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Mark O'Connor vs Bernard Salt in Canberra Debate

On Tuesday 25 May Mark O'Connor and Bernard Salt debated Australia’s population options at the “Future Summit”, run by the Australian DAVOS Connection (ADC) at the Hyatt in Melbourne. It was a one-hour debate, moderated by Jane-Frances Kelly of the Grattan Institute, before an audience mainly of business people. Organizers were surprised by the numbers this session attracted.

On Tuesday 25 May Mark O'Connor and Bernard Salt debated Australia’s population options at the “Future Summit”, run by the Australian DAVOS Connection (ADC) at the Hyatt in Melbourne. It was a one-hour debate, moderated by Jane-Frances Kelly of the Grattan Institute, before an audience mainly of business people. Organizers were surprised by the numbers this session attracted. The session was recorded.

Australian DAVOS Connection Future summit

Originally there were to have been four panellists, but professors Roger Short and Hugh White (Strategic Studies ANU) cancelled at the last moment, leaving an hour’s debate between environmental writer, O'Connor and growth marketer, Bernard Salt. Moderated by Jane-Frances Kelly of the Grattan Institute, this parallel session surprised the organizers by attracting more than its share of the mainly business-person audience. The room was packed with more than one hundred people.

Recently a letter appeared in The Canberra Times questioning Bernard Salt's status as a demographer and this time he was introduced as some kind of 'urban investigator'. Salt nevertheless quickly took the debate into the demography area, by running a version of the ageing population scare.

O'Connor said something about Salt and himself being good 'amateur demographers' and implied that they should both defer to the real experts. Salt explained that he was "not a demographer at all but an historian” and described himself as having an MA in urban history. He added that he wished journalists would not describe him as a demographer. A Google search will, indeed, find him repeatedly described as one.

Bernard Salt comes across as a “true believer” in population growth, conceding few if any downsides to it. He appears to have trouble understanding where the other side is coming from, and tends to caricature environmental and resource arguments against growth.

In this debate, he began with an exaggerated account of the costs of paying the old age pension for an aging population. He claimed that, even by raising the retirement age to 69 years, that would only buy us “a year or two”.

He based his positive case for growth on the value of 'optimism', concluding with a virtual paean to optimism, describing his belief that our cities will become marvelous, exciting places to live, with superlative transport systems made possible by density.

Blind optimism or tunnel vision?

Indeed, the optimism of growth economists and neo-liberals lies not just their failure to foresee economic crises but in their apparent belief that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse went out in the medieval era, or at least with WWII. Like Francis Fukuyama's End of History, they seem to believe that the establishment of Western [pro-business] liberal democracy is the ultimate and final form of human government.

Bernard Salt characterised the recent leap in immigration figures as temporary, pending the return home of overseas students. He also did not seem to make a difference between gross and net immigration figures. Peter McDonald of the ANU, who is a 'professional' demographer and a fellow growth lobbyist, seems less confident that the students will go home, and suggests that recent projections of an Australian population of 36 million projection in 2050 would need immigration to come down to 220,000 a year. Mark O'Connor thinks that the numbers would have to come down to 180,000 net.

In reply to a statement from mining executive, Hugh Morgan, in the audience, Mark O'Connor observed how little China or India would gain by invading Australia. Salt said that he had never held out the prospect of Australia being invaded by more populous nations. Only a short time later, however, he had come full-circle, sternly warning that the USA would not come to our aid if this happened. Dismissing an argument by O'Connor that Australia was not a large fertile and empty country, Salt said that what mattered was Australia's failure to convince its Asian neighbor nations of this.

He often sounds, however, as if he actually believes this myth, and is not averse to trying to spread it. In this debate he seemed to avoid making any firm call on whether Australia was in fact a semi-desert continent with limited carrying capacity. In fact, such an admission would pin him down to a factual argument and impede much of his pro-population growth rhetoric.

Multicultural Cart before Sustainable Horse

Salt seems to have a bizarre view of the world we live in and what should be our priorities. One got the impression that introducing an even mix of the world’s races into Australia was more important than keeping our population sustainable. The rationale he manufactures is that otherwise other nations will mistaken Green Australia policies for the old White Australia policies. Aided apparently by his ignorance about Australia's environment, Salt conveys a right-wing-business attitude, dismissing people who object to environmental destruction as hysterical exaggeraters.

The Grattan Institute moderator often failed to refer illogical claims for countering by the opposing debater. She seemed more concerned with moving through a variety of subjects, and getting audience response. Many of these responses from big business people showed how little some people in the commercial world understand threats to environments, or limits to natural resources. One man from Geraldton in West Australia, for instance, claimed that Geraldton had about twice as much renewable wind-energy generation as they could use, and a vast resource of underground fresh water inside the sands. There was no chance to ask if the water was renewable, or if these wind plants were real or projected.

So far the only account of this debate we have seen in the mainstream media was one strongly biased towards the pro-growth side in Alan Kohler's in Business Spectator, Entitled, “Rolling up the drawbridge” it began with Bernard Salt's ludicrous premise, “Australia risks becoming an international pariah if it relies the environment as an excuse to resist further migration, the Future Summit heard today." Kohler then gave eight paragraphs to summarizing Salt’s remarks, and two paragraphs on Mark O'Connor's.

Later this item, by Dally Messenger, appeared in the Business Spectator. It improves coverage of the debate.

Comments

Bernard Salt is a KPMG Partner based in Melbourne Australia. Bernard has established an international reputation as a trend forecaster for business and government.
KPMG deliver a wide range of Audit, Tax and Advisory services to many of Australia's – and the world's – fastest growing and leading business enterprises, as well as government bodies. KPMG’s Migration Services practice has been helping companies and individuals navigate Australian immigration law for nearly a decade and a half.
Hardly an objective or indifferent organisation to forecast "trends" they actually want to perpetuate.
“Australia risks becoming an international pariah if it relies the environment as an excuse to resist further migration, the Future Summit heard today." Hardly an "excuse" but a reason to stem the flow of people - the biggest environmental threat!
Clearly our way of life has been built upon liquidating our own and foreign natural life-giving ecosystems to access resources for consumption. To equate chipping old growth forests, dumping waste into water, over-fishing oceans, air pollution, offshore oil mining disasters and ignoring the threatening progress of human population growth with "progress" is absurd!
Experts say that at least half of the world’s current species will be completely gone by the end of the century. Most biologists say that we are in the midst of an anthropogenic mass extinction. Numerous scientific studies confirm that this phenomenon is real and happening right now.
Our country will collapse, many if not all will needlessly suffer and prematurely die, and a livable Earth may cease to exist. All in the name of profits and growth!