Morrison and Shorten's Big Australia: The overpopulation problem

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Australia's population continues to grow while inequality worsens (Image: James Cridland via Flickr)

Ignoring environmental and urban congestion objections, the Morrison Government is committed to a Big Australia — a policy unchallenged by the ALP, writes Stephen Saunders.

Morrison Government’s population plan “capped” permanent migration at 160,000 but its 2019 Budget uncapped net migration to 270,000. This has not been challenged by the Labor Opposition and so, our steep population growth is removed from the political contest, ignoring the environmental and electoral objections.

UP UNTIL CHRISTCHURCH, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s muscular migration brand was “Stop the Boats”. The humanitarian intake seemed almost an afterthought. But give credit. On population per se, he’s ventured a plan. Unlike Labor or the Greens.

The Labor platform proclaims a '... long-term' approach to migration levels. That’s as precise as it gets. The Greens policy presents population as an environmental and not just a socioeconomic issue. Who knew? But once again, there are no numbers.

Labor has form here. Its 'Sustainable population strategy' of 2011 waved through ex-Prime Minister John Howard’s big surge to permanent and net migration. Then they cranked permanent migration higher still, to 190,000.

In 'Planning for Australia’s future population', fudges Morrison, ‘...everyone has a view’. The majority view in this latest survey – and a raft of recent polls – is for lower migration and/or population growth. Even Premier Gladys Berejiklian – no friend to the environment – briefly advocated halving migration into New South Wales.

Morrison’s plan “cuts” permanent migration 15% for a “cap” of 160,000. What’s not to like? It’s still roughly twice the 1970s-1990s average. And as the plan itself notes, the crucial net-migration figure topped 236,000 in 2017-18.

The plan introduces 23,000 migrant visas tied to regions, plus a few thousand regional scholarships. Mini measures won’t reduce the crush of overseas students and migrants into Sydney and Melbourne. Whose dominance has never been dented by any post-war schemes for “decentralisation”. At 1945, they held about a third of our population. Now it’s 40%. In 2017-18 they took nearly two-thirds of net migration. Over 80% of Sydney’s population growth of 93,000 in 2017-18 was net migration, with 27,000 locals leaving the city.

The urban plans for Sydney and Melbourne start with eight million apiece by mid-century. On those figures alone, who’d credit Morrison “busting congestion”?

He’s nodding at the everyday lives of urban dwellers. Which incline them to favour lower population growth. To wit, stretched infrastructure and services, stalled wages and barely affordable housing, congestion and vexatious commutes. Post-Howard, our real infrastructure spending has climbed, but not enough. We’re lagging by 15 per cent or more a recommended $100 billion annual public spend, for depreciation and surging population. Morrison’s putative infrastructure top-up – an extra (approximately) $75 billion over ten years – wouldn’t plug the gaps.   

Infrastructure Australia sees ‘...communities increasingly disappointed’ as

‘... infrastructure delivery is struggling to keep pace with rapid population growth.’

It forecasts traffic congestion (and access to jobs, schools, hospitals and green space) scarcely improving (or going backwards) as the populations of Sydney and Melbourne soar towards eight million.   

Morrison nominates population as a fixture for ‘...all future’ Council of Australian Government COAG) meetings. Good idea, but it needs a more balanced discussion than that of last December, where professional population-booster Peter McDonald guested.  

A balanced discussion would delve where Morrison doesn’t. It’s Treasury that hosts our real population plan — inside the budget. To prop up the sainted Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the budget loves generous “parameters” for net migration and population growth. Over the past decade, planned population growth has shored up more than half our real GDP growth. Yet real growth and real per-capita growth remain sluggish, by post-war standards.

Budget population estimates use not permanent, but net, migration. Which sums up the entrants who stay 12 months or more, minus departures who stay away 12 months or more. It can be lower than permanent migration. Across the past 30 years, more often it’s been higher. Post Howard, it’s stayed above 170,000.

Currently, net temporary (especially student) entries dominate net permanent (including migrant and humanitarian) entries. If the economy shrinks, so it’s argued, net migration might follow suit. But we’d be coming off a lofty plateau. And both Liberal and Labor would fight the trend.

The 2018 Budget assumed net migration at 230,000 plus, for population growth 1.6% and estimated GDP growth 3%. We’re getting the 230,000 — never the 3%. This Budget primes net migration to 270,000 plus, for population growth of 1.7% and (wishful) GDP growth at 2.75%.

Morrison is the sixth prime minister in a row sweet on Big Australia. He’s passing off unprecedented migration as the new normal. He’s sandbagging annual population growth above 1.5% — much higher than nearly all other OECD nations.

The political parties and the pervasive Big Australia lobby, fob off electors and environment with ”jobs and growth”. Our carrying capacity, reply the one million fish, matters more than ever. The five-yearly 'State of the environment report' chronicles acute pressures from rapid population growth and economic development. These are drivers of land-use change, habitat loss, invasive species and climate change.

As we crush-load our coastal environments, Morrison’s plan perpetuates familiar narratives. We’re the most successful immigration nation in the world’, on our ‘28th consecutive year of economic growth’. It plays well, in London or New York.  

We’re already nearly 30% overseas-born. Asian nations dominate the student and migrant intakes. In demographic terms at least, “multiculturalism” looks safe. As this latest survey evidences, high immigration captivates the (graduate) elites much more than the ordinary Australians.

Behind the “jobs and growth” mantra, our GDP stutters, while income and wealth inequalities haven’t improved since the global financial crisis (GFC). With the repetitively implausible infrastructure and decentralisation “catch-ups” always well down the road, no wonder the voters are sceptical.     

Morrison’s dogged devotion to Big Australia – apparently shared by Shorten – cruels his infrastructure (redistribution) claims. Both are stuck — as they appear to be on the Adani coal mine.

A government that put local welfare first would wind permanent migration back to 1970s-1990s levels – below 100,000 – and bring net migration well under 150,000. Annual population growth, if somehow prised free of the Treasury and Reserve Bank catechisms, should be reined inside 1%.

Stephen Saunders is a former public servant, consultant and Canberra Times reviewer. His report for the Australian Population Research Institute is ‘Why do we have a big Australia?’

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