“Big Australia” has shrunk as a motif for both its population and its politicians. At the start of this year, Australians were pondering projected figures that the country would grow to 35 million by 2050, from its current figure of 22 million. Growth is the new evil, and many Australians are proclaiming the need for a population freeze. At the very least, it is under review. After the previous Prime Minister Kevin Ruddwas ambushed by his own party, the population pessimists are back in vogue. Their narratives and warnings are now taking precedence and the current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, is willing to listen.
In truth, Rudd was already voicing doubts before the sword was taken to his leadership. In November last year, he expressed his devotion to the idea of a growing, vibrant Australia, starving for new recruits in its mission to expand. He revealed to the Master Builder’s Association how this century would be the greatest in the country’s history in terms of economic development. ‘I believe,’ he extolled, ‘in a big Australia.’ So keen was the former Prime Minister in this concept that he even appointed a Population Minister, Tony Burke, to oversee the policy shift. By the end of March this year, he wasn’t so sure, moderating his stance on migration.
The population experts are terrified and are doing their best to terrify. Those associated with such groups as the nationalist outfit One Nation fear cultural dilution; those within the Australian Conservative Foundation see adding humans as akin to introducing more vermin into a tortured landscape, undermining Australia’s biodiversity. Papers like The Australian (Mar 30) argue that the country must avoid other ‘examples’ of ruin and decay. Consider Britain, ‘where a net three million people have arrived, largely unregulated, over the past 13 years.’ Beware suburban clustering and ghetto effects, it warns.
The continent has always baffled those who, on the one hand, feel they need to protect the pristine environment, and those who believe they have created an Arcadia, a social laboratory unique in Oceania. Australians, in truth, have a notoriously ambivalent relationship to their environment, desperate to preserve various visions of it on the one hand, yet happy to erase what is inconvenient to growth when required. (Witness the insatiable land clearing efforts that continue.) ‘Down under’ big remains beautiful, be it the mandatory backyard or the multiple car family.
Those favouring growth are confronted with what amounts to a stark reality. Australia is not only growing but ageing, a fact that worries the keen projectionists in the Treasury department. A ministerial brief to Burke goes so far as to argue that, ‘Population growth ameliorates the ageing of the population. Migrants tend to be younger on average than the resident population, boosting the labour force.’ Australian business would prefer to agree. More people equates to more capital. More can be done about existing spaces in cities. Efficiency and better returns can be made from underused sources.
According to some studies, seventy percent of Australians are against a population surge. Such revelations froze the governing party’s quest to expand their immigration program. Those keen to erase jingoism or basic fear from the debate are barking up the wrong, rather worn tree. With the conservative opposition keen to re-introduce the branding policies of the Howard years, with a no doubt more expansive detention program, a responsible approach to population growth in Australia is unlikely.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently in San Francisco. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org