Australia’s population will be a major issue at the coming federal election.  Not just because of the ongoing problems with Labor’s border protection laws but because Australians are increasingly concerned with the sustainability of our country.

Our middle class lifestyle is costing the environment. Picture: John Fotiadis.

Last year in a rare moment of clarity the Prime Minister made very clear that he ‘believed’ in a ‘big Australia’.  He made these comments on the day that his government announced its population target for Australia of 36 million by 2050

It was refreshing to hear a clear statement from this Prime Minister who is often as simple to follow as assembly instructions from IKEA.

However what this clear statement highlighted was a concern that I hear all of the time in my electorate from people who are convinced that we are living beyond our sustainable limits. 

My electors are worried that we are risking our own food security by allowing urban development on our best food producing lands.

They are worried that we are living on a dry continent that is struggling to keep up with the current water and energy demand let alone increasing it by 50%. 

They are annoyed that driving to the shop or finding a school or hospital close by is increasingly difficult and they fear that their children and grand children will never be able to afford to buy a house.

But most of all they worry deeply that local, state and federal governments are completely ignoring their fears.

I believe sustainability is the challenge of this century. 

With a rapid growth in world population particularly in developing countries we face challenges with food, energy and water security.  There are not simple answers to these challenges.

By 2050 the United Nations estimates that the globe will be home to nearly ten billion people.  Today there are about six and a half billion up from nearly two billion a century ago.  The increase is staggering and difficult conceptualise.

But more challenging than this growth is the rising world middle class.  Currently there are about one billion people who enjoy a ‘middle’ class lifestyle using about 32 times the amount of resources that those who live in the poorest parts of the world use. 

But of course as more countries develop and their populations emerge from poverty, they seek the lifestyle that developed nations enjoy.  In China alone each year it is estimated about two hundred million people move from poor rural areas to cities seeking a better standard of life.  Inevitably this will mean greater pressure is placed on existing and finite resources.

Of course, we can not bury our head in the sand either and expect we will not grow, but our obligation is to ensure that growth is planned in a manner that sustains our way of life.

That is why I believe we should have an open debate about population growth and a plan for ensuring it is managed.  Putting a target before the plan on how to achieve growth is really putting the cart before the horse.  We should be debating and planning for how we are going to house, power, feed and water the growing population. 

Australia has also been a small country in terms of population but we have also managed to develop a strong and productive economy in spite of that.  This is in part because of our natural resource advantage, but also because we have been well educated, innovative and enduring. 

The argument that our economy will only continue to be strong by increasing population is wrong.  Increasing population without planning for the consequences of that will risk Australia’s future prosperity.

This is a short, medium and long term challenge for Australia and for the world.

We must engage and plan or we will find ourselves explain to future generations why we didn’t act when we had the chance.

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26 comments

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    • agblaster says:

      07:16am | 30/04/10

      What a mischievously misleading piece.

      The Intergenerational Report projection of 36 million in 2050 would have been the same no matter what Party was in Government.

      It’s the likely result if things keep going much as they have in recent years - under Governments of either Party. It isn’t a target.

      The Liberal Party needs to get a better briefing on the Intergenerational Reports. Deviously misleading statements like these of Briggs won’t help anyone, let alone address the issue.  Disgusting, really. 

      And for anyone with a tick of interest in the future beyond the next election, unmuddied by such useless tosh, here’s the Report itself.
      http://www.treasury.gov.au/igr/igr2010/

      We can all read, Briggs. Time to clean up your act.

    • Scot says:

      01:09pm | 30/04/10

      We must cap the population growth to ensure our economic future. We need Nuclear power for our power needs as wind farms cannot pay their way unless they are heavily subsidised and have to be connected to a smart power network which we do not have? What we have is spot fire planning or crisis management. Our infrastructure is a joke and is a burden to our economy and costing us many billions per year. It sad they Labor has wasted so much money and have nothing to show for it.

    • John A Neve says:

      02:18pm | 30/04/10

      Scot,

      I agree with you, our infrastructure is in a sorry state. Sad really, when we have had twelve boom years, tax cuts and money in the kitty. What happened to those twelve years Scot?

      You say wind power will have to be “heaverly subsidised” but so will nuclear power, so what is your point?

      Tell us Scot, would you rather a wind farm or a nuclear power station across the road from where you live?

      You are right Labor has wasted money, but what about the billions$ for those helcopters with the 30 year old air frames or those super duper jets we haven’t got yet and probably never will?

      Do you realise that the coalition has been in power for the bulk of the last 30 years?
      So who’s problem is our lack of infrastructure Scot?

    • shabangabang says:

      02:56pm | 30/04/10

      Scott you just contradicted yourself. Nuclear power would also be heavily subsidised due to one fact; our population is too small to make it viable.
      Same with most major infrastructure projects. High Speed Rail is pie-in-the-sky stuff due to low projected usage, which is due to, you guessed it, low population.
      As is mass transit in capital cities. Its subsidised because ticket prices don’t cover all the costs. Now whether that is due to prices being to low or patronage not being sufficient depends on what you want to whinge about.
      Australia will never have an infrastructure system equal to any other OECD nation as our puny population is scattered disproportionately over a very large land mass.
      Our population must grow to make ‘new’ technology viable or we must learn to make do with what we have because it is all we can afford.

    • Jack Thomas says:

      04:47pm | 30/04/10

      No, it is you Assblaster and your Kevin who are misleading and disgusting.

      Why did Rudd announce it?

      Kevin stood up there claiming it as his own work.

      Please explain, Sir Humphrey because the punters all saw him present it and talk about how much he believed in a “big Australia”.

      Surely if it was an independant report, whoever produced it would have announced it. Or isn’t the PM responsible for his government any more?

      Your hypocrisy and high moral ground is pretty typical for a Labor Luvvie, but I reckon 99% of Australians who saw Kevin’s presser thought the same. Suggesting the writer is “disgusting” is amusing when you consider Kevin’s “non core” promise backflips on asylum seekers, the ETS, etc etc.

      Rudd has brought us into a moral vacuum by being such a poll driven sneaky little man. It would be funny if not for the damage he is doing to our nation.

      Maybe this is another of Kevin’s “Greatest moral challenges of our time”?

    • persephone says:

      07:20am | 30/04/10

      Firstly, ‘the government’ did not set a target of 36 million. This was a forward projection by a government agency.

      Forward projections of this kind simply tell you what will happen if you keep doing what you’re doing.

      This not only allows you to plan for the future, but it also allows you to think seriously about the long term consequences of your actions and change them if you want to.

      It’s a bit like my accountant sitting me down and saying, “If you continue to spend the way you do, you’ll have X amount of debt by the end of the year.”

      He’s simply stating a fact, not setting me a target. It’s then up to me to react; I can accept the level of debt and keep doing what I’m doing, I can try and raise my income to cover the level of debt or I can take action to reduce my expenditure.

      If he didn’t give me that projection, however, I might wander along happily and find myself in debt without understanding how I got there and without ever having the opportunity to change.

      As for your ‘constituents’ concerns (it’s a nice blanket term that, a bit like telling your pscychiatrist you’ve got a ‘friend’ with a problem)—

      1. Running out of arable land - a problem recognised (certainly in Victoria) decades ago and now dealt with by planning laws which make the division of farming land into plots for development almost impossible. (Don’t know what other states are doing, but shows that this is not a problem ignored by ‘all levels of government’).

      Also easily solveable by encouraging higher density living and ending the urban sprawl.

      2. Energy and water: providing energy as such isn’t a problem; doing so without impacting on climate change is, but there’s plenty of research and investment happening in this area at present. Water is increasingly being addressed through ‘drought proof’ solutions such as desal, the push to save water at a residential level and the push for more sustainable use by farmers and upgrading irrigation systems to be more efficient.

      There is certainly scope for more water savings, particularly in the agricultural sector - we shouldn’t be watering pastures, for example, which is where a very large proportion of our water (probably more than is used by a single capital city, but I’d have to check that) goes.

      3. Increasing pressures by 50% - over 40 years or so, not overnight. Plenty of time to put in the needed services and infrastructure.

      4. Finding schools, hospitals, close by - a combination of higher density living and 3. will solve this.

      5. House prices - again, higher density living would help solve this.

      Of course we know that we need to plan for population growth, which is why the government appointed a Minister for Population. And by doing this planning, we will avoid at least some of the problems which so concern your ‘friend’ the constituent.

    • marley says:

      03:15pm | 30/04/10

      I’m not sure that higher density living is quite the panacea you think it is.  I rather suspect that it costs a lot more per sq.m. to build an apartment block than a house, and I’m pretty sure the carbon footprint for a steel and concrete monstrosity, all nicely heated and a/conditioned throughout, is bigger as well.  And putting all the water into leaking, antiquated city systems to serve a burgeoning population is a recipe for massive water loss.

      And I’ve seen nothing from NSW, for example, that suggests they will be able in any way to address the challenges of sustainability in an urban environment.

    • TC says:

      03:38pm | 30/04/10

      You guys have an accountant?

    • persephone says:

      10:42am | 02/05/10

      Higher density living doesn’t necessarily mean apartment blocks.

      In the majority of cases, it means subdividing an existing suburban block and building a house or unit in the backyard.

      Apartment blocks do have a number of advantages, which offset the initial extra costs.

      Firstly, if they’re inner city, they reduce the dependence on cars. This is not only a huge money saver for the resident but also (obviously) reduces carbon emissions.

      Secondly, there aren’t gardens. So water use is reduced (there are also minor emissions savings in reduced mowing, leaf blowing, burning off of garden refuse, etc). Again, money saver for the resident as well.

      Thirdly, one of the first steps in reducing your carbon emissions in the home is to make it a sealed environment - ensuring that the energy used in heating/cooling your home is not wasted because of hot air leaking out and cold air leaking in (or vice versa).

      Apartments tend to be, as you point out, a nicely sealed environment.

      Friends of mine lived through a US winter without ever turning on their heating, because they lived on an upper floor and were kept warm by the heat rising from apartments below.

      All that said, not necessarily trying to sell the idea of higher density living, just pointing out that ‘we have no space’ and ‘we’re running out of arable land’ are not unsurmountable arguments.

    • JJJ says:

      07:20am | 30/04/10

      It doesn’t really matter that the PM has said that he believes in a big Australia. He has said a lot of things in the past and it’s becoming increasingly clear that his words don’t mean much, so I am not too concerned. Hopefully he won’t be in a position to embarrass/confuse us for much longer, anyway.

    • Alfred Deakin says:

      07:53am | 30/04/10

      Tony Abbott has said we should cap our population at 29 million. When we get to 29 million how does he propose stopping population growth (given that Australian birth rates have always been above replacement level) - what method does he think will best stop Australian women from having children?

    • Russell says:

      09:37am | 30/04/10

      Cycling has been known for a long time to have detrimental affects on sperm levels. And budgie smugglers appear to be a turn-off for Australian women (pity, they are damn good for swimming in the surf)

    • Russell says:

      08:06am | 30/04/10

      It’s astonishing that some conservatives are presenting China’s (and India’s) middle class aspirations as “a problem”. Its ok that they buy everything we can sell them just as fast as we can dig it out of the ground, but how dare they live like us?

      Why is that a “problem”? Because we are the chosen ones, and they are… well what, exactly, Jamie Briggs, advisor to John Howard?

    • JR says:

      12:47pm | 30/04/10

      I hope you have never made a comment on the dangers of man made global warming Russell. You don’t believe in it clearly.

    • PG says:

      08:30am | 30/04/10

      Sure about that JJJ? Your mate “People Skills” Abbot is a joke! Kevvie will be with us a while yet

    • Russell says:

      09:44am | 30/04/10

      The other thing to note about this piece is the way Liberal thinking has come to resemble that of the Greens. The nuttier ones like Clive Hamilton have long been telling us that our “middle class” lifestyles make us unhappy and destroy the planet yadda yadda… and now the Libs agree.

      Maybe our lifestyles are ok, but not the Chinese.

      Its a misanthropic position, which sees people as a “problem”.  And the solution? As Dick Smith, Bob Brown, Bob Carr and now Tony Abbott (?) are telling us: Less people.

      What a miserable, pathetic policy. And one favoured by grumpy old men everywhere

    • Russ (not related) says:

      10:09am | 30/04/10

      I recall Peter Costello telling us for years that we needed to have more children.  He even implemented a number of middle class welfare measures to encourage it (and Tony Abbott of course would not approve contraception).  I think we just have to accept that the Libs are not becoming more like the Greens on population, they are using all this “reasoned debate over population” as their new immigrant dog whistle.

    • Grumbles says:

      11:36am | 30/04/10

      Obviously, growth by birth is better than growth by immigration. The article does not demonise Chinese Middle Class at all but highlights the very problem we have here. China is building new dams and power plants as we speak but we are not. I have never been in a math class where 29 million was less than 22 million.

      Both parties are saying more people not less, its just how much more. How can you compare that to the greens who think we have too many now, and want us to give up our middle class lives. The article is saying we can’t sustain our current lifestyles at current growth levels so we should slow down growth to maintain our lifestyles.

      The whole point of a dog whistle is only the dogs hear it, read and listen to what is being said not what you think is being said and consider this…. if we have severe water restrictions now and we build zero dams and our population doubles, who goes without?

    • Russell says:

      05:25pm | 30/04/10

      That’s a fair enough point, Grumbles. It was unfair of me to compare the Libs with the misanthropic, anti-people Greens… They are not in the same league.

      China is investing in dams, high speed rail, green energy source, whole new sustainable cities, its staggering what they have achieved. Having recently returned from a trip there, I am in awe. What I most like about Chinese is their proactive, energised optimism about the future.

      Australia is the opposite. And this “debate” about population and infrastructure is so depressing. It is dominated by Malthusian thinking, doomsaying and the misanthropy of the Greens. It’s as if we have lost our will, our faith in ourselves.

    • Joan says:

      09:50am | 30/04/10

      We need to study how small countries have more wealth and lifestyle than Australia considering the 1% of the workers being involved in mining and how mechanised that operation is, for instance.

      The Liberal and Labor blind religon of ramming 100,000 -200,000 immigrants in to Australia needs to be questioned. Also it doesn’t appear that Labor or liberals parties are vigilant about producing leaders that can handle the debates/issues of today or the future.

      Australia is in fact constrained by bodgey political leadership on multiple fronts: infrastructure, reliance on old and monopolistic energy systems, a preference of big business over small business and innovation, and not using highly educated/skilled workers to develop high tech industries.

      Not to mention the dumb and dumber crime of Australia sending it’s best scientists and minds overseas becuase Howard/Rudd/Abbott can’t see what long term assets these people represent to our nations future.

    • dillie says:

      10:18am | 30/04/10

      Joan us debt slaves aren’t supposed to think for ourselves.
      What you suggest is too intelligent and works against the mass distraction of the two party duopoly which gives us our faux democracy.
      Better move to one of those small countries because Australia is heading nowhere. I might be there too.

    • Joan says:

      11:04am | 30/04/10

      Dillie I feel you… I don’t think these Howard/Rudd/Abbott lookalikes and their empty drivel will persist for ever, they are so boring and going nowwhere with there small (or no ) ideas. Or even the likes of Jamie ... Many Aussies instinctively know they are not up to the task. I still have optimism - maybe it’s the good ol Irish genes?

      It’s sorta of ironic that the amount of time and energy Jamie, Bronwyn, Kevin Andrews and the rest of the Liberal “brains” trust put into telling us Rudd is a dud and the rest of their mindless rants they could put into real ideas and policy!

      We aren’t the smartest species on the planet.

    • Grumbles says:

      12:27pm | 30/04/10

      I think the biggest fools arfe those that voted Labor in but thought the Liberals would write policy for them. The Liberals need not release a single policy until an election is called, until then Rudd and his team are in full control of this wreck.

    • H of SA says:

      12:37pm | 30/04/10

      Ah yes Jamie, there is definately not enough wealth out their for too much middle class, well not when the likes of Goldman and Sachs exist to put it in as few hands of possible.

      Did you know that according to the latest rich lists from magazines the number of Billionaires in the world increased greatley during the GFC (see here http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/news/mexican-telecoms-magnate-carlos-slim-helu-tops-bill-gates-as-worlds-richest-man/story-e6frg90o-1225839433495)

      Make you at all suspicious that maybe the real problem isn’t sustainability but inequality?

      Ever wonder if there is something wrong with a planet where have the world population dies of starvation and the other half dies of obesity?

      Being “concerned” about poor people wanting middle class luxuries like shelter and school for their kids is missing the big picture. Foccusing on the “problem of the poor getting wealthier” is a case of not seeing the forrest for the trees.

    • Anjuli says:

      01:05pm | 01/05/10

      It is a fact that a country can service a whole lot more people if they are herded together in big cities . but what about the wide open spaces that go unpopulated ,if they were used for food that would be good,but are not because of poor soil and lack of rain fall .Have we built cities in the wrong place where there is good soil and good rainfall ?.Sounds as if the city father’s got it all wrong in the beginning.

    • Fredy says:

      06:07am | 22/11/12

      If you go with Barry Humphreys you get a broad cross section of the comnumity.  You get the snob in the man himself, a slob in Sir Les Patterson, and of course the incorrigable Dame Edna Everage.  So yes, I support the Barry Humphreys for GG!ShadowKnight’s last blog post..

 

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