Account of Sustainable Population Forum hosted by David Feeney, Batman MP
Candobetter.net is pleased to publish Michael Bayliss's detailed account and innovative analysis of a population event that filled the Thornbury Theatre. Predictably, the official speakers were coy on the idea of population growth restraint in contrast with an audience keen to hear this addressed. Conversations from passionate members of the general community as well as the opportunity for members of the public to place the hard questions on panelists make events like this worthwhile attending. Unless one is prepared to stand up and question the experts eloquently, their business as usual paradigm will continue to be left unchecked, and the wider community needs to be shown that there are alternatives to the current paradigm that are both fair and make sense. It was perhaps telling that many of the Labor volunteers and staff at the event admitted to having never considered population issues before.
On Thursday 15th July, Michael Bayliss (President Victoria First) and Mark Allen (founder of Population Permaculture and Planning) attended the Sustainable Population Forum, a Labor Batman event hosted by David Feeney, Federal MP for that electorate. Speaking on the panel were:
• John Thwaites – Chair of Climateworks Australia and the Monash Sustainability Institute, who spoke on population in a global context.
• Lucinda Hartley – CEO and co-founder of CoDesign Studio, involved in urban renewal and public space projects, who spoke on population at a local (Melbourne) context.
• Prof. Kevin O’Connor - Professorial Fellow in Urban Planning at the Univity of Melbourne, who also presented on population growth as it applies to Melbourne.
The event was well attended, resulting in a full house at the Thornbury Theatre. Attendees were mostly comprised of Darebin residents with Labor affiliations in addition to members of Victoria First, Sustainable Population Australia and the Sustainable Population Party. On speaking to many new people at the event, the writer gained an impression that a large number of attendees were not content with both the town planning system and the quality of new housing and apartment developments in Melbourne over the past few years. Many were also concerned about population growth but unsure about how to address it.
Official speakers coy on accepting the need to address population growth in contrast with keen audience
If there was a common thread amongst the three speakers it was that they were keen to outline the negative impacts of past population growth whether that be in Melbourne or abroad but were coy to address the issue of slowing that growth.
John Thwaites was perhaps the most brazen in this juxtaposition. He presented the audience with sobering statistics for world population growth but followed that with emphasising the need to focus primarily on lowering per capita consumption. His main point was that population growth needs to be ‘decoupled’ from environmental impact (largely through green technology).
Land of vast conurbations takes over from ‘Boundless open plains’
Lucinda Hartley quoted some sobering statistics, particular with regards to Australia and Melbourne. For example, Australian cities have amongst the lowest levels of public space in the OECD coupled with the fact that loneliness is the largest health issue affecting Australians after drinking and smoking (which is ironic given the ever increasing size and densities of our cities). She mentioned that 50% of our current infrastructure is not yet built and that this doubling will need to take place in the next 30 – 40 years. Lucinda believes that cities need to be created by everyone compared to a select few and that we need to come to terms with the fact that we are a predominately urban nation and to plan with that in mind. This dispels the notion of Australia as a country of boundless and empty plains waiting to be filled with people. The reality is that the doubling of our population over the next few decades will be centred around our existing urban conurbations.
Don’t mention the population elephant
Kevin O’Connor presented as being very critical of current town planning issues and although he seemed (if one was to read between the lines) to view the current rate of population growth as a problem, he tended to skirt around the issue. Even in sustainable population forums it would appear that the speakers are reluctant to name the elephant in the room! However, he said that infrastructure needs to be built in anticipation of demand as opposed to the current ad -hoc approach. He was upfront that governments need to be more involved in providing future infrastructure (as the private sector are under no obligation to contribute meaningfully) and of course this would require a willingness to spend and go into deficit. He provided a case study with the Docklands development whereby a primary school is still waiting to be built and referred to the ‘lost decade’ of the Howard era where there were budget surpluses and very little new infrastructure to show for it.
Though the speakers were refreshingly brazen about the planning crisis in Melbourne as opposed to the feel good wishful thinking often dished out at similar events, the aversion to tackling population directly was all too typical. It was up to the audience to try to redirect the speakers back towards the topic at question time.
Many of the questions were very good. A couple questioned the effectiveness of town planning policy in our current paradigm of influential property developers and negative gearing while another commented on the impact of too many people on local ecosystems such as the Merri Creek.
Population Permaculture and Planning
Mark Allen, from Population Permaculture and Planning, questioned whether effective planning is possible with Melbourne growing at 100 000 people per year under a system that perpetuates urban sprawl and low quality yet expensive apartment building in the inner suburbs. He suggested that population growth be slowed, at least until such time that sustainable town planning policies are fully implemented and infrastructure requirements fully costed.
Kelvin Thomson’s 14 point plan for population sustainability
The writer asked the speakers whether they were familiar with Federal Labor MP for Wills Kelvin Thomson’s 14 point plan for population sustainability. (Mr Thomson is incidentally David Feeney’s political neighbour). The writer asked that given Thomson's plan achieves population stability whilst remaining fair to the humanitarian intake program, they consider consulting with him in terms of planning for growth.
Both questions received substantial cheering from the audience. However from the speakers it was only Lucinda Hartley and John Thwaites who responded to them.
Hartley agreed that urban sprawl is a serious issue and that the identity of localities is being eroded by poorly designed development.
Thwaites sees no issue with current rate of population growth!
Thwaites however disagreed and also made it clear that he disagrees with Kelvin Thompson's plan. He has no issue with the current rate of population growth and sees no problem with the capacity of current planning policy to absorb that growth.
Consfusing presentation of figures
Thwaites also referred to the latest figures showing that the largest contribution to net overseas migration was through temporary visa programs. On requesting to view his notes after the event, it was evident that the population growth charts were split into many categories which meant that net growth was still very high, even if temporary growth was the highest number. Besides, if temporary growth remains steadily high, it becomes effectively a permanent figure .
Most of the people who asked questions received much applause. The pro-growth sentiment from Thwaites received a smaller but committed fan-base coupled with bemusement and frustration from most of the rest of the audience.
David Feeney spoke with the writer following the event and came across as amiable and an advocate for more debate on the issue. Feeney did agree that the town planning policies in place in Melbourne require substantial review and that in future he would like advocates of population sustainability to sit on the panel (if he was inclined to, he could be spoilt for choice for the number of vocal population sustainability advocates out there in influential positions).
Summary of debate situation
To summarise, the conversations from passionate members of the general community as well as the opportunity for members of the public to place the hard questions on panelists make events like this worthwhile attending. Unless one is prepared to stand up and question the experts eloquently, their business as usual paradigm will continue to be left unchecked, and the wider community needs to be shown that there are alternatives to the current paradigm that are both fair and make sense. It was perhaps telling that many of the Labor volunteers and staff at the event admitted to having never considered population issues before.
Intellectual dishonesty of current policy
On a concluding note, it remains an ongoing juxtaposition that we talk of increasing infrastructure on one hand whilst de-coupling population growth from environmental impact on the other. As far as I am aware, all new roads, rail, hospitals, schools and power lines need to come from the ground upwards in order to provide the base material or the fossil fuel energy to piece it together and keep it all running. So talking of increasing infrastructure on one hand and saving the environment on the other becomes an increasing contradiction, especially in light of the environmental challenges facing the world over the coming years.
President, Victoria First.