Population: Numbers and faces

The question of Australia’s population is finally a matter of serious debate, after years of being settled by default and deceit[1]. As this surprisingly reasonable piece from Chris Berg of the IPA points out, even the Greens, who have generally been willing to “present clear policy where Labor and the Coalition just waffle”, have found this difficult to handle. Berg observes that the Greens are torn between general sympathy for those wanting to migrate and environmental concerns about the implications of population growth.

For Berg, a Big Australia advocate, the issue is simple. Environmental issues can always be fixed by economic growth and “high immigration … has been the fuel of the Australian economy for two centuries.” Implicitly, Berg asserts that more immigration will make current Australian residents better off. The problem, as Ross Gittins points out is that this generally isn’t true. Increased immigration doesn’t raise average income for those already here, and the need for lots of new infrastructure creates all kinds of economic and social stresses. Of course, the costs are even greater in the case of natural increase – Peter Costello’s fatuous suggestion that couples should have an extra child for the sake of the country was a prime illustration of his lack of any economic understanding, despite a dozen years as Treasurer.

So, there is no getting around the dilemma described by Berg. Considered in terms of aggregate numbers, we would be better off, economically, socially and environmentally, with a slower rate of population growth. But potential immigrants aren’t just numbers. They are people with a variety of good reasons for wanting to come here (to reunite with family members, or to take up a job to escape from persecution or just to get a better life). Refusing them admission hurts them as well as those in Australia (relatives, potential colleagues and employers, those who feel a moral obligation to help refugees) who want to welcome them here. There is no easy answer to this question, and the wishful thinking displayed by advocates of a Big Australia does not help to resolve it.

fn1. The most prominent example being the Howard government’s policy of ramping up immigration while playing on racist fears in relation to boat people. Under Abbott, the conservatives are at least consistently anti-immigrant. That makes them less dishonest, if no less ugly.

79 thoughts on “Population: Numbers and faces

  1. SJ, excellent link.
    Paul of Albury, environmental degradation is a far wider problem than SJ’s link covers and it matters not one little bit that greater degradation occurred when our population was smaller. This is a red herring. We should and do know better than they did and yet the damage continues.

    Most of the toxins put into our environment by Human civilisation are known but the effects are scarcely monitored. All of Australia’s fisheries are fully or over-exploited while industrial, residential and agricultural runoff, as well as degradation of fish hatcheries by settlement of coastal areas means that our oceans are under threat.

    Environmental degradation includes the rainforest timber coming into Australia which is causing deforestation around the world including the threat to Orangutans.

    Environmental degradation includes the smothering of seagrasses by the out flow of stormwater from cities. These seagrasses are the breeding and feeding grounds of numerous fish species.

    Every environmental problem in this world has to be blamed mostly on cities as that’s where the people are and it’s people that cause environmental degradation.

  2. @Salient Green
    Indeed.

    Personally, I wonder what people’s reaction would be if the population growth debate is framed along the lines of:
    “We are making an implicit choice for every extra billion (or 100 million, or whatever) of people we add to the Earth, namely which species should be extinguished next. We are clearly displacing species and/or intruding upon their domains. The extinction rate is expected to rise further as we add more billions of people. At some point the drop in diversity of species will make itself felt, even as anthropogenic global warming continues unabated. While technology will continue to advance, it is unlikely that humans will be able to resurrect the anthropogenic extinguished mid-size animals and for that matter plants, any time soon.”

  3. Interesting info in that link on clearing – around 910000 km2 since 1788 and around 4000 km2 each year in the 90s which suggests in the 90s clearing was pretty close to the mean rate since 1788. Maybe it’s completely independent of population?
    Under crops is around 240000 km2 – about 1/3 of the total.
    It says ‘since 1788, over 700,000 km2 (about 20%) of woodland and forest have been cleared or thinned’ which implies around 80% of woodland and forest still exists unchanged since 1788 – this seems surprisingly optimistic?

  4. @paul of albury

    this seems surprisingly optimistic?

    The ABS rarely gets things wrong. Bear in mind that most of Australia is desert. Of the bits that aren’t desert, northern WA, northern NT and most of north QLD are still uncleared.

  5. Yes but that 20% is specifically for forest and woodland – there’s other figures for other types. I don’t buy that 80% of 1788 forest and woodland has not been cleared or even thinned

  6. I’m very surprised to see John’s endorsement of Gittin’s argument on the narrowly economic consequences of immigration. Gittin’s seems to only site one study (from the Productivity Commission, which (I’m from the US) I assume is regarded as authoritative). I’m not expert in this field, but there has been quite a lot of academic research on the growth and distributive effects of immigration in the US, which uniformly show that immigration increases income on average for all groups of non-immigrant workers except (perhaps, there’s a division among the sources on this) for the least educated (w/o a high school diploma). Moreover, I don’t understand why immigration would necessarily trigger infrastructure expenditures in excess of the tax revenues generated by the immigrants coming to and working in Australia. I mean, its possible that the increased demand for services (as opposed to infrastructure) from immigrant families could be greater than their tax burden; for instance, if immigrants typically have many school aged children, or are especially likely to fall ill, and if they earn low wages while Australia has a very progressive tax system. But at least in the US, essentially all credible studies show that immigrants pay taxes in excess of the value of the services immigrants receive. Maybe its all different in Australia, but it would be interesting to know why.

  7. The PC conclusion is consistent with the Australian research I’ve seen, though I have never studied this really closely. Can you point to a good US summary?

    The obvious point with infrastructure is the accelerator principle, which was set out pretty well by Mark O’Connor on ABC the other day. If the capital-output ratio is 4 and migration is adding 1 per cent to the population every year, that’s 4 per cent of national income that has to be allocated to new investment just to keep the capital stock in line with the labor force.

  8. Yes Paul of Albury You DO have a point, because what’s gone the last century or two, is the best of it. Huon Pine, Red Cedar, all the BEST stuff, in the best catchments, has been got at systematically. Nor is ABS measuring environmental degradation, that I can see and how much of Australia under timber is now actually just forestry of exotics, alien to local ecosystems .
    The effect on entire ecostystems when just a couple of links in the chain are broken, are not considered, until the water dries up or the topsoils are blown away.

  9. Not sure I see the value of US research into the value of immigration into that economy. Generally Australians use American figures when there is insufficient local data. Katharine Bett at Swinburne University has been studying immigration and its effect on Australian society for many years

  10. I would consider myself to be on the far right on a conventional political spectrum. However, on the issue of immigration I would be more than happy to vote greens if they advocated for a 0 immigration policy. Of course my underlying rationale for 0 immigration would be different to that of the greens. This is why i see the political spectrum as not being a horizontal linje, but a circle. Often the far left and far right ultimately want similar things but for entirely different reasons.

  11. @Tony Abbott for PM

    Often the far left and far right ultimately want similar things but for entirely different reasons.

    The Greens are not the far left. They are the liberal humanitarian left. Speaking as a fully paid up member of the far left, with one possible policy exception*, there is nothing that you and I could want that would be similar.

    Moreover, having different reasons to want the same outcome is not irrelevant because it goes to how the things you want are implemented. Means are important, because they are part of the character of policy.

  12. @Fran Barlow
    There is a lot of common ground between the Australian Greens, Hanson’s One Nation, and the Australian Democrats. They are economic nationalists. They all seek:
    • Reductions in foreign ownership
    • Tariffs, quotas, import taxes and other import controls
    • A reduction in Australia’s involvement in multinational agreements designed to liberalise trade and promote investment
    • Re-regulation of the financial sector.
    • Selective other industry assistance targeted at exporters, import-competing businesses, rural businesses, small businesses, high-tech businesses, manufacturers, ‘environmentally-sustainable’ businesses, and ‘growth industries’.
    • antipathy to elements of competition policy,
    • Antipathy to privatization, at least of some industries.
    • The reduction of immigration or a policy of zero net immigration.

    In France, that vile Fascist Le Pen had a solid base in the working class suburbs and the communist heartlands. Le Pen used populist rhetoric against globalisation and profited politically and ideologically from the abandonment of the working class and its interests by the parties that claimed to represent it.

  13. @Jim Rose
    JR – your para two doesnt extend from para one by any logical reasoning. Vile leaders can emerge from any regime…..most vile (evil too) leaders emerge through coups and ceding too much power to the military.

  14. @Alice
    On Le Pen, the fascists and communists hated each other in Europe in the 1920s and 193Os and still do for practical reasons. They were both competing for working class support.

    Both those further to the left and to the right have anti-capitalist tendencies and play on in-group fears of outsiders and all things foreign.

    I see that you have nothing to say on the common economic nationalism of the greens and one nation.

  15. JR @63. Globalisation as currently implemented is about globalising capital only. Personally I take an internationalist perspective and think we need free movement of people as well (subject to appropriate monitoring for quarantine, apprehension of criminals etc). At the moment the global economy privileges capital over people and partly depends on having populations stuck in what are sweatshop countries to provide cheap labour.
    Until we allow free movement of people we should not allow totally free movement of capital.
    I’m sure there are many nationalist green supporters who would prefer to stop globalisation but from my perspective globalisations purported supporters are fakes who only want the limited globalisation that suits their interests.
    I’m kind of surprised the right don’t support people’s right to choose what political body they want to live under – we don’t have a vote every 3 years to decide on Coles or Woolies, we vote with our feet. At the moment the wealthy can do this but the poor are prevented.

  16. @Jim Rose
    Come to think of it JR I bet you never thought evil leaders (or vile leaders) would emerge from private sector ownership and property rights either??
    Then try Leopold 2 of Bavaria

    “Leopold II was King of Belgium from 1865-1909. With financial support from the government, Leopold created the Congo Free State, a private project undertaken to extract rubber and ivory in the Congo region of central Africa, which relied on forced labour and resulted in the deaths of approximately 3 million Congolese. The regime of the Congo Free State became one of the more infamous international scandals of the turn of the century. The area of land privately owned by the King was an area 76 times larger than Belgium, which he was free to rule as a personal domain through his private army, the Force Publique. Leopold’s rubber gatherers tortured, maimed and slaughtered until at the turn of the century, the conscience of the Western world forced Brussels to call a halt.”

  17. Sorry thats “Leopold 2 of Belgium” above. I must be getting Leopold mixed up with Vlad the Impaler!

  18. @Jim Rose
    I actually think a little less pof the globalisation charade and a little more attention to what is going on in the domestic economy wouldnt go astray JR. If you call it nationalisation – then nationalisation is what is needed (especially when the unemployment rate facing our kids between 15 and 19 looking for jobs is now 16 percent!)

    Thats hardly a good start to their lives trying to build wealth is it. Its also not a good start for innovation in this country if close to one in five kids looking is facing trouble getting work.
    There is no comparative advantage for the majority of the domestic residents if you put all your eggs in one or two baskets (mining and coal).

  19. @Jim Rose

    The problem Jim is your assumption that the Greens/Democrats on one side and Hanson on the other represent far left and right. Both are committed unconditionally to the health of Australian capitalism, though they have different approaches to conceiving of how its health might be buttressed. The Greens and to some extent the Democrats are liberal communitarian populists, whereas One Nation were reactionary, moralistic and xenophobic communitarian populists. So it is not surprising that they share some policy despite visceral animus in some fields. It is telling that the Greens are blocking with the Nationals over foreign ownership of farmland.

    Far leftists are indifferent to the fate of Australian capitalism.

    The fact that fascists and ostensible communists are competing for a plebeian base does not mean that they share ideas, though in France it was and is the case that the PCF has acquired some of the poisonous xenophobia that marks the ruling elite. It has been a very long time since the “C” in PCF referred to anything one could fairly call “communist”.

    They are essentially a social-democratic party these days, and not a particularly left-of-centre one either.

  20. @paul of albury
    I agree – isnt it amazing how globalisation proponents cant get their head around the fact that labour represents about 70% of the cost of a product (hence price) yet labour is not free at all to go where it wants. In fact many globalisation proponents on the right also want to turn the boat people back and have a zero immigration policy.

    Work that one out??

  21. @Alice
    From 1885 until 1908 Leopold II was not only the King of Belgium but also the personal owner of the Congo Free State. Whereas in Belgium he improved living conditions, in the Congo he established a brutal tyranny.

    Policy outcomes are a function of governance institutions.

    Under Belgium’s governmental institutions Leopold II required broad support from the general public but in the Congo he only needed a very small group of supporters.

    Congolese leader Mobutu Sese Seko was also vicious because he too needed a very small group of supporters.

    Because Leopold and Mobutu both governed the Congo with a small coalition, they should have produced similarly corrupt and kleptocratic regimes with little attentiveness to the general welfare of their respective subjects.

    Bueno de Mesquita’s The Logic of Political Survival (2003) uses Leopold II as a case study.

    See also Leopold II and the Selectorate: An Account in Contrast to a Racial Explanation by the same author in Historical Social Research, Vol. 32 — 2007 — No. 4, 203-221. It is online

  22. @Fran Barlow
    yr comment “It has been a very long time since the “C” in PCF referred to anything one could fairly call “communist”.

    Meaning in short Jim Rose’s ideas are tres passe.

  23. @Tony Abbott for PM

    And what exactly do you want?

    Short-medium term: inclusive governance covering all public goods on a local/national scale; sustainability in resource acquisition and management
    Medium-long term: as above on a global scale; equitable collaboration across national frontiers; an end to poverty manifest in equitable burden and benefit sharing
    Longterm: socialism on a world scale; general social freedom and equality; progressive dissolution of state power

    It’s not much to want, and yet it is everything.

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