Sir David Attenborough

Kevin Rudd believes in a Big Australia. Julia Gillard believes in sustainable growth. Tony Abbott would set population targets.  

And now the esteemed naturalist Sir David Attenborough, who is heading our way soon, has weighed in as well. He thinks it’s madness for Australia to pursue policies which could lead to unlimited expansion, and he is perplexed Australia even debates the issue.


Sir David Attenborough

“ I don’t understand that,” he said.

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“The notion that you could continue to expand and increase and grow in an infinite way on a planet, which is finite, is a kind of lunacy. You can see how mad that is by the expression that you can’t believe that you can grow infinitely in a finite place – unless of course you’re an economist,” he said.

He added, perhaps unhelpfully, the planet would now be in a catastrophic state if not for China’s one-child policy, introduced in 1979.

The population growth issue has come back onto the agenda because the first Sustainable Australia report was released this month. It was produced by the National Sustainability Council, established by the Gillard government in October 2012 to give advice on the trends in population growth and how Australia might deal with them in a sustainable way.

The Council has its work cut out.

Australia is growing at an extraordinary rate – apparently, we have one of the fastest population growth rates in the developed world at 1.7 percent a year. The world average is 1.1 percent. 

australia-continent-mapIn April, the population hit 23 million. Clearly that number changes by the day.  The Australian Bureau of Statistics even publishes a population clock that ticks over each time it is notified of a new birth or a death.

With births outnumbering deaths two to one, it’s easy to see how on current ABS estimates, our population could hit 35 million by 2056 and 44 million in 2101.  It’s easy to see too, how population growth can become a focus for a bit of good old Aussie moral panic.

Population growth is a divisive issue. Some see it as a boon, others as a problem. And some see it as an opportunity to beat the anti-immigration drum.

There’s business that wants more people. More people = more money.

There are the environmentalists who see a growing population as dangerous to a fragile ecosystem already groaning under the weight of a harsh climate and climate change.  Then there are those who use the perils of a Big Australia to urge government to reduce our immigration intake, claiming the current annual intake of 200,000 is too high.

Many more hues of positioning on population growth occupy the spaces in between.

In pre-election phases you won’t hear politicians talking freely about this issue. It can veer too fast and too easily into the anti-immigration lane. 

But someone should tell Sir David, Australia is thinking about these issues. Specialists and bureaucrats are working on how to deal with what lies ahead without having to resort to a Chinese style one-child policy!

Though the Sustainable Australia report itself steers well clear of taking a position on what’s best – big population or small population – it does give us a glimpse of what it might be thinking.

One point it makes clearly is that there seems little point in setting population targets because there are too many factors which are always in a state of flux – like fertility rates, longevity and emigration, all of which are unpredictable. And there’s the fact that with more people we might become a lot smarter and develop technologically to the point where we can sustain a bigger population without harming the environment or diminishing our current quality of life.

As the report emphasizes, population change isn’t only about how many people Australia ends up housing at any particular point in time.

Sustainable Australia thinks there are some significant positives to population growth. “Increases in the size and mobility of our skilled, working age population (whether natural increase or through migration) enable us to take advantage of greater cultural diversity increases the vibrancy of Australian society and helps build our relationships with other nations.”

It is a matter of equipping smaller communities to sustainably sustain more people, all over the country. But that takes political co-ordination, between local, state and territory and the federal government. As governments come and go in the democratic electoral cycle we embrace, that won’t be easy.

Though our population growth will slow in the coming decades because of lower fertility rates, it’s hard to fathom how governments (all levels of them) can act fast and smart enough to ease the congestion we are seeing in the major cities across Australia, the spiraling cost of housing and an environment which looks stressed.

Adding to the complexities, there’s the fact that we’re a healthy lot, living longer. But on the upside, being so healthy means “the proportion of working aged citizens is high compared to the number of non-working-aged people, resulting in high rates of productivity and economic growth” according to Sustainable Australia: a tick for the economy and the flow through effects which could make us better at getting bigger.

But there’s no point getting bigger if everyone insists on cramming into the urban areas.

Though most of us insist on living on the coast (81 per cent of Australians live within 50 kilometres of the coast) and young people from regional centres continue to move to urban areas, migration is helping us spread the load of a bigger Australia across the land.

migrants on labour worksMigrants not only contribute to higher levels of productivity and to labour force participation and growth.  According to the Sustainable Australia report: “Migrants have also increasingly been contributing to growth and development in regional Australia. One in every six new permanent arrivals is now settling in a regional area.”

If regional areas begin to expand – with new jobs and more cultural offerings – maybe young people will want to stay there. And maybe some city folk would spy affordable, healthy lifestyle changes. All the while, Australia would be doing what it has always done best – opening its doors to those who need a home and doing its economic bottom line a favour in the process.

Sir David Attenborough might think the debate isn’t worth having. But with such a large expanse of land and so many people the world over searching desperately for a new chance at the good life, it’s over to government to figure out how to make it work so we all get to live – sustainably – in the manner to which we have become accustomed.

But, Sir David, thanks for the advice.




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Monica Attard*Monica Attard OAM is a five-time Walkley award-winning Australian journalist – including the Gold Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism 1991. She was the host of the ABC’s PM, the World Today and Media Watch. She spent 28 years at the ABC, leaving to start up The Global Mail where she was, until recently, the Managing Editor. In 1997, Monica published a book entitled Russia: Which Way Paradise? documenting her time there as a foreign correspondent. You can follow her on Twitter: @attardmon.

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