The emerging population* debate (read immigration): a response to Nicholas Stuart

Nicholas Stuart had an op-ed in the Canberra Times this week arguing against a bigger Australia.

His argument is with Michael Fullilove, Director of the Lowy Institute, for his speech on ‘A Larger Australia’. I disagree with bits and pieces of Fullilove’s means, but on population, come down at the same end. However it is pleasing to see an emerging debate on this issue outside the confines of a federal election.

In familiar op-ed style, Stuart situates his argument within either/or:

Now this is one of those fundamental ideological positions you either hold, or you don’t. Intellectual arguments don’t seem to make much impression on those in favour or those against the idea that we can be “bigger”, and this is really a debate about population size.

I don’t believe this to be true and wonder if Stuart actually holds this belief, what is the purpose of his op-ed in the first place?

Stuart has three main arguments against a bigger Australia.

The first is to focus on infrastructure and the public cost of this provision. It’s an important point. More people require more stuff. Yet this only focuses on the demand migrants place on government and ignores the contribution from migrants. Most economic work on most developed economies shows the effect of immigration hovers around neutral. In Australia, we err on the side of positive because of the high-skilled nature of our immigration framework. Benign but limited as termed by the Productivity Commission in 2006. Therefore for Stuart to ignore the contribution of migrants to governments in the provision of public infrastructure is poor form. Yes, more schools and roads cost money. Thankfully migrants pay taxes too. His lament that “in the long run only a few benefit” is akin to claiming the only winners in the AFL last season were Hawthorn. While Melbourne may not have had a great year on the field, hundreds of people have good jobs because of the club and thousands more supporters gain enjoyment from participating. There is a good argument to be had about infrastructure in Australia, but blame state and federal governments as opposed to migrants.

Perhaps the most egregious part of his argument is his second point. Stuart co-opts Gina Rinehart as his main antagonist. This is despite the fact he goes to great lengths to explain one is not racist or anti-development to believe in a stable, low-growth population. In the same vein, one does not need to believe Gina Rinehart’s $2/day nonsense to believe in a larger Australia. Stuart is incorrect to state a big Australia means lower living standards. There is little proof to his claim. Australia today is the most populous and near to the richest we’ve ever been. This does not prove migrants are the individual equivalent of economic stimulus packages, but it does mean you require some evidence when you categorically state having more Aussies “simply means lower standards of living”. Stuart is dishonest by conflating Rinehart’s push for outlandish policy with the bigger Australia argument and the spectre of lower living standards. Even the most pessimistic takes on the impact on immigration see only very minimal impact on living standards (Borjas etc) while in Australia, the effects are generally small and positive (See Productivity Commission 2006).

Stuart’s last argument is the environment. “It’s fragile. Despite last week’s deluge, the rain isn’t coming when or where we want it. The soil is thin and old. There are limits”. All of this is true, but none of it precludes more people.

Finally, Stuart says:

There is another model. This week I’m in Sweden. In the 1600s this was a mighty power. Today it’s just a pleasant country; but I don’t think it’s lost anything in the transition.

Here is what Sweden has lost: the opportunity to take as many people possible on its journey to massive wealth. A nation is mostly a collection of the people within it. While Stuart laments our slide down the happiness and wellbeing measures (of course, Australia sits 2nd while Sweden sits 8th on the Human Development Index), since 1946 Australia has been busy integrating many people into high paying jobs, world class education and cultural exchange opportunities. Further, Sweden itself has run a pretty large immigration program over the past decade (just not for the past 400 years), something he would find if he ventured into the Stockholm suburbs in the south.

I think I understand the fear about more people from an environmental and economic point of view. There is a risk standards of living will fall with more people. Personally, I see this risk as much smaller than the risk of population stability in terms of wellbeing. In relation to the environment, unlike climate change, the issues of population are second order and based on tradition (i.e., water policy in Australia) rather than best practice*.

Stuart’s piece is more thoughtful (and pleasant) than the standard stable population writing that is spewed onto the internet by a small handful of excitable activists. However it contains many more questions than answers. I should note, I generally enjoy Stuart’s column in the Canberra Times as he explores matters at the margins as opposed to the general op-ed industrial complex which has arisen.

Other takes: Andrew Leigh has a more “factual” take on the population debate here, where he comes down on the side of more people (but only just it seems). Richard Tsukamasa Green has a different take to Fullilove here but supports a bigger population.

* Of course acknowledging people coming from low carbon economics to Australia increase Australia’s net carbon emissions. This is not an argument against immigration but for rigorous climate change policies.

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