OPINION | Policy on population needs more consideration

OPINION

Crispin Hull

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In a week when population has been a big-ticket policy item, I am going to ask you to make a guess given these facts.


In 1788, Australia’s population was about 200,000, all Indigenous, except for a few First Fleeters. In 2018, 220 years later, the population was 24 million and growing at the rate, according to the ABS, of 1.82 per cent a year. If that rate continues, what will Australia’s population be in 2238, just 220 more years later?

Will it just double (given it is double the number of years) to 46 million? Or guess another figure.

Most people have no idea about exponential growth, so I will give you a hint: it will be a lot higher than 46 million. So have another stab.

Well, let’s get out the spreadsheet and calculate it. I bet you do not come within cooee. Nor would any member of Parliament.

If Australia continues its present trajectory for the next 220 years our population will be . . . wait for it . . . 1,269 million people.

Right now, Australia has 7.7 million square km of land, or 33 hectares per person.

In 220 years’ time it will be just two thirds of a hectare per person, that is 6600 square metres per person, about 10 suburban blocks.

But consider the deserts and the mountains and the result is horrific. About 6 per cent of Australia is arable land. So if the present trajectory continues each Australian will have to eek a living out of just 400 square metres of arable land.

And this is in an understandable historic time frame. It is the road to starvation and hell. Something has got to give well before then, if it already has not. One would hope it would lead to a realistic population policy.

We did not get that this week from Prime Minister Scott Morrison. We got an announceable. He announced that net immigration will be capped at 160,000 a year for the next four years. Previously it was nominally 190,000, but even so it was only a tad over 160,000 last year anyway.

So there is really no change from the short-term growth mania that profits the big end of town who are all donors to major parties, particularly the Coalition.

But so close to the election we have to have an annouceable that something is being done about congestion. Part of that was a populist system of work visas that demands that recipients live away from of the major cities for three to five years or forfeit any chance of permanent residency.

This is the great ebb and flow of Australian politics. Promise what the people really want in the weeks leading up to an election in the most imprecise but expansive terms possible and afterwards just pander to the big-growth donors.

The Coalition’s so-called population policy has no chance of reducing congestion or infrastructure shortages.

While fish are dying in Murray-Darling and we are facing droughts, floods, under-employment, unemployment, homelessness, housing shortages, crowded schools and hospital waiting lists, the message should be that Australia is full.

Now is precisely the wrong time to lock in four years of 160,000 net immigration – that is 640,000 people or one and a half Canberras.

Canberra has struggled just to build just one short track of light rail over the past decade. Its schools and hospitals struggle, yet it is considered among the nation’s best.

The infrastructure maths, like exponential growth, is little understood.

But look at it this way. Given the average piece of infrastructure – road, hospital, signpost, fence etc – lasts about 50 years, you have to spend 2 per cent of the nation’s capital every year just to keep up existing infrastructure. But if you increase the population by 2 per cent a year, you have to add another 2 per cent of the nation’s annual capital expenditure just to keep the same amount of infrastructure per head.

In short, a 2 per cent population increase, which Morrison has more or less locked us in to, means we have to double our infrastructure spending each year. But we are not. That is why people are rightly upset.

In the long term, the figures put Australia on the road to hell: 400 square metres of arable land each in the same time frame as between white settlement and now.

So when, after we have appeased all the short-term profiteers, should we reverse this trend? 2040, 2050, 2080. Now, or never.

This may sound like a lot of statistical babble. But consider algae in a lake or cancer in the body without treatment. Each doubles every six months. So the lake looks okay for 30 years until the algae takes up half the lake. “Oh, it will be another 30 years before the other half gets overtaken with algae.” Wrong. It will take six months.

Same with cancer. The cells grow exponentially. The last doubling to fatal size can be alarmingly quick after a person has coped with it for quite some time.

Australia is but a small example of the global population problem. Globally and nationally we must do whatever we can to control the exponential growth in population before it controls us.

Morrison’s “population policy” is far too little for too short a time.

Australia is full. Like most other countries we should not have an economic immigration policy, just a humanitarian one. Clearly the economic program has not helped the vast majority of Australians over the past decade or more.

Further, the population growth, even under this week’s announcement, understates the true position. We have to add the 30,000 illegal immigrants a year who come in by air.

Unlike boat people, more than 95 per cent of whom had a legitimate claim of persecution, those who come in by air have no claim. They are coming with the illegal intention of overstaying. But they do not make dramatic media footage so can be safely ignored.

Yes, we should stop the lethal boats, but let’s not pretend we have our borders and population policy under control.

And this must have nothing to do with race. The white, English-as-a-first-language tourist overstayer is foreign. The hijab-wearing Muslim who speaks English as a second language and got her Australian citizenship yesterday is not. She is one of us. Her chances of a job, access to good infrastructure in Australia, and a liveable environment have to be protected against the growth fanatics and any influx of overstayers, many of whom are British, New Zealanders and American.

So let’s remove race from the population and immigration question and concentrate on the environment and the living amenity of the people already living here.

If we did that we would have a sensible population policy not, as we have now, the irrational immigration policy based on bringing in as many consumers and low cost employees as possible for the profit of the big end of town.

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