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Political expediency in push for population growth

By Eric Claus - posted Wednesday, 8 December 2004

The Productivity Commission (PC) has published its report on the Economic Implications of an Ageing Australia, and the results are very encouraging. The report concludes that:

In itself, population ageing should not be seen as a problem, as it reflects the beneficial effects of improved life expectancy and voluntary control over fertility. However, it will give rise to economic and fiscal impacts that pose significant policy challenges.

Fiscal impacts is a much milder version of the “stagnation” that proponents of population growth have predicted. Steve Bracks, the Premier of Victoria, has written:


Australia needs a larger population to prosper in the decades ahead, to avoid economic stagnation, to go forward as a dynamic, globally linked economy, and to ensure high living standards and high-quality jobs.

The PC report predicts that on the current course of low fertility - 1.6 children per woman - and moderate levels of net migration - 100,000 per year - gross domestic product per capita will nearly double by 2044. Being twice as rich as we are now does not sound like “economic stagnation”. The PC also notes, “These conventional measures of output will, if anything, understate the true increase in living standards”. That increase in our already comfortable lifestyle means that high living standards would also be preserved. The study does indicate that if fertility and immigration rates were higher, then GDP per capita would also be greater.

Now that the Productivity Commission has published its report - a report commissioned by a government that favours increased population - perhaps there won’t be as much pressure for increased population. Or perhaps not.

There are three powerful factors influencing the push for greater population. The first is the comforting continuation of the status quo. We have always had increasing population and we have been very happy that way, so why change. The second is that there is probably money to be made in the short term from the increase in population. Most established businesses benefit from increasing demand for goods and services from a growing population. When people have money invested in population growth, they promote the cause of increased population as part of ensuring that those investments are successful. Anything else would be bad business. The third is the short term planning horizon of democratically elected governments. No government is likely to be held accountable for failures in population planning, when the impacts probably won’t be felt for decades.

The factors opposing population growth are many and varied, but are not nearly as powerful. Concerns about the environment and loss of non-renewable resources are offset by living in the modern industrial world, where resources are abundant, and the environment is clean. Future pressures will be taken care of by technology and economics, as they always have been. If there are any concerns about the 2 billion people living in serious poverty on our planet, these concerns can be sorted out with economics and technology. Either that or there is nothing we can do for them anyway, they have to fix it themselves.

There are also several difficulties in understanding the scale and momentum of population growth. One of the difficulties is that there are numbers flying around that are difficult to contemplate. Pro population growth commentators have attempted to bridge the numbers gap with visual images like, “There is no population problem, the whole population of Australia could fit onto Tasmania”. In spite of these colourful statements, it is still difficult, even for experts, to understand how many people can comfortably live in Australia, or in the world.


The other difficulty is with the momentum of population growth. With almost any problem there is a feeling that if it gets bad, we can just stop it. Stop polluting the rivers, stop producing CFC’s, whatever needs to be done - we can just stop it. That does not work with population. If there are huge numbers of young people, even if they only have one child, as in China since the 1980’s, the population continues to grow.

The idea that does seem powerful and still relatively easy to understand, is that population growth cannot continue forever. If the world’s human population grows at 1 per cent (which is below the current growth rate) for the next 100 years, there will be about 17 billion people on the planet. In 200 years - 46 billion. Even if there were dramatic improvements in technology, it is unlikely that all those people could be fed a healthy diet, let alone have a lifestyle like the one we now enjoy and leave some land for other species. That means that at some stage this century, population growth must stop. If population growth stops some day, then the same scenarios of an ageing population will also occur some day.

If population growth must stop some day, why put that day off? Why give the job of managing an ageing population, to our children when it may be more difficult to solve?

I imagine the answer for those in favour of population growth is that our children will be able to handle the problem with economics and technology. Proponents of population growth such as Steve Bracks and John Howard seem to be saying, “Sure I know that population growth has to stop some time, but I just don’t want it to stop in my time”. They can probably afford to say that, without any repercussions, because the impacts will not come until they are out of office or perhaps even after they have died. It is very difficult to fairly weigh the pros and cons of a question whose consequences will not occur until after you die. In the case of population growth, where supporting the growth side has short-term advantages and supporting the stop growth side has very long-term advantages, the decision for a politician becomes relatively easy.

However it is not fair to simply criticise Steve Bracks and John Howard. They are responding to the wishes of voters. If voters made it clear that they wanted policies that slowed population growth, Bracks and Howard would probably jump on the bandwagon. Since voters are largely apathetic to population issues, Bracks and Howard can pursue their short-term interests put forward by the population growth advocates. In the end, that means that despite a rather encouraging report by the Productivity Commission saying that an ageing population is not a problem, we will still see policies encouraging population growth.

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About the Author

Eric Claus has worked in civil and environmental engineering for over 20 years.

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