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High population growth: good for the rich, bad for the rest of us

By Eric Claus - posted Friday, 21 May 2010

When getting into a debate, it is important to be able to frame the debate in such a way as to give yourself an advantage from the start. Many wealthy promoters of high population growth would like us to believe that the debate about population is a debate about competing values. Pro-population growth advocates see more value in the economic opportunities of population growth and advocates of stable population see more value in being sustainable and protecting the environment.

The hitch in the rich and powerfuls’ economic argument, is that the economic benefits of high population growth are strongly in favour of the rich. This means that their judgment might not be completely unbiased.

The 2006 Productivity Commission Report (Economic Impacts of Migration and Population Growth) initiated by none other than Peter “… one for Mum, one for Dad and one for the country” Costello, clearly states on page 151:

  • Migration has a neutral to mildly positive effect on overall living standards.
  • The distribution of these benefits varies across the population, with gains mostly accrued to the skilled migrants and capital owners. The incomes of existing resident workers grow more slowly than would otherwise be the case.
  • Factors other than migration and population growth are more important to growth in productivity and living standards.

The incomes of existing resident workers grow more slowly than would otherwise be the case.

It is understandable that sustainability is complex and hard to passionately support. It is understandable that the public is slow to support a difficult concept like biodiversity protection. It is amazing, though, that the public is generally in support of a policy which reduces their incomes and specifically increases the wealth of already wealthy people.

Since the rich benefit the most from high immigration and population growth it is not surprising that the richest are the strongest advocates of high immigration and population growth. Richard Pratt wanted 50 million in Australia by 2020 (Australia’s Population Challenge, edited by Vizard, Martin and Watts, Penguin Books, 2003). Another of Australia’s top ten rich list, Harry Triguboff, wants 150 million in Australia and 20 million in Sydney by 2050.

It is more surprising that the average Australian, who will be worse off with high immigration and a fast growing population, hasn’t been angrier about successive government’s high population policies. It isn’t completely unexpected, though, because when society’s “winners”, the rich and powerful, are telling us that we should increase our population and the leadership of both major political parties agree, it must seem like an obvious policy choice.

Of course, community opinions are more shades of grey, than black and white. A recent Business Spectator poll of CEOs found that 91 per cent of CEOs surveyed said that population growth would have a net positive effect on the Australian economy and 79 per cent expected a positive impact on the future of the country. That means 12 per cent of CEOs think that even though population growth is good for the economy, they don’t think it would be good for the future of the country. Apparently all CEOs don’t have the same values as Harry Triguboff.


Our economic and political leaders tell us that population increase is inevitable, as if they had nothing to do with the immigration rates which accounted for two thirds of the population increase last year. Then they tell us that we must learn to accept in-fill developments in our most beautiful suburbs; we must have water restrictions; we must use public transport more often; and we must accept that we won’t be able to live in a detached house on a quarter acre block any more.

They say that paying higher prices for food, electricity, water, housing and transport are just things that are going to happen in the future. Nothing that can be done about it. Some even say that we should learn to be vegetarians, to reduce our ecological footprint. I doubt they are telling any of their wealthy mates that they have to live in a flat and become a vegetarian.

Real estate developers make big profits speculating on increased population, but when a new desalinisation plant is needed to provide water for the people filling up those real estate developments, the government won’t be asking Harry Triguboff to pay for it. They will be asking you and me.

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About the Author

Eric Claus has worked in civil and environmental engineering for over 20 years.

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