Guessing game population predictions are not good government

Eugenie Joseph

07 August 2018 | The Spectator Australia

Australia’s population clock will tick over to 25 million today — more than 20 years ahead of schedule if we believed official government projections from 2002.

But why is reaching this milestone ‘early’ causing public angst? It has certainly triggered some lively debates about the level of immigration, which accounted for 62 per cent of population growth last year.

Yet, it also highlights a related issue: governments are simply unable to predict future population growth with any certainty — and this sits uneasily with the public.

When population grows faster than expected, it undermines public confidence in the ability of governments to plan for a bigger Australia.

After all, how can governments plan for larger cities and more infrastructure if they cannot anticipate the population in 10 or 20 years’ time with any certainty?

To take one example: in its original Plan for Growing Sydney in 2014, the NSW government estimated that an extra 664,000 homes would be needed in the next 20 years. Just two years later, this was revised up to 725,000.

It is true that population growth is tricky to forecast. This is why agencies like the Australian Bureau of Statistics make projections instead — that is, estimate different possible rates of population growth, based on assumptions about birth rates, life expectancy and migration levels.

However, these projections are often treated like a crystal ball; even though they are, at best, a form of sophisticated guesswork.

And another problem is that the underlying assumptions are very conservative ¾ and even implausible in some respects.

For example, the government projections from 2002 assumed that annual net migration would remain constant at 90,000 – even though it peaked at 300,000 in 2008.  Hardly a surprise then our population has reached 25 million a little sooner than 2042.

And nothing has really changed. More recent projections also assume the level of net migration will stabilise in the long-term – although realistically it could keep growing, barring major policy changes.

This is why governments should approach population projections with extreme caution – and not present them to the public as divine revelation. Otherwise, the public will lose all faith that governments are capable of planning for a ‘big Australia’.

And the certain consequence? More of those lively debates about cutting immigration — no guesswork required there.

Eugenie Joseph is a senior policy analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies

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