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It is easier to plan with a stable population

By Eric Claus - posted Thursday, 12 August 2010

One of the most common arguments used to explain the congestion, inadequate services, high housing prices and other problems often associated with high population growth is to say that the issue really isn’t too many people; it is poor planning on the part of governments. Proponents of high population growth and high immigration say that with better planning, all the problems could be easily solved and Australia could easily accommodate a fast growing population, well into the future. They imply that planning and providing infrastructure is a simple task that any child could do.

Bob Carr, the former Premier of New South Wales, comes in for special criticism because he has supported stable population and low immigration rates for 20 years and continues to support measures to stabilise Australia’s population. Critics imply that he had a secret strategy to deny NSW adequate infrastructure, because he wanted to prove that the high immigration rates, that were pushed on him by the Howard Liberal governments, were bad for NSW and Australia. The critics don’t bother to explain why similar infrastructure problems exist in Victoria and Queensland where the Premiers were strongly pro-immigration and why no great improvements have been made in NSW in the five years since he retired from public life.

Carr argues now and argued then, that although he put $61 billion into infrastructure during his tenure, there was never enough money to build the infrastructure that was needed for the population that was being brought in by the Federal government. Not in NSW, Victoria, Queensland or any state. He says it is a lot easier to plan new train lines, roads, schools and hospitals than to find the money to get them built.


At the same time advocates of fast population growth are telling the government of the day to build more infrastructure, they are also saying don’t go into debt, don’t run a deficit and don’t raise taxes. Under those constraints, it is easy to understand that infrastructure will lag behind what is really needed.

The second reason that infrastructure lags behind what is needed, is that politicians don’t like to plan and pay for projects that are not going to be completed within their election cycle. Few governments win votes for planning and paying for projects that won’t be built for five or 10 years. A good example is the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The Federal Labour government and NSW Liberal government worked very hard planning and paying for the Olympics, but in the seven years between the awarding and the starting of the Olympics voters decided that winning the Olympics wasn’t as important as other issues, and both of the parties that planned and paid for the Olympics got voted out.

The third reason that governments are hesitant to borrow money or raise taxes to pay for additional population, is that they have been selling population growth on economic grounds, implying (though falsely according to the Productivity Commission) that we will all get richer if we have more immigrants. Saying “We are all going to get richer” and then adding “And all your taxes are going to go up”, isn’t going to win any elections, especially when we aren’t going to get richer and the things that are going to be bought with the higher taxes won’t be seen until after the election.

A good way to keep planning and infrastructure spending on track is to have a continuous consultative process with the community. That way the new infrastructure is well understood and the community can agree that it is needed and not a waste of tax payers money. The down side of the consultative process is that it takes time, and with high population growth rates, there is much less time to plan.

An indication that it is easier to plan with lower population growth is in the comparison of the highest rated and lowest rated countries in the United Nations Human Development Index (PDF 739KB). It is assumed that the highly rated countries are well governed and well planned. The Table (below) shows that the 20 highest rated countries have a median population growth rate of 0.39 per cent per year, meaning that in 10 years the population will only increase by 4 per cent. The 20 lowest rated countries have a median population growth rate of 2.63 per cent, meaning that when they try to plan for 10 years in the future they must account for an additional 30 per cent population increase.

For example, using the median growth rates, when the government of Burkina Faso (with a current population of about 15.5 million) is planning for future infrastructure, they must plan for an additional 4.6 million people in 10 years. The Netherlands, with a population of 16.6 million, must only plan for an additional 660,000 over ten years. It is far easier for the government of the Netherlands to get their planning right, than it is for the government of Burkina Faso.


Similar results can be found using the most and least liveable countries or the list of failed states.

Population Growth Rates

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About the Author

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

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