A ‘sustainable’ population

Disclosure: I am heavily pro-migration and in favour of a significantly larger Australian population.

In 2010, just in time for the Federal election, the Treasury released the third Intergenerational Report. What proceeded was a population ‘debate. With the forecast (not estimates) of approximately 180,000 more people arriving in Australia than leaving every year to 2050, Australia was on track for a population of 36 million. This number seemed to evoke a national hysteria. Two things stand out from this episode.

The first is the appointment of a new Population Minister did very little to change government policy about population over the proceeding three year period. The document ‘Sustainable Communities: A sustainable population strategy for Australia‘ is a blithe attempt to to satisfy a pre-election promise. Within are little gems such as this one;

Seriously this is the best we can do?

‘Foundations of wellbeing’… what does that mean?

This document is less a policy statement, more a motherhood statement about poorly defined terms such as sustainability and prosperity. This stuff is borderline deceitful given the unknowns in the debate. Can 20 million people live in Sydney? Technically possible but desirable? The six principles outlined on page 8 of the overview seem like glib attempts to satisfy everyone. I know this stuff is not easy but population was perhaps the most debated issue at the 2010 election and the official government response was not pretty reading.

If you want to read an actual policy document, the Committee for Economic Development Australia report released in 2012, ‘A Greater Australia‘, is a much better place to engage. I do not agree with everything in it yet the authors and editors are experts, informed and communicate in real words as opposed to bumbling rubbish. Graeme Hugo’s multiple contributions demonstrate the best of Australian academia. Topics covered include multiple chapters on the environment, the economy and infrastructure. Social attitudes and public opinion deservedly get included.

The second point is on reflection, the 2010 debate was just the beginning. The Treasury forecasts of 180,000 additional immigrants per year were based, like all forecasts, on past history and assumptions of future policy (note: these are not projections but ‘best guesses’).

Less than three years later we can see how difficult this concept is. The current Department of Immigration and Citizenship forecasts of net overseas migration currently average about 240,000 per year over the next four years. If this holds constant, 36 million will arrive well before 2050. Tables 1 and 2 in the above link are the crux of the issue. Immigration numbers came down to 180,000 in 2011 as predicted but they are now increasing again. I haven’t read a single well sourced story about this trend in the papers recently and I’m worried this is going to be some major surprise when it should be nothing of the sort. We get a million words of bluster after every RBA board meeting but somehow net overseas migration figures are less sexy. This is a shame.

Global economic forces and Australia’s position in the world are driving these migration trends. While Australian governments can and do tinker with immigration regulations, no government can institute an immigration framework that doesn’t account for the centrality of economics to the movement of people. To have this debate seriously, this needs to be acknowledged. A perfect example is Mexican immigration to the United States. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the estimated number Mexican citizens living illegally in the US increased to about 11 million. Yet since 2006, the number has stopped rising and now in decline. This is due both to Mexican economic growth and the economic slow down in the US.

Exploring the figures in Table 3 shows where this growth is expected. International students to double. Other temporary migration will hold constant (at historically high levels) while the increase in the refugee intake to 20,000 has also been factored. Regardless of your feelings on these distinct immigration programs, they are now central pillars in much more than just immigration. International students subsidise Australian higher education, in the process becoming a top three export industry. Skilled migrants increase Australia’s labour market participation. Working holiday makers prop up the agricultural industry with their labour. These are not good or bad, they just are and any discussion on reducing or increasing immigration must account for these complexities.

Table 3 of the DIAC document also shows just how difficult these assumptions are. What is going to happen to Australian citizens, both living here who travel and expats returning from overseas? What will happen with New Zealand citizens? The Department of Immigration expects that more Australians will leave while less New Zealanders will arrive than current figures show. Like all forecasts, these are only as good as their assumptions and in this case, I’d be wary anyone claiming a very specific number.

Population and immigration policy have an uneasy relationship with the Australian public. I have no idea what the answer is to this apparently conflict. At worst, we could have a proper debate instead of what Bernard Keane so aptly described as “I’m Spartacus” debate in July 2010 when the we last hit peak stupid. Yet how likely is a rational debate when 36 million by 2050 becomes 40 million+ in less than three years? Given our fascination with numbers – 36 million, 40 million, 50 million (!) – the emotion is soon captured by endless pictures of traffic jams and house prices.

The questions remain numerous. What is a big Australia? Is there a carrying capacity? How do different levels of government work together effectively on an issue as diverse as immigration and population? I don’t agree much with Peter Brent but his quip about high immigration levels being a ‘technocratic, not democratic, consensus’ seem accurate. Again, this isn’t simply a good thing or a bad thing. Many policies are not well supported by the public yet remain entrenched in our society (see deregulation particularly privatisation).

With the seeming emergence of increased populism in public debate, this is an area where leadership is perhaps required heavily than what we see currently. Perhaps Tony Burke is that man. While the aforementioned sustainable population stuff was highly disappointing, he seems technically smart and able to communicate well. After nearly 30 years of public education in economic concepts such as interest and exchange rates, the time has come for a complementary public conversation – immigration and population and what it means for 21st century Australia. I wish him all the best for the coming election campaign.

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