What the government doesn’t want you to know about Big Australia

The federal government is touting population expansion as the only way to supply enough skilled workers to grow our economy. It also claims migration is essential in funding an ageing population.

However, many economists say that is not the case and have called out the government for taking the lazy option instead of doing what’s best for Australia, its citizens, the economy and the environment.

The push for Big Australia is high on the federal agenda. The government wants you to believe that older Australians and the economy require the support of a massively expanded migrant intake. This couldn’t be further from the truth, says Sustainable Population Australia (SPA), which is lobbying for a responsible level of migration and, as the group’s name suggests, a sustainable population size.

SPA is an independent not-for-profit organisation seeking to protect the environment and our quality of life by limiting population growth in Australia and globally. SPA is an environmental advocacy organisation, not a political party – and it strongly rejects racism and involuntary population control.

SPA works to dispel the myths about population expansion and, like the 70 per cent of Australians who do not wish to return to pre-COVID immigration levels of 240,000 per year, wants the government to rethink Big Australia.

Today, SPA debunks many of the population myths the government and others want you to believe, such as …

There is a shortage of skilled workers
Government data show very little evidence of skills shortages. Of the more than 670 occupations listed as eligible for a ‘skilled’ visa, there is no requirement that any of them actually have a skills shortage.

Read: Is there a shortage of skilled workers?

Population growth is not a problem as long as it is planned carefully
No amount of planning can keep up with the high rates of population growth in Australia in recent decades. The cost of infrastructure grows relentlessly with population, along with the frenzied demand by developers for rezoning and urban infill.

Population growth increases the tax base, giving governments more money to spend on infrastructure
Increased tax revenue from a bigger population does not pay for the infrastructure. Every 1 per cent per annum of population growth requires around 7 per cent of GDP just to create the extra infrastructure and equipment needed by the additional people. The extra production and taxes those extra people generate can’t pay for it all – it can only be paid by withdrawing spending from other people (now, or via debt, in the future).

The result is more congestion, more government debt, more fees and charges and more austerity measures. It leads to diminishing government services and greater out-of-pocket costs to citizens for education, health and transport.

Read: Population growth and infrastructure in Australia: the catch-up illusion

Australia would need to close its borders to stop population growth
Sustainability doesn’t require an end to immigration, just reducing it to manageable levels. An annual net migration intake of around 60,000 or 70,000 including refugees, skilled workers and family reunion, would allow our population to stabilise by mid-century.

It is wrong to assume that those who advocate lower immigration are anti-migration or anti-migrant. Migrants themselves have better opportunities when there are not too many of them competing for the available jobs.

Decentralisation can stop overcrowding and congestion in our capital cities
Many regional towns do not have reliable water supplies to support significantly larger populations, nor do their residents want the growth and most regions don’t offer sufficient employment.

Costly government programs have repeatedly failed to change the distribution of growth, showing that it cannot deliver on this promise. Although COVID-19 is encouraging some movement of people to regional areas, most migrants gravitate to the big cities.

Read: My Bulging City

Reducing consumption is the best way to reduce our environmental impact
It’s not either-or. Every increase in population undoes some of our efforts to reduce environmental impact per person.

Continuous population growth will ultimately overwhelm all our efforts to live with less impact.

Our cities’ growing pains are because governments neglect infrastructure spending
Governments have massively increased spending on infrastructure in the past 10 years in response to our population surge. That more than accounts for all State government deficits before the Covid-19 pandemic. These debts drive them to sell assets and cut back on social spending.

But it’s still not enough, because population growth is very, very expensive and eats up any accrued benefits.

Without population growth, our workforce would be depleted due to ageing
High levels of immigration can temporarily slow, but not prevent, the demographic ageing of the population. Migrants get old too. Boosting numbers through immigration to address the ageing population ‘problem’ will make it even more difficult for future generations. In any case, the ageing population is only a temporary adjustment and stops before there is a shortage of workers. Retirees will never outnumber younger adults.

Fewer people of working age means fewer unemployed and less underemployment, not fewer workers. A tighter labour market draws more people into the workforce who were not working, or keeps more people in work who would have otherwise retired.

If Australia’s population were to stop growing then the savings in infrastructure spending would more than compensate for the increase in ageing-related costs that this would entail. A stable population would give us similar dependency ratios to the 1960s (boom times!) only with more retirees and fewer children.

Retirees provide many economic and social contributions such as volunteer work and childcare.

With less unemployment and cheaper housing, ending population growth would also help younger generations save for retirement.

Read: Silver tsunami or silver lining? Why we should not fear an ageing population

Rising property values have made Australians wealthier
Rising house prices cause inflation, which can make people poorer. And rather than creating wealth for everyone, it just shifts it towards the richest. The beneficiaries are the small percentage of people who own or trade investment property, and the banks. Their gains are the next generation’s mortgage debts.

Homeowners benefit only if they downgrade to cheaper housing. In the meantime, they’re paying higher council rates.

A bigger population makes us less vulnerable to invasion
Military capability is not determined by population but by advanced technology. The greater threats to national security are climate change and internal conflict due to too many people competing for jobs and resources. Australia’s security is best maintained by a stable population which will enable a food surplus for export, and by much-increased and well-targeted foreign aid to poorer countries to help them achieve sustainable populations and not descend into conflict over scarce resources.

Unless we restore replacement rate fertility, the population will collapse
This cannot happen. Even with a fertility rate of 1.7 children per woman, it would take decades for deaths to overtake births. If preferred, population size can be kept stable by adjusting the level of migration intake. The sustainable immigration level of 60,000 – 70,000 advocated by SPA is the level that would keep the population stable if fertility stays around 1.7. There is evidence that Australians had a better quality of life when our population was 15m. There is nothing untoward about a carefully planned gradual reduction in population numbers.

Economic growth is a function of population, participation and productivity
This is like saying “more people working longer hours for less pay!” It ignores income inequality and quality of life. Population doesn’t grow the economy per capita. But it does reduce participation through higher unemployment. Productivity is reduced because resources are scarcer, rents are higher, and infrastructure costs increase.

Migrants create more jobs than they take
This could only be true if migrants were spending more than their local income. Countries with lower population growth tend to have lower unemployment, and less income inequality (i.e. better pay for low-wage workers). Migration often has more to do with importing cheap labour than it does with increasing local wealth.

People who want lower immigration are racist
Unlimited immigration makes sustainability impossible, regardless of race. A smaller intake does not mean a less diverse one, and numbers would be great enough to maintain Australia’s multicultural character. Many immigrants also want lower immigration, because they value the environment and quality of life in Australia. Social progressives should want lower immigration, because high immigration enriches the rich at the expense of the poor.

Read: Population and racism

Enough is enough: it is time to rethink Big Australia. Tell us what you think about population growth.

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Are you concerned about the environmental, economic and social impacts of ongoing population growth? With your support, SPA can actively work to refute and resist the growth lobby arguments and get Australia onto an ecologically sustainable pathway.

Visit the Sustainable Population Australia website to learn more and find out what you can do to help.

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