Population policy

I’ve been haunting the forums and threads on transit and urban policy for some time now. And I’ve noticed a change. Back in the day, the response to any proposal for more housing, or train lines, or new suburbs was:

Let’s not build it, who wants another million people?!?

It’s a classic case of mistaken identity between our old friends, that nebulous duo, cause and effect. In fact, the need to support another million people is almost a fait accompli.

But the naysayers are getting smarter and have reinvigorated their attack. Today, in response to proposals for more roads, more trains, more urban density and more tax, the naysayers exclaim “we must establish a population policy!”.

Obviously, they don’t specify a level of government that should do this, nor a target level, nor a means. But this is progress nonetheless.

And our illustrious, lustrous egg-head of a Prime Minister must have been haunting those forums too, because suddenly the Australian Government has a Minister for Population, Tony Burke. In addition to keeping an eye on Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture, he now has to manage into existence a population policy, with a reporting deadline in 12 months time.

This is a good thing. IN THEORY. In reality, actually doing something about population growth is extremely difficult and may not be worth the effort. Here’s a few reasons why:

1. An effective population policy must be global – In a free trading globe, the limits on the expansion of any one country are few, because most resources can be imported cheaply (into Singpore and Hong Kong for instance, to support their huge population densities). Whereas, the limits of the globe are real and potentially devastating if breached (seen on a micro-level in biological systems). If there’s going to be a population policy, it needs to be at the global level.

But a restrictive global population policy is never going to happen. It might be possible for the UN to agree on environmental and sociological impacts of global population scenarios. But allocating these impacts on a country by country basis would be the kicker, and the UN is extremely unlikely to do that.

2. Procreation and Immigration – The big old can of worms. It’s extremely hard to stop citizens procreating. I’ve tried. They don’t take kindly to it. So any discussion of population policy focuses on the aspects that policy can address. i.e. immigration.

It’s almost impossible to have a sensible discussion about a good level of immigration. Any discussion of immigration attracts a) racists and b) accusations of racist motivations, in equal measure. Like any debate where there may be more than one reason for doing something, accusing people of using one justification to mask another is rife. These accusation make people angry and counter-accusations fly. The racists rub shoulders with the environmentalists, big business rubs shoulders with the humanitarians, and the shit hits the fan.

3. Politics – Why is the Labor Government discussing this? Remember that this is an election year. Are they trying to pre-empt a Liberal Party attack from the right? Maybe they are dog-whistling to voters who resent immigration. These voters used to worry about ‘jobs’ now the magic words are ‘infrastructure and urban sprawl.’

4. Infrastructure and the Environment – If this issue was just about infrastructure, we might solve it with a brief building blitz. However, this debate is more than a question of what to build, we need to find the resources to do so and pay their opportunity cost. As the challenge of water resource management demonstrates – all our actions have environmental impacts – sustainability is a human construction. Population policy is an implicit decision about an acceptable level of environmental degradation and the country’s ecological footprint.

How do you think this will play out? What sorts of policies will Labor suggest? What can they get away with politically? What will the coalition accuse them of? (I note that the opposition has said they will quarantine refugee intake from any discussion of desirable immigration levels. Is this to avoid accusations of reviving Howard’s heartlessness?) And lastly, what is the right level of population for Australia?

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

12 thoughts on “Population policy”

  1. Nice post.

    “Landing the government in shit” is the exact reason democratic governments can’t make strong long-term policy decisions (20-50 years) if they are going to cause short-term pain (voting cycle). A voting public with an emotional media will ensure that we have to get in the shit before we demand a fix. It is even more difficult now that many countries are globally positioned to lose economically if they alone take a long term stand “for the team” – being the whole world.

    That being said, there are a few more areas that can be drawn into the debate:

    The ageing population is a broad term used to describe a demographic with high government service usage and relatively little return of taxation revenue. The increase of tax revenue is one of the reasons the government wants to continually raise the population. It is also supposed to provide economies of scale to remain competitive with the rest of the world. Sustainability is necessarily excluded from this debate.

    A few juicy areas which should also be drawn into the debate are euthanasia and governmental control of the birth rate. I call these controlling the rate of the burning of the candle at both ends.

    It will be an interesting day indeed when euthanasia as an indirect population control device is discussed.

    Another interesting day will be had when the rights of a woman to control when and how many children she has becomes an issue of debate when played against the sustainability of a social, economic and environmental standard of living.

    If you think immigration as part of population control is a hot-button topic, imagine these :)

    How about the right of people who have worked a fully taxed life to have the government repay them with services and discounts versus the ability of the government to afford it with relatively less taxpayers than they used to have?


    1. Sorry Mark, I edited ‘the shit’ out I thought it was a touch over the top. Would like me to put it back in?


  2. A good thoughtful post on the issue. I too have been haunting and commenting on threads dealing with this rather insoluble issue. I’m a bit cynical about the debate because there aren’t many realistic courses of action that people calling for a population stabilisation at an international level can propose. On the national level immigration can be reduced and having kids can be made financially ruinous, both resulting in negative side effects.

    Only a fool would be deaf to the ecological limit argument, but I find it disturbing that it’s sometimes focused on as an exclusive cause of our current woes.

    It’s almost a perfect excuse for not tackling any other pressing issues, it has a simple logic and there are no easy fixes. It’s revealing that it’s most commonly used in a national context. Its got appeal because it’s an issue that can be blamed on outsiders ignoring the fact that both the population and resource limits issues are ultimately global unless Australia is willing to cut off trade – something that would plunge us back to the stone age.

    I have to declare that although I have no financial interests in increasing Australia’s population I do prefer cultural diversity. I also prefer compact cities to sprawl and environmentally sustainable living to proliferate energy consumption.

    It is also perfect for dog whistle appeals to the barely-beneath the surface xenophobia and racism that exists in the Australian electorate. The only practical solution is for population to naturally decline with the advancement of living standards and to manage resource issues better. What’s the alternative? Euthanasia?


  3. Why do people continue to use the word racism when it is both meaningless and divisive? Self respect and cultural identification are universal human characteristics and in times of economic downturn we would soon be extinct if we did not try and look after ourselves and our “tribe” weither we recognise this through cultural, religious or ethnic connections.

    The Australian electorate is no more or less susceptible to these human reactions than any other nation or cultural group. History tells us time and time again cultural diversity only thrives during times of continual prosperity.

    The real question is what level of population can Australia support while still able to maintain a suitably high level of prosperity because when things turn bad . . . .


    1. Who else thinks the word racism is meaningless and divisive?

      ‘Racism’ describes an array of conscious and subconscious motivations. These motivations have led directly to really bad policy that have negatively affected lots and lots of people. They also poison a heap of quotidian interactions. Examples are hardly necessary.

      The negative effects of racism are why it’s important to identify and isolate it.

      If you decide ‘Australian’ or ‘Christian’ or ‘Caucasian’ or ‘the residents of Ferntree Ave’ is your tribe your judgment is a subjective one.

      When someone tries to protect their ‘tribe’ they are making an artificial distinction that puts some people’s needs above others. (There is a sliding scale here that ends with us granting rights to sheep and cows and moths. While one doesn’t want to go that far, it’s more moral than wandering off in the other direction.)

      In keeping with your anthropological observation, I think you could equally ask: Is it any wonder that prosperity thrives during times of cultural diversity?

      Compare California to Montana; Melbourne to Benalla; New York to Richmond, Virginia; Shanghai 2010 to Shanghai 1980, etc.


  4. The capacity debate is interesting, whether it’s national or global. Malthus (was it Malthus?) had a theory about the limits of production and the exponential rate of population increase. The theory goes that one day we wont be able to keep up with the demands of the ever increasing population. Some would say we’ve already reached that (which is why there is poverty and hunger) and others would say there is plenty of food (and other goods) but there is an imbalance in their distribution and we can continue to increase our population as long as technology keeps up by increasing production.

    I’m actually not sure where I sit on this one. I believe in human ingenuity and creativity that has allowed production of the industrial revolution and the technology revolution but I’m not sure any society is able to know if it is exceeding it’s capacity limits without it being too late. Intellectually it is possible to imagine a society with a stable population (which you could assume would be sustainable) but then you would need to come up with some very specific rules about who was allowed to breed and when. And, as pointed out earlier, this would only work if the whole world was doing it. There’s not point Australia limiting its population to 25-30mil if China has 2 billion. They’ll just come and catch all our fish and steal all our roo meat if they want it. They may just take the whole country.

    So without a global agreement on population limitation, we are stuck with a growing population. Whether that’s from births in or out of Australia isn’t really the point (and yes, you’re probably racist if you think it is!). The point is how we manage the stress that the new population puts on the environment. We haven’t done a particularly good job of managing the current population which is why so many people are scared of the a future “Big Australia” but there are plenty of examples of large populations that live more harmoniously/sustainably with their natural resource base.


  5. I like the picture of the babies – so cute!

    I read an article forecasting the global population to hit 10 billion and then start to decline. This was based on trends where people join the middle class (keeping in mind that $10 a day is middle class in Bangladesh), women get more educated/more freedom and have fewer children etc. Only religious types are likely to be making all the babies, hence why the world is likely to become more religious not less. But that’s another story …

    My personal hunch is that peak oil will sort this out for us. When cars run on ethanol derived from wheat/cane/corn and China has to import coal from OCEC (the yet-to-be-formed Organisation of Coal Exporting Countries) and fertiliser is produced using electricity that is getting increasingly expensive, ships run on LNG derived from coal seams and climate change has re-arranged the worlds arable lands … a trip to Woollies is going to get VERY expensive.

    Ultimately I see the argument like this: we either have fewer humans with good chances of survival or we have more humans with worse chances of survival. Either way the pandas are dead. Either the smaller community of humans continues to greedily consume as much stuff as possible including the panda forest or the larger group of humans desperately clings to existence by eating the pandas. You can dice the ‘population x consumption’ equation anyway you like it, but the ‘environment’ will always lose.

    Sorry for being so negative today TTTE, I’m just devastated because the Bill got the axe from channel 2.


  6. M. Hubbert developed a model for and predicted peak oil – “the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline” – in the US in 1973.

    He went on to predict global peak oil in c2005. Whether that prediction is true is yet to be seen, however, even conservative estimates suggest it will occur by 2020.

    Hubbert also plotted a population/time curve against his peak oil curve and the results, while only a correlation, suggest a startling decline in the global population along with global oil supplies.

    When you think about what we use oil for (plastics, fertilisers, mobility, computer components, almost everything) it’s hard not to see a credible link.


    1. The old peak oil chestnut. It is an intriguing proposition and I wonder if the resource pressures before the GFC were some early indicators. After reading Jeremy Leggetts “Half Gone” I have spent quite a lot time pondering what the effects might be to Australia with our dependence on very cheap oil. It seems no one has an accurate picture of the current state of oil so it will be a bit of a surprise when it happens.


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