Bigger or Better?: Australia's Population Debate

Bigger or Better?: Australia's Population Debate

by Ian Lowe


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780702239090
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Publication date: 03/01/2012
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Ian Lowe is the president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, an emeritus professor of science, technology, and society at Griffith University in Brisbane, and an adjunct professor at both Sunshine Coast University and Flinders University. He is the author of A Big Fix, A Voice of Reason, and Living in the Hothouse.

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Bigger or Better?

Australia's Population Debate

By Ian Lowe

University of Queensland Press

Copyright © 2012 Ian Lowe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7022-4807-8



The first Australians reached this continent some time between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago. Their numbers gradually increased and they spread around the continent, which at that time was joined by land bridges to Tasmania and Papua. Naturally, the settlements were concentrated in the parts of the country where food supplies were most plentiful, principally along the coastline. When the first 859 British subjects (or invaders) came to the country and established their base at Sydney Cove, the total Indigenous population was almost certainly less than 1 million.

By 1900, when the colonies agreed to federate and form the Commonwealth, the total population had grown to about 4 million, so the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had become greatly outnumbered by the immigrants. By 1950 the entire population had more than doubled to 9 million. By 2000 it had again more than doubled to about 20 million. The growth in the last hundred years has been truly dramatic. While it increased by around 3 million between 1788 and 1900, another 5 million were added in the first half of the twentieth century and 11 million in the second half. The Indigenous people are now a small minority, although there are about as many Aborigines living in Australia today as there were in 1788.

There was nothing inevitable about the population growth in my lifetime. It was the result of conscious political decisions. In 1945, Australia and Sweden both had populations of about 7 million. Today the Australian population is about 22 million, while that of Sweden is about 9 million. Between 1980 and 2000, the population was growing at about 200,000 a year. That is an extra Australian every two minutes!

The growth has traditionally had two components. Each year the number of babies born is much greater than the number of deaths. This so-called 'natural increase' averaged about 120,000 a year between 1960 and 2000, with only small variations from year to year. The second main contributor to our increasing population is migration. Every year some Australians and temporary visitors leave the country to live somewhere else. At the same time, people are arriving in this country from overseas, some to study or to have working holidays, others with the intention of moving permanently to Australia. These factors are not totally independent and their interaction compounds the numbers. As the most obvious example, migrants often come to Australia when they are young enough to have children of their own and those children grow up in this country and raise families of their own.

Migration rates have changed dramatically during the 50 years I have been studying this question. The significant figure here is called the 'net migration', the difference between the number who arrive and the number who leave. Between 1960 and 2000, the net migration varied from year to year between about 20,000 and about 150,000. The average over that 40-year period was about 100,000 a year, about the same as the natural increase. In other words, between 1960 and 2000 these two components of population increase were roughly equal. But the constant flow of migrants has changed Australia significantly. In fact, more than a quarter of the Australian population at the time of writing was born overseas, while an astounding 44 per cent – not much less than half the total population – were either born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas. Very few countries have such a high fraction of relatively recent arrivals.

There is also now a third factor causing our population to increase: we are living longer. In my lifetime, the average life span for Australians has increased by about ten years. Over the twentieth century as a whole, life expectancy of men increased by 20 years. So there are quite a lot of people like me, still around to be counted in the census at an age when my father and both my grandfathers were already dead.

Since the Europeans settled here, most people have believed the country needed a bigger population. When I was young, the prevailing mood was to populate areas of the country where relatively few people lived, particularly in the north and inland – the national anthem adopted 40 years ago refers to our having 'boundless plains to share'. Governments have gone to considerable trouble and expense to encourage migration to this country. In 1948 the minister for immigration, Arthur Calwell, echoed the mood of the time by saying 'for security in wartime, for full development and prosperity in peacetime, our vital need is for more Australians'. We need only look at the prime minister at the time of writing for the result of such policy. She was one of the famous 'ten-pound Poms', migrants who were encouraged to come to Australia by being offered the inducement of a fare of ten British pounds, the equivalent of a few hundred dollars in today's money. The leader of the opposition is also, like Gillard, the child of migrants from the United Kingdom.

The enthusiasm for growth has gradually abated over the years, in some cases because of reflection on the logic. The argument that we need a larger population to defend Australia from possible invaders made sense in the first half of last century, when wars were fought between serried ranks of soldiers facing each other. But since World War II, technology has been more important for defence than military numbers. So there is now no simple link between population and capacity to defend territory. Wealth may influence our capacity to buy military hardware to defend our borders, but the number of Australians prepared to don uniform and stand on the shoreline is hardly a factor.

The argument that we had to 'populate our empty north' raised the spectre of mass migration from the crowded Asian countries to our north, suggesting the Northern Territory would be overrun by teeming hordes of Indonesians if we didn't fill it up with 'Australians'. But, as the late Cyril Pearl pointed out 50 years ago, Java was crowded and Arnhem Land lightly populated for thousands of years before Europeans set foot in this part of the world for good geographical reasons: Java has rich, deep volcanic soils that support a large population, while the north of Australia has old, thin and nutrient-poor soils. Pearl argued that fearing an invasion of northern Australia was like Algerians being worried about the Sahara being overrun. While those furphies have been exposed, there remains an enduring belief that we need population growth, and hence high levels of migration, for economic reasons.

Around 1970, a new mood of concern about population growth emerged, linked to discussion overseas about the increasing impacts of human consumption on the natural world. A group of senior European business leaders, academics and politicians formed a think-tank called the Club of Rome. The first report to the group was prepared by systems modellers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. It was the first simple attempt to construct a global model and examine alternative futures. The report, Limits to Growth, was widely attacked by economists who don't believe in the idea of limits, but it sparked some questioning of the simplistic view that growth can continue forever at a constant or increasing rate. An unrelated local event was the decision by the Australian Government to set up a National Population Inquiry in 1970. Its report largely dismissed concerns about ecological constraints on the human population, but it did acknowledge the vulnerability of the natural systems of Australia by suggesting we adopt such measures as making family planning information more widely available. It was, at the time, a brave recommendation since sex was rarely discussed in either polite or public company. It is true that since the availability of reliable contraception the average number of children per adult woman has declined dramatically. But there are also other factors that contribute to the lower birthrate, such as women's greater access to education and subsequent higher levels of participation in the workforce – women with professional careers are noticeably more likely to postpone or avoid motherhood.

Much later, the National Population Council was established. It reported in 1992 on the links between population, economic development and the environment. It said that the government should seek to influence population change 'so as to advance economic progress, ecological integrity, social justice and responsible international involvement'. Perhaps mystified about how those four factors might be brought together, the government of the day did not accept the recommendation. Australia still does not have a formal population policy. There is no official government target for what the population should be at any future time. A submission to the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994, said 'there is no clear formula for a workable population policy in a developed country with low fertility'. The clear implication was that Australia is 'a developed country with low fertility' even though a 'natural increase' of about 120,000 a year is a high rate of growth for a developed country. In fact, it is one of the highest of all the nations that are usually grouped in that category.

In that same year, the House of Representatives Standing Committee for Long-Term Issues, chaired by former Science Minister Barry Jones, held a public inquiry into population. It attracted nearly 300 submissions from a wide range of viewpoints. This reflected the increasing level of public concern about the impact of our growing population. While it had been almost universally accepted in the 1950s and 1960s that growth was good for the economy and made the country stronger, by the 1990s it was becoming apparent that the issue is more complicated.

More people means proportionately greater demand for housing, clothes, food, transport and other services. In the short term that undoubtedly contributes to a larger economy. On the other hand, more people looking for work can either increase unemployment levels or drive down wages. Some economists think that rapid population growth makes it difficult or even impossible to keep pace with the increasing demand for such services as water and transport systems. As discussed in later sections, the question of the economic benefits and costs of an increasing population is widely recognised as much more complex than previously assumed. This realisation is, however, far from universal; as an extreme example, the Murdoch press still espouses the old simplistic view that population growth is self-evidently good for the economy and therefore we will all benefit from an increasing number of people.

There are also broader issues at play, such as the concern about the growing human impact on natural systems. Four national reports on the state of the environment have documented serious problems in this area that are getting worse every year. In our cities, the failure of infrastructure to keep pace with the growing population has led to a widespread perception that the quality of urban life is deteriorating. The presence in our cities of clearly identifiable groups of recent migrants has led also to tension and even violence, like the recent and infamous 'Cronulla riots'. The causes of that event are complex and hotly disputed, but there can be no doubt that a contributing factor was the perception that some recent migrants do not hold the same cultural and social values as many who have grown up in this country.

The Jones Report set out the issues that should be considered when discussing the implications of population growth, but it did not make a clear recommendation for a population policy. CSIRO scientist Dr Doug Cocks, who worked on the Jones inquiry, was so disappointed that he subsequently wrote a book setting out the case for a definite policy, People Policy, Australia's Population Choices, which was published in 1996. More recently, other voices have stimulated the debate, notably poet Mark O'Connor who has argued passionately for a policy of stabilising the population in two books, This Tired Brown Land and (with William Lines) Overloading Australia. The second book has been so popular that it has been reprinted. In 2011, entrepreneur Dick Smith made a television documentary and published a book, unusually called Dick Smith's Population Crisis, as if he had personally created the problem. Population Crisis is a trenchant polemic, arguing strongly for a policy of stabilising our population. It has undoubtedly stimulated debate about the issue. The lobby group Sustainable Population Australia, formerly Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population, has worked tirelessly to keep the topic in the public eye.

As I noted in the introduction, Rudd's statement of support for 'a big Australia' sparked vigorous debate and a re-examination of the assumptions that have underpinned the implicit policy of continuing rapid growth. The background leading up to this debate was an unprecedented increase in immigration levels during the final years of the Howard Government, driven partly by calls from the commercial sector for more workers and partly by educational institutions recruiting overseas students, often with an implied promise of permanent residency as a prize for completing formal qualifications. So the net inward migration level, which had varied between about 20,000 and about 150,000 a year, surged to over 300,000.

At the same time, the government decided to encourage women to have children by offering a baby bonus of $3000 per child. This enticement was famously announced by then Treasurer Peter Costello, who said women should consider having three children rather than two: one for the husband, one for the wife and one for the country. Whether it was affected by the financial inducement or the government's slogan is uncertain, but the birthrate has increased significantly since the announcement.

The overall result of these strategies was a much higher rate of population increase, reaching almost half a million a year, and a public perception that the costs were at least comparable with the benefits. Net migration has since declined from its peak of 320,000 in the year to March 2009. Although statistics were not available as I write this, net migration was probably about 240,000 in 2010. While less than the peak, this is still about a quarter of a million people a year, or about a 1 per cent increase just from net migration. Very few countries accept that scale of inward movement.


The discussion of population inevitably includes some technical terms like 'carrying capacity', as well as a few much-abused concepts such as 'sustainable development'. So I will begin this section by clarifying those and other terms used in the area, and then I will discuss Australian Bureau of Statistics projections of likely future population growth. You'll see that different assumptions lead to quite large changes in the picture for 2050.

Defining terms

The term 'carrying capacity' is used in ecology to mean the size of the population that can be supported indefinitely under specified environmental conditions. This sort of approach is used most often by graziers, who talk about the number of cattle a property can support in a year of average rainfall, the much smaller number that the same land can feed in a drought, and perhaps the greater herd that could be supported if the land were irrigated. It obviously takes much more land to supply meat than to produce an equivalent amount of nutrition in the form of vegetables, grains and pulses. Carrying capacity might work for cattle or sheep, but not so much for humans because the number our land will support depends on aspects of lifestyle, such as food supply. Much of the produce from Australia's farming and grazing land is actually exported, so we could clearly provide food for a larger population than we now have, if we didn't need exports to pay for the imports of things we don't make for ourselves. Several studies have tried to work out the carrying capacity of Australia taking into account food, water, minerals, energy and so on (more on these studies in the sections dealing with resources).

When people talk about 'optimum population' they mean the number of people that provides the best overall outcome, taking into account various factors such as economic, social and environmental. The problem with this idea is that there are different legitimate views about the weighting we give to those aspects of life. Collins Dictionary of Environmental Science says 'an optimum population may be one which permits individuals to reach their full potential and to secure a reasonable standard of living, or one in which the population is adequate to exploit to the best advantage all the resources of an area ... in strictly economic terms, the optimum population is reached when total production or real per capita income is greatest'. Even by this narrow economic definition, it is not easy to calculate the optimum population.


Excerpted from Bigger or Better? by Ian Lowe. Copyright © 2012 Ian Lowe. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 A brief history of Australia's population numbers,
2 What a larger population will do to our resources and environment,
3 How the numbers affect our society and the economy,
4 The benefits of stabilising the population,
5 Who's who in the population debate, and what are their agendas,
6 The politics of population growth,
Summary and conclusion,
Further reading,

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