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.

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