06 July 2010

The population bugbear returns
Our new Prime Minister has chosen to make one of her first policy announcements on the subject of population, saying she is not in favour of a "Big Australia" and adding the word "sustainable" to the portfolio of the Minister for Population.

When the Australian Bureau of Statistics released a forward projection of around 36 million for the total Australian population in 2050, then Prime Minister Rudd made the (rationally) unremarkable but (politically) suicidal comment that he was in favour of a "Big Australia". Once deposed, the hapless ex-leader's naive remark was made into a "target" by those who deposed him, and having set up this straw man they proceeded to knock it down for political effect. Decrying "political correctness", Gillard has told us that there is nothing intolerant or racist about worrying about who is coming to this country and how, or how many for that matter.

But what is the issue? Should we really have any sort of target number for the country's total population 40 years from now? Could we if we wanted to?

Having a population policy that consists of a target number for a given date is nonsense. For one thing, a country's population isn't just a single number. Malawi has roughly the same total number of people as the Netherlands, for example. What does that tell us about either country? Not much. For these numbers to make sense you need to know things like age and geographic distribution of the population, the country's resources and access to technology, levels of income and education, wealth distribution, and many other things.

Most single-figure arguments are based on the idea that humans are indistinguishable from cattle. A cow can only behave in one way. It eats a certain amount of grass and produces a certain amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Humans are the opposite. There is a virtually inexhaustible number of ways we humans can interact with each other and the environment we live in.

Try thinking back 40 years. Could the McMahon government of 1970, which still considered Taipei to be the capital of China, have had any chance of predicting what the economy, technology and geopolitics of 2010 would be like? All of these things are relevant to population policy.

Of course government policy must have regard to the future, but 40 years is far too long to be a meaningful limit, and as mentioned above putting all the emphasis on a single figure is a gross over-simplification. A more reasonable approach to population policy would be to look at trends in the various factors that go into the makeup of the country's population profile to determine what impact those policies are likely to have on the sort of population we have over time, rather than worrying about an arbitrary number at an arbitrary date.

Hard to fit into a sound bite, though.

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