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Populate or perish?

By Ross Elliott - posted Wednesday, 16 May 2012


Many global population projections point to the current world population of roughly seven billion people peaking at around nine to ten billion in 2050, after which numbers will slowly decline. In the midst of this growth, Australia’s current population of 23 million is predicted to rise to around 30 or 35 million in the same period. This low growth outlook has been called ‘big Australia.’ We are kidding ourselves, aren’t we?

‘Populate or perish’ was a rallying cry of post World War II Labor Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell as he sought to overcome domestic resistance to immigration. For Calwell, immigration was the key to quickly boosting Australia’s population numbers in the interests of economic and military security. An avowed supporter of the ‘white Australia policy’ he sought immigrants from European backgrounds. Asia was, back then, regarded as the enemy.

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Above: world populations since 1960. Below: Australia’s rate of population growth since 1960. Source – World Bank. 

How things change, yet stay the same. In 2012, it’s arguably just as much in Australia’s interests to boost its population numbers, in the interests of economic security and (according to some) military security also. And again, immigration – not an accelerated breeding program of naturalised Australians – is the only way this can realistically occur. As domestic industries increasingly surrender to global competition and as energy, agriculture and services industries increasingly depend on foreign markets for their long term survival, the issue of Australia’s relatively small population – despite its obvious continental mass – raises little by way of public debate.  A larger domestic population might provide more critical mass for domestic industries, for local employment and for community wide infrastructure to succeed. Dreams of Parisian, London, or New York standards of public transport, for example, will never succeed when our cities are just small fractions of the urban mass that makes these things possible elsewhere.

But talk of a ‘big Australia’ – by which we really mean just a little less small than now – has become ‘persona non grata’ in public policy circles. We have a Federal Population Minister, but he hasn’t issued a single statement on population policy this year (compared with a swathe of environmental statements issued under his Environment Minister hat).  Our Prime Minister has other things on her mind, but even if her Government was on more solid ground her antipathy to a ‘big Australia’ is well known and a matter of public record. And such is the apparent public hostility to the notion of a bigger population, intermixed as it is with a blend of doomsday environmentalism and references to failed Malthusian or Paul Ehlrich ‘Population Bomb’ scenarios and a host of other myths (including the most preposterous: that Australia is running out of room and resources), that few political or public policy leaders want to take up the debate in favour of growth.

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With that in mind, I thought some very simple reality checks might prove helpful to stimulate your thinking about Australia’s population capacity relative to the rest of the world. Wendell Cox, author of the global housing affordability study ‘Demographia’ recently published his Demographia World Urban Areas  report and there’s a handy summary article of megacity populations here on Joel Kotkin’s New Geography.   I want to take just two examples and interpose them into the Australian context.

First, let’s look at Los Angeles, California.  Often cited as a region with similarities to the Australian urban context (both in a positive and negative sense), this city popularly known for its ‘sprawl’ actually has a very high level of population density. The total population of the Greater Los Angeles area is around 15 million people. Put into context, that’s roughly two thirds of the entire population of Australia living in the Greater Los Angeles ‘sprawl.’ 

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This article was first published on The Pulse.



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About the Author

Ross Elliott is an industry consultant and business advisor, currently working with property economists Macroplan and engineers Calibre, among others.

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