Opinion & Commentary

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Change attitude rather than limit population

Jessica Brown | The West Australian | 28 September 2011

Politicians are off the planet. It's a rational conclusion to draw given the spin-driven political polemic of contemporary parliamentary debate. And population is one area where they are even more off the planet than most.

That's why it is so refreshing to hear a former politician speak so sensibly on the topic.

Former finance minister Lindsay Tanner addressed the Global Access Partners annual growth summit in Sydney, recently, cementing his post-parliamentary niche as a slayer of news-cycle spin and political puff.

Mr Tanner dismissed as "ludicrous" the suggestion that Australia should cut population growth or set a population target. It's not the numbers that matter and we shouldn't be scared of growth. What does matter is how well we manage that growth.

So far, we have not done a very good job. With our abundant space and natural resources, we simply haven't had to worry about the strains of a growing population until now.

The congestion building up in our cities is not due to runaway population growth, but our lucky country, she'll-be-right approach. Rather than a dramatic cut to population growth, all we need is a change of attitude.

This means recognising that in a land as vast as Australia, not every small town will be economically viable. Regions must have an economic purpose.

As Mr Tanner describes it, they must have something to export: whether that is iron ore to China or hairdressing services to residents of the next town.

Relatively small shifts in the structure of Australia's economy - such as reduced competitiveness in the steel industry - can send whole towns out of business.

Some towns, such as many remote Aboriginal communities, were never in business in the first place.

Our challenge is not how to make unviable towns economically viable again, but how to deal with the adjustment without resorting to expensive and counterproductive handouts.

The solutions, he admits, are politically difficult and unpopular.

It is not only in regional areas, but also in cities that we will need to rethink the way we manage population growth and demographic change. The continual spread of cities - once the guarantor of the great Australian dream - has become increasingly inefficient as transport infrastructure has failed to keep up. New jobs and new housing are not in the same place, resulting in big infrastructure strains.

The challenge here is transforming monocentric cities into multipolar ones, where jobs, housing and community infrastructure are dispersed throughout.

State governments have not been very good at dealing with this. Local governments get very little chance to try.

Mr Tanner's frank advice is that government should stop spending taxpayers' money on pointless "announceables" which do little to attract commerce to new areas.

If government wants business to invest in regional areas (and outside of the city centre), it must create financial incentives through the tax system, reduce risk and let the private sector do the rest.

He didn't mention the role of local government in achieving this.

If local governments had more powers of taxation, they could create tax incentives and compete with neighbouring councils for new development. Mr Tanner, as a former Federal politician, seems to approach the problem from a top-down perspective.

But a bottom-up approach could work equally well.

Mr Tanner reserved his sharpest criticism for the "off-the-planet" proponents of a "small Australia", whose position he believes is simply unsustainable.

While populate or perish is an outdated concept, Australians should nevertheless be aware that much of our future security and economic prosperity will be tied up in how our neighbours in Asia see us.

When Asian countries with much denser populations and far fewer natural resources hear Australians say "we're full" they are understandably dubious.

Our legitimacy among our regional trading (and increasingly, security) partners in the region depends on our ability to integrate, not to say "it's ours, get nicked".

Mr Tanner's vision of Australia's integration in the region - specifically his suggestion that Australia should become a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - is probably a little too optimistic.

Even a cursory glance at the history of that organisation reveals that regardless of our enthusiasm ASEAN would probably not be too keen to have us. But he nevertheless gets the direction of his argument right.

Ultimately, according to Mr Tanner, we have to recognise the power of demographic change in driving economic and political shifts throughout history. We are now witnessing the power of demographic change in action.

The young, growing societies of Asia are becoming the vibrant growth-drivers of the global economy. The ageing, stagnant developed economies of Europe are lagging behind.

Australia, thanks to its geographical position in Asia, abundant natural resources and strong history of migration, is in a unique position to choose which way it will go. Which choice will we make?

Jessica Brown is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. She co authored a report with Oliver Marc Hartwich, Why a growing Australia is nothing to fear, published by the CIS.