By Graham Bradley
President, Business Council of Australia
Recent contention about the optimum population for Australia, sparked by the release of the Intergenerational Report, is nothing new. We’ve been debating this since Federation.
In the early years of our nation there was strong community agreement that Australia had the potential and the need to increase its population. The idea of Australia Unlimited was embraced. For a new nation of about four million people in 1901, the merit of expanding Australia’s population was a no-brainer. Later, prime minister Billy Hughes told a population of about seven million Australians in 1937 that “Australia must advance and populate, or perish’’. The traumatic realities of World War II brought Hughes’s imperative into sharp focus. The post-war years saw Australians adopt a bipartisan policy of rapid population growth supported by high immigration to enable great nation-building projects such as the Snowy scheme.
The logic then was not so different from the logic of today. Australia needs to continue to increase its population if we want to maintain, let alone improve, our standard of living. But gaining support from citizens concerned about clogged roads, strained services, pollution and social cohesion means governments across the country have to do a better job in planning for growth. And they have to communicate why population growth is important and how it can be accommodated, rather than shying away from this discussion in which all Australians deserve to participate.
The Intergenerational Report assumed a lower rate of population growth in the next 40 years than we’ve experienced in the past 40, and forecast that our population would grow to almost 36 million by 2050, taking into account birth and migration rates.
Business supports well-planned population growth. Such growth contributes to the skills and innovation needed to improve productivity. It also offsets the effects of Australia’s ageing population and the related loss of skills necessary to ensure prosperity. Ignoring these issues will have implications for Australians’ living standards. As the population ages, the size of our workforce drops and governments have less revenue to fund health care and pensions, as well as education, defence and other public services
The Business Council of Australia believes there is a persuasive argument for a well-planned and open approach to population growth. This must include agreement on the level of growth we need and better planning for our cities and towns to manage growth to reassure citizens that living standards will be protected and enhanced.
The BCA has made the case that while the populations of our economic competitors across the world grow, driving our competitors’ productivity, we cannot afford to stand still. Our concerns about filling skills shortages, building our workforce and making our economy more sustainable is echoed in the Intergenerational Report.
The report addresses the concern of today’s citizens that more people will put more pressure on infrastructure, services and the environment, and could challenge social cohesion. Again, the report reinforces the BCA’s message that if we plan for population growth well, we will reap all the advantages and avoid the disadvantages.
When it comes to the effect on the environment, it isn’t population size that’s the issue but how well our natural assets, including land, water and air, are managed. Long-term planning for the development of regions, towns and cities, catchments and natural resources will allow us to protect the environment while addressing the needs of a larger population.
No one would deny there are challenges in a larger population. We are convinced, however, that managed growth is in Australians’ best interests and is necessary and achievable.
The first step is for the federal government to take a leadership role and seek agreement with state and local governments on a national growth policy. The next step is for them to integrate planning of urban centres and infrastructure, including roads, public transport, water and electricity supply, as well as schools and hospitals. We must make better use of the infrastructure we have and speed up reforms already under way for our freight, road, water, telecommunications and electricity sectors.
Without the right policies, Australians can’t be expected to support population growth. But standing still while the rest of the world grows is not a sustainable option. So let us confront and explain these realities and let the Australian people tell cautious governments what they need to do to secure our future growth, prosperity and quality of life.