In one of her first policy changes after replacing Kevin Rudd as leader of the Labor Party, Prime Minister Julia Gillard dumped Rudd’s idea of a “big Australia”.
On June 26, Gillard said “Australia should not hurtle down the track towards a big population”. Instead, she called for a “sustainable population”.
Almost four weeks on, however, Labor’s policy has no details — just lots of rhetoric designed to pander to fears that immigration (particularly asylum seekers) is causing a raft of social problems.
There was evidence Labor’s factional leaders were unhappy with Rudd’s election prospects for some months.
Polls showed a worrying decline from the lofty heights of his first two years; there were mounting signs he was seen as out of touch with the electorate.
Media sources reported Rudd was being assailed by Labor MPs about concern over the government’s asylum-seeker policy.
Immigration minister Chris Evans reportedly said on July 14 that the immigration debate was “killing the government”.
On June 19, NSW Labor lost the seat of Penrith to the Liberals in a by-election sparked by the resignation of a corrupt Labor MP. The Liberal Party received a swing of more than 25%. Its primary vote was double Labor’s.
While Labor officially blamed the former MP for the party’s poor showing, the writing was on the wall for Rudd.
For the people of Penrith, most of who are in the federal seat of Lindsay, the issue of asylum seekers was paramount. “Everywhere you went in Penrith they were talking about boatpeople”, an unnamed Labor MP told the June 21 Australian.
On the evening of June 23, Gillard informed Rudd she was challenging him for the PM’s job. The rest is history.
Gillard’s call for a “sustainable population” is intended to pander to the concerns of outer-suburban voters, who have seen their quality of life decline over the years.
Trains, surgeries and hospitals have become more crowded, roads more congested and housing more expensive.
Labor’s suggestion is that population growth (read immigration, particularly asylum seekers) is the problem, and that Labor will ease the squeeze through its commitment to a “sustainable population”.
On July 20, Gillard appeared at the National Population Summit, organised by the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils. It was a perfect platform to repeat Labor’s mantra. “Sustainability is all about the liveability of our suburbs”, she said. “Growth should improve the quality of our lives, not make them worse.”
Gillard made sympathetic noises about western Sydney roads being more like Los Angeles traffic jams and the trains being a “sardine express to Central, Town Hall or Wynyard”. She said: “It’s time for government to ask this question: can we really ask western Sydney to absorb thousands and thousands more and guarantee the quality of our lives?”
Apart from saying there was “no quick fix”, Gillard offered no solution.
She repeated existing policies, such as widening the M5 motorway in south-western Sydney, establishing medical super-clinics and promised more funding for infrastructure.
But on what she would do to make Australia’s population “sustainable”, Gillard said only that Labor would develop a policy after the election.
What is the problem?
Labor is offering false solutions to a very real and increasing problem. Road congestion, overcrowded public transport, high housing prices and inadequate health services are eating away at working people’s quality of life.
But is the problem caused by population growth?
The period of fastest population growth in Australia was in the post-World War II period, when increased fertility rates (the “baby boom”) combined with assisted migration.
Between 1945 and 1979, the population of Australia almost doubled, from 7.4 million to 14.4 million, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Unemployment remained below 3% throughout the years of strongest population growth, only beginning to rise after the worldwide recession of the early 1970s.
Government investment in infrastructure led to the development of major projects such as the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme. Growth in social infrastructure was funded by government to account for increased demand.
The end of the post-war boom in the early 1970s created a fiscal crisis of the state. Fear of inflation became paramount. Governments across the world, beginning with the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher in Britain in 1979, began to adopt neoliberal policies and massively cutting government spending.
In Australia, the neoliberal counter-revolution was begun by the Labor government of Bob Hawke in 1983.
Since Hawke, successive governments — both Labor and Coalition — have continued the austerity drive. Government spending (apart from defence) has been wound down. Existing public infrastructure has been allowed to age and decay. Many public services (such as the “public” transport system in Victoria) have been privatised.
Government subsidies for private health, private schools and private childcare centres have increased.
Gillard (and Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott) blame population growth for the decline of living standards, because that lets government off the hook.
But the real culprit is government failure to invest in improved services, and its demand that any new investment be required to turn a profit, ahead of servicing need.
Blaming increased population for the hurt being felt by working people is a smokescreen, designed to draw attention from the fact that both major parties intend to maintain the screws on public funding, lower taxes for big business, and increasingly privatised public services.
What about the environment?
In spruiking “sustainable population”, Gillard seeks to appease those who are concerned about the environment. In the absence of a policy to deal with the threat of climate change, she is trying to change the agenda.
Neither Labor nor the Coalition is willing to invest in the huge transformation of energy generation, away from fossil fuels and towards renewables, needed to make a real contribution to stopping climate change.
Both parties are wedded to continuing Australia’s coal, oil and gas industries indefinitely, despite the huge contribution burning fossil fuels makes to carbon emissions.
In promoting her idea of “sustainable population”, however, Gillard makes a point of emphasising the impact that population growth has had on water availability. She ignores the fact that households used only 11% of all water consumed in Australia in 2004/05, despite the data coming from the federal government’s National Water Commission.
Countries with much larger populations than Australia make much smaller greenhouse gas contributions. With a population of 22 million, Australia emitted about 533 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2006, according to the federal department of climate change.
Spain, an industrialised country with a population more than twice that of Australia at 45.5 million, emitted 433 Mt in 2006, according to the United Nations Statistics Division. Carbon pollution is a result of unsustainable industrial processes, not unsustainable population.
Broad-scale land clearing remains the biggest threat to biodiversity in Australia, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. It also leads to soil salinity and increased carbon emissions.
But most land clearance happens for agricultural reasons, in sparsely populated areas. The problem is caused by unsustainable farming — not unsustainable population.
Beating the drum of “sustainable population” will not make working people’s living standards any better. Lowering immigration, refusing asylum to refugees and reducing fertility rates will not reverse privatisation or force the government to build better public transport, hospitals or schools. The advantage to politicians is that talk is cheap.
Providing the social infrastructure that cities need at their current size — let alone accounting for growth — will cost money.
Billions of dollars would be required to provide the transport, health and education systems that working people need, let alone the cost of dealing with climate change. But it’s money neither Gillard nor Abbott are willing to spend.
While we allow government to be dominated by two parties, neither of which has the intention of challenging big business, weasel words about “sustainable population” are all we’re likely to get.
Fixing the problems is not about reducing population growth, but increasing government planning and investment. Neither contestant for the job of PM is promising that.