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Population pessimism is unfounded – and irresponsible

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 24 August 2012

When I still lived in Australia, few things irritated me as much as the ‘Big Australia’ debate. Australia’s young, longer-living and fertile population is growing naturally – which I thought was a positive. And as one of the world’s most prosperous and desirable locations, it is also attracting skilled migrants from around the world. So many, in fact, that Australia can afford to pick the best and brightest through a points-based migration system.

The resulting population growth – both through natural factors and strong inward migration – to me is a sign of Australia’s health, vitality and success. Most European nations would love to swap their problems of demographic decline for Australia’s demographic growth opportunities. To many Australians, on the other hand, it feels like a danger that needs to be avoided at all cost.

When I debated population growth this week with anti-growth campaigner Mark O’Connor on a local ABC radio station, it occurred to me that the difference between O’Connor and me was mainly a difference of outlook.

Asked about his main reasons against growth, O’Connor kept pointing out all sorts of problems that could arise from an increasing population: The country would need more roads and railways, more schools and hospitals, more firefighters and doctors – there was also the question of whether Australia could afford it. Apart from that, O’Connor claimed, Australia was running out of resources from water to food.

I do not deny that managing Australia’s population growth, which is in large parts programmed and thus unavoidable, poses challenges to policymakers. But it also did so in the past when Australia’s population stood at 1 million, 5 million, 10 million or 15 million. Yet those previous challenges did not lead to societal or environmental collapse but to working solutions. Roads were built, new schools were opened, and agricultural yields were increased.

Most importantly, Australia successfully integrated its new arrivals to build an ethnically diverse and united nation. The children and grandchildren of the ‘New Australians’ of the 1940s and 1950s are now as Australian as those whose ancestors arrived on the First Fleet.

With this long-established track record of managing a growing Australia, shouldn’t there be a bit more optimism that the projected future population growth can be managed as well?

Australia’s population is growing, whether you like it or not. But in dealing with it, nothing would be more irresponsible than pessimism. The challenge is not to stop population growth but to find practical solutions to accommodate it.

Dr Oliver Marc Hartwich is the Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative. He makes the case for a ‘Big Australia’ in an essay (co-authored with Jessica Brown), which was published by Pantera Press this week. Why vs Why Big Australia is available in all good book stores and as an e-book.

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