Big Australia. It is a term that many of us are familiar with and one that many have a strong opinion about. For some, it is a term that reflects Australia's economic and social success as a nation. For others, it is term that conjures up fear of overcrowding, congestion, pollution and Hong Kong style high rises. This polarisation is a failure of our political leaders and policy makers to articulate clearly to Australians exactly what a Big Australia will look like or how we will get there. No one has articulated clearly whether Australians will be better off in a Big Australia or what the trade-offs are.
The concept of Big Australia is not new; Prime Ministers including Billy Hughes, Malcolm Fraser and Kevin Rudd have publicly supported a population of over 50 million as desirable. Post World War II, Australia embarked on a massive immigration program driven by the idea of "populate or perish". Since then, population growth has been one of the key drivers of Australia's economic growth and success for most of the post-war era.
Today, Australia's projected population stands at 24,986,415 according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics' (ABS) Population Clock. The country's overall population increases by one person every 1 minute and 23 seconds. Australia has one of the fastest population growth rates in the OECD at 1.6%. That is the equivalent of adding one Canberra (390,000+) every year to Australia's population. By 2060, Australia's population is projected to be approximately 40 million. According to the ABS 2016 Census data, the bulk of Australia's population growth is occurring in its four major cities, with Melbourne tipped to overtake Sydney as the most populous city in Australia.
Population growth has significant impacts on Australian life as we currently know it. It is not surprising that some in the community have real and legitimate concerns about the future of their communities and more broadly their cities. The pace of change and the absence of political leadership, policy direction and clear planning will further fuel community anxiety. Individuals such as Dick Smith have become vocal critics of Big Australia, particularly regarding its impact on the Australian way of life and opportunities for future generations. Others have suggested that a population size of 15 million is more suitable for Australia. Voices such as these are resonating more as our cities strain and become increasingly divided between those living in the suburban fringe and those living in the middle ring and inner city.
Without a plan
Big Australia may be where we are heading, but without a plan or a vision of what that actually entails and how to get there, the quality of life for Australians and future generations will be eroded. In the past week the CEO of Infrastructure Australia Philip Davies has highlighted that Australia's population has been growing without any long-term planning or government control. He argued that 27 years of uninterrupted economic growth has made governments and business complacent and it is time for the country to wake up. Mr Davies is just the latest of many to voice their concern regarding Australia's high-growth model.
Australia is a nation that is bereft of a plan for its cities and major urban areas to deal with rapid population growth and an ageing population. There is a Minister for Immigration, yet no Minister for Population. The ability to plan effectively for population growth is complicated by Australia's three levels of government. The Federal government may increase immigration for example, yet it is the state and local levels of government that need to provide the housing, infrastructure and services for these people. This is further exacerbated by political short-termism and the political sway inner-city NIMBYism and the competing demands of regional Australia vs urban Australia. The result is that planning for increased population is often rushed, reactionary, poorly implemented and obfuscated by the different levels of government.
Providing detached housing to meet population growth is an out-of-date solution. Our cities seem to never have enough roads, tunnels or bridges to meet demand.
Cities like Sydney and Melbourne and regions such as Southeast Queensland are playing catch up in terms of infrastructure and housing as they strain with increasing numbers of people. The complexity of planning at the state and local government level have meant much of the response to rapid population growth is occurring on the outskirts of Australia's major cities. Development at the suburban fringe is economically feasible and profitable for developers because of the availability of cheap greenfield sites, easier planning approval processes and the market demand for detached housing. For governments, it is easier to release more land than to reform land-use regulations and laws in middle to inner city areas. It is also politically less risky to release land than to upset wealthy inner-city voters.
Counting the costs
This failure to adequately plan for rapid population growth and continually play catch up has already resulted in:
- suburban sprawl;
- increased road congestion and longer commutes;
- poorly designed and built low-density and high-density developments;
- limited public transport access and connectivity;
- limited choice in housing types;
- infrastructure bottlenecks;
- overstretched public services;
- high property prices;
- clearing of high-value environments and habitats; and,
- a range of 'hidden costs' for the community at large.
These 'hidden costs' to name a few include stress and anxiety, obesity, social isolation, family breakdown and limited job market access. This will only get worse by adding more people to the current equation, unless we start to drastically rethink how we plan and design our cities and major regions to handle rapid population growth.
Through the Big Australia series, Urban source will explore the environmental, economic and social implications of a Big Australia and what we can do to plan for a better future.
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