What size should Australia’s population be?

One theme that runs through any series of comments on ‘climate change’ is that the real problem is the world’s growing population — that, a commenter will say, is the elephant in the room. A version I saw the other day (but alas, didn’t mark for reference) was to the effect that all the world’s poor people want to be middle-class people like the rest of us, and that will really screw things up — the implication being that things would be OK if there were just us middle-class people to have lives.

The theme of over-population ran through the last election, too, with the Stable Population Party (SPP) offering Senate candidates in the six States and two Territories, and in many House of Representatives divisions as well. It didn’t do well, polling on average around a tenth of one per cent of the Senate vote. The SPP didn’t get one of my clap-on-the-back votes before I got down to the real choice — the Voluntary Euthanasia Party and the Sex Party each got one of those.

But the issue has interested me for a long time.When I was young Australia was welcoming people at £10 a passage. Then we started to worry about over-population, as the Greens  and their predecessors began to tell us of the pressures we were placing on the environment. Then the other side told us that without people we were nothing, we needed to defend our vast lands, and that sort of thing. This proposition has been about for 150 years.

So what is Australia’s optimum population? I’m not sure that’s a sensible question, because I don’t know that the population we have is a direct consequence of any government actions. We currently have somewhat more than 23 million, and the rate is increasing at around a thousand a day. Deaths and live births roughly cancel each other out, so the increase is largely the result of immigration, in which refugees make up about  15,000 a year.

How many immigrants are there? Well, for 2009/10 there were 438,000 of them, of whom temporary visa-holders made up 211,000, and they included students, working-holiday-makers, #457 workers, visitors and so on. About 80,000 permanent arrivals, 40,000 Kiwis, and various odds and sods of others made up the rest — and they were all offset by departures of the same kind. The net immigration was about 200,000.

Our birthrate is one of the lowest in the world, at 1.79; we sit about 170th in the list. Without immigration our population would decline quite quickly. Do we have an optimum population? I know that there are people who think that Sydney, Melbourne and even Canberra are already too big, and that somebody should do something about it! But what is it exactly that they should do?

The SPP thinks that rather than be on target for 40 million by 2050, ‘let’s slow down and stabilise at around 26 million by 2050’. The SPP believes that in ‘a finite world more people means fewer resources per person, ultimately leading to poverty and conflict. Australia’s finite natural resource base is the true source of our wealth – not our rapid population growth that both dilutes and erodes it. To meet the huge costs of population growth, Australia is using finite and non-renewable resources that should be saved for our children and grandchildren’.

I think that is a static understanding of ‘resources’, but in any case, how would the SPP go about dealing with the problem? It has two ‘primary policies:

  1. Limit government birth payments to each woman’s first two children.
  2. Adopt a “balanced migration” program, where permanent immigration is equivalent to permanent emigration.

I don’t think that these policies would have a powerful effect, since permanent immigration and emigration aren’t sufficiently different, and I doubt that the birth payments are a huge incentive. I might be wrong there, but I don’t have any anecdotal evidence from family or friends that would suggest that the birth payments really are powerful.

I know that people worry about urban sprawl, and a possible future lack of food, and all the other Malthusian bugbears. But it seems to me that Australia has coped very well indeed with a shift from the 7 million of my youth to the 23 million now, and I see no reason why it can’t deal well with 30 million, either, or the 45 million or so promised for 2050, when I probably won’t be about to comment.

Reliable contraceptives, and the education of women as far and as  fast as men, are the two big drivers of reduced population growth. As is clear, Australia is there already in terms of natural increase, and the two drivers have worked well here. But so have they in  many other countries. It is the notably poor nations where population increase is fastest, paradoxically.

And the SPP is on the right track there: ‘Tie foreign aid wherever possible to the improvement of economic and environmental sustainability, with a particular focus on female rights and education, and on opportunities for women and couples to access reproductive health and voluntary family-planning services to help prevent unwanted pregnancies’. I’ll vote for that!

But for Australia? At this stage I don’t think there is an optimum population size for us. What the proponents of a static population miss is the greater diversity, greater creativity and greater opportunities that come with a larger population. Nor am I worried by greater diversity in ethnic background — I think we have shown over the last sixty years that we can handle that well.


Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Stable Pop'n Party says:

    Interesting read. But it sounds like a ‘grow and hope’ approach, and throws in a few straw man arguments to boot.
    For example, SPP hasn’t “missed the issues re greater diversity, greater creativity and greater opportunities that come with a larger population”. We are an evidence-based party that looks at the pros and cons.
    Education and innovation are the keys to greater creativity and opportunities – along with abundant resources.
    Prosperity does not rely on population growth. 7 out of 10 of the world’s per capita wealth nations have populations under 10 million. For example, is Switzerland or Bangladesh better off? The overwhelming evidence from around the world is that countries with rapid population growth have a lower quality of life – growth spreads finite natural capital like land, oil and water (upon which economic wellbeing is based) ever-thinner.
    Because we have achieved growth in the past does not mean we can easily do it in the future. It’s like saying a family with two kids should now have four, for no other reason than “the past has been good”.
    You are confident Australia can keep growing, but please answer two simple questions:
    Where does growth end for Australia? And how?

    • Don Aitkin says:

      SPP — thanks for commenting! I’ll respond going down your list.
      First, I’m glad to know that you are aware of the expanding possibilities that come with a larger population, but you don’t mention them in the material available on your website.
      I didn’t say, and no one I know has argued, that we need more people to be prosperous. We are prosperous, and some at least of that prosperity has come as a result of the growth of the nation.
      I agree that education and innovation are most important.
      Your two questions are not answerable by me, or by anyone, as far as I can see.
      Where does growth end for Australia? I don’t know.
      And how? I don’t know.
      What were my straw-man arguments?

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