How many people does Australia need?
Why is the Rudd government hell-bent on bringing more and more people to Australia?
In 2007-08, 173,290 people permanently migrated to Australia. In addition, there were another 544,000 temporary migrants to the country, excluding the five million visitors. That’s close to three-quarters of a million extra people residing here in a year.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Net Overseas Migration contributed 60.6 per cent of Australia’s population growth in 2008, compared to 39.4 per cent contributed by natural increase.
Our roads are congested, our public transport overcrowded, our water supply inadequate, and our amenity under threat. So why are we bringing more and more people to Australia?
Before addressing this question, let me state clearly that I am not opposed to immigration. To the contrary, I support a clearly defined immigration policy that works in the national interest.
Nor do I support a reduction in our population. One only has to look to Europe to see the looming problems of falling birth rates.
My complaint is that there is no rational policy operating at the moment. Nor has the current government explained its thinking about the issue. In the absence of any clear rationale, we can only speculate about the basis of the current policy.
I suggest four bases for Australia’s future immigration program.
First, migration will remain important to our economic prosperity. Immigration helps to maintain a steady, healthy growth rate in the Australian workforce, but it must be responsive to domestic considerations, including the ability to settle, find work for and integrate new arrivals. The balance and composition of the immigration program are critical. It must also reflect the economic circumstances from time to time, especially any economic downturn and rising unemployment.
However, the economic claims should not be overstated. A House of Lords committee found in 2008, that in the case of the UK, “the economic benefits of net immigration to the resident population are small and close to zero in the long run.”
Increased immigration is usually justified on the basis that the population is ageing. This is true, but recent research indicates that the impact is not as severe as previously thought. A 2005 report to my former Department of Employment and Workplace Relations entitled Workforce Tomorrow had concluded that Australia faced a shortfall of 195,000 workers over the following five years.
However recent research at Monash University has suggested that the impact is not so severe, with older workers remaining in the workforce longer.
In any event, the financial downturn has pushed up the unemployment rate, leaving more people in search of a job.
Research released last week by the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University found that most of our labour force growth has been due to immigration. As a consequence young people are bearing the brunt of rising unemployment.
In any event, immigration can only slow, not reverse, population ageing, as the immigrants age along with the rest of the population. Even though migration can be used to maintain a population, it doesn’t increase the rate at which a population replaces itself in the long run because it is only the new born that can affect the Total Fertility Rate.
Given the rise in the natural birth rate in recent years, it is worth considering how many extra people are required if Australia is to maintain a replacement population.
In 2007-08 births exceeded deaths by 145,600 and increased the total population by 1.01 per cent. This was achieved with a fertility rate of 1.9 births per woman. As the replacement rate is 2.1 births per woman, Australia required an additional 32, 347 people in 2007-08 to replace the population over the long-term.
In 2007-08, migration added another 213,700 people to the population. This represented about 60 per cent of the total population increase.
In other words, immigration increased the population in 2007-08 by some 181,353 people more than required to maintain replacement levels at that time.
Obviously the number of immigrants required to replace the population will vary from year to year, and increase as the population ages, but it is currently far in excess of current replacement needs.
A rational policy discussion about our population needs ought to start with the number of people required to replace the population. This is not to say that we only need 32,000 migrants, but it is to state a starting point for the proper consideration of our future population requirements.
This leads me to my second basis for policy, namely that the migration program should be in the national interest. This means that there should be much more research into the impact of immigration on Australia. Much of the research to date has been anecdotal and lacking in empirical rigour.
The issues that I raised at the outset of this paper about congestion, infrastructure and amenity should all be addressed as part of policy considerations. This is not happening currently.
Thirdly, the migration program needs to retain broad community support. This means, among other things, those important settlement aspects of immigration, including the comprehension of the English language and the provision of work, are reinforced.
The Rudd government’s policy is bewildering. Not only is the border security policy in tatters, but programs to introduce guest workers are unnecessary and at odds with long held community views.
Moreover, there is no rationale for the policy of bringing more and more people to Australia.
This leads me to my final point. Australia should have a population policy. The size of our population, the extent and composition of our immigration program, the capacity of our natural and built environment to cope, and the attitude and confidence of the Australian people about future directions are all factors to be considered.
It is time for a national discussion about population.
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