POPULATION-IMMIGRATION POLICY IN AUSTRALIA
CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology, Canberra, Australia
(to be published in Encyclopaedia of World Ecology)
HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL BACKGROUND
After World War Two
THE DEMOGRAPHIC CHOICES
THE SUBSTANTIVE ARGUMENTS
Urban quality of life arguments
CHOOSING A POPULATION POLICY
Net migration: Annual excess of immigrants over permanent departures.
Population policy: Strategic guidelines for managing population size over time.
Replacement level fertility: Number of births per woman per lifetime (2.1) which will eventually produce a stable (unchanging) population.
Mortality rate: Proportion of a population dying each year.
Quality of life: People's capacity to satisfy their intrinsic needs from physiological through to spiritual.
The population debate in Australia is really two debates; one about annual immigration numbers and the other about total population levels.
The central question in the immigration debate concerns the number of people to be granted permanent resident visas each year. The central question in the population debate is whether Australia should set itself a target population level and target rate of population change to be achieved by some future date and, if so, what should that date, rate and size be?
The link between these two questions is that answering one implies an answer, or at least a fairly narrow range of answers, to the other. Thus, given a prediction of net immigration intakes every year till (say) 2050, and making status quo assumptions about the demographic composition of that intake and the fertility-mortality parameters of the resident population, it should be possible to predict, moderately well, the size of the Australian population and the rate at which it would be changing in every year up till 2050.
Conversely, given a target for the size and rate of change of the Australian population at some future date, it should be possible to ascertain whether that target could be achieved by adjusting the migrant intake in each of the intervening years and, if so what the successful sequence or sequences of annual targets would need to be.
Recent opinion polls consistently show the Australian public to be strongly (c70 per cent) in favour of low immigration and hence, by implication, in favour of a population of much the present size. Betts (1993) shows the percentage favouring a reduced migrant intake as increasing from 16 per cent in 1961 to 73 per cent in 1991. Population, as distinct from immigration, may be blossoming somewhat as an issue in its own right; some 12.6 per cent of respondents to a 1993 survey by Australian Bureau of Statistics of perceptions of environmental problems cited over-population as a problem (cf 40.2 citing air pollution) (Australian Bureau of Statistics 1993).
Nevertheless, the Australian government does not have an explicit position on how many immigrants will be admitted in future years, nor does it have any formal process for setting immigration targets for one year ahead, let alone decades ahead. Similarly, the government has no position on size and rate of change of population in the longer term. In short, Australia does not have an explicit population policy.
This article briefly reviews three aspects of the population-immigration debate in Australia---its history and politics; its demographic underpinnings; and the arguments commonly raised for and against the population being much larger than at present. Much of the material covered is presented in more detail in the author's 1996 book People Policy: Australia's Population Choices.
HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL BACKGROUND
After more than 50 000 years of Aboriginal occupation, European settlement of Australia began in 1788; and public debate about the foreseeable and desirable size of Australia's population began soon after. In 1901 the continent's six British colonies federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia.
At the founding of the Commonwealth the 'population problem' was perceived to be:
' ...whether we shall be able to people the vast areas of the continent which are capable of supporting large populations. This can only be done by restoring and maintaining a high rate of natural increase or by immigration on a large scale, or by both these means...'
At Federation all the major political parties boasted 'a white Australia' as the first plank in their platforms. Population policy was built on fear, seeking firstly to keep the 'yellow races' out and secondly to build up the Anglo-Celtic sons of Empire in defence of the young nation. For twenty years the goal of building a 'great nation...hold(ing) a commanding place amongst the peoples of the world' was unquestioned.
With the 1920s came heightened debate over the optimal and maximal size of Australia's population. The trigger here was an ambitious British plan to 'stock the dominions.' Under this plan, net migration to Australia between 1920 and 1929 was 349 000 people and an ultimate population of 100 million was foreseen and widely wanted (National Population Inquiry 1975; Pope 1987).
However, the Sydney university geographer Thomas Griffith Taylor argued, somewhat opaquely, on the basis of the limited data available then on Australia's climate, soil and water resources that Australia could never support more than 65 million (Taylor 1922). Much later, Taylor reduced this estimate to 20 million, largely as a result of assuming that people were to be maintained at a much higher standard of living than in his earlier calculations (Taylor 1937). Taylor also predicted that the population would be no more than 20 million by the year 2000. After a decade of stormy controversy, Taylor departed Australia and the population debate quietened down.
Whether population growth raised real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was not an important part of the population debate at that time but subsequent analysis suggests that while pre-1930s immigration clearly expanded economic activity, it probably did not advance real income per capita (Pope 1987).
During the depressed thirties, visions of an eventual 100 million Australians collapsed with the drying up of migration from Britain and declining fertility. Community hopes for great population growth were replaced with concern over possible population decline (Borrie 1994).
After World War Two
At the end of the second World War a massive immigration program, drawing no longer on just Britain but on much of Europe, was begun to build a population and economy capable of defending itself in future wars. This policy was widely supported in the community (Borrie 1994) and championed by AA Calwell, the post-war Minister for Immigration who wrote in 1948:
'Additional population is Australia's greatest need, for security in wartime, for full development and prosperity in peacetime, our vital need is more Australians. The Pacific war taught Australians a lesson we must never forget---that in any future war we can never hope to hold our country unaided against a powerful invader...Australia can increase her population three-fold or more and still provide full employment and adequate standards of living for all.' (quoted in National Population Inquiry, 1975).
The remarkable aspect of the post-war situation was the support over a period of about 25 years of both Labor and non-Labor political parties for both the post-war immigration program and, in general, for population growth. The population debate focussed on the appropriate rate of increase. How fast should population grow and what size of migrant intake could be absorbed each year? An annual immigrant goal of one per cent of population was widely supported. The idea of an optimum population (initially that maximising per capita real income) as debated in the twenties and thirties was forgotten in the euphoria of the post-war economic boom. A process of relaxing restrictions on the admission of non-white immigrants began in 1957 and was complete by 1972.
It was only after about 1968 that the whole basis of the post-war immigration program began to be questioned. Reasons for emerging concern included the prospects of US-style 'congestion' and the recognition that 'Australia is environmentally a very vulnerable country that requires very careful nursing by a limited population, if that environment is not to be destroyed' (Borrie 1994). A new element entering the debate at this time was the active promotion of the idea of zero natural growth, even though this was implicit in earlier discussions of population optima (National Population Inquiry 1975).
A National Population Inquiry (1975) reflecting these concerns was begun in 1970 and reported in 1975. The terms of reference for the Inquiry included a study of the situation in countries with which Australia had particularly close associations, the study of contemporary population theories, including the concept of zero population growth, and the economic, sociological and ecological consequences implicit in these.
Both the Inquiry and the government of the day in its response to the Inquiry cast doubts on the utility and feasibility of seeking an optimal level or optimal rate of growth of population. It was deemed more realistic to let population change result from action to achieve other goals relevant to a humane and equitable society, eg to facilitate access to family planning services (Borrie 1994).
The recognition prior to the Inquiry of the threat of environmental degradation as a reason for concern over population growth was not reflected in the Inquiry report itself. This perception was to change dramatically over the following 17 years up to the publication of Australia's next major report on population management.
The National Population Council (NPC), an independent advisory body to the Australian Government, reported in 1992 on 'major issues which could arise from the increase in Australia's population, in order to contribute to development of a national population strategy' (National Population Council 1992). The Council's basic conclusion was the need to recognise the wide-ranging and significant impacts of population on the economy, environment, society and international issues. Their recommendation to the Federal Government that Australia develop an explicit population policy was rejected.
The United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994 provided a further opportunity to present Australia's policies and programs in this area. The Australian National Report on Population, prepared by a broad-based National Committee (1994) was submitted to the conference as 'the official document of the Australian government' It included the following:
'The Australian Government has not specified an optimal population level for a number of reasons. Chiefly, there is no clear formula for a workable population policy in a developed country with low fertility.' (p45)
The Long Term Strategies Committee of the Commonwealth House of Representatives conducted an inquiry during 1994 on the topic of Australia's long term (human) carrying capacity. The Committee's somewhat confused report managed to avoid making any recommendations on what Australia's population-immigration policy should be, confining itself to yet another call for a population policy, some administrative recommendations and a demand for the community to debate the pros and cons of having a large, medium or small population.
Thirteen years of Labor party government ended in 1996. A Liberal-National party coalition government took office and, without addressing the question of population policy, soon reduced the annual immigration quota by some 10 000, slanted the intake mix towards skilled migrants and made welfare benefits more difficult for new arrivals to obtain. At the same time, the unwritten agreement between the major parties that Australia's immigration program would be totally-non-discriminatory on the grounds of religion, race, gender, ethnicity or nationality was strongly challenged by a newly-elected populist parliamentarian, Pauline Hanson. Appealing to those of Anglo-Celtic background most disadvantaged by social and economic change in recent decades, Hanson gained spectacular initial electoral support for a suite of mainly backward looking policies including opposition to immigration from Asian countries and opposition to positive discrimination in favour of Australia's grossly disadvantaged indigenous peoples. However, at the 1998 federal election, despite getting about 10 per cent of the nation-wide vote, Hanson's 'One Nation' party failed to win any lower house seats and won only one Senate seat. Hanson herself lost her seat.
At the end of 1998, the Labor party and the Liberal-National party coalition are in agreement that the annual immigration rate should not be raised while unemployment remains high. The two sides differ somewhat in relation to population policy though. The coalition sees no need for one while Labor argues that a population policy addressing related issues such as population distribution as well as numbers must be a priority concern. Labor has also flagged its conclusion that significant population growth is an appropriate longer-term goal. Two minor parties who wield considerable power in the Australian Senate, the Australian Greens and the Australian Democrats, are commited to population stabilisation within a generation or so.
THE DEMOGRAPHIC CHOICES
Australia's population is one of the fastest growing in the group of developed countries comprising the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Total resident population at June 1996 was estimated at 18.3 million. This compares with a population of 17.4 million at Dec 1991 and 15.3 million at the same date in 1982.
During the last decade Australia's population has been increasing naturally by a relatively stable 0.8 per cent per annum. By contrast, population growth due to net migration gain has fluctuated from 0.4 per cent in 1983 to 1.0 per cent in 1988 and 0.3 per cent in 1992, fluctuations which reflect changing immigration targets (a population increasing by one per cent annually doubles in about 72 years). The actual number of settlers arriving in Australia over the last decade has varied irregularly between 157 000 net in 1988/89 and 31 000 net in 1992/93. The number of people permanently departing Australia over the past decade has ranged between 20 000 and 30 000 per annum.
The official objectives of the Migration and Humanitarian programs are: reuniting Australians with their immediate family members; enhancing Australia's skill base; contributing business expertise and investment; and meeting Australia's international obligations in relation to refugees and displaced persons (currently set at about 12 000 per annum). About a quarter of all Australians were born overseas, say 40% of all adults. About a fifth of the overseas born are from Asian countries. The ethnic composition of the population is not going to change significantly over coming decades, no matter where migrant intakes fall within the plausible range. That is why the immigration- population debate can be about numbers and not about where migrants come from.
Turning to the future, Australia's available choices in relation to population size comprise a well-defined range of achievable 50-year population targets. Fifty years is the length of time required to achieve substantial population growth, decline or stabilisation and is a convenient time frame within which to focus immediate discussion.
If mortality continues its slow decrease as life expectancy grows; if fertility rises back to replacement levels; and if gross immigration is returned to near its high post-war level of one per cent of population per annum (meaning 170 000 initially), Australia's population in 2040 will be c37 million and growing fast, eg to c53 million in 2067.
Conversely, if fertility remains at its current level, a little below replacement, and immigration (including refugees) is set at the lower end of the post-war range (c.50 000 net per year), Australia's population in 2040 will be c23 million and almost stationary. If fertility rates do not change, a net immigration of c50 000 per annum represents a 'population Rubicon' above which the Australian population will continue to grow for many decades. For example, immigration of 100 000 net would see population reaching c27 million in 2040 and still rising at the end of the 21st century.
If net immigration were to be reduced immediately to zero, the population in 2040 would be 19-20 million, having started to decline around 2027 (Australian Bureau of Statistics 1994).
With a continuation of fertility at 10 per cent below replacement (replacement equals 2.1 children per woman) and c30 000 net immigration the population will begin to decline between 2027 and 2040.
Australia still has a relatively youthful age structure. Projections by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate that in 2041, depending on fertility, mortality and immigration assumptions, median age will have risen from 33 to about 42 and the dependency ratio (people under 14 plus people over 65 per 100 people of working age) from 50 to 64-66. Immigration at any feasible level is not regarded as a means of significantly changing these projections (National Population Council 1992). High immigration cannot be defended on the grounds that it will keep the population young.
THE SUBSTANTIVE ARGUMENTS
Having established that Australia has a wide range of population options, we turn now to a consideration of the families of arguments that have been raised for and against future major population growth. These inevitably overlap somewhat but have been organised here under the headings of resource availability, urban quality of life, economics and 'other' considerations.
Firstly however, growth for what? Population growth cannot be an end in itself. The uncontroversial position taken here is that the desirability of major population growth has to be judged by its impact on the 'well-being' or welfare of some combination of human populations---present and/or future, Australian and/or non-Australian (Cocks 1996). The many aspects of a population's well-being can be broadly grouped into economic well-being, environmental well-being and socio-cultural well-being. Collectively, these constitute quality of life, although economic well-being is sometimes dissected out as standard of living.
The nub question here is:
Does the bio-physical nature of the continent, the environmental and natural resource base, in any way suggest a national population target or, alternatively, population levels which should/should not be exceeded?
For example, will Australia run out of water if the population grows? Within broad limits the answer is No. It is almost certainly technically possible to provide water to twice the present population, even if population growth is confined to present major population centres, and without towing icebergs to Adelaide. What is not clear is whether Australians would want to pay the price of doing this, or even realise what that price is (Stanger 1991). Components of this price include expensive infrastructure for inter-basin transfers; some loss of water for agriculture and, less so, to industry; and loss of recreation values and conservation values via reduced river flows (Williams 1993).
Similarly, the capacities of city-region airsheds and waterbodies to assimilate pollutants (unprocessed residues) will not stop population growth in any absolute sense, ie the number of pollution-related deaths will always be small in relation to the total number of deaths. It probably does however get more and more expensive to prevent a marginal amount of pollution as the total pollution load increases. An alternative to incurring the cost of preventing increases in pollution is to incur the additional health costs, treated or untreated, that go with allowing increases in pollution.
The amount by which population can increase without unacceptably polluting waste-processing resources is not a single deterministic number. It will depend on the extent to which consumption patterns simultaneously change and the extent to which consumption is exchanged for investment in reducing waste production per unit of consumption.
As the economics profession are so fond of pointing out, limiting factors arguments assume that substitutes cannot be found for 'deficient' natural resources or that technology cannot increase their effective availability or that 'surplus' resources cannot be used to acquire 'deficient' resources through trade, eg selling oil to finance the purchase and operation of water desalination plants in middle eastern countries. In their own terms, the economists are saying that the long term supply and demand elasticities for most resources are probably quite high.
The concept of absolute (brick wall) constraints on population size imposed by the availability of particular natural resources is not particularly defensible; at least not over the politically feasible range of population sizes. What does need to be recognised though is that imposing extra population onto a fixed natural resource base will raise the marginal (opportunity) cost of satisfying certain basic population needs such as food and water. Resource constraints on population size are more like climbing an ever-steepening hill than running into a cliff. At any time, you can decide the climb is getting too steep.
For reasons of caution, be it to keep future options open or any other reason, the community always has the choice of declaring that population will be kept to a level such that the per capita availability of certain resources in absolute or 'foregone opportunity' terms stays within defined limits. This is somewhat different from saying that if such limits are breached, population will surely decline.
Food and carrying-capacity arguments
Australian agriculture faces a number of impediments to sustainability and threats to current production levels (Cocks 1992). So, while Australia has a very high level of arable land per capita by world standards (2.8 ha v. a world average of 0.33 ha) it must be remembered that the quality of Australian arable land is very low and big population increases would soon reduce the country's 'quality-corrected' area of cropland per head towards the world average.
One particularly provocative argument is that producing food for export puts the nation's future capacity to feed itself at risk. The assumption here is that agriculture is a form of 'slow mining' and that producing food for export advances the day when soil capital is used up. Going even further than this, it can be suggested that sustainable agriculture is a goal requiring a reduction in the present population. The contrary view is that Australia's population can be increased substantially without endangering agricultural resources.
Between these extremes is the cautious position that a truly sustainable agriculture, capable of maintaining self-sufficiency in food for millenia, may involve limiting population to present levels.
This is the moment to scotch the common view that Australia's undeniable land degradation is a symptom of over-population. The argument that the degradation of extensive agricultural lands producing export crops and livestock is independent of population size is a stronger generalisation (Fincher 1991). Would farm exports (and hence degradation) fall if Australia had a smaller population? Probably not. The causes of land degradation identified in a 1989 parliamentary report included lack of awareness, continued land clearing etc but not population (Standing Committee on Environment, Recreation and the Arts, 1989).
Coming up with a working estimate of Australia's long-term maximum well-fed locally-fed population---what many people call carrying capacity---requires balancing a number of poorly known, unknown and intangible factors including: future climatic conditions; future technological advances; future land availability; future political priority given to food production; and future resource base deterioration, eg do we assume that problems like erosion, soil acidification, soil salinisation are solved or not solved when making such a calculation?
Without being able to formally justify the figure, any estimate much above twice the present population, say 36 million people, has to be regardfed as problematic. This is not greatly different from the numbers currently being fed at home and abroad by Australian farmers.
It is a figure premised on zero net agricultural exports, minimal climatic change, significant resource base deterioration, current product mix, minor changes in land availability and a high priority on food production.
Nominating a population beyond which collective quality of life (and this means much more than being well-fed) might be forecast to fall is obviously difficult. There is no accepted method for calculating such an optimum and certainly no examples of serious attempts at this task for Australia. Equally, it is not obvious that the calculated figure would be a strong function of the size and nature of the resource base, an assumption lurking in a majority of discussions about optimum population.
One certainty is that the population density argument cannot be used to get a lead on optimum population. This argument involves the naive view that if country A can be made like country B in one respect (eg population density), then it will become like it in other respects (eg high quality of life). It rests on comparing Australia's population size and population density with those of other (carefully selected) countries and arguing that Australia should be more in line with those countries.
At its most simplistic this line of argument sees value in conformity for its own sake. For example), 'Why shouldn't Australia be more like Europe'? A more developed form of the argument is that if Australia had a population density comparable to that of countries it regards as having a high standard of living/ quality of life it too would have a high quality of life. This 'magic' argument offers no reasons as to why this would be so and, most tellingly, ignores the fact that quality of life in Australia is arguably already amongst the best the world has to offer.
Given that it is the countries of western Europe and North America which are most often mentioned in this context, the implication is that Australia should have a population of perhaps several hundred million. Yet in environmental terms Australia is actually more like Africa than Europe or North America. But even that is a red herring. The conclusion that is impossible to escape is that the physical size of Australia is largely irrelevant to discussions of the optimal size of its population. Unfortunately the simplistic argument that being different must be wrong continues to hold great sway over unthinking minds.
More usefully, environmental scientists have begun to implement a feedback-based modelling approach to understanding the links between population characteristics and quality of life. Their view is that the way to analyse the optimum population question is to understand how a sufficient set of indicators of quality of life might respond to population change (Cocks and Foran 1994). But, being realistic, dynamic modelling of population-quality of life relationships will not contribute much to the population question for some time. Nevertheless, research into such modelling is the current hope for bringing science to bear on this important question.
It has to be concluded that present knowledge of the resource base does not imply any particular population target. If it could be operationalised (meaning 'convincingly calculated'), maximum high-quality-of-life population would be a sensible target. Suggested indicators imply that sustainable resource use is one important condition to be met by an optimum population but what this means in practice is not clear.
It can also be concluded that knowledge of the resource base suggests nothing about a minimum population which should be exceeded for some good reason or below which serious consequences can be foreseen. In fact the idea of an unacceptably low population, set by some characteristic of the resource base, is not an issue in the Australian population debate and has deliberately been left unexplored here.
This leaves the question of identifying an unacceptably high population and it is here that an awareness of the nature of the natural resource base as a source of inputs and settings for human activities provides some guidance.
Given international trade and factor substitution possibilities, it is not defensible to argue that any particular natural resource such as water or mercury is so limited in Australia that a doubling (say) of the population over coming decades is inescapably impossible (we can bypass the question of whether there are physical limits on populations beyond 36 million because that is the outer bound of population relevant to the present discussion).
Certainly the real marginal cost of supplying some important goods (and clean domestic water is a good example) will rise with population growth, and positional goods like wilderness and snowfields will have to be rationed. But, while Australia might become a less pleasant country in which to live, there is no foreseeable combination of material shortages which will make Australia uninhabitable for 36 million people in 2045, a not altogether implausible demographic scenario.
So, to reiterate, the bio-physical nature of the continent, particularly its natural resources and its waste assimilation capacities, does not indicate that it would be impossible to use local resources to feed and water, clothe and house and swill out after an Australian population of 36 million. Just in case the point has been missed, let it be emphasised again that it does not follow that 36 million is in any sense a preferred population. Feasibility must not be confused with desirability.
Urban quality of life arguments
Most Australians are and will continue to be big-city dwellers. Can it be convincingly argued that city growth and change caused by population growth is more rather than less likely to seriously exacerbate existing declines (real? perceived?) in diverse social and environmental indicators of high quality of life---without compensating gains in others. Alternatively, even if potential negative impacts of population growth on urban quality of life indicators can be pre-empted by other means, what is foregone by having to divert resources to this task? How does population growth impact on what aspects of urban social and physical environments? Is urban quality of life really declining? If so, to what extent is this due to population growth? Is urban quality of life likely to be protected by means other than population management?
The widespread provision to city dwellers of a physical environment with piped water, sewerage and mains electricity has been a major achievement of twentieth century civilisation. However, city-dwellers' needs in their daily lives go beyond being connected to these basic networks and include being in a high quality bio-physical environment which covers both the built (by people) environment and the natural physical environment; such things as: clean airsheds and watersheds; natural areas for recreation; attractive landscapes and streetscapes; housing; transport; accessible community services.
Trends in socio-environmental quality
Surveys reveal that many city dwellers believe that diverse aspects of their quality of life, both social and environmental, have been declining in recent years, are already unacceptably low and likely to decline further in coming years.
Social and cultural dimensions of quality of life which are widely perceived as having declined in recent years, at least partly as a result of population growth, include rising crime rates and other sociopathic behaviour, quality of human relationships, quality of outdoor recreational opportunities, quality of community services including health, education and transport, ethnic tensions, loss of small freedoms (like burning garden leaves) and conflicts over resource use, particularly in peri-urban areas. In cities it is hard to find and enjoy a quiet natural area these days.
Increasing cultural richness due to immigration from diverse sources is the only population-related aspect of quality of life acknowledged as having improved in past decades.
But are these sorts of anecdotal perceptions of declining socio-environmental quality borne out by formal studies. Are these vividly perceived but subjective perceptions of declining quality of life confirmed by objective survey, monitoring and census data?
As a generalisation, the few available indicators suggest, at worst, a slow decline in a number of aspects of physical quality of life in the major cities, eg McGlynn (1992). The incidence of air and (domestic) water pollution has stabilised or decreased in most Australian cities in recent years, but noise pollution and traffic congestion have increased (EPAC 1988).
As with relationships between environmental quality and population, there is a paucity of accessible data recording changes over time of plausible indicators of social quality of life against population size in particular places. Thus, it is widely recognised but not well documented that per capita rates for crime, drug addiction, alienation, sociopathy and other social problems are higher in big cities than in small cities and towns (Mukherjee 1995). Child and gender violence, suicide and marriage breakdown may also be candidates for this list. Trend data on the quality of community services such as health, education and public transport is hopelessly bad.
Consequences of further city growth
Because the consequences of population growth cannot be confidently modelled, the best 'arguments' that can be offered here are plausible scenarios.
National population growth leads to increases in the size and overall density of populations in individual city-regions, a pattern which is complicated but not invalidated by internal migration. To a lesser extent, service populations in city-hinterlands may also grow, although this latter may be masked by a parallel 'drift to the cities' (McKenzie 1994). Concomitantly, residential, commercial and industrial land uses replace farmland, recreational land and natural land of high, medium or low productive, amenity or service value.
Existing land uses which get intensified (as distinct from replaced) under the demands of a larger regional population include areas of urban consolidation, transport corridors, sewerage system corridors, natural recreational areas which cannot be duplicated (eg beaches) and higher order services (eg universities) which are not immediately duplicated during population growth.
It is these processes of land use change and intensification which have to be examined to foresee the socio-environmental consequences of population growth. In terms of social and environmental benefits and disbenefits for the existing city-region population what is the effect of these changes in land use and land use intensity?
The immediate answer is that benefits seem to be extremely limited; indeed, it is difficult to think of any. Perhaps there is an increase in the range of lower order services (eg supermarkets) available to people living on the fringes of the existing city. Perhaps population growth will take the city-region past thresholds at which higher-order services (eg cultural activities, specialist medical services) become viable. Conversely, there are some obvious disbenefits.
The socio-environmental quality of a city-region can change for many reasons including changes in consumption patterns, land use and land use intensity, technologies used, the product mix and population size. While it is clearly difficult to isolate the size of the particular contribution of population here, it is likely to be widely agreed that the direction of change in environmental quality imposed by extra population is negative. Putting this another way, there do not appear to be any suggestions on the table as to how an increase in the population of a city-region might lead to an improvement in any aspect of socio-environmental quality.
The 'more people equals more degradation' result could be predicted to remain true even with efficient cost-internalising measures in place; although at lower 'optimal' levels of pollution etc than in the absence of such measures.
Theoretically, with proper management of technologies, consumption etc, an area should be able to increase its population while reducing environmental impact. Unfortunately, we live in societies which can, at best, respond only very slowly to revealed problems involving externalities and certainly cannot pre-empt such. The amelioration of environmental problems lags badly, perhaps by decades, behind their occurrence.
A major difficulty in dissecting out the environmental impacts of prospective population growth is that these are undoubtedly diffuse in space and time and the course of any particular local problem is likely to be much less sensitive to national population growth than to local current environmental management programs (McNicoll 1994). Analytical methods for demonstrating the cumulative significance of numerous marginal impacts of people on 'the environment' have not been developed.
Community services. Under population growth It is difficult to foresee metroplitan infrastructure budgets for schools, hospitals, transport systems etc growing rapidly enough to service new populations and maintain and upgrade existing infrastructure. Reducing the number of new residents to be serviced stands to ameliorate these problems.
Pollution and congestion. There is considerable expert opinion willing to say that it is going to be extraordinarily difficult to maintain current levels of acoustic, air and water quality and traffic flow rates in Sydney and Melbourne in coming decades (eg Newman et al 1993). Reducing the number of new residents, each of whom exacerbates these problems, would make their solution somewhat easier.
Lifestyles. Urban consolidation is a favoured strategy for containing infrastructure costs in growing cities. Continuing high levels of immigration into Sydney and Melbourne will be at some cost to Australians' traditional preferences for detached housing.
City population growth can be seen as threatening not so much the large freedoms like democracy, but small everyday freedoms, eg lying on a quiet beach, living in detached housing on a large block, using lots of water, bushwalking, hunting and fishing, walking the dog, feeling a sense of privacy. Finally, changing and intensifying land use is destructive of people's 'sense of place'.
Cultural richness: The Australian population is more ethnically diverse than that of any other western nation. There is general agreement that Australia has benefited enormously from past waves of immigration in terms of such cultural basics as diversification of eating habits, the arts and face-to-face exposure to other cultures and world-views.
Also, looking to the future, a more populous, culturally diverse country may possess considerable advantages in a world where cultural awareness has become a prominent and desirable feature in international dealings, trade, tourism and marketing.
Conversely, there is a common perception that further cultural benefits from immigration are likely to be very much smaller than in the past. In particular, there is some community reluctance to see the culture 'Asianised'. In a post-industrial society, cross-cultural enrichment is more likely to be between in-situ authentic cultures (via travel and information technologies) rather than transplanted cultures.
At current rates of immigration, the change in ethnic or national-origin makeup of Australia's population as a whole is likely to be relatively small. Nevertheless population flows in and out of the country would continue even under a regime of nil net migration. and the ethnic composition of those flows would probably continue to increase ethnic diversity, albeit at a slower pace than in recent decades.
It is commonly held that the richness of a city's high cultural life (eg the arts) and intellectual life (eg science) increases with size up to a level of perhaps one-two million people. In other words, cities like Sydney and Melbourne are unlikely to become significantly more culturally and intellectually stimulating by continuing to grow. High cultural life also depends on free movement between countries but this does not have to be on a permanent basis.
Ethnic antagonisms: Recognition of the benefits of cultural and ethnic diversity has to be balanced against the possibilities of disbenefits. There is much debate as to why Australia has experienced so little ethnic tension and antagonism (by international standards) given the country's large numbers of immigrants from non Anglo-Celtic backgrounds since World War Two. Reasons offered include a diversity of intake, a supposed tolerant streak in the national character, a supposed indifference to newcomers and the rapid provision of full services and citizenship rights to immigrants. This happy situation has held even through hard economic times.
What is quite unpredictable is whether this relative ethnic harmony would continue under a program of continuing immigration from one or a few ethnic groups or collections of groups, eg Asians. Given such, the possibility of ethnic divisiveness must be regarded as a contingency to be taken into account under precautionary thinking about Australia's future population (Sowell 1994).
For example, if quality of life deteriorates and immigration is seen as the reason, then sections of the community may vent their frustration on migrants. Almost three quarters of a surveyed group of overseas students reported encountering prejudice and discrimination when in Australia (Bureau of Immigration, Multiculturalism and Population Research 1995). Suggestions for minimising such antagonisms include reducing immigration in order to (a) reduce the proportion of the population to be assimilated and (b) to provide a low-immigration period during which ethnic conflicts will die away as migrants become assimilated (eg McAllister and Moore 1991). Education is highly important too.
Reversing the above argument, the reducing and forestalling of ethnic tension is a reason for reducing immigration and, in the process, reducing long term population. Also, if population growth were to be slowed, this would provide a breathing space in which to examine the benefits and disbenefits of multiculturalism as distinct from assimilationism.
Resource use conflicts: Another aspect of social cohesiveness under population growth is that in the last 15-20 years there has been a massive increase in social conflict over natural resource allocation and management issues, eg coastal development, logging native forests. Given Australian society's failure to develop mechanisms for resolving such conflicts in ways perceived as legitimate, and given that such conflicts are largely caused by land use intensification associated with the demands of larger populations, a partial argument for minimising population growth can be made around this point.
Summing up the socio-environmental arguments, foreseeable population growth is more rather than less likely to lead to distressing losses in quality of life for the majority of present and future Australians; certainly population growth is highly unlikely to lead to improvements in the socio-environmental dimensions of urban quality of life. Insofar as population growth in Australia is likely to mean capital city growth, and that there is little sign of these types of problems being brought under control, a socio-cultural argument for minimal population growth can be made. This has to be set against economic arguments modestly favouring bigger cities (see below). Clearly, if population growth is believed to be only one minor cause of the nations's environmental problems or there is confidence that environmental problems can and will be tackled just as cost-effectively without the assistance of population management then socio-environmental quality arguments for population management are seriously weakened.
A balanced conclusion is that while further Australian population growth is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for socio-environmental decline, it is a strong predisposing factor.
Because socio-environmental quality of life in Australia's big cities appears to be continuing to decline, partly under the influence of continuing population growth, and because programs and processes which might halt or reverse that decline are not in place and demonstrably working, the case for reducing metropolitan population growth by the simple means available to do this is strong.
Over time, population stablists and reductionists have put much effort into refuting the supposed economic benefits of population growth in general and immigration in particular. To some extent that effort has been misplaced, at least to the extent that recent official inquiries and professional economists' writings on the matter have claimed, at best, minimal short to medium term economic benefits from immigration and have had little of an analytical nature to say about the long term costs and benefits of population growth (see, for example, Committee to Advise on Australia's Immigration Policies (1988)). Consider the following aspects:
Total output arguments
Perusal of the formal literature leaves little doubt that Australia's gross domestic product (GDP) will rise in concert with increasing population (eg Norman and Meikle 1985; Nevill 1990). Whether the more relevant measure of GDP per head will rise more than it otherwise would is more doubtful (and more doubtful again is the prospect of 'corrected' GDP per head rising where 'corrected' GDP has been reduced to account for losses of natural capital and 'defensive' expenditures to mitigate pollution etc.
Capital-stock and 'crowding out' arguments
As population grows, the share of income available for consumption after making provision for investment sufficient to maintain a constant per capita income falls rapidly. There is also general agreement that the funds brought in by migrants and migrant savings are insufficient to maintain capital available per worker, even taking account of investment induced by this falling capital-labour ratio (Wooden 1994).
Much immigration-induced capital investment is in areas of capital widening rather than capital deepening. That is, investment in things like housing and urban infrastructure takes place rather than investment in productive enterprises, manufacturing etc (every 10 000 migrants trigger the building of 3 500 dwellings at a net cost to the community of about $60 000 per dwelling including off-site infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, police stations, sub-arterial roads, public transport etc) (Committee of Economic Enquiry 1965; Spiller 1993). This is important because it is capital deepening which raises productivity per head. Another version of this 'crowding out' argument is that just as the need to provide population-related infrastructure might crowd out productive investment, it might also crowd out the community's propensity to invest in improved environmental quality (McGlynn 1992).
The 1992 National Population Council report comes to a somewhat different conclusion. In the long run an expanding population will produce expanded output at historically comparable per capita levels (ie, assume no diminishing returns to labour) which will be saved at historically comparable rates. Hence the economy will have the capacity to fund infrastructure requirements for the additional population. However, there do not appear to be 'mechanisms which guarantee that a sufficient share of population-driven output growth will be devoted to infrastructure requirements' (National Population Council 1992).
Clearly short-term population growth is likely to put downward pressure on Australia's ability to equip its workforce (and upward pressure on the need to raise overseas funds---see below). A longer-term consequence is to slow movement towards capital-intensive as opposed to labour-intensive industries.
Overall, the cautious conclusion suggesting itself is that a limited period of rapid population growth is likely to lead to small declines in productive capital per head, productivity and in infrastructure per head in the short term. In the longer term these effects would be likely to be ameliorated.
Interest-rate and demand-management arguments
Foster and Baker (1991) concluded that immigration has a small uncertain effect on inflation To the extent that population growth is unpredictable (eg because of variable immigration intakes) the riskiness of investments increases and this will be reflected in interest rates and hence in investment levels (McGlynn 1992). This is unlikely to be a large effect overall.
What is largely accepted is that immigration is not a good instrument for counter-cyclic management of demand (Priorities Review Staff 1976; National Population Inquiry 1975).
Academic research suggests that recent immigration has not adversely affected Australia's current account deficit (Junankar et al 1994). This is challenged by the argument that immigration must exacerbate foreign debt problems, given that borrowing by migrants to establish themselves takes place and flows through into higher off-shore borrowing by banks (Joske 1991). That is unless it can be established that migration contributes to the expansion of the tradeable goods sector by increasing (net) exports, or the production of import replacements, and that this contribution offsets the largely overseas capital that must be spent on migrants' establishment needs. It can also be noted that such overseas borrowing increases the money supply, which in turn tends to increase prices (Nevill 1984).
Looking to the longer term, concern has been expressed for the impact in coming decades of substantial population growth on Australia's balance of trade. The four sectors commented on in these speculations are manufacturing, agriculture, minerals and tourism. For example, larger domestic markets would both decrease the availability of agricultural produce for export and increase imports of manufactured goods and, presently, oil. Again, to the extent that Australia's standard of living is linked to minerals production, it must eventually fall because of the inevitable future decline in mineral production. The bigger the population, the bigger the per capita fall.
Basically, what is being recognised in 'balance of payments' arguments about population growth is:
(a) an impact on being able to to enjoy a wide range of imported goods if capital has to be imported to support extra people or divert goods from export to home consumption
(b) possibilities for and problems hidden in countering this impact.
Overall, balance of payments arguments must be regarded as suggesting that population growth is a potential problem but that this is not clearly demonstrable either for the shorter or the longer term.
One general phenomenon claimed to confer an important benefit under larger than present populations is the 'economies of scale' (reduced unit costs) associated with the larger production runs needed to supply goods to larger populations (Norman and Meikle 1985). A 1990 study concluded that there was some contribution from immigration to the achievement of scale economies (Perkins et al 1990). Recent work using the ORANI model of the economy suggests that, while real, such economies of scale are likely to be very small (Peter 1992).
However, the existence and size of scale economies and, conversely, diseconomies across various sectors of the economy is problematic. Some emerging production technologies for example are less scale-sensitive than the technologies they are replacing. More broadly, the long term impact of technological change on economies and diseconomies of scale needs further study; both have been falling.
More importantly, it can be pointed out that economies of scale are a function of market size rather than population and can therefore be gained by an increase in consumption per head or by producing for export markets. Most of any advantages of scale can be gained through free international trade.
During the last decade there has been widespread acceptance of the view that population growth through immigration is economically beneficial through its effects on the labour market.
Despite the prima facie argument that unemployment has steadily worsened during 20 years of high immigration, formal empirical studies have suggested no significant historical average relationship between immigration and unemployment (Withers and Pope 1985; Pope and Withers 1993; Foster & Baker, 1991). More recent work by Pope and Withers (quoted in Hanratty 1993) suggests that reduced immigration helps to contain unemployment in times of recession. This is consistent with the results of economy-wide modelling studies of immigration and unemployment which are sensitive to whether they assume real wages to be inflexible downwards with increased immigration, as they are likely to be in recessionary periods (Peter 1992).
Not only is it claimed that immigration does not cause unemployment but also, although not without challenge, that it probably adds more to the demand for labour than it does to the supply and so is a net stimulus to the growth of employment.
While these benign economic attributes of immigration are based on competent applied econometric studies, basic economic analysis encourages scepticism. One would not expect immigration to 'cause' unemployment. What causes unemployment is a decline in aggregate demand. If aggregate demand remains low and immigration continues then there will be a rise in unemployment, especially amongst recent migrant arrivals. Thus, although largely balanced by increased employment amongst native Australians, in the last two recessions unemployment rates amongst recent migrants have risen to over 30 per cent (Wooden 1994). Such distributional effects cannot be used as arguments against immigration if immigrants are still better off than if they had not migrated.
Foster and Baker (1991) detect only a small uncertain effect from immigration on wage levels. There are no accepted causal arguments relating immigration to declines in real wages in recent years. There is no evidence to suggest that immigration levels are maintained to keep wage costs down for the benefit of employers by providing a 'reserve army of labour'.
It can be argued that the population's level of job skills is more relevant to Australia's economic prospects than simple population size. It can also be accepted that the high-unemployment Australian economy no longer needs unskilled migrants, and that many low paid jobs traditionally taken by migrants have been exported to the low cost economies of east Asia. But what of skilled migrants?
Overall, there is no convincing evidence that per capita incomes have been or will be significantly raised by the additional skills of migrants as distinct from their workforce participation. Furthermore, it must be recognised that skilled migrants are probably those most needed in their home countries and that skilled migrants are less available nowadays than in earlier decades.
Research has shown clear correlations between city size and average resident income per head, a relationship holding over the present size range of Australian cities. However, it does need to be noted that income differences across the range of Australian capital city sizes are of the order of a few hundred dollars per annum and may in fact be in the process of coming together rather than diverging.
The size vs income-per-head relationship is important in relation to forecasts that population growth in Australia will continue to be concentrated in the major cities. The implication is that if Australia's population grows and this growth takes place in the big cities, the average standard of living will rise.
Income per head is higher in cities for 'agglomeration' reasons which include more specialised services, the presence of company headquarters, greater capital mobility, more employment opportunities and hence higher participation rates. What is not clear is the extent to which this relationship reflects an income redistribution from rural to urban areas, a population size effect and an incomplete accounting of all the costs, including the environmental and socio-cultural costs (eg congestion, crime) of big city life.
Some work suggests that social and economic benefits increase as city size grows to about 500 000 although after about one million people social conditions deteriorate and after about two million economic conditions also. The full spectrum of costs and benefits associated with big city growth need to be much better researched. Eventually, the economic arguments in favour of city growth and hence population growth have to be set against environmental and socio-cultural arguments against city growth---given the absence of environmental and socio-cultural arguments in favour of city growth, especially beyond 1-2 million people.
There is wide agreement that the provision of physical and social infrastructure in Australia has not kept pace with population growth in recent decades and that this has diminished quality of life for many Australians (see above). One reason is that it is expensive for State and federal governments with minimally expanding budgets to provide social services and the infrastructure (schools, hospitals etc) to establish migrants on arrival. The combined net cost to State and federal governments could be as high as $25 000 per migrant over five years post-arrival (Mathews 1992; Centre for International Economics, 1992). State governments alone make capital outlays of about $30 000 for each new lot added to the urban fringe. Not that there is any evidence that migrants are responsible for a disproportionate share of new infrastructure costs (Murphy et 1990) or make more infrastructure demands per capita than the native-born. The issue here is numbers, not ethnic origin or culture.
Academic research does however suggest that, in the longer term, immigration generates government revenues which more than repay government expenditure on establishing migrants, ie a fixed annual level of immigration should not increase and would possibly decrease the national debt (Wooden 1994).
Comments on economic arguments
The technical literature and basic economic reasoning can be used to identify the probable effects of short-term population growth through migration on a range of economic indicators. These include GDP per head, balance of payments, inflation, wages, employment, government expenditures, production and marketing costs and capital accumulation.
Unfortunately, economies are exceedingly complex beasts, containing multiple links and feedbacks between these indicators and it is difficult to draw strong conclusions about population effects on them using either formal models or basic economic reasoning.
The limited evidence suggests that effects on most indicators lie between being slightly positive and slightly negative. There is even less evidence as to the effects on economic indicators of long-term population growth.
Little in the economics literature addresses the difficult task of comparing the economic benefits and costs of having a larger rather than a smaller populations in 50 years. We just do not have plausible models and methods for comprehensively identifying the full spectrum of benefits and costs standing to be associated with a marginal increase in medium-term population. Will the economy be more dynamic, skilled, flexible and efficient? Will per capita stocks of natural, human, institutional and man-made capital be higher in 2050 with a population of 19 million than with a population of 37 million? Should Australia be auctioning immigrant visas or subsidising immigrants (McNicoll 1994)?
As a general point, a 'post-industrial' economy will have a reduced need for people to provide the equivalent of today's range of goods and services. Additionally, consumption of market goods may fall over time, even though there is little sign of this as yet. Will Australians continue to want rising material living standards anyway---at least as measured by contemporary economic indicators which fail to capture what a number of economists have called 'the hidden costs of economic growth.' If population growth does improve individual purchasing power then it will simultaneously tend to increase per capita residue production (depending on the materials-intensity of production) and hence the per capita costs of ameliorating or living with such residues.
Over the shorter term (ie, on our way to 2050), the arguments and literature available lead to the fundamental operational conclusion that macro-economic and individual indicators of economic welfare will be unresponsive to variations in net immigration levels, at least in the low to moderate range (Foster and Baker 1991).
Even if all these diverse effects could be quantified, it still would not be possible to amalgamate various partial indicators into a single indicator of the economic benefits/disbenefits of population growth. That is, there is no method of summarising measures of diverse economic effects into a single umbrella number.
Altogether, it is difficult to argue that population growth is a necessary condition for an efficiently operating Australian economy with rising living standards.
While economic, social and resource-environment arguments dominate debate about population policy in Australia, there are several other lines of argument which should at least be noted.
Defence arguments, once popular, are rarely raised nowadays. Strategists look to sophisticated technology rather than additional people as the way to improve defence capability. Australia's population will always be small in Asia-Pacific terms. Doubling it will not significantly improve Australia's capacity to influence regional affairs, improve its terms of trade etc.
Ethical and social justice arguments start from the assertion that Australians have a deep-seated responsibility to their descendants and must not limit future generations' decisions on how they will live, eg opportunities to enjoy high quality of life. If significant population growth is judged to make such achievements impossible or even very difficult, then such population growth should be avoided, even if there are short-term net benefits from population growth. This is a broad and difficult 'tradeoff' question which cannot be answered at all well. Certainly, under population growth, future generations will see more people sharing less natural capital of lower functional capacity than the present generation enjoys. For many people, additions to the stock of built capital will not be acceptable compensation for losses of natural capital. While the direction of this redistribution seems clear, its size is not.
In the short term, population growth, whether through internal or external immigration, is widely recognised as spawning a range of 'winners and losers' in economic terms. Such recognition is muddied though by the fact that it is taking place against a larger trend towards increasing economic inequality in Australian society. Whether this already apparent trend is attributable to population growth rather than other factors would be difficult to demonstrate. Murphy et al (1990) find greater polarisation between rich and poor as city size increases. It would appear that those who are losing through population growth are often those who are losing through economic restructuring.
City growth imposes different costs on different groups (both geographically and socio-economically) in terms of loss of services and costs of accessing services, eg the opening and closing of schools and hospitals. Generally, it is the lower socio-economic groups which suffer more by being forced to the outer suburbs where they are disadvantaged in terms of travel, health care and other facilities (Maher et al 1992). Conversely, there is little doubt that any putative small gains in short to medium term GDP per head from immigration will be largely captured in the first instance by a few sectors of the economy, most notably the building industry and suppliers of goods and services to migrants. Although many return home, most immigrants are clear winners whose establishment costs are subsidised by existing residents.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that residents of Australia's largest cities, particularly the poorest, are likely to suffer uncompensated declines in real income as a result of further population growth and until this overhanging inequity is redressed it remains a significant argument---ethical, not economic---against such growth.
International or 'global citizen' arguments are largely concerned with how Australia should contribute, via population policy, to solving the world's population-related problems.
It is widely accepted that, even though total fertility rates are falling in many countries, world population is likely to approach ten billion before approaching stability late next century. It is problematic whether these unborn people can and will be provided with the means to live in even frugal comfort. Currently a billion people live in quite unacceptable poverty.
It is also widely accepted in Australia, as elsewhere, that all countries have a responsibility to stabilise their populations as quickly as possible. For example, Australia was a signatory to a declaration by the world's scientific academies, meeting in New Delhi in 1993, that the world population goal should be zero population growth within the lifetime of our children (Graham-Smith 1994). However, population growth via immigration (Australia's way) is commonly seen as not being in conflict with this injunction, being more 'population transfer' than population growth.
Sometimes the international dimension of Australia's apparent population policy is raised in the form of a moral imperative. Does a small population have the moral right to occupy a large country when other countries are becoming more and more crowded? Should Australia be taking in large numbers of immigrants (and hence growing fast) in order to give source countries a period of respite in which to gain control over their economic, environmental and population problems?
This latter proposal is futile. Even if Australia were to take in 50 million people, the number who might be fed without importing food, the rest of the world would have zero population growth for 215 days. The world would have gained little and Australia would have the massive task of settling this number of people.
Another aspect of population siphoning is that if, in an attempt to maximise the economic benefits of immigration, Australia seeks particularly skilled migrants, she may be greedily taking the very people of most importance to source countries in their attempts to solve the problems of achieving sustainable societies; effectively an argument against skilled migration and hence a partial argument against population growth.
While many Australians accept that each nation ultimately has responsibility to manage its own environment, economy and population, most also accept that Australia has a responsibility to help other nations do these things. What is at issue here is just what constitutes a program of responsible and effective assistance. Apart from taking migrants, possibilities include managing Australia's contributions to global pollution and various forms of foreign aid:
Australians, per head, are great contributors to global pollution, particularly atmospheric pollution but also land-based marine pollution. Increasing the Australian population stands to raise global pollution per head.
The basic 'foreign aid' argument is that if Australia stopped increasing its population it would be able to increase its foreign aid using savings made on the costs of establishing migrants and of bringing up more children. But, politically speaking, there is no reason why savings in these areas would be diverted into foreign aid.
Still, if reducing population growth did allow foreign aid to be increased using the funds currently going towards settling immigrants, Australia's limited resources would end up helping more people more fundamentally than the current immigration program does. For example, providing aid to dig wells in 20 third world villages is more useful than providing one immigrant with a job which allows him/her to purchase a new car.
Humanitarian arguments confront this logic. Refugees are people who are forced to leave their countries for life-threatening reasons. Many Australians demand that Australia should be particularly generous in accepting refugees from political tyranny and natural disasters. It can be noted that, on a per capita basis, Australia could continue to be the most generous country in the world in taking in refugees while still maintaining a zero net migration level (This is because some 30 000 people per year permanently depart Australia).
Food strategy arguments suggest that there could be advantages in terms of world food strategy if Australia were to remain a major food exporter rather than using this same food to feed a larger domestic population. For example, Australia is one of few countries that can rapidly deliver large quantities of food to famine and other disaster areas and this will become more noticeable as agricultural protection diminishes around the world. Again, given the seasonal variability of agricultural production, humanity becomes more vulnerable to famine to the extent that the geographical spread of food exporting countries narrows. To the extent that this line of reasoning stands up to closer analysis (and it probably does), it is an argument for minimal population growth in Australia.
Precautionary arguments can take various forms but all basically express the idea that if there is any possibility, even remote, that some available course of action might have disastrous and irreversible consequences then it should be rejected in favour of any other course of action which does not include the possibility of extreme disaster amongst its foreseeable outcomes. Precautionary arguments against population growth are based on a perception of population growth as irreversible and patently containing the seeds of environmental and social disaster. Coupling this perception with the perception that a stable or very slowly growing population does not appear to contain anywhere near the same prospect of such disaster, leads to the adoption of a conservative or precautionary position on the population-size question, ie a favouring of minimal population growth.
CHOOSING A POPULATION POLICY
Can the above range of arguments about the desirabilioty or otherwise of a much larger Australian population be collected together in some way? The answer has to be 'only subjectively'. Conviction is ultimately a personal matter where an accumulation of partial arguments finally persuades. Bearing this in mind it can nevertheless be suggested that none of the arguments for a much larger population is terribly convincing while the environmental argument against a much larger population is quite strong. Conversely, there do not seem to be any strong arguments against stabilising the population at about the present size. So, on balance, a policy of stabilising the population at about the present level suggests itself.
The implication for an Australian government accepting this view would be to develop and implement a population policy which had as its central objective the achievement and maintenance of a more-or-less stable population, ie a population which, while inescapably fluctuating somewhat from year to year, does so within fairly narrow limits. The reasonable boundaries of choice within which such a policy might be refined are for a near-stable population within one to several generations, somewhere in size between one and two times the present population.
The most frustrating aspect of the population policy debate is that there exists a middle road through it which would be reasonably satisfactory to all of the main players. This middle way is to 'permanently' set annual net migration (including refugees) somewhere below 50 000 and, depending on the figure chosen, population will plateau within a generation or so somewhere between 19 m and 23 m.
Properly presented, with conviction and commitment, this policy would be sufficiently generous to satisfy most immigrationists and sufficiently restrained to satisfy most stablists; and it would restore Australia's international credibility as a country that is not only willing to preach the virtues of population stabilisation to others but to act itself. It would remove existing community uncertainty over this most fundamental of determinants of Australia's long-term future; and, at any time, in the light of new information and emerging events, we would still be free to re-assess all options.
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