24/09/2009 - 00:00

Responding to major population growth

24/09/2009 - 00:00

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There are benefits and challenges ahead, as Australia’s population heads towards an expected 35 million by 2049.

LAST week's revelation that Australia's population was running ahead of previous forecasts was, in my view, largely good news - although there are some caveats on that which I will explore below.

In a sneak preview of his government's Intergenerational Report, Treasurer Wayne Swan revealed that Australia was forecast to have 35 million people by 2049. That compares to an earlier intergenerational report, the second, which predicted 28.5 million people by 2047.

That is a substantial shift, which could have a profound impact on Australia, mainly to positive effect.

Population is important for a number of reasons. Just having a growing population has an economic impact that distorts the usual cycle - upwardly. New people need houses, jobs and bring new ideas, which keep an economy vibrant and healthy.

The actual population growth forecast by Mr Swan's IGR3 is also skewed by a rising birth rate, which, thankfully, is expected to ease the pressure of an ageing population.

A bigger population will also help foster local value-adding industry. This has been an issue for decades and even the Greens highlight the fact that we are nothing more than a quarry and ought to be doing more with our raw materials.

Unfortunately, history shows us that production is best achieved near markets wherever possible. A population jump from about 20 million to 35 million in 40 years may not deliver a great difference in that respect, but it does offer some hope that we might have some economies of scale as a result.

While rising populations will create pressure for some urban centres, which may also have a spill over effect for regions where we actually want people, such as depopulated rural areas and the largely unpopulated north.

I know that latter thought might be heresy to those who want the Kimberley to remain one of the world's untouched wildernesses but I don't believe that is an option, which brings me to another benefit of population growth.

Big populations to our north might consider an unpopulated north-west as something of a luxury the world can't afford. Having a moderate population there, plus a big city in the wider north such as the proposed Pilbara City, would make sense from a security point of view.

The environment is one area where a rising population may have a negative impact if not managed carefully. Bigger populations have a larger footprint.

But let's put that in context. I think it would be fair to say that agriculture has the most widespread impact on the environment in Australia. This has nothing to do with our population. Most of our agricultural production is exported, so shifting some of that to more internal consumption would not change land-use patterns.

A purist might suggest that bringing the people closer to the productive agricultural areas would have a beneficial effect in terms of the transport cost to the environment.

As for food, we have an abundance of this, which would easily meet our population's needs with room to spare.

One of the areas of concern with regard to population growth is where and how it is happening - and if it is actually sustainable.

Australian women now have one of the highest birth rates in the developed world, at 1.9 children each. This is an unusual trend that is simultaneously linked to the federal Liberal government's baby bonus and the prosperity of our nation.

There is also the expectation of continued high migration.

Government policy or Australia's own economic circumstances can substantially alter both of these trends.

Taking credit

THERE was lots of banter about Premier Colin Barnett taking the credit for the Perth to Bunbury Highway opening, something I thought he handled rather well.

Ultimately, former infrastructure minister Alannah MacTiernan got her moment in the sun as part of the ribbon-cutting team, but only after lots of nonsense about who should be thanked.

Let's face it, politicians will attend the opening of an envelope if there's a photo opportunity arising from it.

It is worth noting that this highway was opened a year after Mr Barnett came to power, which is time enough for past ministers to be forgotten.

In contrast, go back to March and April in 2001 and see how many opportunities the then new Labor government took to bleat on about new facilities.

Agricultural minister Kim Chance opened the $1.2 million Agwest Doubled Haploid Laboratories in South Perth and inspected 13 new Abrolhos Island public moorings; health minister Bob Kucera opened a $1.3 million outpatients clinic at King Edward Memorial Hospital; culture and arts minister Shelia McHale opened the $255,000 Federation Heritage Artwalk in Mandurah; attorney-general Jim McGinty opened the $15 million Fremantle Justice Complex and the Nyandi Prison's Aboriginal meeting place; and employment and training minister John Kobelke opened the $1.25 million newly refurbished Trades and Technology Centre in the Great Southern.

Oddly enough, not one of the announcements linked to these momentous occasions ever mentioned the work of the previous government or its ministers.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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