Some thoughts on population figures

I’m waiting. I know it’s going to happen. And it’s going to be ugly.

The debate about Australia’s population is never pretty. Out of the shadows come deep convictions, straight from the gut. We hear big numbers, unbelievable numbers and we gasp.

Earlier this year, Andrew Leigh gave a speech to the Lowy Institute about Australia’s population (conflict of interest note: I provided comment on a draft). The main thrust of his argument was migrants – on balance – provide economic justification for a larger population and we need to focus on ‘who’, as well as ‘how many’.

I wholeheartedly agree. Yet this argument will get swept away when our collective consciousness is diverted by the appearance of a new set of numbers.

Debating who gets to come is a first-order priority with third-order public interest. Students? Workers? Family members? Asylum seekers? For each of these categories, there are eligibility criteria and such. The legislation underpinning much of the migration program is cumbersome, off-putting.

Yet Australia, for about a generation now, has experienced seismic change in terms of who arrives. This has been driven by the bureaucratic machine along with occasional support from political interventions (such as the FitzGerald report in the late 1980s).

Public interest in the who is not just limited, it simply doesn’t exist.

Leigh’s speech was hopefully read in full by those who make decisions about who migrates. But to see just how hard it is to talk about who instead of how many, the headline of his op-ed in the Daily Telegraph was “Don’t be scared, let’s populate and prosper”. Not much nuance there.

This is because on the numbers, everyone has an opinion that can be vividly supported by anecdotes and facts.

So, what are the numbers looking like? Thanks to some probing questions by Senator Sam Dastyari at the February Senate Estimates, we can piece together a couple of important trends.

In 2010, the third Intergenerational Report (IGR3) said Australia was on track for a population of 36m by 2050. 36m is a forecast, a number plucked from the middle of a range (28m-44m).  This range depends on how many people arrive and depart in Australia and how many births occur.

36m was the best guess at the time which combines medium migration with medium fertility. It’s also called Scenario B by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Four years later, these forecasts have shifted. Scenario B is now estimated at 37.6m, a 4.4 per cent increase from IGR3.

This shift is nearly all from the change in migration trends. The ABS says net migration has a 10-year average of 195,000 while a five-year average of 234,000.

Migrants are now making the biggest contribution to our population than at any point in the 20th century. This means past trends like the 10-year average are now below even the lowest level of migration forecast used by the ABS (Scenario C uses a forecast of 200,000 – the lowest migration scenario). If I were a statistician at the ABS, this unlikely situation would be giving me pause (and probably some level of discomfort when it comes to answering questions from politicians).

To Andrew Leigh’s point, who are these people? According to the ABS, in the last five years have seen students (~30%), permanent skilled migrants and their families (15%), New Zealand citizens (14%) and permanent family migrants (13%). Please note the lack of asylum seekers. From a policy perspective, indeed from an economic and social perspective, this is the key question.

But we don’t like that question. Coverage and discussion of population is akin to a heart-rate monitor. Nothing happens… an explosion of activity… nothing happens.

Take the recent debate about university funding stemming from the Budget. I saw very little analysis about international students. This is despite international students making up 30 per cent of the increase in population by migration over the last five years. When talking about the ‘who’ in immigration policy, this is the perfect example. Do we want more international students in Australia? Do more international students want to come to Australia? Is it good for universities? Is it good for students? What impact does it have on other immigration policies? There are many unanswered questions.

At the bottom of his op-ed in the Tele, Leigh writes: “If we want to have a healthy migration debate, then ensuring that our migrant mix reflects our national values and priorities matters more than fretting about the next set of demographic projections”.

We could do this by talking about these values and priorities regularly, such as international students in the context of higher education policy. But we don’t.

IGR4 is due sometime in the near future and with it a new number to shout about for a small amount of time. The best guess for 2050 is 38m. If you want a preview of this coming debate, just google “2010 population debate”.

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