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Beyond quantities in the melting pot

By Deb Foskey - posted Wednesday, 15 December 1999

The size of Australia's population has always been a contentious issue. For most of white settler Australian history, the unofficial policy was to outnumber Aboriginal peoples and to build the numbers (of a white, Anglo-Saxon nation) to repel attack from the spectre of external enemies. Only in recent years have fears been publicly raised of the ecological threat that human activity poses to this fragile continent.

Prior to the 1970s, as cities and towns grew and forests, grasslands, rivers and deserts were transformed to increase Australia's productive potential, the population explosion was seen to be happening in Asia, Africa and elsewhere. Australia was still regarded as 'underpopulated'.

Since the 1970s, the environmental movement has become a strong political force, bringing concerns about biodiversity loss, resource depletion and degradation and pollution into the public arena. Well-known ecologists have publicly called for a reduction in Australia's population. They see numbers of people, rather than their activities, as the major cause of environmental problems.


The globalisation of markets and production lines has been paralleled by the understanding that the Earth is a single ecosystem. Global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer are the most graphic examples of the global effects of industrial activities. Population stabilisation will not rescue Australia's environment, even at the low levels proposed by ecologists like Harry Recher and Tim Flannery. A population of six million people living at current levels of consumption, in an economy based upon exploitation of natural resources for export dollars, cannot be ecologically sustainable. What environmental benefit is gained from reducing, for instance, the population of Australia's fragile hinterland if empty houses sit in vast cattle pastures forming one link in a global production line?

The insular approach of ecologists who seek to reduce Australia's population fails to grapple with the deep, systemic causes of environmental problems. Framing the problem in simple ecological terms ignores the political, economic and social framework which shapes population issues. Ecological sustainability is one component of population policies. Basing immigration policy on population biology alone will lead to discriminatory policies which harm human rights and social justice, not just within domestic policies, but in regional and global relations.

The population growth lobby consists mainly, but not exclusively, of representatives of large corporations. At an Engineering Forum in October last year, the chief executive of Visy Industries, John White, considered a population of more than 50 million people as the key to Australia's economic success. Executive Director of Boral, Tony Berg, expressed the opinion that a population of 28 million would be ecologically sustainable. Both feel that the Australian domestic market is too small to 'develop the large, smart corporations which will be able to survive the rigours of globalisation in the next century'. The Business Council of Australia, of which both are members, argues that without economic development, Australia will not be able to afford to look after its environment.

This is based upon the much promulgated idea that economic growth is essential to create the funds needed for environmentally sound development. However, its logic fails to hold up: for instance, Australia's economic development has been through much of our history based upon primary industry, and soils and water are, consequently, crucial resources. Yet the unsustainable way in which agriculture has been practised in this country has degraded topsoils, polluted water and led to salinity problems which are, in ecologists' or businessmen's language, an ecological disaster. The business community is more interested in an increased population as consumers, and rather than economic growth, their main concern is their profits.

Yet, despite the poor logic of both the drastic population reduction and population expansion views, Australia's population does merit some attention. As ANU demographers Peter McDonald and Rebecca Kippen have pointed out, without a net gain from immigration, Australia's population will be reduced to fewer than five and a half million in one hundred years. It will continue to decline as the number of women decreases in each generation. One quarter of Australian women now do not have children and average completed family size falls below two children. This is more than lobby groups like Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population dare to hope for. By itself, depopulation will not solve our environmental problems. If we remain among the world's largest producers of greenhouse emissions, we will continue to exacerbate global environmental problems, and may even be jeopardising the environmental security of low-lying Pacific neighbours.

Any debates around population are, as they always have been, about immigration. To speak about population in Australia is to engage in politics, for no matter if the discourse revolves around economic growth or biodiversity, underlying any discussion are issues of race, democratic and human rights and social justice. Australia has done a poor job of reconciling these issues.


This year has seen some decisions taken by the Australian government that make many Australian citizens with a penchant for social justice and human rights observations squirm. While much hoo-ha surrounded our eventual decision to allow a few thousand Kosovars to stay here while NATO dropped bombs on their country, there was little public reaction when the last of them was recently sent home against their will. Later in the year, we were more prepared to send our troops in to East Timor than we were to allow a few hundred East Timorese to stay on a few extra months in Australia. It seems that the quality of mercy is very strained.

The arrival of successive boats bearing asylum seekers willing to pay extortionate amounts of money to find a safer place to live has again strained the mercy of Australian governments and many people. Welcome to planet Earth, Australia, where our isolation has for centuries allowed us to bury our collective head in the sand about movements of people. With millions of people on the move as economic, environmental and security problems destabilise their region, we are a very small player in the world migration pattern. This is an area which will play an increasingly important role in international politics. Australia's stance at the moment is to dance to the tune of One Nation supporters, to welcome foreign capital more than foreign people. Policy decisions are currently made by consulting lobby groups such as the Business Council of Australia and Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Australia. As a public debate, it will inevitably bring out racist and xenophobic attitudes; yet it is a debate we must have, I believe.

In next century's world, even militarised borders will be unable to keep desperate people out of Australia. Waves of boat people reveal the vulnerability of a country whose borders are its coastline. On the topic of markets, the Australian government talks up our proximity to the Asia-Pacific region. Refusal to help refugees from economic and political events in the same region reveals less neighbourly attitudes. Current government policy is to roll out the red carpet for short term business migrants, while shutting the doors to asylum-seekers and many family reunions.

Governments hold tightly to their control of immigration policies, even while shedding other areas of power. Immigration policies are about who gets in, for how long, and how they will be treated while they are here. While public debate focuses on overall numbers, these issues remain unexamined. Immigration policy defines our international relations and shapes our society; it is a measure of our performance as global citizens.

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About the Author

Dr Deb Foskey is writing her PhD thesis on the global politics of population in the School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University.

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