We need a mature, bipartisan approach from the major political parties to get our population policy right says ACTU Secretary Sharan Burrow.

My congratulations to Steve and Steve along with the other leaders who have brought this debate to the forefront. Population policy has been a simmering topic for governments and for business along with the environment movement on and off for a couple of decades. Yet we have inadequate and divergent research, little or no public education and no broad consensus in Australian concerning this vital question.

Throughout the 1990’s the extremes of position were not reconciled:

  • In 1999 Tim Flannery argued that a population of 5-12 million would give Australians maximum flexibility in dealing with environmental and other problems. While I think today even Tim concedes there may be alternate ways to deal with the damage we have inflicted on our land nevertheless the facts are that if we do nothing the trend towards extinction is well and truly within our sights.
  • By comparison Malcolm Fraser argued in 1997 that a population of 50 million would boost the economy, promote national stability and increase Australia’s influence. Leaving aside the question of environmental planning for both repair and sustainability, Malcolm’s ambitions are tall order in a nation where if immigration and fertility remain constant the population would peak at 20.9 million in 2028 before declining to 19.2 million in 2051 and 13.0 million in 2101.


In short we are, without action, set on a path to negative population growth where within three decades deaths will begin to outnumber births.

Then there is the demographics of our population. The over sixty fives are set to more than double by 2051 (12% – 27%). In fact the largest cohort of the baby boomers pass this benchmark in 2012 so the public policy challenges are looming large and coming up fast.

Business community representatives argue that immigration equals growth and without significant growth in the domestic market we will be unable to attract and retain capital investment. Put another way a stable or declining population entrenches a small domestic market inadequate to sustain even moderate growth aspirations. Thus business and industry claim economic vigour, social savings and global positioning as major arguments for significant increase in our population. Leaving aside credible contradictory arguments pertaining to global competitiveness we need to examine this and contrary claims on the basis of research that models outcomes; outcomes across all sectors of business, industry, public infrastructure, government expenditure requirements and environmental sustainability.

In just a few minutes its impossible to examine the economic issues in depth but consider the claim that a 1% increase in population will add $600 billion more to GDP by mid-century. $600 billion seems like good news but consider some of the implications.


  • The economics of fertility. To just maintain the fertility rate at 1.6% will require determined commitment to work and family policy. With seventy percent of Australia’s working women having no access to the basic income security of paid maternity leave the choice to have children is a serious economic consideration. Add to that the lack of accessible and affordable childcare increasingly marginalising women from the workforce! This is an economic cost to the family, often to business and to the economy. The loss of traditional areas of full time work for women and the consequent increase in casualisation, precarious employment generally and unpaid overtime adds to the inability of women to balance work and family. Women sit at the core of fertility considerations and thus work and family policy cannot be ignored.
  • The politics of immigration suffer from a lack of cross party commitment to multi-cultural Australia. Despite the richness of our diversity of culture, governments and opposition parties have not presided, in cooperation, over commonly endorsed public education programs and agreed population targets. Rather we have witnessed the re-emergence of racism and xenophobia as Australians are frightened by the extraordinary claims of Government concerning the threat of refugees to border protection. Likewise a key community fear that is all too often fueled by political and community leaders is that ‘migrants take jobs and economic resources away from Australians’ despite broad conservative consensus that immigration is at least neutral and probably, on balance, in the positive ledger for the economic well-being of the incumbent population.
  • The costs of environmental degradation is a major issue in Australia today as we finally concern ourselves with salinity, greenhouse emissions, erosion, polluted waterways and all manner of other environmental abuse we have tolerated if not championed. The question is whether environmental management and earth repair is possible if we lift our heads from the sands of short term self-interest. The research question is – can we sustain an additional population base if we change generations of bad environmental practice?
  • The inefficiency of land and service use as we witness a population explosion in east coast capital cities and a consequent decline in population demographics in regional and rural Australia is a significant argument. Bob Carr is particularly concerned about the sustainability of Sydney with significant additional growth and the impact on services, the environment and social cohesiveness.


These are serious issues and need to be dealt with on the basis of broad discussion supported by diverse independent research. For its part the ACTU has to assess our own policy position beyond our more specific commitment to advocate for an increased refugee intake. We have also accepted an invitation to work with the BCA to consider the challenges of increased immigration, growth and sustainability.

Then there is the question of ethics. What responsibility do we have to share our land with a reasonable proportion of the world’s displaced peoples.

One thing is for certain – only a mature bipartisan approach from major political parties will render the politics neutral enough to lead the nation to a considered policy outcome.