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Population Growth in Australia: Views and Policy

Talk for Possible Futuresgeor_697 336..347

Department of Resource Management and Geography, University of Melbourne, 221 Bouverie
Street, Carlton, Vic. 3010, Australia. Email:
Received 2 November 2010; Revised 15 March 2011; Accepted 22 March 2011
Debates about population growth and the policies that might direct it have
occurred from time to time in Australia and have always received publicity. This
paper explores two facets of Australias recent discourse about population growth.
First, it identies the major scholarly work of the last two decades that analyses
the signicance of population growth in Australia, this work seeking to provide an
alternative to diverse popular and populist claims made in the 1990s. Second, the
paper raises the particular areas of policy thinking on which this debate has drawn
when seeking to support the need for population to grow more or grow less
(population ageing, the need for urban [social and physical] infrastructure, and the
recent discussion of the export industry of education). The paper concludes by
asking why certain powerful public discourses constitute population growth as
something to be feared.
KEY WORDS population growth; Australia; immigration policy; environment;
cities; fear
In his inuential book about late 20th century
American cities and the voices of decline that
interpreted what was happening to them, Robert
Beauregard (1993, xi) wrote of his concern that
urban theorists should confront the tension
between interpretive strategies and objective
analyses, making sure that the simple portrayals
favoured did not suppress the multiple meanings
that are essential to how we understand the city.
Switch to the year 2010, and public attention in
Australia was being drawn by a range of political
strategists and prominent gures to the countrys
relatively high rate of population growth. Indeed,
during the terms of the current and past federal
governments the size of the immigrant intake
into Australia has increased, and projections
made early in 2010 suggested that the national
population might almost double by 2050 should
trends persist. The stories or interpretations pre-
sented publicly in 2010 about the signicance of
continued high population growth for Australias
future were stories either of gloom if this hap-
pened (from environmentalists, largely) or gloom
if it failed to happen (from businesspeople
wanting continued growth in economic activity).
Either perspective was presented simply, with the
complexities of the situation not evident, and the
political and economic interests of the positions
being advanced rarely made clear. The tension
that Beauregard referred to, between the simple,
more populist, public presentation of interpreta-
tions and the fuller analysis of complexities that
is needed to nd appropriate policy responses,
was certainly in play.
Examples of contemporary opinions, advanced
by selected public gures, were evident in 2010
in television programmes and lms, and in
newspapers. On the Australian Broadcasting Cor-
porations current affairs show The 7.30 Report
(26 January 2010), Sydney apartment developer
Harry Triguboff complained that in other cities of
336 Geographical Research August 2011 49(3):336347
doi: 10.1111/j.1745-5871.2011.00697.x
the world there are no huge public parks in the
centre of the city, such as there are in Sydney, and
that these parks should be drastically reduced in
size to make way for the building of high-rise
apartments for a growing population through-
out these central and accessible locations. In a
sometimes-stark counter-positioning of attractive
suburban housing with gardens against anony-
mous high-rise apartment buildings without
gardens, this programme also pictured academics
giving snappy and condent comments on the
situation of current and projected city population
growth: this is crunch-time said architect Kim
Dovey, discussing how higher density housing
in Australian cities could create a positive future;
but without government intervention, said urban
planner Jago Dodson, social disintegration will
increase. In his 2010 lm The Population
Puzzle, Australian businessman Dick Smith
sought to direct popular attention to the question
of population growth in Australia, before the
federal election of that year, introducing the lm
in previews as the most important thing Ive done
in my life. He attracted the publicity he sought, if
one considers as a measure of success the devel-
opment of a popular TVprogramme (ABCTVs Q
and A) showing and discussing his lm, and the
emergence of online discussion sites including
one with voting about howbig the countrys popu-
lation should be. (This latter matter needs to be put
in the context of public opinion polls in Australia
long showing [unsurprisingly] that people want
population size to stay around what it currently is
and what they know [see Betts, 2010]). In news-
papers varying opinions were advanced, often
predictably according to the newspaper in ques-
tion and the part of the newspaper in which the
comments were made. Business chiefs slam
Labor and the Coalition over immigration para-
noia was a headline on the front page of The
Australian (21 July 2010). One of The Ages
economics writers argued that there is no reason
to reduce population growth; we just need better
planning to accommodate it. If migration levels
arent increased to meet the demands for skilled
labour, effectively activity will be choked off and
the economy will be forced to grow at a slower
rate (Business Day, The Age, 26 July 2010, p. 9).
A similar sentiment was expressed in the same
section of the same paper, with a statement from
Australias most inuential businessmen, that
the economy will suffer if skilled migration is not
retained at least at current levels (Business Day,
The Age, 23 July 2010, p. 1). Injecting a comment
about population growth discussions producing
popular feelings of fear and danger, writers for
The Australian (22 July 2010) grouped (oddly)
the concerns of longstanding migration and popu-
lation researchers that urban congestion and high
housing prices were being publicly linked to high
immigration levels, together with the concerns of
those wanting to support strong migration intakes.
There were certainly claims advanced that popu-
lation growth is causing scarcity in certain forms
of urban infrastructure; see, for example, the front
page of The Sunday Age with its headline Urgent
need for city schools and its argument that inner
suburbs are suffering a shortage of primary
schools, which will get worse if projected popu-
lation growth occurs (13 June 2010). And empha-
sising (or imagining) the racialised nature of
discussions about population growth due to immi-
gration inAustralia, the cartoonist Tandberg drew
for The Age a crowd of Australians shouting no
more Asians, no more Poms and the like, to a
grinning conservative politician, watching (1 May
2010). Populist presentations of environmental
issues, like climate change but also population
growth and its effects, often evoke fear and danger
as effective communicative and interpretive strat-
egies (Swyngedouw, 2010). They seek to present
phenomena like population growth as having a
self-evident meaning or signicance for all ordi-
nary people, suggest simple and commonsense
strategies to prevent problems for those people,
and often predict undesirable futures if those strat-
egies are not pursued.
Against such a backdrop of recent popular
clamour, this paper identies the sustained
research and commentary that has occurred in
Australia about population growth and its policy
implications, analyses that are rarely referred to
in simplied, contemporary, public discussion.
First, it identies the major scholarly work of
the last two decades that examines the signi-
cance of population growth in Australia. This
was writing aimed at providing a rigorous alter-
native to the previous urry of public opinions on
population growth, expressed in the early 1990s.
(This scholarship could inform present-day dis-
cussions, but it is interesting to note that in inter-
views with some of the authors of this scholarly
work, conducted by Dick Smith as background
for his recent lm [see
populationpuzzle/], one of those authors, Barney
Foran, says that his work [Foran and Poldy,
2002] has been ignored by governments).
Second, the paper raises the particular areas of
policy around which the debate about Australian
population growth has been formed: policy
R. Fincher: Population growth in Australia Views 337
2011 The Author
Geographical Research 2011 Institute of Australian Geographers
thinking targeting the reality of population
ageing, the need for socially and environmentally
sustaining urban infrastructure, and uctuations
in demand for temporary migration for inter-
national students and its implications for the
export of Australian education. These current
areas of policy concern differ from those of the
more distant past when matters receiving greater
attention in discussions of policy and population
growth were defence of the country and the need
for a larger population to facilitate this, and
questions about the racial composition of the
immigrant population. The paper concludes by
asking why certain powerful public discourses
constitute population growth as something to be
Australian debates about population growth
in the last 20 years
Through the 20th century in Australia there were
occasional, although quite regularly occurring,
debates about population growth, usually pitting
nation-builders expressing a concern that popu-
lation growth is necessary for the growth of the
economy and the defence of the country against
environmentalists worried about the drain on
resources in a dry continent should the popu-
lation grow. Cocks (1996) provides a useful
summary of the ebbs and ows of this discussion
(and see Fincher, 1991; 1998 for briefer treat-
ments). Many opinions aired in public on this
matter have been populist, but some have used
evidence and stressed their scientic credentials.
In this section, I lay out the ndings of a number
of accounts since the early 1990s that have pre-
sented a view backed by serious use of evidence,
and that provide well-considered statements on
this long-contested question. As noted, this work
is the latest round of endeavour in Australian
scholarship about national population growth. It
was written following the last Australian bout of
public debate and indignation about immigration
and the environmental consequences of certain
rates of population growth.
Consider rst a perspective presented by
demographers. Demographic analysis has sought
to emphasise the need for careful use of popula-
tion projections and for taking a long-term view,
recognising that population trends develop over
numerous decades not numerous years. The
voice of demographic accounts is one empha-
sising the need to be scientic, refuting the
claims of those viewed as making wild, populist
suggestions. McDonald and Kippen (1999;
2000) made a deliberate intervention into the
debate about population growth in Australia,
clearly situating the need to do so.
in a context where, on one hand, environmen-
talists have been calling for a population in
Australia considerably smaller than its present
level (612 million) while on the other hand
some with a development orientation have
called for a population considerably larger
than the present level (50100 million). These
extremes . . . are sheer demographic non-
sense To reach 50 million in 50 years, Austra-
lia would need net migration of almost half a
million persons every year for the next 50
years. . . . To reach 12 million in 50 years,
100,000 Australians would be required to
leave Australia every year for the next 50
years (McDonald and Kippen, 2000, 45).
These analysts set out to evaluate the feasibility
of what in the 1990s was being suggested for
Australias population growth by a number of
well-known commentators. Five criteria (situa-
tions to be avoided) were used against which to
evaluate the different claims. To be avoided
were: excessive ageing of the population; a sub-
stantial momentum of population decline; varia-
tion between very high or very low numbers of
migrants; large uctuations in the age structure
of the population; and large falls in the numbers
of people of working age (McDonald and
Kippen, 1999). One after the other, the perspec-
tives aired so often in public were tested demo-
graphically. Found wanting was the reasoning of
those favouring zero migration and a one-child
policy for ecological reasons, those calling for
greatly increased immigration in order to reme-
diate our problems of population ageing, those
desiring a long-term population in Australia of
612 million for ecological reasons, those
seeking a population of 50 million persons in 50
years in order to defend the country, and those
seeking zero met migration in order to stabilise
the population.
In the end, this demographic appraisal of the
population growth debates of the 1990s con-
cluded that pathways to a smaller or larger popu-
lation in Australia should pay attention to the
fertility rates (the average number of births per
woman) of Australian women as well as to gross
alterations in the net migration intake. In a situ-
ation of constant below-replacement fertility, a
constant annual number of migrants will eventu-
ally produce a stationary population (McDonald
and Kippen, 2000, 56). In the late 1990s, if the
fertility rate were 1.65 (in fact it was between
338 Geographical Research August 2011 49(3):336347
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Geographical Research 2011 Institute of Australian Geographers
1.75 and 1.80), the annual net migration rate that
would produce zero growth was 80 000, they cal-
culated. Acerbically, they commented that:
In Australia, business groups are lobbying for
high levels of migration, but, at the same time,
they have displayed no interest in the continu-
ing downward slide in the birth rate. Indeed, it
can be argued that the fall in the birth rate is at
least partially related to the less than family-
friendly work policies of business, and the
lobbying of business to reduce government
expenditure on programs that support families
with the costs of children (McDonald and
Kippen, 2000, 57)
Ten years later the national fertility rate had risen
in ways not anticipated by demographers (see
Bell, Wilson and Charles-Edwards, 2011). And
both major parties in the federal parliament had
promised more family friendly policies of paid
parental leave. The Australian federal govern-
ment implemented its paid parental leave scheme
on 1 January 2011, following a review by the
Productivity Commission which had suggested
the need for such a policy to signal that taking
leave to care for a new child for 6 months is a
normal part of a working life, and further that
the policy was needed to achieve higher female
participation and retention in the workforce
(Commonwealth of Australia, 2009). Of course
policy proposals and policies addressing the
question of parental leave from work sit within a
contested landscape of discussion about why fer-
tility rates in Australia are low and have fallen
since the late 1970s, and therefore what kinds of
policies will be likely to increase them. Gray
et al. (2008) canvass the viewpoints well, point-
ing out that controversy exists among researchers
regarding the inuence of particular factors like
female labour force participation on fertility rates
within different subgroups of the population.
They recommend that changing trends in partner-
ship formation should also be examined for their
relevance to explaining fertility rates below
replacement levels. It is their general conclusion,
however, that policies allowing women to engage
in paid work as well as child-rearing, and which
lower the costs of raising children for families,
are likely to be consistent with increased fertility
rates. This seems aligned with Australian govern-
ment thinking (Commonwealth of Australia,
2009), although government accounts of the
policy do not mention an objective of raising
fertility rates.
Environmental arguments have veered fairly
wildly around the realities of Australias popula-
tion, as the demographers work discussed above
has noted. The view of the well-known scientist
Tim Flannery, that Australias population would
serve its ecology best at a level of 612 million
people, was noted and dismissed by demogra-
phers as not possible whatever its desirability.
Flannery has written passionately and convinc-
ingly of the environmental blunders associated
with white settlement of Australia. In his essay
Beautiful Lies: Population and Environment in
Australia, Flannery (2003) notes the costs in
salinity and damage to rivers of huge environ-
mental interventions in the early to mid 20th
century. These schemes he attributes to long-
standing, government-supported, business boos-
terism. He sees, in his strong statement that the
size of the population in Australia has an envi-
ronmental impact because of our way of life, that
immigration is to Australian business what
Snowy water is to the irrigators an essentially
free good that has resulted in addiction to an
environmentally unsustainable business model
(Flannery, 2003, 67). Flannery, like the demog-
raphers, calls for a scientic approach to ghting
Australias environmental crisis (p. 17), and his
target is the fanciful claims of some in business
for population growth-fuelled economic devel-
opment. But it is perhaps the work of Cocks
(1996) and of Foran and Poldy (2002) that states
the environmental claim for a lower population
growth most clearly and with the most convinc-
ing use of evidence, including demographic data,
to form the case.
The natural scientist Cocks has written widely
on the social consequences of population growth,
as well as the likely environmental outcomes. He
separates commentators on this issue into three
groups: populationists (interested in an expand-
ing population), stablists (keen for stabilisation
of the population at around present levels), and
reductionists (a small group wanting a reduced
population) (Cocks, 1996, ch 3). Like others
advancing the need for rational and scientic
discussion of the issue, Cocks criticises the
way political leaders and business people often
portray it, and states his own starting position
that we have enough people in the country
already and can stabilise it within generations by
manipulating migration numbers. One by one,
Cocks discusses the issues long raised in con-
temporary debates about population growth in
Australia, and examines them from every side.
The list includes:
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2011 The Author
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the economic arguments for population growth
(he nds that few economists are willing to say
that migration is good or bad, and that concep-
tual arguments that a growing population will
provide expanded per capita outputs to fund
urban infrastructure founder on the reality that
there is no mechanism to ensure those outputs
are used for that purpose);
the idea of a population carrying capacity for
Australia (he nds, like the House of Repre-
sentatives, 1994 enquiry, that the idea of a
single population target being set for a nations
population is unhelpful in modern societies in
which expectations about the spatial distribu-
tion of the population and the reliance of the
population on trade as well as domestically
grown goods vary);
the idea that population size degrades environ-
mental quality (he concludes that population
growth is not a necessary or sufcient condi-
tion to explain environmental damage, but that
it does predispose this outcome given a lack of
institutional mechanisms to prevent damage);
the argument that social dysfunction might
occur with increased population (he cannot
nd evidence to support this claim, other than
the anecdotal claim that people when surveyed
say that social problems and the cost of living
are getting worse);
the thought that our international obligations
are well served by a strong migration intake
(he nds we would be better served by increas-
ing our foreign aid expenditure).
Overall says Cocks (1996, 188), the case
against major population growth is not all that
strong, just a lot stronger than the case for it!
Developing scenario-building models is what
the major Commonwealth Scientic and Indus-
trial Research Organisation (CSIRO) study of
the early 2000s (Foran and Poldy, 2002) under-
took. Using three population scenarios, a total
population in Australia by 2050 was projected
of 20 million, 25 million, or 32 million people,
based on immigration intakes of different sizes.
Melbourne and Sydney would reach 10 million
people each by 2050, under the highest growth
scenario modelled. In this complex modelling,
the effects of different levels of population
growth on the availability of a range of
resources in Australia (water, energy, etc.) and a
range of environmental problems (urban pollu-
tion, congestion) were considered according to a
variety of population inuences, ranging from
the direct requirements of people for food and
housing, to the ways this consumption might
vary with different lifestyle requirements, to the
exchange of Australian exports for imports in
its trade balance (Foran and Poldy, 2002, 13).
CSIRO analysts concluded in reasonably opti-
mistic tones that technological innovations may
help resolve some issues, but that it will be a
struggle for them to be used to their full poten-
tial because Australian consumers are not reduc-
ing their expectations of bigger houses and a
wider range of consumer goods. The study
plumps for the middle scenario, as far as I can
tell, viewing it as producing a level of growth
whose effects can be managed by current politi-
cal and decision-making processes. (Although
McDonald and Witherss (2008, 10) interpreta-
tion of this work nds that it stopped short
of recommending one population policy path
over another, stressing rather the importance
of environmental management alongside popu-
lation growth). Indeed, Foran and Poldy (2002)
do not dismiss the large population growth
scenario, fearing only that it will be undertaken
without adequate planning (without a ight
The most thorough and balanced attempt to
date to analyse (and agree on) the need for a
population policy in Australia appears in the
report of the National Population Council (1992),
on which many subsequent discussions (includ-
ing Cocks, 1996) draw. Written by the distin-
guished economist Glenn Withers, the report was
the work of a team of Australian scholars and
thinkers with varied positions on the question of
immigration in Australia for example, on its
desirable size, social, economic, and environ-
mental consequences. It had been commissioned
by Prime Minister Hawke, in 1990, to provide
information for policy formation about popula-
tion growth in light of the Commonwealth
governments then interest in Ecologically
Sustainable Development. The report was not
welcomed by the Minister responsible for immi-
gration at the time (possibly because one of its
recommendations was that a Department of
Population and Local Government be established
to replace the Department of Immigration, Local
Government and Ethnic Affairs) (p. x11), and its
recommendations about the centrality of popula-
tion issues for much national policy-making were
not heeded. It remains the major policy text on the
topic in Australia, nevertheless. Central to its
analysis was conceptualisation of a population
policy as requiring both reactive and proactive
340 Geographical Research August 2011 49(3):336347
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Pro-active policy deliberately seeks to inu-
ence population size, location or characteris-
tics. Responsive policies, instead, are only
reactive to the impact of population. . . . Pro-
active policy is essentially (for the Common-
wealth) immigration policy, along with the
policy areas of urban affairs, skill formation
and foreign aid. The non-immigration areas
have their own distinctive rationales which
make them not mere subsets or branches of
population policy, but their linkages with
immigration require continued co-ordination,
and all require development within a suitable
demographic framework (National Population
Council, 1992, x).
Its statement about the likelihood that revenue
and technologies might generate responses to the
environmental problems and resource use asso-
ciated with population growth, particularly in
urban areas, remains valid even though it was
written almost 20 years ago. Said the report:
it has been pointed out to the Committee that
population increase may generate revenue that
could be used to fund amelioration and
provide more people whose ideas may gener-
ate solutions to ecological problems. This is
acknowledged, but the Committee notes that
regrettably there are no mechanisms in place
to guarantee that this takes place (p. xvii).
In my view, the studies listed above are the best
recent analyses of population growth and its
implications in the Australian context. None of
them is often referred to in present-day discus-
sions of the matter, at least in the public arena.
Straightforward claims and images, instead, take
centre stage in media presentations such as those
described in the introduction to this paper. In my
reading of the reports and analyses discussed
above, many of them expressing strongly the
science of their views and voices, and setting
those against the populism of other accounts,
they all seem to nd reasonable a middle ground
when considering what Australias population
growth should be. Without wanting to set a
precise target, and without explicitly saying so,
these analysts incline towards a population
growth future that is moderate rather than very
large or very small, because this is more likely to
be able to be managed through our current
policy and governance practices (in which urban
issues of housing and transport accessibility, and
social cohesion, as well as environmental health,
are often mentioned).
Policy areas claimed as especially signicant
in discussions of population growth
As the report of the National Population Council
(1992) discussed, population growth has impli-
cations for many areas of service delivery and
policy-making. It needs to be a feature of
national planning. That was the reason for the
recommendation of the report that a Population
Ofce be established in the Department of Prime
Minister and Cabinet (p. 124), as well as the
recommendation that the immigration depart-
ment be replaced by a population department.
There are certain areas of policy, however, that
seem particularly associated with the arguments
for and against major population growth in Aus-
tralia. This section discusses these policy ques-
tions and the conclusions that are drawn about
them in scholarly discussions.
The need for a high immigration intake to
offset the ageing of the population nationally is
often raised as an argument in support of major
population growth. With the lowering of mortal-
ity rates associated with improvements in peo-
ples health in Australia, there is apparent cause
for concern in the fact that the proportion of our
population who are aged and not in the paid
labour force paying taxes is increasing. Gray
et al. (2008, 7) project that between 2004 and
2051 the percentage of children younger than 15
years in Australia will fall from 20% to 1316%,
and that of people older than 65 years will grow
from 13% to 2628%. How will this aged and
ageing population be supported in their demands
for pensions and health care, if not by inputs to
the labour force from migrants (who tend to be of
working age)? Furthermore, will the actual size
of the labour force be large enough for Austra-
lias economy? Analysts of this question have
now dismissed this argument, making the follow-
ing points to demonstrate its irrelevance.
First, demographically, say McDonald and
Kippen (1999), immigration cannot keep our
population from ageing. Young immigrants age
too. If the Australian population were to retain its
proportion of people over 65 years of age at
12.2% of the population, as was the case at the
time of their writing, then this would require
enormous numbers of migrants in absolute
terms. In fact, 4 million migrants per year by
2048 and 30 million per year by 2098 would be
required to keep this percentage of the over 65
aged population stable! Dependency ratios are
another way of assessing the apparent economic
sustainability of a national population. They
compare the proportion of the population aged
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1564 and therefore of working age with the
proportion of the population aged 65 years and
older or aged less than 15 years who are deemed
dependents. It is often assumed that a situation is
preferable in which the former group is larger
than the latter. But as Foran and Poldy (2002, 53)
state, the ratio hides the absolute numbers the
point made by McDonald and Kippen (1999). In
addition, it cannot be assumed that people aged
more than 65 years make no contribution to the
national economy and are totally dependent upon
support from working taxpayers. Second, the
population ageing question is not a signicant
dilemma if Australias national health, savings
and superannuation schemes produce a popula-
tion aged more than 65 years which is healthy
and economically self-sufcient (Foran and
Poldy, 2002, 223). And third, to the concern of
business organisations (whose interests are in
having a large potential workforce with plenty of
choice between potential employees) that the
labour force will reduce in size too much without
strong growth from immigration, the National
Population Council (1992) concluded that a sub-
stantial intake of immigrants is not necessary to
keep a large enough workforce, and that further
attention needs to be paid to drawing into the
workforce some who are presently outside it.
(Indeed, some such attention has been paid,
almost 20 years later, with the implementation of
the Australian governments paid parental leave
scheme [Commonwealth of Australia, 2009]).
A second area of policy interest associated
with claims about population growth, this time
about the need for immigration to be slowed,
relates to urban infrastructure. There is no doubt
that public dissatisfaction in the major cities with
the provision by governments of infrastructure is
growing; the newspaper article about a shortage
of primary schools in inner city Melbourne, men-
tioned in the Introduction, is but one example.
And immigrants choose major cities to live in, as
a rule. Research in the 1990s pointed out some
important facts about the contribution of immi-
grants to difcult conditions in urban housing
markets and congested services. Rising house
prices in most major cities have led to outmigra-
tion from those cities that has offset in-migration
(National Population Council, 1992, 26). And
regional studies have demonstrated that a range
of factors contributed to housing price growth; it
was not solely a product of growing demand for
housing from immigrants. The book Immigration
and Australian Cities (1997) by Sydney geogra-
phers Ian Burnley, Peter Murphy and Robert
Fagan, set out the situation well, noting three
aspects of the provision of urban infrastructure
that have been associated with population growth
due to immigration: housing costs and the
amount of its supply, the provision of social
infrastructure, and the nancing of physical
infrastructure. Commenting on these matters
briey here, the following can be said.
To build an argument about the link between
high housing costs in major Australian cities and
population growth due to immigration, Burnley
et al. (1997) focused principally on Sydney, the
city with the largest immigrant intake over pre-
ceding decades and also with the highest housing
prices. Finding there was a general association
between immigration intake and house price
ination, they argued against this association
being a satisfactory account of causality. For
there were variations between different segments
of the housing market in the links between these
variables with associations stronger in loca-
tions and housing market segments in which
immigrants congregated. In addition, other
factors inuenced the costs and availability of
housing in different parts of major cities. In inner
cities a gentrication effect due to more than
migration was operating; in outer fringe suburbs
higher prices were often due to the inelastic
supply of land. Broader housing policy settings,
like negative gearing for housing investors, rst
homebuyers grants, a lack of investment in
public housing construction recently, and invest-
ment in Australian housing by wealthy overseas
residents and expatriates have also been linked to
increased housing costs and reduced affordabil-
ity in different parts of urban housing markets.
Population growth is certainly important, but its
precise role requires viewing as part of the
complex geography of housing markets, rather
than being generalised as the major contributor to
higher housing costs in all settings.
Regarding the provision of social infrastruc-
ture where population growth is occurring, it is
clear that a requirement for more schools, kin-
dergartens, health care services, parks and recre-
ational facilities, aged care services and the like
accompanies the growth of population in places.
If immigrants of different cultural backgrounds
and languages, or refugees who have suffered
traumas, congregate in certain locations, there
will be additional requirements of social facili-
ties there to cater for their needs, even though
there are often in areas of immigrant concentra-
tion longstanding community organisations sup-
porting newly arriving populations. And as Cutts
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2011 The Author
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(1992) concluded in an analysis of the spending
by Victorian municipalities on their share of
these social infrastructural services, immigrant
residents in many urban communities are as
likely to be sources of rates and revenues to pay
for such services as longstanding residents. (This
would not be true of municipalities with large
clusters of refugee residents living in public
housing, though).
In order to provide physical infrastructure for
cities when population is growing rapidly, the
issue of nancing the cost of this infrastructure is
vitally important (for servicing lots for new
housing, providing and maintaining transport
systems and roads, water pipes and plants, sewer-
age and water treatment services). Analysts have
noted the long-term decline in national xed
capital expenditure (Murphy et al., 1990, 54), and
the actions of state governments (for this is their
responsibility) in the last two decades increas-
ingly to engage in public-private partnerships as a
source of funding for physical infrastructure. The
trend to public-private partnerships occurs despite
survey evidence showing that members of the
public are opposed to increased private ownership
of infrastructure (Gleeson, 2010, 137). But it
seems clear that shifts in the political conditions in
which infrastructure expenditure occurs render it
unlikely that government investment in urban
infrastructure will soon abound. Stilwell and Troy
(2000, 920) note the curious mixture of neolib-
eral ideology (embracing freedom of competi-
tion) and corporate managerialism (direct deals
between state governments and major corporate
capitalist enterprises) prevailing in relations
between the Australian Commonwealth and state
governments, forged by the formers insistence in
the 1990s that the latter comply with national
competition policy in providing urban infrastruc-
ture by introducing contestable markets in that
provision. And analyses of contemporary Austra-
lias metropolitan planning processes note how
their discussions of governance now include
diverse ways of obtaining and deploying money
(budget integration, public-private partnerships,
user-pays based taxes and levies) . . . to compen-
sate for state cutbacks (Gleeson et al., 2004, 350;
and see M
Guirk and ONeill, 2002).
A third area of signicance for discussions of
population growth in contemporary Australia is
that of the international student presence. It is an
aspect of immigration policy to attract students as
temporary residents, forming them as potential
skilled permanent residents of the future. But this
part of immigration policy has implications also
for the viability of the secondary and tertiary
education sectors that must be considered as rel-
evant to any policy discussion. In 2007, using
data from 2005, Marginson wrote that one-
quarter of the enrolments in Australian universi-
ties were students from overseas, and that
education was Australias third biggest export
market (Marginson, 2007). Between 1990 and
2003 Australias share of what he calls cross-
border students rose from 1% to 9% (p. 9). In mid
2008, the stock of temporary migrants in the
country who were students was almost 320 000,
having risen fromalmost 250 000 the year before.
This compared with a stock of temporary busi-
ness migrants in both those years which was less
than half this gure, and to an intake of settler
arrivals (permanent migrants) of 150 000 in the
year 20072008 (Bell, 2009). In 2009, Margin-
son notes, the total number of international stu-
dents in the country was 632 000 (Marginson,
2010). And if one takes net overseas migration as
the gure to examine, deducting out-migration
from in-migration, as opposed to total number of
immigrants here, Marginson nds that in 2007
2008 there was a net overseas migration total in
Australia of 277 000 of which 135 000 persons
were students about half the net overseas migra-
tion number were students in that year. The point
here is to note the rapid recent growth of these
student numbers and the signicance of this
industry to the Australian economy, in addition to
the students signicance for the nancial viabil-
ity of Australian universities.
With tightening in 2010 of the require-
ments for obtaining a permanent residency visa,
Marginson (2010) predicted that numbers of
international students arriving in Australia could
drop by 40% in 2010 and by 50% by 2014. So an
important policy question, not discussed publicly
to date by either major political party in Austra-
lia, is how universities and other education pro-
viders will survive the drop in revenue that this
reduction in international student numbers will
produce. Both the major political parties are
committed to reducing immigrant numbers
says Marginson (2010), changes to the process
by which overseas students can earn a permanent
resident visa will have the effect of reducing
immigration to Australia by the 130 000 per year
which has been the Coalition Liberal-National
Partys position. This reduction in migration may
align with the position of analysts advocating a
more measured rather than very large immigrant
intake. But one resulting difculty is that if this
reduction in migrant and therefore population
R. Fincher: Population growth in Australia Views 343
2011 The Author
Geographical Research 2011 Institute of Australian Geographers
numbers targets the education export industry in
particular, it may be very difcult for that sector
to manage. And education will not be the only
sector having to adjust. Students settle near to the
institutions at which they are studying, mostly in
major capital cities. They create rapid growth in
the population of young people in selected city
neighbourhoods for example, in 2006 in the
municipality of the City of Melbourne, home to
two major universities, the population was 48%
students, of whom most were from overseas and
studying at tertiary level (City of Melbourne,
2007). If policy shifts at the national level have
the effect of reducing the numbers of temporary
residents who are students here in future (Birrell
and Healy, 2010; Marginson, 2010), this will
have implications also for the housing develop-
ment sector which has supplied thousands of
student apartments around universities, that in
future may no longer be in such demand.
Summarising, population growth is an impor-
tant factor in discussions of population ageing
and how to combat it, and the need for better
urban infrastructure of a social and physical kind.
It is implicit in the situation of universities
having to offset long term cuts in federal funding
by taking in large numbers of fee-paying over-
seas students, and how some will manage if the
supply of such students reduces drastically and
rapidly. The precise status of population growth
in debates about these areas of policy and action
is varied and not always clear. Claims continue
that immigration of young taxpayers is a way to
offset the costs of population ageing even though
the evidence is that such claims are illogical.
Claims continue that some urban infrastructure
problems are caused by population growth due to
migration although the evidence for this is con-
tested. The viability of university education in
Australia may be weakened, for some institutions
more than others, if the supply of temporary
migrants (international students) declines. In the
new decade, as the policy discussion about
climate change mitigation and adaptation takes
shape as a part of the national debate, it will be
interesting to see if reducing population growth
becomes a strong part of claims about our future
plans in that policy area, and if so in what form it
is viewed.
Concluding comment: fear in population
growth discourses
Public accounts of the consequences of popula-
tion growth for Australia (the cities, the nation,
the environment) have contained messages and
feelings of urgency, predicting dire consequences
if drastic action is not taken. In contrast, scien-
tic accounts measuring future scenarios have
generally been more sanguine in their conclu-
sions, because their theoretical perspectives and
measurements take into account the range of
factors giving rise to outcomes. Population
growth is but one. The sheer reasonableness of
most academic accounts leads to a general con-
clusion reached by most scientists whose work is
discussed at length here, as I read them, that
Australia could sustain a large population
increase in theory. But in practice we are without
the means to manage and govern such large
growth and therefore should take a more moder-
ate course. Having read the analyses from the
1990s in this way, it is interesting to see
that the longstanding researchers of population
growth, McDonald and Withers (2008) now
seem more prepared to countenance a higher
rate of population growth for Australia. They
examine Australias future need for labour, in the
context of the Australian governments active
support in the second half of the 2000s for con-
siderable growth in immigration levels to meet
the labour supply requirements signalled by
employers. I see their paper (McDonald and
Withers, 2008) as trying to spell out the condi-
tions under which growth in migrant numbers
can be managed, having accepted that such
growth is going to occur even if it is opposed in
some quarters. They want to avoid a head in the
sand approach that pretends that future popula-
tion growth will be curtailed (p. 10). So their
recommendations to manage this population
growth include the points that immigration
should not be increased unless the public is reas-
sured that they will not be disadvantaged in jobs
and training by that increased migration (p. 4),
and that the points system selecting migrants
should be designed so as to encourage the dis-
persal of migrants to regional areas (p. 9). Impor-
tantly, they also recommend that the Australian
government adopt a forward looking population
policy, one of whose components is to address
the infrastructure issues related to congestion
in cities, sewerage and waste disposal, and the
provision of water and energy (p. 10), seeing
attention to environmental and infrastructure
problems as an important component of the
planning-oriented population policy they seek.
One important caveat should be noted here. Lest
there be any feeling generated from such discus-
sion that we have the ability to control population
growth precisely, both politicians (including the
344 Geographical Research August 2011 49(3):336347
2011 The Author
Geographical Research 2011 Institute of Australian Geographers
Prime Minister commenting in late 2009 about
the desirability of a big Australia [quoted in
Bell, 2009]) and academic analysts (the demog-
raphers McDonald and Kippen, for example)
have been at pains to point out that the number of
immigrants to Australia and therefore its popula-
tion growth cannot be tightly controlled.
Is fear being used by populist protagonists of
large or small population growth, to present that
growth as a suddenly urgent matter that will
damage our national and particularly our urban
future? In the contemporary period, population
growth seems to be emerging as a stronger
environmental concern than in the recent past
when there has perhaps been some hesitation
within environmental activism to name it as an
environmental issue, for fear of appearing racist
(Flannery, 2003; Walker, 2010). In newspaper
articles over the past year, and in lms like The
Population Puzzle recently made by the busi-
nessman Dick Smith, it is clearly proposed in
simple words, headlines, and effective images
(and dramatic music in the case of the lm) that
continued population growth will result in urban
congestion and water scarcity, and that we should
fear these things because they will lead to a
reduced quality of (our Australian way of) life.
Equally, in the business pages of the print media,
consternation is expressed about the implications
for economic growth of any slowing of current,
relatively high rates of immigration-led popula-
tion growth. So why in popular accounts, when
there are good scientic and evidence-based
reasons for a move to steer a moderate course, is
a use of fear and grand claims about what must
happen or else, resorted to? I make two prelimi-
nary responses to this question.
First, population growth is associated with
immigration, and immigration has long been
feared by many Australians, a fear which has in
turn been exploited for political gain in some
contexts. Crock (2010, 20) describes the fears
associated with immigration in Australia since
white settlement, but notes as well that in recent
times these traditional fears have been shaped
and even manipulated by raw politics, fuelled by
contemporary events that have allowed debates
about immigration to comingle with sequential
threat discourses. She details the skills devel-
oped, by conservative politicians particularly, at
gaining advantage by playing on peoples fears.
In addition, the very rapid communication now
possible about news and events, which requires a
distilled form of presentation to be effective,
means that simple, sharp accounts and interpre-
tations are preferred in public discourse. Follow-
ing Crocks thinking, it is surely the case that
proponents of other causes, such as opponents or
proponents of population growth for whatever
reason, will have observed the success of com-
municating ideas simply via contemporary tech-
nologies rather than relaying their complexities.
Even if the growing presence of the alien other
is not the centrepiece of messages about the
dangers of population growth if we wish to retain
our Australian way of life, a simple message
about threats to what we see as important (such
as uncongested cities and suburbs) may be effec-
tively delivered by bolstering fear and uncer-
tainty, simplistically.
Population growth, in the way that fear about
it is generated in contemporary Australia, is an
environmental issue. Swyngedouw (2010) has
made the point that environmental problems (in
his case climate change) are sustained through
the continuous invocation of fear and danger
. . . Fear is indeed the crucial node through
which much of the current environmental narra-
tive is woven (p. 217). Further, he sees that sus-
taining and nurturing apocalyptic imaginaries is
an integral and vital part of the new cultural
politics of capitalism, for which the management
of fear is a central leifmotif (p. 219). I do not
wish to engage here with the controversial idea
of Swyngedouw (2010) that climate change
populism is a de-politicising force, but merely to
read his argument so as to conrm my earlier
point that populism uses the creation of fear and
anxiety as a central, arresting tactic. In my eyes,
this is evident in contemporary discussions of the
signicance of population growth in Australia,
particularly for its cities. And such populism falls
on fertile ground given the now decades-long
tightening of expenditure by governments on
urban infrastructure.
Second, our tendency still to view the popula-
tion and environment issue through emphasising
future scarcity of certain resources supports
a fear-based discourse. City of Melbourne
unliveable , were the huge headlines on the
front page of The Age following some new popu-
lations projections in late 2008; in red, and
slightly smaller writing was claimed Population
surge; then in headlines the question Will Mel-
bourne still be marvellous when its twice as
big? (The Age, 5 September 2008, p. 1). A large
coloured photo showed the city horizon against a
red and orange sky, as if its buildings were on
re. When we see our environmental context as
decient and lacking things, rather than as a site
R. Fincher: Population growth in Australia Views 345
2011 The Author
Geographical Research 2011 Institute of Australian Geographers
offering possibilities for managing ourselves,
then anxieties are encouraged. Such a starting
point harks back to Malthus, whose ideas, as
Gleeson (2010, 69) notes began a population
anxiety that remains with us today. There per-
sists a view about scarcity of resources, a starting
point that lists resources technically as things we
have to imagine as static, which then fails to see
what alterations to demand could do and how the
power relations controlling resources and inu-
encing demand presently could be altered. Of
course, the lack of action of governments on
infrastructure spending generates a lack of con-
dence in the political process to carry through
appropriate regulation as the National Popula-
tion Council (1992) noted in its comment about
the lack of institutional mechanisms to direct the
revenues earned from a larger population to
infrastructure that will support them.
It seems to me that reconceptualising the
relations between population and environment
from the standpoint of contemporary political
ecology, developed in geography since the 1970s
to reveal the complex and multiscaled power
relations underpinning environmental degrada-
tion, would take us closer to comprehending
the dilemmas we may face and how to resolve
them than continuing analyses from viewpoints
owing much still to Malthus. This is not an argu-
ment for unlimited population expansion, for
many serious discussions of the population
environment question in the last two decades
have signalled that population growth needs to
be moderate in order for its consequences to be
manageable under our current arrangements.
But it is an argument for being imaginative in our
ways of thinking about having larger cities. For
example, Gleeson (2010) sees cities as resources
for adapting to the rigours of climate change
rather than impediments to that adaptation.
In this paper the major, recent, assessments by
non-populist thinkers of the implications of
population growth for living conditions and envi-
ronments in Australia have been described at
some length (National Population Council, 1992;
Cocks, 1996; McDonald and Kippen, 1999;
2000; Foran and Poldy, 2002). These thinkers do
not agree on all matters, and some have declared
starting points that vary from those of others.
Each, however, I read as arguing for a moderate
rather than very large or very small population
growth, because of a national inability to manage
the consequences of very large or very small
population growth. Those signalling more
recently that a larger population growth than
hitherto seen in Australia, due to immigration,
will continue in order to bolster the national
labour supply (McDonald and Withers, 2008) are
placing strong emphasis on how this growth must
be managed, as it appears it is going to happen
anyway. The areas of policy discussion around
which claims for greater or lower population
growth are made greater immigration to offset
population ageing; continued large temporary
migration that may, perhaps as an unintended
policy consequence, support universities rev-
enues; reduced population growth to allow urban
infrastructure to cope with demand for it have
been listed. In the world of politics, will this
serious and spirited set of academic interchanges
from the last two decades be taken into account?
In the paper by McDonald and Withers (2008) it
is evident that future labour supply is a major
determinant of population growth policy using
the immigration lever. Other factors, including
that of the environmental consequences for cities
of large-scale population growth, seem to hold
less sway. Following conicting reactions to the
Treasurys projections that Australias popula-
tion might reach 35 million by 2049 instead of its
previously projected 28.5 million by 2047 (Bell,
2009), the nations rst Minister for Sustainable
Population was appointed in early 2010. I for one
will be judging his performance on whether he
takes seriously these debates since the early
1990s, in their detail, and whether he chooses a
discursive and policy pathway that rejects popu-
list simplicity and the raising of fears in favour of
engaging with the complexities and socio-spatial
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