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Academics debate What Population Australia and Our Region can Sustainably Support

Article below is based on a report by Australia’s Olympic Poet, Mark O'Connor :

Demographer, Peter McDonald, is famous for presenting extreme projections of population implosion. His contributions to a debate at ANU on April 1 were predictable and are now on line. (The PPT versions are the easier ones to read). Peter's ideas suit big business and corporatised government and have thus become very influential. The criticisms and analysis below are therefore very important, since the Murdoch and Fairfax media, and sadly, even the ABC, market these attitudes uncritically and approvingly. Sheila Newman

Peter McDonald's piece, "Australia’s future population: planning for reality," is unlikely to impress environmentalists, according to Mark O'Connor.

In case you haven't time to scan it on line, here are some exerpts, organised and analysed by Mark O'Connor around 5 keywords that McDonald uses:

McDonald's Five Keywords:

"Social cohesion"

Those last two concepts probably really do need to be in inverted commas. The first 3 concepts are mixed together as follows:

The first sheet of his presentation summarises his line on environment:

"Environment and economy

• Australia will achieve a better result in relation to its own
environment and its contribution to the reduction of global
greenhouse gas emissions if it has a strong economy.
• A strong economy will provide the capital that is necessary
to invest in improvement of environmental infrastructure,
repair of degraded environments, and a shift to alternative
sources of energy that are not fossil-fuel based."

The next sheet proclaims:

"Capacity constraints are Australia’s biggest economic problem

• Much of the infrastructure required to support a strong and
productive economy is in short supply in Australia at
• This includes water, transport for people, transport for
goods, ports, energy supply, housing and office space, and
state-of-the-art communications.
• These shortages may be artificially reduced in the short
term by increasing interest rates to slow demand.
• However, we do not want to live in a continued forced
recession. So, higher interest rates are not a long-term
solution. In the long term, the capacity constraints must be."

Notice that this, like most of PMD's talk, is not demography, but growth economics.

Next sheet:

"The requirements for new infrastructure

• New infrastructure involves technology, capital, good
planning and commitment, and labour.
• The technology is available now in most instances and
more will come on line.
• Capital also is in relatively good supply.
• Planning is improving, commitment is stronger.
• Shortage of labour is the problem."

"Why we need labour

• Conservation is highly desirable as far as it goes, but we
shall only solve our water, energy and environmental
problems in the long run through construction of new
• If we want solar or wind energy, then the solar panels and
windmills have to be made and constructed.
• If we want secure urban water supplies then whatever
policy mix we use to do this involves construction.
• If we want to ease the housing crisis, we need more
• If we want the economy to run productively and
competitively, we need better transportation of goods and
people, better ports, and better communications

Which leads, as you've guessed to:

"Why we need labour (continued)

• Conservation is highly desirable as far as it goes, but we
shall only solve our water, energy and environmental
problems in the long run through construction of new
• If we want solar or wind energy, then the solar panels and
windmills have to be made and constructed.
• If we want secure urban water supplies then whatever
policy mix we use to do this involves construction."

In short, according to Peter McDonald, we need vast population growth in order to provide more labor, so we can have more energy efficiency. Oh, and more mining (presumably solar powered mining).

Well it was April Fool's Day, but Peter didn't seem to be joking:

"Labour demand

• Almost right across the Australian economy, workers are
short supply.
• This is especially the case in the construction industries
(15,000 builders from the USA?).
• The mining industry is desperately seeking workers to
commence new projects (Chinese work gangs?). Note,
revenue from mining is the source of much of our public
capital for environmental and social development."

Next we get a dubious graph showing labor falling:

"NOM = Net Overseas Migration
Note: Assumes fertility constant at 1.8 births per woman and labour force"

participation constant at July 2007 levels

Except that labor, in McDonald's own projection, is actually rising. It is only the rate of increase of labor ("Labour force annual growth rate") that is falling. (If you can't say a figure is falling, you can always go to its first or even its second differential to find a function that is falling.)

What about automation, computerisation, machines? Why do we need so very much labor?

Well, you see, there is a multiplier effect:

• If we had all of these [mining and construction] workers, they will demand more
services and hence more workers in retail, hospitality and
personal services. There is a multiplier effect (foreign
students and working holiday makers?).

The nations of the world will soon be competing fiercely for labor, and hence for immigrants.

Hence we must be fatalistic:

"Inevitable population growth for Australia

• We can improve our productivity and we can raise labour
force participation rates somewhat, but it is inevitable that
overseas migration to Australia will remain high and the
population will grow by 2050 to something in excess of 30
million people.
• In comparative terms, this will be much lower than the
population of California and the population of the USA will
be around 440 million. Canada’s population will be over 50

Apart from economic growthism and a strong streak of fatalism, Peter McDonald now shows a new emphasis on "realism", cf. his paper's subtitle:

"Australia’s future population: planning for reality"

The subtitle seems borrowed from business lobbies like APOP, The Australian Property Council, and the Scanlon Foundation (the latter which funded his recent paper with Glenn Withers). Such groups emphasise "realistic" (= fatalistic) planning on population. i.e. accept that huge growth is coming, and plan for it. (In debate Mark O'Connor called this a bully's argument: "Since we're going to put you in the stocks anyway, why don't you co-operate and then we'll do it more nicely.")

Hence Peter's line: what we have to fear is not population growth but our failure to plan for it.

Hence Peter McDonald's concluding "overhead" runs:


• Australia will be a better country in its economic,
environmental and social dimensions if we accept the
inevitable and plan for it.

• Not planning properly for future population growth is part
the Australian way of mucking things up."

• The present Australian Government seems to have accepted this message. It has set up an infrastructure council and my educated bet is that it will increase the official migrant intake in the May budget."

cf. APOP's "opinions" page:

• A recent expert study concluded that there are no insurmountable engineering, scientific or environmental barriers to reaching an Australian population of 30 million in 2050, assuming that thorough analysis and planning occur and that leadership is exercised, especially by governments.
• Long-term planning is imperative to ensure timely and orderly provision of needed infrastructure, and leadership from governments is essential in setting clear policy directions.


One other element in Peter McDonald's thinking is worth noting.

Both APOP and Scanlon may be worried that lack of social cohesion might force a halt to such rapid immigration, because they are promoting the need for certain kinds of social cohesion. (Hence the conference that Scanlon Foundation funded recently, with Jupp, Nieuwenhysen, and frequent flyers at such immigration-growth-promoting events.)

As APOP puts it:

"The future prosperity of Australia, underpinned by population growth, will depend on our ability to maintain Social Cohesion in a society with even more cultural diversity than we have successfully accommodated historically."

"Since overpopulation tends to destroy social cohesion (e.g. food riots, water riots, road rage) this line is probably what is known in marketing circles as "advertising against the perceived weakness of the product" --i.e. trying to present your weakness as your strength."

Mark O'Connor

Peter McDonald now styles himself:
"Peter McDonald, Director, Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute, ANU"

and remarked at one point "Mark presents me as an economist, but I think of myself more as a sociologist." Wishful thinking, perhaps. Peter seems like someone who would offer little resistance to the APOP line on social "reality".