15/04/2010 - 00:00

Perplexed over population policy

15/04/2010 - 00:00

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Western Australians need to carefully think through the implications of migration policy for the state’s social fabric and business prospects.

Perplexed over population policy

THE debate that erupted last week over Australia’s migration policy has helped to sharpen focus on the choices facing this country.

Sitting behind the debate was the federal Treasury department’s population growth forecasts.

Treasury has tipped the nation’s population will increase from 22 million currently to about 36 million by 2050.

That compares with its 29 million forecast released just two years ago, when the Canberra boffins assumed that birth rates and migrant inflows would be substantially lower.

The large variation between the two forecasts shows the dramatic impact of changed assumptions, and indicates just how shaky these forecasts really are.

Liberal politician Scott Morrison triggered the debate when he said the number of migrants coming into the country should be cut from this year’s 300,000.

The reality is that Treasury has built a much lower migration number – 180,000 per year – into its forecasts out to 2050.

A Lowy Institute poll released last week added to the debate. It found that nearly three quarters of Australians want the national population to grow, but 69 per cent do not want 36 million by 2050.

The poll did not explain why Australians felt this way, but based on previous experience there would be several contributors: fear that migrants will take jobs from Australians; concern they will fuel the rapid increase in land and housing costs; fear that increased congestion and pollution will erode the cherished quality of life in cities such as Perth; and worries that migrants will create social tension by rapidly altering the country’s racial and ethnic mix.

On the first point, it seems hard to convince Australians that the country is already at, or very near, full employment.

The official unemployment rate hovers between 3 per cent and 4 per cent; adjusting for people temporarily between jobs and those with little desire to work leaves a very small group of people genuinely unable to find work.

Anecdotal evidence tells us most of those people need intensive training and support to become effective employees.

The prospect of surging investment in resources and infrastructure projects has understandably left many businesses worried about filling their jobs.

And those concerns are felt not just by mining, engineering and construction companies, but others down the line who struggle to find cooks, cleaners, waiters and so on.

The federal government’s latest policy reforms provide for each state to develop its own migration policy.

In theory, that means WA will be able to customise its own policy while NSW, Victoria and other states can develop policies that suit their needs and wishes. However, we are yet to see how this works in practice.

Business opportunities in WA will be maximised if migration programs are large and flexible.

This could include bringing in teams of workers to meet the very sharp spikes in labour demand that apply on big projects.

If that does not occur, it is inevitable that WA will continue to lose work, as we have in recent years.

Hundreds of manufacturing jobs have shifted from WA to Asia, where most of the heavy equipment for resources and infrastructure projects (think LNG plants, power stations and iron ore conveyors) is already being built.

This isn’t just a blue-collar phenomenon. Many white-collar jobs in engineering, drafting and technology have shifted to low-cost centres in India, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Not to mention the LNG engineering work that is undertaken in high-cost centres such as Houston and Reading, rather than Perth.

The implications of high population growth for the metropolis of Perth have been explored in depth this week’s cover feature.

Town planners, architects and developers all expressed concern about the lack of a coherent long-term plan for Perth’s development.

High population growth rates add to the importance of good planning for land development approvals, public transport services, hospitals, schools and so on.

They’re sort of things that have a big bearing on quality of life, and need to be well planned at the best of times.

 

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