Politics Analysis

Big Australia needn't be a taboo subject

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Discussions about population growth should not be cast aside for political correctness (Image by Dan Jensen)

It should be possible to talk about the positives of an alternative future for Australia without being condemned as prejudiced or racist, writes Dr Peter Cook.

THE ALBANESE GOVERNMENT’S acceleration of immigration to record levels raises again the question of whether a Big Australia is a desirable future for us. Already it is apparent that this immigration-fuelled population growth is contributing to a housing crisis. Questions are being raised about how our congested infrastructure will cope.

The environmental impacts of continued population growth for Australia also need to be considered.

The Australia State of the Environment 2021 report finds that:

‘Human activity and population growth are major drivers of many pressures on biodiversity. Impacts are associated with urban expansion, tourism, industrial expansion, pollution, fishing, hunting and development of infrastructure. The impacts from population growth are extensive and increasing in many areas.’

Population growth also adds to our greenhouse gas emissions and climate risks. As documented in the report, Population and climate change, between 1990 and 2019 Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions from energy rose by 49 per cent due to population growth of 8.3 million people. The report also cites evidence that the average migrant to Australia increases their carbon footprint fourfold by adopting Australian lifestyles.

According to the government’s own emissions projections, it is envisaged that by 2035 Australia’s population will have grown by three million to 29.4 million, from the current size of 26.4 million. Annual per capita emissions are projected to fall from our current 19 tonnes to 11 tonnes by 2035.

Nevertheless, those additional three million people would mean an extra 33 million tonnes of emissions per year in 2035, compared to if our population remained stable at the current level. That is not a trivial amount of extra emissions. The government report itself acknowledges that population growth will negate some of the efficiency gains in key areas such as electrification and light vehicle fuel economy improvements.

Population is not the only factor influencing Australia’s emissions profile. But the above data suggest it is a significant factor for both climate and biodiversity, and surely warrants a policy response just as the other causal factors do.

A policy aiming for low net migration, with a stable population size below 30 million, would likely gain majority public support. Several opinion polls (for example, here and here) suggest most Australians (around two-thirds) do not support further population growth. A recent poll found that only 18 per cent of Australians supported a return to pre-pandemic levels of net overseas migration of 240,000 or higher. Sixty-nine per cent supported much lower levels or even zero net migration.

Limiting population growth in Australia is therefore relevant (it would reduce environmental impacts), feasible (since the immigration lever can be readily adjusted) and publicly acceptable. Why then is it not on the policy agenda of any of the major political parties? Why is it so hard to have a conversation about the downside of Big Australia?

This is where we must delve deeper into the social and political dynamics of the population debate. There are two reasons why the population issue is sidelined in Australia. The first is the powerful economic interests that support continuing population growth as a means to expand aggregate demand and suppress wages. It reflects a form of state capture by a growth lobby of sectoral interests that benefit from population growth — such as property development, construction, retail and higher education.

The other reason is that any discussion of reducing immigration (rather than maintaining or increasing it) is likely to be labelled as racist. This is exemplified in Dr Liz Allen’s book, The Future of Us, where Allen reduces all opposition to immigration to a racist “fear of the other”. Allen claims this is a throwback by older Australians to what she calls the ‘White Australia mentality’.

This leads Allen to lump together all opposition to immigration as having extreme Right-wing racist and nativist foundations, exemplified in Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. Through this conflation, Allen erases centrist calls for lower immigration levels which are not founded in racism, but in environmentalism and social justice.

Sociologist Dr Katharine Betts makes a plausible case, drawing on survey evidence, that there is a taboo about the discussion of immigration and population issues in Australia. This taboo is enforced by an ideologically globalist elite – generally privileged, highly educated and often influential in politics and the media – who are more inclined to view opposition to immigration as racist and who themselves support higher levels of immigration.

Allen’s position exemplifies what Betts calls the ‘guardians against racism’. These guardians enforce a ‘blanket of silence’ over questioning of immigration levels.

Of course, it should go without saying that when racism does creep into the discussion, as it has through One Nation and other fringe groups, it should be roundly condemned and refuted. But that should not block unprejudiced discussion about the scale of our immigration program and its impacts.

All of this goes to highlight the disconnect between public opinion and elite policy-making about immigration and population in Australia — and why there is so little discussion of alternatives to Big Australia in the mainstream media. State capture by sectoral interests from the conservative end of politics, combined with the population taboo from Left-leaning elites, operate in a pincer movement to disenfranchise public opinion.

This amounts to a failure of democracy in the making of immigration and population policy. Some recognition of this was given in the Productivity Commission’s landmark 2016 report, Migrant intake into Australia. The report’s foremost recommendation focused on measures to achieve genuine and well-informed community engagement in the formation of Australia’s immigration and population policy. This call has been ignored by subsequent governments.

Population growth accelerates all environmental impacts. Much time is wasted debating whether it is population growth or inequitable and excessive consumption that is driving environmental deterioration. Of course, it is both together; population is the multiplier of consumption behaviours.

A respectful yet courageous conversation is needed to open up the population discourse, to get beyond toxic insinuations and binary either/or thinking and to realise there are positive alternatives to Big Australia.

Dr Peter Cook is vice-president of Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) and joint author of the SPA discussion paper, Population and climate change (2022). The views expressed here are his own.

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