“Population” the new phrase for everything going wrong
In just a few short weeks population policy has turned into a panacea for just about every problem of the modern economy - from immigration to water management and more. Luckily for us, we can now lay these problems at the feet of the world’s first Population Minister, Tony Burke.
Never mind that many of these problems that have been around for decades, they are now gathering under the banner of ‘population policy’, effectively making Tony Burke the new Minister for Everyone and Everything.
For starters the Minister will need to strike a balance between economic growth and environmental sustainability, and tackle the impact of population growth on urban planning, transport, housing, water (and it seems just about every other type of infrastructure).
Then he’ll have to move on to find solutions to population ageing – something that will need huge injections of government revenue to meet growing demand for services in aged care and health. Feeding our coal-fired economy with skills sourced from overseas will also be high on the Minister’s priority list.
The paradox in this debate is that population is about ‘people’. In the past we put the people first, and built transport and infrastructure around human needs. Investment in government services, skills training and jobs formed part of the deal. And our past migration programs focused on human needs – the clearest example is the massive intake of tens of thousands Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and 80s.
Now it seems we are urged to do the opposite – put limits on the number of people because of our finite environment and infrastructure. This includes limiting migration to situations when the skills are deemed valuable to business. In this sense, population policy is putting people second.
It’s also a quick political fix to distract us from the bigger and more unwieldy problems of managing growth, consumption and our lack-lustre investment in skills and innovation.
And with an election looming, it’s looking suspiciously like a politically correct way to close our borders and decide who should come to Australia and under what circumstances.
In this sense many of the problems getting bundled under the portfolio of ‘population’ are less about people and more about politics, especially the politics of market failure and poor planning.
Increasing government investment in carefully planned infrastructure is one response to managing population. So is closing the gap between rich and poor nations by improving international aid. According to the global campaign for education, 75 million children are out of school around the world.
It’s a no-brainer to see that countries with a stable or declining population rate are ones with universal access to education. This benefits women in particular, by creating opportunities to participate in the economy which goes hand in hand with freedom to plan their fertility.
It’s surprising that this link hasn’t been more strenuously made by advocates of population control. Putting more energy into lifting women out of poverty may take time, but it will pay off.
But while increasing spending on both infrastructure and aid has been taken up by the Rudd government, neither is providing the political fix that ‘population policy’ can.
If we were to get real about population, we’d first have to change Tony Burke’s portfolio to Minister for Planning.
That way we can shift the discussion away from a short term focus on how many people and towards a more complex and useful one about how many services and how to deliver and build them in ways that are sustainable while keeping faith with our humanitarian role in the region.
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