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Australia’s Population in the 21st Century: Being Realistic

By Phil Ruthven - posted Wednesday, 15 December 1999

Governments are gun-shy about very long term population policy for understandable reasons.

Firstly, citizens generally do not think long into the future about anything. And apart from escapist futurism (eg. science fiction) which is entertaining, most forecasts--however prescient--are treated with alarm if not shock-horror. They are at least controversial, if not the cause of deep divisions of opinion and often fuelled by fanaticism at both ends of the spectrum. Such polarisation arises about the future of social behaviour and lifestyles, technology, new types of industries and jobs, international relations, immigration levels and much more.

Secondly, governments do not have a good track record of picking winners. Mind you, neither do most pundits. The exceptions prove the rule, eg. Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Buckmaster Fuller, maybe Nostradamus. If pundits get it wrong they may get ridiculed; but governments lose office. So why forecast and plan? Because not to do so is worse, and irresponsible.


Thirdly, governments are aware that population policy has audiences outside Australia as well as inside, particularly the immigration component of policy, creating a potential double jeopardy. If immigration policy numbers are too high for Australian consumption, the risk is alarm inside Australia and raised expectations outside Australia which are beyond our capacity to fulfil. If they are too low or restrictive we get boat people and other illegal immigration, and again local alarm.

There are few things as explosive as population forecasts and policy. To governments’ credit, the ABS is called upon to generate scenarios from time to time; and currently we have the Statistician’s options (three of them) out towards the middle of the 21st Century. None of the options would scare a dog off its chain; all options are for more modest growth than in the second half of the 20th Century.

Professor Borrie undertook the previous long range forecast in the early seventies and despite lower predictions for the Year 2000 than most believed, he got it right (around 19 million for the Year 2000) for his lower-end forecast. Many thought it would be nearer 25 million at the time. But rapidly falling fertility rates and lower immigration rates (as a percentage of the population) put paid to that level. In the current forecasts, the ABS suggest that 25 million is the most optimistic forecast of all for the Year 2040!

As we enter the new century and millennium, immigration rates are the key to population levels. Birthrates less death rates--representing the natural increase--are perhaps more predictable and least argued.

What do we learn from history in this regard?

Firstly, the immigration rate has averaged around 0.7% of population over the past 150 years, equivalent to around 134,000 per annum in 1999-00 (or twice what we will actually take in this year). Secondly, immigration runs in cycles. The peaks have been around 1817, 1852, 1883, 1919, 1950 and 1988; around 34-35 years apart on average. Will the next peak be around the early 2020s?


Two of the troughs, on the other hand, have been deep and long, notably 1892-1908 (the 16 years of the 1890s Depression) and 1928-1947 (the 19 years of the 1930s Depression and World War II). History therefore tells us that raising immigration levels while unemployment is high (i.e. over 5% of the labourforce) is political suicide even though increased immigration helps lower the unemployment rate; perceptions prevailing in the face of facts and logic. So, with the current level of unemployment around seven percent, we have an electorate unlikely to entertain higher immigration for 5-7 years hence. Beyond 2005-06, though, is likely to be a period of increased sanguinity and largesse for higher immigration levels.

But there is another lesson from history and an important one: immigration increases are due to exogenous factors as much as, if not more than, internal (domestic) factors. Examples abound: the 1788 European Colonisation (against indigenous wishes); the 1850s Gold Rush; the 1880s Land Boomers; and the post-1940s Refugee response.

There will be more of these exogenous factors in the 21st Century.

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Phil Ruthven is Chairman of IBISWorld.

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