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To grow or not to grow – the question for Australia

17 November 20140 comments

Big Australia picThe ‘big Australia’ debate about population size and policy has been reignited with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten declaring himself a supporter of a larger population and setting out an agenda he will take to the next election.

Mr Shorten, Opposition leader for just over a year, says immigration has been a significant economic driver and he expects Australia’s population to grow at a faster rate than much of the rest of the world.

“I don’t favour a bumper sticker that says ‘Go away, we’re full’,“ he said in a recent newspaper interview.

But Mr Shorten would not put a figure on what Australia’s population should be.

Some politicians on both sides want to curtail population growth, saying it creates traffic congestion and infrastructure stress.

They say it puts pressure on the environment and wildlife and risks creating a surplus pool or labour which could potentially affect job security.

But Mr Shorten says he’s a fan of immigration and what it has done for Australia, citing a disproportionately high number of immigrants among entrepreneurs and taxpayers.

“The number presents itself. We’re going to have a natural birth rate and we’re going to have immigration. We’re going to keep growing, probably faster than the rest of the world,” he said.

“But we’ve got to make sure that our road infrastructure and our rail infrastructure is right and we’ve got resources so people aren’t spending hours and hours in traffic every day.”

In 2010 former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd generated a storm of controversy when he endorsed a ‘big Australia’ following projections in the government’s intergenerational report that the population would reach 36 million by 2050.

At the time, the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said he would cut immigration by about 130,000 a year.

When Julia Gillard became Prime Minister she said she did “not believe in hurtling down a track to a 36 million or a 40 million population.

But one thing Mr Rudd left behind him after his departure was a mechanism to investigate the impact of a ‘big Australia’.

He created a $50 million project in which researchers and computer scientists have brought together 1000 databases on everything from house prices to health and demographics into a single platform.

The Australian Urban Research Infrastructure Network (AURIN) allows researchers from across the country to address urban issues such as housing affordability, urban sprawl and how an Australian mega-city would work.

“We need to harness big data and analytics to inform policy-making and the implementation of planning. The purpose isn’t to proscribe how the data is used but to facilitate new ways of investigating all the issues related to urban settlements and future urban developments,” said AURIn director Bob Stimson.

The intergenerational report said the majority of Australia’s population growth would occur in the major cities, where 70 per cent of the populations was already concentrated.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Senior Journalist