Twenty-three million and counting: why Australia’s population outlook is the envy of the world

Dr Genevieve Heard

Dr Genevieve Heard

by Genevieve Heard

Australia’s population reaches 23 million today according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) online population clock

How do they know it’s today? They don’t really. The clock provides an estimate only, working from the last census, and accounting for the average rates of births, deaths and net migration since then. The result is an addition of one person every minute and 23 seconds.

Nevertheless, the milestone justifies some serious reflection on the growth of the Australian population. The latest ABS data shows that our population grew by 1.7 per cent in the year ending September 2012. Australia has consistently recorded growth rates of between 1-2 per cent since 1971, higher during the mid-20th century population boom. Only once in 200 years have we recorded a negative annual rate. 

Despite this, Australia has demonstrated considerable anxiety over population growth. Australian governments have long been concerned with the ability of the nation to fill and defend our size-able land mass. In 1904, a NSW Royal Commission determined that a rapid decline in the birth rate (to a “low” of around six babies per woman, mind you) threatened the “moral influence of the family” and “the strength of the nation”. Two Commonwealth inquiries followed in the 1940s, making little progress beyond such moralising.

The post-war baby boom quelled these anxieties for a time. In addition, mass migration accelerated population growth. Australia became one of few nations in the world to accept a large-scale immigration program as a permanent policy feature.

Today, over a quarter (27 per cent) of Australia’s population is overseas-born, a proportion considerably higher than in other receiving countries such as the US (13 per cent) and Canada (20 per cent). Immigration added 228,000 people to Australia’s population in the year ending September 2012, or 60 per cent of our growth.

And yet, in recent decades, particularly as Australia’s birth rate declined to record lows around the turn of the 21st century, population anxiety has resurfaced.

These days, it’s not so much about staffing our defence forces, and Australia seems to have accepted that much of its land mass is uninhabitable. Nor is it about nationhood or morality. Rather, the justifications for concern over Australia’s population growth are now purely economic. It is accepted wisdom that perpetual economic growth requires perpetual population growth. 

This concern is primarily generated by industry. Quite simply, a larger population means a larger market. The Business Council of Australia, for example, has long advocated for higher immigration and briefly devoted some attention to encouraging births too.

Remember Steve Vizard’s inaugural population summit in 2002? A target of 50 million Australians by 2050 was put forward by industry leaders, such as the late Richard Pratt. Unfortunately for these lobbyists, demographers were obliged to demonstrate that such a target was impossible within the parameters provided by current levels of fertility and mortality. Faced with such realism, the population summits have disappeared from the calendar.

Nevertheless, Australian politicians are ever mindful of powerful business interests, and their endorsement of a “big Australia” (to use Kevin Rudd’s words) only seems to vary by degrees. Though the rhetoric might have altered to suit public sentiment, high immigration targets have been pursued under Howard, Rudd and Gillard alike.

Our national anxiety about sufficient population growth belies the fact that our growth rate is high by the standards of developed nations. There are many countries with much lower long-term fertility rates, and weak or non-existent cultures of accepting migrants. Japan is already shrinking. On current trends, the population of Western Europe will also be smaller at the end of the century than it is today. Even the economic powerhouse that is modern-day China, thanks to its one-child policy, will reach a peak population in 2025, after which it too will start to shrink. 

Many of Australia’s source countries – faced with intrinsic decline – have become receiving countries themselves. The competition for skilled migrants, particularly from countries facing rapid population ageing, will become intense. Under these circumstances, it is arguably unwise to rely on high immigration for our continued prosperity.

Decline does not feature in Australia’s current population outlook. Australia’s fertility rate has bounced backsufficiently that we effectively replace ourselves from one generation to the next. The established immigration program then gives our policymakers an additional tool with which to supplement growth if necessary, and (in theory) manage specific economic issues, including labour shortages in specific fields.

We need to leave our misplaced anxieties over population growth behind, and turn our attention to sustainability. The Australian government insists that the immigration program is meeting the needs of the mining boom, but the majority of immigrants still head for Melbourne or Sydney. There are many who argue that Australia’s major cities are already overcrowded, as evidenced by traffic congestion, failing public transport systems, and prices that render housing beyond the reach of many. 

To my mind, the important question is not so much whether we have sufficient growth, but whether we can manage the growth we have. Can we ensure that infrastructure keeps up with population growth? Can we neutralise the environmental impact of this growth? Can we spread the wealth already generated by growth? If we don’t address these questions, we compromise the very quality of life that is coveted by migrants to Australia.

Our population of 23 million may be relatively small, but our population outlook is the envy of other nations. Now there’s something to celebrate. 

Dr Genevieve Heard works in the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University.

This article also appeared in The Conversation.

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