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The nature of Australia’s population debate

By Paul Norton - posted Friday, 15 March 2002

The Federal Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA) has projected that, if current policies and demographic trends continue, Australia's population will stabilise at 23-25 million by the middle of this century. Different people are concerned about such a prospect, for different reasons.

On one hand, many prominent politicians, business people and media commentators want Australia to adopt a population policy to achieve a much larger population by the year 2050, with 40 or 50 million being the target usually cited. The recent Population Summit hosted by the Victorian government saw these calls repeated. On the other hand there are those who believe, usually on environmental grounds, that our population is already as large as, or larger than, the optimum, and that we should aim for rapid population stabilisation, or even reduction from our present 19 million.

The population debate intersects with many others, including those about the environment, Australia's economic future, immigration and race politics, "the family" and gender politics. In this light it is unfortunate that such an important debate about Australia's long-term future has largely occurred in simplistic and one-dimensional terms. Simple-minded notions about the economic benefits of a much larger population jostle with equally simple-minded theories about Australia's human "carrying capacity", and often the population debate seems like a debate about optimum numbers of sheep or turnips rather than about people in a democratic society with diverse cultures, lifestyles, interests and aspirations. This article attempts to redress the balance.


DIMA’s "baseline" population projection for the next 50 years assumes (a) average net inward migration of 75,000 per annum over the next 50 years; (b) increases of about 8 years in male and female life expectancies over the century; and (c) a fertility rate for this period lower, although not drastically so, than the current 1.74 children per woman. The "standard" projection by Peter McDonald and Rebecca Kippen for the Business Council of Australia, which assumes a fertility rate of 1.65 per woman, average annual immigration of 80,000 per year and an increase of five years in life expectancy, also predicts that the population will stabilise at 24-25 million by 2050.

Variations upwards (or downwards) from this figure will be produced by higher (or lower) fertility rates, larger (or smaller) average annual immigration, and greater (or lesser) increases in life expectancy, or some combination thereof. Accordingly, Australia’s population debate has focused on whether, why and how to produce variations in fertility and immigration to yield a desired population target. It has not really considered the issue of changing life expectancy, yet if medical improvements in the next half-century extend the average life expectancy by a factor of decades rather than years (a not implausible scenario), the result will be a population growth "shock" which can’t really be predicted or controlled, but which will certainly be large. The possibility of such population shocks has had little discussion in the debate thus far, yet it is one which a population policy based on the precautionary principle would need to allow and provide for.

The question of fertility is another issue on which the debate to date has been unsatisfactory. The fertility rate is largely the outcome, in aggregate, of the life-choices of women of reproductive age – in particular the balance they seek between work and family. These choices are themselves the result of aspirations, values and prior choices young women have accumulated by or before the age of 25. As such there is very little that governments can do to directly influence the fertility rate, and I would argue that it is wrong in principle for governments to attempt to prescribe young women’s life-choices according to mooted "national goals".

What governments can do is influence the "environment of choice", the incentive structure within which young women make their life choices, in a way which achieves a synergy between women’s aspirations and public policy goals. Thus countries which have designed policies to accommodate young women’s desire to combine work and family in various forms have stabilised their fertility rates and even seen them rise again. Such policies are underpinned by relatively high taxes, generous welfare states and strong regulation. By contrast, countries which have sought to encourage "stay-at-home" motherhood by making it difficult to combine work and parenting - the Southern European countries, Japan and Ireland – suffer low and/or rapidly falling fertility rates because they have created perverse incentive structures which lead young women to keep working and defer all family plans. However, the bottom line is that the ability of governments to engineer large changes to the fertility rate is limited, and hence the major policy instrument for achieving population goals must be the immigration program.

Those who advocate a population target significantly larger than the DIMA projection of 25 million maintain that population growth through a higher rate of immigration brings higher rates of economic growth and better employment outcomes. It is also argued that such growth will offset current trends towards an aging, increasingly welfare-dependent population as the "baby boom" generation ages and fertility rates decline.

The thing about such arguments is that their prime concern is that the population be growing, rather than simply large. If the aim of population policy is to grow to (say) 40 million and then stabilise, this will simply defer rather than eliminate the "problem" of an aging population. Are we to attempt to achieve perpetual population growth beyond 40 million? And whilst there is a strong case that relatively high rates of immigration (e.g. approximately 100,000 per annum) bring a net economic benefit, it doesn't logically or inevitably follow from this that we should seek to double our present population, especially if such rates of immigration need to be combined with below-replacement fertility to achieve population stabilisation.


Advocates of a population of 40 million-plus also claim that this is necessary to make Australia’s economy internationally competitive, or to achieve a large enough domestic market to enable market forces to operate properly. Yet the World Economic Forum's global competitiveness report, rates nations with smaller populations than Australia, like Finland, Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark, amongst the most competitive in the world, with Finland topping the list ahead of the US. The ALP’s "Knowledge Nation" report cites several demographically small economies as models for Australia to emulate by becoming smarter rather than simply growing big. And the concern with "competitiveness", which implies growing involvement in, and exposure to, the global market, renders anachronistic concerns about domestic market size. Beyond this, calls for heroic population targets have an arm-waving character, invoking the spectre of a small Australia grossly outnumbered and marginalised by the populous nations to our north. They are a matter of faith and of national machismo, rather than being based on sound science or economics.

At the other pole of the debate are those who think we're already at or above our maximum ecologically sustainable population, and that we should seek to rapidly stabilise or even reduce it. This position typically includes calls for immigration to be significantly reduced, and in some cases extends to a call for zero net inward migration. The core of this case is a concern for ecological sustainability, and it need not logically entail anti-immigrant or anti-multicultural racist sentiment. For example Professor Ian Lowe argues for population stabilisation through a reduced, but strictly non-discriminatory and multiracial, immigration intake of 40,000 per annum. Nonetheless, the hard-core "sustainable population" position is, necessarily, an anti-immigration position which, unless its advocates are very careful, is prone either to degenerate into an anti-immigrant position or be exploited by anti-migrant racist forces.

Of course there is nothing inherently non-racist about calls for a higher population. The "race suicide" moral panic of the early 20th century, and the original "populate or perish" line, were informed by a desire for a larger population of white Australians, based on Anglo-Celtic women doing their patriotic duty as breeders. Both sides of the population debate need to be vigilant about the racist potential of some versions of their positions.

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About the Author

Dr Paul Norton teaches and researches in the Department of Politics & Public Policy and the Australian School of Environmental Studies at Griffith University.

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