New Australian population plan will be meaningless

By Stephen Williams

Without a fundamental change to economic thinking, Australia will continue down the dystopian road, argues Stephen Williams.

[The Prime Minister of Australia],  Scott Morrison, met with state and territory leaders in Adelaide recently for the COAG chinwag. Topping the list of agenda items was population.

I will try and summarise the population problem as succinctly as I can.

  • Australia has struggled with population policy for many decades, with inquiry after inquiry.
  • Former PM John Howard turbo-charged immigration during his administration (while demonising asylum seekers) and immigration has stayed high ever since.
  • Federal governments tend to like high immigration (population growth) because it virtually guarantees that GDP will increase (meaning the size of the economy will increase, so no technical recession).
  • The poor old states are mostly stuck with the problem of building the infrastructure to cope with the crazy population increase (about 1.6 per cent per year, meaning we double our population about every 40 years on current trends).
  • Environmental harm is all but ignored, as we are focused on increasing the size of the economy at all costs. Maybe some technological breakthrough (fingers crossed) will fix it?
  • Voters, as many surveys now show, have had a gutful of high population increases (high immigration) because they feel the effects every day of congestion, long commutes, stress, flat wages, high housing costs, job insecurity, pollution everywhere and so on.
  • If immigration is too high, multicultural harmony could weaken, with intolerance and bigotry rising and nobody should want that.
  • Morrison realises there is a voter backlash so he wants to reduce permanent migration by a small amount (190,000 down to 160,000). This has little to do with our refugee intake — that is a related but separate issue.
  • Australia issues lots of temporary visas as well. These go to holidaymakers, students, workers with varying skills and so on. At any one time, there may be 1.6 million“temporary” migrants in Australia, who also drive cars, need somewhere to live, drink water and eat food and produce waste. Some of these people transition to become permanent migrants and that may have been their plan all along. I don’t blame them.
  • Most migrants move to cities like Sydney and Melbourne.
  • Meanwhile, many regional towns and farming communities would like more people to live and work there, but it is not really possible to force people to live in one area and not another.

Population boosters like to say that Australia is a migrant nation and that we benefit from immigration. Such trite commonplaces ignore the real issue of what are sustainable or optimum numbers. For instance, immigration could continue, albeit at a small scale, even if we chose to stop population growth (net immigration) completely. That’s because many people leave Australia every year for good and we could replace those people with refugees or economic migrants without increasing the population. We could even continue with some immigration while our total population slowly reduced (once natural increase levelled off, as it eventually would).

No, the real issue is not whether some immigration will continue. It will.

The real issue is what is the “carrying capacity” of Australia (the maximum number of people we can have at an ecologically sustainable level at a point in time), and what is the optimum number of people (where wellbeing is maximised at a point in time). Population size matters because it largely determines the size of the economy (measured by GDP). In fact, it is more useful to ask what the maximum size of our economy would be if we were to live within ecological limits, also what would be the optimum size of our economy (where wellbeing is maximised and almost certainly smaller than the maximum sustainable size).
Once you get to the maximum size – or preferably the optimum size – you then should maintain that steady state.
But a steady-state economy is not static because there can still be advances in health, education and other desirable things without increasing the throughput of resources and waste creation.
In other words, wellbeing could increase without increasing the size of the economy.
Have you ever heard a politician or a mainstream economist talk about measuring human wellbeing and how to maximise it? I will give $100 to my local hospital if you have.

No, these geniuses have the following “plan”:

  • We will increase the size of our population forever. That’s always worked in the past.
  • We will increase the size of our economy (GDP) forever. That’s always worked in the past.
  • We will virtually ignore the ecological crisis that is patently going on all around us and is getting worse every day, believing our generation will scrape through okay, especially the wealthy.
  • We will talk nonsense about limiting greenhouse gas emissions even while we turbocharge population growth in Australia, because population growth must continue forever.
  • We will not increase foreign aid targeted at reducing overpopulation in other countries.
  • We will not seriously address the causes that produce refugees.
  • We will not measure human wellbeing and what contributes to human wellbeing because we only care about increasing GDP (increasing the size of the economy forever).
  • We will ignore warnings from thousands of scientists that we are on a journey to destruction.
  • We will ignore record-breaking private sector debt.
  • We will ignore outrageous unemployment and underemployment, the social ills associated with it and the costs of those social ills.
  • If people in yellow vests go berserk in the streets, we might then think about increasing welfare payments or throw them some other bone.
  • We will continue to ignore obscene wealth disparity. Why? Because I’m alright, Jack.
  • We will ignore sensible plans for a Green New Deal or green job guarantee, because our political donors might not like it.
  • We will not create a sustainable society in Australia as a model for other countries to follow, nor will we help them follow us through foreign aid or information sharing.
  • We will not take risks at election time. Getting elected is the main thing


The original article was published as “Muppet population plan will be meaningless” in  Independent Australia (11. January 2019).

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