It is much recommendated that you listen to this lively 50 minute debate from ABC radio in Melbourne about the virtues and vices of population growth in Australia. It was not an entirely impartial format, as Canadian listeners would appreciate after having been subjected to the CBC's blatantly growthist and pro-immigration programming for the past several decades. But then again, ABC radio, just by staging this debate, has come a long way to meet public opinion, something Canadians have yet to see from our state broadcaster.
The debate began inauspiciously with moderator Jon Faines question "How do you make population growth sustainable", an oxymoronic proposition from the start. Nevertheless, Sheila Newman does a very good job contending with the pro-growth former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks, who seems to have been given the lion's share of air time here. Newman began by briefing summarizing the losses in biodiversity that growth has inflicted in Australia, among other impacts, and in response to moderator Jon Faine's suggestion that renewables could cope with increased demand from population growth, she pointed out that population growth only reflects our oil addiction. With the onset of oil shortages, the next dominoes will be coal and uranium consumption. Renewables cannot keep up with growth. Australia can't prevent the population from growing to 23 million by 2050, but it can stop stimulating it from aggressive immigration policies.
As for Steve Bracks, he reliably repeats the same cliches about population growth that Canadians ( and others) have become all too familiar with.
1. The city of Sydney and the state of New South Wales conducted an experiment in no-growth in the years following 2001. While Australia grew 1.6%, NSW grew "only" 1% (OMG!). The result, young talent left NSW to go north to Queensland or south to Victoria in search of jobs. And Sydney did not have the revenue to make the significant investements in infrastructure that it needed. There was a post-war consensus that Australia needed to move from 8 to 20 million people. It was a bipartisan policy. There have been a succession of Prime Ministers from both major parties who have understood this need.
2. Supporting Bracks was Graham Bradley, the President of the Business Council predictably argued that population growth was important to the country's welfare, and that Australia needed 180-200,000 of annual net migration. He conceded that such growth can have social and environmental costs, so "planning" is a necessary concomitant of growth----and Australia has the schools and the resources to accomplish that. Bracks picked up that theme with gusto. Australia can do much better in that department, and cope with all the stresses that growth brings.
3. When one caller argued that Australia could sustain just 12 million people, Bracks replied that with technological development Australia could sustain an even greater population. "We don't want to become New Zealand---a net exporter of people, with an economy that doesn't rate." Standing pat with the status quo is "like going backwards", as in 15-20 years the base of taxpayers able to support an aging population will be halved.
4. Bracks, as is mandatory in such debates, played the race card. He favours family re-unification and migrants who are not particularly fitted with needed skills. After all, "refugees have built our community". Melbourne is a much more interesting place than it once was. Multiculturalism has enhanced our reputation and our cuisine, and our diversity is good. (How many times have Canadians been subjected to that cant?)
5. A falling property market would be "cataclysmic". When the value of commercial property drops, no one can get re-financing. Foreclosures, business failures and layoffs follow. The American sub-prime mortgage debacle illustrates the point.
6. Of course, when a growthist is losing an argument, the old chestnuit of last resort is pulled out. This debate was no exception. Population growth is inevitable, "so lets plan for it". As always, the greatest impediment to stopping growth is the wide belief that it cannot be done. A start would be not promoting it.
A Green Party representative from the Upper House of Victoria's State Parliament, Greg Barber, was invited to make a comment, and is standard for Greens the world over, he was loathe to make immigrant-driven population growth the focus of debate. He too argued that "we are not going to get zero population growth", and that Australians need to talk about birth rates. Instead of confronting immigration numbers, he preferred to frame the issue in terms of meeting a "zero emissions" target by 2050. He did not acknowledge that carbon footprints are only a subset of ecological footprints. Green leader Bob Brown had called for a population plan (which even business leaders have now done).
The best telephone call came from Mary Drost, who scored with some telling points. Among them the obvious: immigrants too get old. "Do we have to keep growing and growing?"to support more and more aged? She pointed out that the most prosperies of the world's countries are those with smaller, more stable populations. Instead of growing our population, we just need to get "more clever" with what we already have.
Sheila Newman, with the limited time alloted to her, also made some devastating points. The notion that only a growing population can support an ageing population is fallacious because growth inflates land costs, and the cost of land---the cost of mortgages and rents----drives up the cost of living for the great majority of the population, who in a falling market, would not have to devote so much of their time and energy working their guts out just to keep up. A falling property market would indeed be "cataclysmic"---for the elite who prosper from property price inflation. Moderator Jon Faine reacted sharply to her remarks by referring to it as a "conspiracy theory", but Newman was adamant. Australia is being ruled by an elite, supported by the Murdoch press and a compliant media, who believe in "the Midas Myth", that we don't need food or water if we can turn everything to gold. That just about sums up the attitude of growthists everywhere, doesn't it?
The most disappointing aspect of the debate for me was that Newman was not permitted the time to underscore what I believe is the Achilles Heel of growth-maniacs. Astronomically rising oil prices will make it impossible to support the population levels that we currently have, never mind expand them. Pro-immigrationists are living in a dream world. Their smug projections are unacquainted with the disaster that looms. Kunstler said it this way:
"American life will just wind down, no matter what we believe. It won't wind down to a complete stop. Its near-term destination is to lower levels of complexity and scale than what we've been used to for a long time. People will be able to drive fewer cars fewer miles. The roads will get worse. They'll be worse in some places than others. There will be fewer jobs to go to and fewer things sold. People who live in communities scaled to the energy and capital realities of the years ahead are liable to be more comfortable. We're surely going to have trouble with money. Households will drown in debt and lose all their savings. Money could be scarce or worthless. Credit will be scarcer."
"The economy we're evolving into will be un-global, necessarily local and regional, and austere. It won't support even our current population. This being the case, the political fallout is also liable to be severe. For one thing, we'll have to put aside our sentimental fantasies about immigration."
PS To remedy my many omissions and faulty recollections, best to listen to the debate. You would find it enlightening and enjoyable. Good on Sheila Newman ! You are also invited to read and contribute to the comments that followed the radio debate: