"How big should Australia be?" There was a time, back in the aftermath of World War II, when this seemed a laughable question. That was back when Australia's population was tiny, well under 5000 people on the entire mainland, and when the slogan "populate or perish" had real resonance due to the lurking presence of several billion heavily armed and inscrutable Asians paddling about a few miles off Darwin, gazing lustily at our wide open spaces and plentiful feral camels.
But these days things are a little different. Australia is now a thriving, cosmopolitan, urbanised super-nation, brimming with people of all shapes and sizes and levels of personal morality; and as such, population has become a Big Issue. After all, there are only so many people that can fit into one country, and it's best to find out where the limit is now, rather than in 2065, when we find ourselves perched on the edge of cliffs, giving birth directly into the ocean. Not me personally, of course — I'll be well past child-bearing age by then — but my daughters, and their daughters, and their daughters' promiscuous schoolmates, will find themselves severely constrained when it comes to maternal care, and I think it's best we stay a step ahead of this obstetric dystopia.
On the other hand, we don't want to be under-populated, either. Those Asians might have retreated for now, but rest assured, they're still on high-alert, sitting by their cheap yet well-crafted transistor radios, listening intently to Radio Australia in the hopes that Phillip Adams's latest comic monologue about wombats will be interrupted with the momentous news — Australia's population is shrinking! — and they'll be back into their junks and their dragon boats and their canoes and their coal-carrying super-tankers and swarming our shores quicker than you can say "intolerable stress on health and welfare services".
It is, therefore, tricky. Such trickiness is only magnified by the news that two thirds of Australians want the population to be more than 22 million, but less than 30 million, meaning this government, and future ones, will be required to do some demographic needle-threading of impressive delicacy. It also shows that Australians are, at heart, irritating people who are basically impossible to please. No wonder Mark Latham quit — who needs the stress?
But the Government has gone a long way to solving the conundrum, with the appointment of Tony Burke as Minister for Population. What does a Population Minister do? Well, he is in charge of all issues relating to populating or de-populating the country, whether it be modulating the birth rate, adjusting the immigration intake, or shooting outer suburbanites from helicopters. It's a task you know Tony is up for, given we're talking about the man who not only smashed the way open for Australian trade into more than 50 overseas markets, but also has begun an extensive consultation process. We're talking full-blown Renaissance Man here.
But before he gets around to that, it's up to Tony Burke to decide just what our population should be? Four billion? Twelve billion? Six? All options are on the table, as they say, and Burke shouldn't necessarily be slavishly led by popular opinion here. The polls may say that people want a population between 22 and 30 million; but how often is it that when people get what they don't want, they discover that what they didn't want was what they wanted? Not very often? Perhaps, but it's also possible you didn't understand the question. Let me illustrate the point …
The Aborigines who inhabited the Australian continent long ago did not, originally, want European settlers. Numerous studies have shown this, along with overwhelming anecdotal evidence and a 1768 News Ltd. phone-in poll. When asked, "how would you like some oddly dressed sadists to show up on your doorstep tomorrow and try to breed you out of existence once they run out of bullets and exotic viruses?", a solid majority of First Australians reported their feelings as "negative to strongly negative". And yet today, Aborigines love white folk! Just ask legendary indigenous athlete and citizen Catherine "Cathy" Freeman, who is well-known for hardly ever flying at white people in a mad rage.
Or consider the good people of New South Wales, who thought they would hate Kristina Keneally, but after she became Premier found to their surprise that they had lost the ability to feel any emotions at all!
My point — if I remember correctly — is this: Australians could well be frightened of a "big Australia", but when they discover the reality of a billion-plus population, quickly take to it like a duck to breadcrumbs. After all, a big population carries some real advantages, like the charming folk art of the peasant underclass, or the massive local death tolls in the event of natural disasters (no more feeling guilty whenever a front-page story about a three-car pile-up is followed by a page 12 paragraph about 100,000 dead people in a mudslide in Azerbaijan!).
In short, we would take our place at the head of the world order: big population, big disasters, big influence. Maybe, if we can slap a few hundred million onto our census, the other countries will stop pushing us around at the UN, laughing behind our backs at the G20, and stealing our girlfriends at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit.
I mean, look at Japan. Tiny land mass, huge population, and they go like a bomb. They're having a whale of a time up there (ha ha!). Just think — if we boost our population growth we too can have a thriving electronics industry and a predominantly seafood diet.
So we can see the upside of massive overpopulation. What are the downsides? Well, obviously, there's the possibility we'll run out of water, which can, to a certain extent, put a crimp in the quality of life. But it's not a very strong possibility, is it? Every few years the media starts squealing like little girls, about how we're going to run out of water and we'll die of thirst and the fish will die and everything will taste of salt and we'll be enslaved by hyper-intelligent cactus-people. But it never actually happens, does it? Somehow, the government always finds some more water that it didn't know it had, like it had a major river system that fell down the back of the sofa in the 80s, and they only just got round to vacuuming.
Because the big secret of Australian government is, we always have enough water. The politicians just tell us we don't have much, to keep us on our toes and stop us getting too cocky about our flowerbeds.
The other risks of overpopulation are more serious. Like the possibility that our city roads will become so congested that our major corporations will have to dismantle all their premises and reinstall them piecemeal inside their employees' cars, because that's where everyone will be spending 15 hours of every day. Or the possibility we'll have to live squashed together like common sardines, or Indians. Personally, I would find it very difficult living in close proximity with my fellow human beings. The pressure to maintain friendly conversations would be almost unbearable. I really can't take any more urban density. I'm spending all my time looking angrily at my shoes as it is. If we do decide to increase the population, there will have to be some stringent anti-pleasantry laws passed.
And, of course, there's the overwhelming probability of living waist-deep in our own sewage within the next few years. But look, let's not sweat the details — that's what we have Tony "Sweating-the-Details" Burke for.
The real point is, whether we want a bigger population or not, it's coming. Australia's current refugee intake is 13,500 a year, meaning that, taking into account the average refugee birth rate of six babies a year, this country will have, at a conservative estimate, 40 million more people by this August. Oh sure, we can tow the boats back, but the little buggers can swim. What can we do? Nothing. And other sources of immigration, though neither as numerous nor as determined to bleed Centrelink dry as the average affluent fake refugee, only exacerbate the problem. And then there's Australians themselves, the horny little bastards, who just can't stop breeding, probably because of the Pope or Earth Hour.
So it's coming. Don't worry about that. All we can do is plan for it, with smart choices about infrastructure, energy efficiency and compulsory euthanasia, to ensure that when we are finally overrun by Asians/Muslims/New Zealanders/young people, we can carry on as the great and prosperous nation that we arguably are. A big Australia, as Kevin says, is nothing to be scared of. It will enrich us all.
I mean, you should probably get a gun. And some tinned food. And maybe dig a few tunnels. Just to be safe.
But don't stress.
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