Population is “the everything issue”. It affects all aspects of public policy and our daily lives. It is essential to get population policy right if we are to achieve critical public policy outcomes like secure jobs, affordable housing, better planning and a sustainable environment.
That is not to say that it is the only reform required in order to achieve these outcomes, but trying to achieve these goals while engineering record population growth is like walking up a down escalator.
From a population of 19 million in 2000, Australia has grown to reach nearly 25 million today. That is nearly 20 years earlier than the official prediction made by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2000. We’ve added an extra 6 million people in quick time, or around 30 per cent. Incredibly, that’s more than the entire population of Sydney.
Why is this extraordinary growth happening? The fundamental reason is the ramping up of Australia’s annual permanent immigration intake from the 20th century average of 70,000, to around 200,000 a year since 2000.
Most people look horrified when they learn that federal immigration policies have us on target to reach 40 million by 2050, and 80 million by 2100.
The fact is, in an age where Australia’s fertility rate is around two children per woman, this growth will now overwhelmingly come through immigration.
Do you recall any political mandate for this fundamental change in public policy?
The public is sick of politicians and elites telling them they are xenophobic, or worse, if they don’t swallow record immigration. They’re also tired of politicians and business lobbyists claiming that we need more young migrants to prevent ageing, as if migrants don’t age. The Productivity Commission itself debunking this claim several times. In its 2010 report, Population and Migration:
Understanding the Numbers, it concluded that “realistic changes in migration levels also make little difference to the age structure of the population in the future, with any effect being temporary”.
In any case it is highly contestable as to whether Australia’s healthy and welcome gradual ageing process does actually lower workforce participation. There is a serious flaw in the federal Treasury’s analysis. It uses the traditional definition of our ‘‘working age’’ population as 15-64 to determine participation, but this definition is obsolete.
Baby boomers are changing our economy, with workforce participation rate for men above 65 in NSW rose from about 10 per cent in the mid-1990s to above 15 per cent in 2010-11. NSW Treasury expects that figure to rise to 20 per cent by 2028. For women above 65, it has more than doubled to about 7 per cent since the mid-2000s and is forecast to be more than 12 per cent by mid-century.
In Australia, an increasing number of people (voluntarily) work past 65, off-setting an increase in the average age and stabilising our workforce participation ratio. Record immigration is the non-solution in search of a non-existent problem.
Polls are overwhelmingly telling us that voters reject high immigration, with a recent Essential poll showing 59 per cent agree that the level of immigration into Australia over the last 10 years has been too high. Rather than blaming migrants for our growing economic, environmental and social problems, voters are clearly blaming politicians for engineering this record growth without a mandate.
Some common sense is required from our politicians. This issue won’t go away and they have a choice to make on how they leave Australia: Better or bigger.
*William Bourke is president of Sustainable Australia.