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How we lit the fuse of the population bomb

By Ross Elliott - posted Wednesday, 8 August 2018

We've been here before – concerns about Australia's capacity to house a large population are not new. But lately, hostility to rapid rates of population growth has gained traction. There have been calls for a population enquiry and former PM Abbott has called for immigration (and hence population growth) to be slashed. He joins a chorus of other voices, from business to community groups. Voters are pushing back against growth, and political leaders are feeling the pressure.

But these pressures are confined to mostly two cities: Melbourne and Sydney (and perhaps to a lesser extent Brisbane). Other capitals and countless regional cities covet growth but find it eludes them. Instead, stupidly (it has to be said) we continue to cram accelerating population numbers – mostly driven by immigration – into a couple of urban centres.

Melbourne was first settled by whites in 1835 and took 165 years to reach 2.5 million people (by the year 2000). Bernard Salt predicts the next 2.5 million will be added in just 21 years, with the city reaching five million by 2021. He thinks it will sail past eight million by 2050. Sydney has a similar story.


According to the Productivity Commission's 2016 Migrant Intake into Australia report, 86% of migrants settled in major capitals, compared with 65% of the Australian born population. More recent information suggests the trend has grown, with only 6% of recent migrants now settling in regions.

The Government has toyed with the idea of insisting that migrants settle regional areas where there are genuine labour shortages, but there seems little determination to back this proposal with action, which in itself could be difficult (and possibly illegal) to police.

Outsiders observing Australia's handling of growth must be incredulous on learning that much of the concentration of growth has not occurred by accident, but is widely endorsed policy. Higher urban densities have since the late 1990s been at the core of urban development policy to handle population growth in the very cities now feeling the most resistance to growth. The benefits promised as a result of increased density were many and the public were assured they would share in an improved quality of life as a result of these policies. Take this example from the 2013 Draft Metropolitan Strategy for Sydney to 2031:

"A home I can afford. Great transport connections. More jobs closer to where I live. Shorter commutes. The right type of home for my family. A park for the kids. Local schools, shops and hospitals. Livable neighbourhoods."

And the result? For Sydney and Melbourne especially, housing affordability is as bad as the worst in the world with entire generations locked out of housing. Congestion is chronic. Private and public transport systems are under more pressure than ever. Commutes take longer and housing choice has been compromised. Is this livable? Talk about over-promise and under-deliver. If these promises had been borne out in the day-to-day experience of the average Australians living in these cities, politicians wouldn't be feeling the push-back now.

Even more incredible is that, confronted with the political challenge of an increasingly hostile public, some suggest (from the comfort of their high-priced inner urban enclaves no doubt) that what's needed is not change, but more of the same. The Planning Institute of Australia recently suggested as much, responding to a challenge from ABC interviewer Ellen Fanning on the 7.30 program that we are ill prepared to cope with "stuff(ing) another three and a half million people into Melbourne and Sydney both".


The PIA responded: "We've got a great challenge to ensure that we don't end with megacities like Lagos or Manila. We want Tokyos, Parises, and New Yorks – and we can do that by planning well." (emphasis added).

Really? Tokyo, Paris and New York might be on our bucket list of cities to visit, but how many average Melbourne or Sydney residents would live in hope they'd one day see their own city turn into a version of Tokyo or New York? I can think of no public opinion poll where we Aussies have put up our hands to select Tokyo as a business model for urban development. Any politician suggesting as much would last a nano-second before being turfed out.

This serves to illustrate how wide is the disconnect between public policy makers and the greater community. The "we" word is used when the "I" pronoun is what's really meant.

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

 The Pulse

August 2, 2018


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About the Author

Ross Elliott is an industry consultant and business advisor, currently working with property economists Macroplan and engineers Calibre, among others.

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