Australia’s New Population Debate: An Environment Issue?

With Kevin Rudd’s appointment of Tony Burke as Australia’s First Population Minister, the Coalition attempting to bring illegal arrivals of Asylum seekers back as an election issue and the Greens raising population to their major platform of issues, the population debate in Australia has suddenly broadened beyond the traditional political sparring ground of illegal immigration and asylum seekers.
Population can possibly be viewed as an environmental issue, but not a pure one. There is no doubt that with increasing population there is pressure placed on our limited resources – land clearing, pollution and resource extraction increase – but it is not a simple equation of more people equals more impact. It is also about how those people live and how society organizes to meet their wants and needs.
It is also not an issue that starts and ends at Australia’s borders; it is a global issue that, like climate change, must be addressed simultaneously at both a local and global scale.
With the buffer that technology and centuries of global migration have allowed our society to draw between the pollution we are dumping into the environment and the resources we draw out of it – such as food and water – getting increasingly thin, it is a good time to have a reasoned debate about how to make the world more sustainable. The poor of the world are already increasingly living amongst the pollution, and it is only a matter of time till we are all immersed in the mess.
But it needs to be bought on carefully. Debating population can be an easy scapegoat to avoid action on other more immediate changes we can make to reduce the impact our society makes on the environment.
It can easily stray out of the territory of sustainability policy, and into value judgments about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to live in Australia. It can lead into gross stereotyping and assumptions about people that do not help us to advance the other goals of our nation – the goals of maintaining the ethical progress of our society on stamping our racism, celebrating diversity and globalism, and upholding human rights.
The resurgence of population in mainstream political debate seems to have started with the classic ongoing Australian debate about illegal asylum seekers, or boat people, coming to our shores via Indonesia. Whilst the actual number of arrivals are tiny in comparison to Australia’s overall immigration intake, this has long been an emotive issue for Australians and a traditional winning political battle ground for the coalition. The issue has never been far from the headlines for at least a decade.
However, this electorally rich area of public concern was recently complicated by an interesting and perhaps surprising move from the Greens, a few weeks ago they called for an enquiry into Australia’s population.
There is serious concern about the environmental impacts of an increasing population in Australia. Australia cannot continue to provide the dream of a quarter acre block with a spacious back yard cricket pitch and still increase its population indefinitely. An increasing population is already forcing us to consolidate our urban footprint, a reality Gen Y has largely accepted, moving into increasingly smaller suburban blocks or inner city dwellings.
But as already flagged, once population is raised the debate inevitably goes beyond sustainability, and this is where the difficulty could be for the Greens. Population is far from a simple issue. It can cause conflict between well meaning people who believe in protecting Australia’s natural environment regardless of other factors and equally well meaning people who believe primarily in Australia’s role as a humanitarian safe haven. It can cause confusion in those who believe in both. It can move from the careful consideration of the social and economic dynamics of human population – richer countries don’t have less babies by coincidence – to judgments on race and the worthiness of peoples.
The Greens are calling for these issues to be resolved by continuing our humanitarian migration whilst cutting other areas such as skilled migration – after all, these skilled people are needed to help their own countries develop and thus reduce their birth rates. It’s a strong holistic argument, although not one the Australian business lobby is likely to rush at, and not one the Governing parties might see is in the national interest. It may also not be one that skilled migrants who have worked hard for the opportunity to come to Australia embrace. In some cases these people may be much more willing Australians than some people forced here because of the ravages or war or persecution in countries they otherwise love – and of course, in other cases this may not be true.
This is why population is such a complex and values laden debate. It forces sustainability and pragmatism at a high minded practical policy level into an uncomfortable coexistence with the most basic levels of human hopes, dreams, needs and rights.
So this brings us to the the Prime Minister Kevin Rudds calls for a ‘big Australia’. This is probably what has prompted the Green’s call for a population enquiry in the first place.
The Prime Minister, in a typically clever move has now attempted to take control of the debate on his own terms by appointing Tony Burke as the new Population Minister to develop a population strategy for Australia. His intent will never be known, but it seems a clever move to neutralise the Greens calls and also to attempt to move the debate away from asylum seekers and back to a more comfortable ground of strategic policy development.
He has also focused the policy development first on regional Australia, where ironically farming communities are suffering from extreme population downturns whilst mining towns struggle to accommodate all the new people.
It also buys him time on this difficult issue by doing nothing substantive whilst appearing to be doing something very decisive. Population would not be a good issue for a first term Government intent on selling its economic achievements to tackle in an election year.
It will be very interesting to watch this debate unfold. Population includes environment issues, moral issues and economic issues. One thing is for certain, the course of this debate between now and the election will tell us much more about the values of modern Australia than anyone is intending.

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3 thoughts on “Australia’s New Population Debate: An Environment Issue?

  1. While there are many within the green community who see population as THE issue, our research suggests that those who have this view are a minority. The group Sustainable Population Australia have been relentless at lobbying the Greens and other Environment groups to take up the population cause. The Australian Conservation Foundation recently nominated population growth as a ‘Key Threatening Process’ under the Commonwealth Environmental Protection Act, and there has even been a political party formed recently, with the backing of Dick Smith, the Australian Population Party. Perhaps it is for fear that this new party will detract votes from the Greens that they have tried to take the issue up with more fervour of late.

    The equation that can describe environmental impact is
    I(impact) = P(population)x A(affluence)x T(efficiency of technology). Given that the rate of GDP growth is far higher than population growth, this would suggest that economic growth is the primary driver of environmental impact. Put another way, population is not a ‘rate limiting factor’, where as GDP growth is. We can have a million more people on the earth but if the total level of consumption(as determined by the total size of the economy) is the same then impact will not change. If on the other hand, we grow the economy but keep the population the same or even reduce it, environmental impact still increases.

    • Thanks Neville Numbat! Some important insights into how this controversial issue has made it to the mainstream political debate, and why as environmentalists we need to be very careful about how it plays out.

  2. Pingback: Post of the Month: Australia’s Population Debate – An Environment Issue? « The Happy Squid Blog

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