The debate about how big Australia should be has been derailed by issues of immigration and race, and remains silent on the realities of our environmental capacity, writes Paul Spinks.
Last year, I wrote a Meanjin essay The Elephant in the Chamber,lamenting the dearth of political debate about population growth in Australia, or more specifically the lack of a long-term plan: ‘will the current growth rate go on indefinitely, haphazardly, or just until it is too late?’ was the subtext.
More immediately, to what extent will the issue occupy voter minds at Saturday’s election?
Coincidently, that essay corresponded with emerging media coverage about population issues, but there was little political take-up. Since then, further flurries of media focus, particularly in regard to capital city congestion, prompted some political responses, mainly regarding infrastructure-building and people shifting, though it has seemingly dwindled as a topic as the election neared, probably because any discussion about population growth invariably becomes consumed by one about immigration (which is then side-tracked by one about race) and economics (business depends on population growth).
Disappointingly, both these high-growth positions become an ideological pincer which silences discussion. Matters like the carrying capacity of Australia and the kind of future desired for the nation receives little attention, even from many environmentalists.
Politically, the discussion became wedged in that way, with some on the right taking up the baton but mainly focusing on the cut-immigration line, with no thought of an actual long-term plan. The left side of politics remained silent policy-wise, except to take an opposing view, presumably to hang the right out to dry and exploit the race issue (adding to the high-growth pincer pressure being applied by the business lobby).
Perhaps the topic of immigration should be temporarily parked if Australia is to have a rational discussion about population growth. Decide on matters such as long-term capacity and the quality of life before considering immigration numbers, with an emphasis on humanitarian obligations. Not to mention increasing foreign aid and doing far more generally to alleviate global economic inequality so people have less need to seek better lives on foreign shores.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s noise about ‘congestion busting’ led to cutting the permanent immigration intake from 190,000 to 160,000 per annum which, so far has had the opposite effect as reported by SBS: Soaring temporary migrant numbers outstrip Morrison’s ‘congestion busting’.
Claytons’ cuts aside, Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) appears to be the only political organisation campaigning on population growth. Subsequently, and unfairly, it’s sometimes tarred with the racism brush (SPA argues questioning immigration is about numbers, not race), but has many eminent supporters, including Tim Flannery and Bob Carr.
However, of all the population elephants in all the political chambers, the one in the Greens room is by far the largest. Their environmental origins would suggest they embraced a population plan, but none exists. Party leader, Richard Di Natale, appearing on ABC’s Insiders program, continued to argue that coal is the biggest contributor to climate change while ignoring the more significant role human consumption plays, not only regarding climate, but to environmental degradation and species extinction generally.
He’s correct to the extent it’s far easier and quicker to reduce carbon emissions than to address human numbers, but in the long-term the latter is arguably more important. Last year, Earth Overshoot Day, the point at which humans have consumed the year’s food and resources budget, occurred on 1st August, This year it could be as early as June.
As I write, a UN report is emerging about the devastating influence of humans on the planet’s biodiversity (a million species at threat of extinction). Of course, addressing population growth is just one approach, but is more specific to Australia because of our rapid rate of human expansion and relatively empty though mostly arid lands, and our position to be able to choose a different path.
The Greens website, where population growth is mentioned, brushes it off as a global issue, as if to say Australia has no obligation to take a lead or set an example, as they rightly argue we should do in regard to action on climate change.
‘We’re a small contributor to population growth; it’s the rest of the world’s problem’ seems to be the contradictory ‘denial’ subtext. The inference is that Australia should repeat the avoidable population and over-development mistakes other countries have made. Adding to the contradiction, a larger Australian population contributes to an increase in the already high emissions (in per capita terms) that the Greens claim they want to address.
The Greens take an admirable ethical stance when it comes to immigration, but their blind spot is failure to recognise, or acknowledge, that most of Australia’s intake is based on economics rather than morality.
A reader comment at the end of my essay claimed:
As a member of the NSW Greens some 20 years ago, I was encouraged to prepare a draft population policy for presentation at a state council meeting. It was a lot of work, and the moderate document that emerged, supported by hard numbers, recommended a reduction in overall immigration to 50-70,000, with an increase in refugee intake included in this number. The council refused to table it or discuss it. I was told it was just too controversial, and that “we had a responsibility to the world to open our doors to anyone”. I resigned from the Greens following the meeting. They have zero credibility on population and the concomitant environmental issues.
In August, 2018, Australia’s population ticked over the 25 million mark, apparently 33 years ahead of schedule. The media put aside any concerns about population growth and applauded the milestone in celebratory tones, focusing on feel-good stories interviewing newly arrived migrants at the airport. Nothing wrong with that.
The Melbourne Age editorial was true to form, perhaps anticipating additional readership: 25 million reasons to smile – and plan well! There were frequent media references to our population numbers being insignificant compared to India and China without adding that our environmental capacity is infinitely less.
A Daily Telegraph piece repeated this comparison flaw, quoting social researcher Ashley Fell arguing that the USA has an equivalent land mass, but their population is 300 million, as if Australia’s vast deserts, salt pans and marginal agricultural country could accommodate similar numbers.
Part of the discussion problem is that most Australians, temporary and permanent, live in areas of the continent that are more climatically and environmentally benign, so it can be easy to overlook how dissimilar the rest of the country is (another influencing factor, for some, is guilt about our good fortune and negative perceptions about aspects of our immigration past).
At various times during the year and juxtaposing the celebrating chorus, other media reports portrayed graphic images of drought-affected lands and environmental catastrophe caused by flood, fire and water mismanagement. (Much less is typically mentioned about Australia’s parlous record regarding species extinction and biodiversity decline).
Most damning of all were the scenes of Murray Cod carcasses accompanying the usual images of malnourished livestock and withered grazing lands. While connections were occasionally made with climate change and political negligence, none were made with human consumption.
Global demand has also added to environmental stress as Australia attempts to tap expanding overseas markets, as well as its own. After more than 200 years of doing so since European arrival, land clearing continues, both legally and illegally, and Queensland has allegedly been doing it at a faster rate than Brazil. Further evidence Australia is a developed nation behaving like an undeveloped one?
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, meanwhile, recently called for a cut in green tape, arguing that it was costing jobs, and holding back business (code for the amassing of riches for a few?).
Ideally, though, the subject of population growth would be removed from political hands, and an independent panel established, along with citizen juries, to present a series of proposals for the people to vote on.
Given population growth has, so far, been off the agenda during election campaigning it remains to be seen how much it will influence voting.
I suspect the elephant is still too troublesome to herd.
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