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A democratic approach to population and development

By Philip Howell - posted Monday, 5 August 2013

Immigration and local development are inextricably linked. The extra people we bring into the country have to live somewhere. Additional houses, schools and other facilities must all be built in someone's local area.

The connection is obvious to most people in our congested cities, yet there is no policy linking migration with local development. It would be good if the extra people and development only went to the areas which wanted them, but presently people and development are imposed or withheld regardless of local wishes.

This article presents a solution - a policy called We Will Decide, which co-ordinates local development with population and the migration intake.


Our Top-Down Approach

One reason for the lack of co-ordination between the Commonwealth and local level is our top-down approach. The Commonwealth decrees the migration intake; people arrive and the States have to deal with them. State Governments decide where more dwellings should be built, then tell local areas to adjust. Locals are offered a veneer of consultation on how the changes should be managed, but not on the threshold question of whether the population increase should occur. The key flaw is that no-one asks us:"Do you want more people living in your area?

Why do we bring in migrants?

We bring in refugees for their benefit; because we have obligations to the international community to help those in need. We have other international obligations arising from our treaty with New Zealand. But most of the 230,000 or so migrants we presently welcome to the country are brought here for our benefit. Both major parties continually justify immigration on the basis that it supports our economic growth.

There is a paradox here. Population growth through immigration is supposedly in our self-interest, yet in many areas around the country people are finding the results are not at all in their interests. Think of the over-crowding and more intense development which plague our cities. Is that in our interests?

Is it necessary forcthe Government to decide if we need more people? If the question is expressed by reference to our own area, we can make this decision ourselves. All we need is the right mechanism to ask people: Do you want more, the same or fewer people in your area?

We Will Decide - The Bottom-Up Solution

An appropriate mechanism already exists. Every five years we answer questions in a census. The census can now be answered online. The We Will Decide proposal, explained in full at, uses the census to ask people what they want.

We Will Decide is based on a bottom-up approach. We will decide the number of people who come to our local area. We won't decide the circumstances under which they come, nor who will come, nor who will leave. All we will decide is whether there should be more or fewer people in our area. And from that decision, significant though limited consequences will flow.


How Decisions Will be Made

The census form would allow respondents to comment on population growth in their area. They would be shown a map of their area, given some information and allowed to select a figure for the percentage change in population they want in their area. The selection would be made by clicking boxes above a number line. Respondents would choose a figure between an increase or decrease of 2% per year. The proposal is completely compatible with the ABS's existing procedures.

How the Results Will Be Used - The Local Decision

The percentage selected by each respondent will be treated as a decimal, so that all responses for an area can be added, then divided by the number of responses to produce an average preference for population growth or decline for the area. This will be the Local Decision for that area.

In residential areas, more intense development would be prohibited if it would result in a higher population than permitted by the Local Decision. Replacing or extending existing homes would be permitted, but converting homes to town houses or flats would not. There would be no other controls.

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About the Author

Philip Howell is a solicitor in western Sydney and the author of the Advancing Democracy proposal.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Philip Howell

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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