Prime Minister Julia Gillard is working hard to distance herself from her predecessor as she redefines Australia’s population policy. Kevin Rudd had famously declared that he made no apologies for supporting ‘a big Australia.’ Gillard seems to prefer a ‘small Australia,’ although she is yet to spell out the details of her thinking.
I have been living in Australia for some time now, but this ongoing population debate still puzzles me. I vividly remember, when I was researching Australian housing policies a few years ago, a planner in the NSW state government telling me that ‘we are full.’ I had just flown in from Europe, the last four hours over vast areas of sparsely inhabited land, so this blunt statement came as a bit of a surprise.
Of course, great parts of the continent are not liveable. Yet travelling up and down the east coast, you will find more empty, inhabitable space than anywhere between Finland and Sicily. And the lack of water also seems to be a bit of a myth. After all, Sydney has much higher annual precipitation (1,213 mm) than London (583 mm), Berlin (570 mm), or Paris (652 mm). I had never seen real rain until I came to Australia.
Apart from the strange idea that Australia is full, another aspect of the population debate perplexes me. In Europe, the main concern is about population ageing and shrinking. People are getting older, and not even migration can make up for the continent’s low fertility levels. Governments are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the worsening demographic situation. An older population means fewer taxpayers and more welfare spending; it is a toxic combination for public finances and economic growth.
In Australia, we have the opportunity to cushion the ageing process with both relatively high fertility rates and strong migration, mainly consisting of well-qualified, young migrants. European politicians would kill for such circumstances. They would love to have our problem of dealing with a fast growing population because they know that dealing with the opposite is vastly more unpleasant.
My colleague Jessica Brown and I are just about to finish a research project that looks into the demographic options for Australia. Our preliminary conclusion is clear: the real challenge in population policy is not size but age.
It would be desirable if the Prime Minister turned her attention from the futile debate over ‘Big vs. Small Australia’ to the more pertinent question of coping with a greying Australia.