Towards a population tipping point in Australia

Towards a population tipping point in Australia, by Chip Le Grand.

In Australia’s largest cities, population growth is not a modelling exercise. It’s demountable classrooms stacked three high on what used to be a playground. It’s a peak-hour train that stops at a suburban station too full to pick up passengers. It’s the quiet, Falling Down fury of idling on a 100km/h freeway. It is something that ­jostles and frustrates. It is real and visceral.

In Australia’s federal government, population policy is not something you can see or touch. It doesn’t exist in name. It has no portfolio attached, no minister responsible. It’s a locked room filled with largely ignored reports all recommending the same thing, a room haunted by the ghosts of parliamentarians who grew old waiting for Australia to take complete charge of its future.

It’s a room Dean Smith unlocked this week. The Liberal senator whose understated advocacy and private member’s bill forced the government to finally resolve the question of same-sex marriage wrote to Malcolm Turnbull calling for a Senate inquiry into Australia’s population growth.

A population inquiry is politically unwelcome in what may be an election year. A national conversation about population and all that entails — who should come here, where they should settle, what jobs they should do, what we want our nation to look like in 10, 20 and 30 years’ time and what we need to build to accommodate that future — will not easily reach agreement. It won’t deliver votes. It will divide the Liberal partyroom. …

There is a proposal being aired:

The simplest solution, one proposed by Tony Abbott and supported by an unlikely and very loose coalition — Bob Carr, demographer Bob Birrell, environmentalist Tim Flannery and entrepreneur Dick Smith — is to dramatically cut immigration until we figure things out.

This would be popular, at least in the short term. This week’s Newspoll showed nearly three-quarters of respondents supported a reduced intake. It would be fiercely opposed by businesses that rely on imported skills, our tertiary and vocational sectors, which survive on international students, and political leaders and business lobbies in South Australia and Tasmania and regional centres, where more people are desperately needed.