A thoughtful look at the population debate

September 6, 1995

The Big Picture: Populate or Perish
ABC TV, Wednesday, September 13, 9.30pm (9 Adelaide)
Previewed by Lisa Macdonald
Since the time of Malthus in the late 1700s, the issue of population growth and its impacts on the economic, environmental and social state has been a contentious, emotive and highly politicised question.
"Populate or perish" was the slogan used by the post-World War II federal government in Australia to sell its program of mass immigration to a small and resistant population which "believed it had a unique right to unlimited space" and was strongly influenced by racist propaganda about the "teeming millions on Australia's doorstep".
This documentary, part four of The Big Picture's series The Australian Experience, uses some interesting historical footage to illustrate the deeply racist and nationalistic ideologies developed by the government to sell its immigration policy during the 1940s and '50s. "We either fill this country or lose it", said the then minister for immigration, Arthur Calwell, in the same breath guaranteeing that the target of 20 million Australians would not include non-European migrants.
As the program explains, however, it was in fact industry's need for unskilled labour in vast quantities, not national security, which drove Calwell's mass immigration policy. "Australia's postwar economic boom", says economist Jock Collins, "was largely delivered by its migrants ... Immigrants, particularly from non-English speaking backgrounds, became factory fodder."
Today, after nearly 50 years of steady population growth, mainly through immigration, the economic landscape has changed. Migration is now "rationed", down by 75% on what it was during the postwar years. Yet, as this documentary reveals, the insularity and racial anxiety which dominated Australian thinking earlier still linger.
Through interviews with urban planners, architects, economists, new migrants and "ordinary Australians", the documentary examines urban sprawl, where people live and why, and how lifestyle and behaviour impact on quality of life and the environment in both urban and rural centres. In the process, the program does attempt to deal with the "hard questions", pointing out, for example, that the total annual growth in the number of cars in Australia is now three times as large as the annual intake of migrants.
Populate or perish canvasses in some detail the current debate about urban sprawl in Sydney, and the related issues of traffic growth and the third runway at Kingsford Smith Airport.
It also critically examines the ground swell of support for the view that residents of a local area have the "right" to "democratically" place a legal limit on the number of local residents in order to preserve their existing quality of life. Such plans are in the process of being implemented by the mayor of Douglas Shire, north of Cairns, and are being seriously discussed by residents' groups in other popular and rapidly growing centres such as Byron Bay in northern NSW.
The program gives considerable air time to proponents of "environmental nationalism", acknowledging not only the growth in support for the overpopulation thesis, but also the development of an unstated and dangerous coalition between the racist positions of the extreme right and the anti-immigration position of sections of the environment movement. The views of Robyn Spencer from Australians Against Further Immigration (AAFI) — "Currently I can't find anything positive flowing from our immigration program" — and her calls for government policy to halt immigration and abandon multiculturalism are supplemented by the arguments of mammologist Tim Flannery (also a long-term member of AAFI, although this is not mentioned in the program) that the Australian continent can support, in the long term, only 6-12 million people, "if we're lucky".
In the end, however, Populate or perish takes a more rational and ethical position on the population and immigration issue, asserting that the environmental and social problems being experienced in our "overcrowded" cities are "not a people problem" but the result of "a lack of planning". "The old planning problem has become a political issue", and "this has given the old anti-migrant attitude a new rationale".
This is a documentary worth watching if you want to give some thought to an issue at the cutting edge of red-green politics.

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