Because in 50 years time, without migration or natural growth, the ageing bubble of post-war baby boomers may mean there are two working adults for every five retired. You wouldn’t want to be one of those two and paying their tax bill in 50 years’ time or dependent on the kindness of those workers.

How has this come about? The answer is simple: growth itself has never been the problem. Instead, it’s been a notoriously inefficient planning approach which has misdirected precious infrastructure spending, pushed up housing prices through artificial restraint on supply combined with usurious upfront levies, which now average $50,000 per dwelling in Queensland (often more) and considerably more in NSW.

In the last decade, can anyone honestly claim that our planning schemes are now more efficient and quicker, or more easily understood, or better targeted, than a decade ago? I doubt it.

Would it be too much to ask for a sensible, evidence-based approach that ties population growth to urban and regional strategies, which emphasises economic progress while maintaining lifestyle and environmental standards? How about some decent plans to link regional urban centres to major cities, based not on pork barrels to influential independents but based only on the business case and community mutual benefit? Or how about putting the ‘growth’ back into smart growth, with policies that allow our urban areas to expand in line with demand matched to infrastructure spending, rather than policy dogma?

Those same questions were being asked a decade ago. Welcome to ground hog day.

For those interested, here’s a couple of yarns from 10 years ago:
Slicker Cities for City Slickers. October 1999.
Nation Building and a National Urban Strategy. May 2001.

Ross Elliott has more than 20 years experience in property and public policy. His past roles have included stints in urban economics, national and state roles with the Property Council, and in destination marketing. He has written extensively on a range of public policy issues centering around urban issues, and continues to maintain his recreational interest in public policy through ongoing contributions such as this or via his monthly blog The Pulse.

Photo by Linh_rOm

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can't disagree with the masses

Australia's economic growth seems more dependent on mineral wealth these days, than on uncontrolled immigration (the only way to achieve this kind of population growth). I am all for economic growth, but given that Australia's growth to 35 million would drastically upend the current demographic breakdown, and forever change the country's culture, I cannot fault the average Australian for opposing it.

This seems to be the classic example of a few urban Ivory Tower elites like Rudd trying to tell the masses what is good for them.