OPINION

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Filling the empty spaces: Australia’s population
Population? That’s me, that’s you, it’s the people across the road, it’s the people at work. It’s the other 24.7 million whose place on earth is in this large country we call Australia. Our number is growing at 1.4% each year. According to many of us this isn’t enough, even though it is faster than the rate of most developed societies. Since 1955 it has grown every year by about 1.5%. In the 1950s the growth rate p.a. was about 2.5% and there was a government policy of increasing population by immigration and natural birthrate. Many of our immigrants came from Catholic cultures where large families were the norm. Today we are 0.33% of the total world population. There is one square kilometre for every three of us, city dwellers make up 90% of us and our median age is just over 37 years. The world’s total population is about 7.8 billion.
We all know we live in a big, a very big, country. We also know that the bulk of our population lives close to the coast, and that we have few large inland cities. And we are ageing: our birthrate is falling but we are no longer actively recruiting migrants. In fact it is safe to say that immigration has been politicised: we now have a ‘border protection force’ to repel and control the numbers entering this country and to decide which categories are unwanted incomers, and the policy is to repel, rather than embrace. The former Immigration Department is gathering dust in some forgotten corner of the Federal Government. And we no longer have a national population policy. We do know though that Australia’s population continues to age, so among the nation’s pressing issues is fewer taxpayers.
Some states – Tasmania is one – have their own policy, but immigration to the country remains a federal issue. "Population growth is a key strategic focus for the Tasmanian Government because increasing Tasmania’s population will help to generate jobs and grow the economy, as well as improve the standard of living for all Tasmanians." The policy can be viewed at stategrowth.tas.gov.au. But Tasmania can only recruit from elsewhere in Australia: not from overseas.
Federally, there is a policy vacuum. ‘Jobs and growth’ doesn’t quite fill the bill, nor the country. Neither major party will discuss a population policy because they think there are no votes in it. The Greens do have a view: they think policy is an issue, but they are focussed on our ‘environmental capacity’, and the effect of population growth on current living standards. The Hanson stance is against immigration full stop, and that view is gaining ground. Meanwhile, we face the dangerous combination of rich resources, empty spaces, and overpopulation elsewhere in our region. Indonesia’s population is 263 million. China’s is 1.3 billion.
We do have a default policy promoted by the neo-liberals and the major corporates: rapid growth. They see all growth as good, especially for their bottom line. They include the banks and financial sector, real estate developers, the housing industry, major retailers, the media and other major players for whom an endless increase in customers is possible and profitable. The growth coalition has no real interest in the cumulative social or environmental downside effects of growth, nor the actual welfare of immigrants. But they fully expect to capture the profit of this growth program, while the disadvantages, such as traffic congestion, pollution, rising house prices and government revenue diverted for infrastructure catch-up, are all socialised. That is, the taxpayer pays. A rounded policy for population growth needs to take these factors into account.
The near-invasion in 1942 by the Japanese, galvanised a program of populate or perish growth, and after the War the gates were opened wide: to people of Caucasian, or white, extraction. Not until Malcolm Fraser’s time was the body politic prepared to contemplate Asian immigration on any scale, in this case of Vietnamese. The experiment appears to have been highly successful. In the near-hysterical reaches of the immigration debate, Muslim people from the war-torn areas of Africa and the Middle East are the new pariahs in the immigration field: Christians are, apparently more acceptable.
While I was writing this ‘Opinion’ 150,000 births occurred across the world, and 45 million this year so far. But our own birthrate continues to decline, as does the number of taxpayers to support the ageing and wealthy.  Population and wealth inequality are ticking time bombs in Australia: the absence of any policy to address them may lead to major social upheaval. Who will we blame then?
John Fleming II

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