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?