Confusion with numbers

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  • Published 20100907
  • ISBN: 9781921656170
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

THERE ARE RELATIVELY few places where a people from a diverse, secular society can come together to find common cause and give voice to shared aspirations. One is sporting grounds; another is citizenship ceremonies.

When the number of men, women and children decked out in their team’s colours reaches the capacity of a hundred thousand at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, 53,000 at Lang Park Suncorp Stadium or 83,000 at the Olympic ANZ Stadium, it is triumphantly reported as a measure of success.

There is less crowing about the numbers attending citizenship ceremonies, but they are of a similar order, just as emotional – and more important. In 2008-09, 86,981 people took the pledge of commitment in countless town halls around the country. Had all the 118,196 people who became citizens that year attended, they would have filled the stands and the playing fields of the biggest stadiums – add family and friends and no venue in the country is big enough to hold them all.

It is just sixty-one years since the first Australian citizenship ceremony, in 1949, when seven men originally from Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Greece, Norway, Spain and Yugoslavia travelled to Canberra as representatives of the states and territories where they lived, and became symbols of the new Australia. The 2,493 people from thirty-five countries who became citizens that year, reflecting postwar geopolitics, had mainly emigrated from Italy, Poland, Greece, Germany and Yugoslavia.

The new New Australia is very different. Those taking the pledge in 2008-09 came from 185 countries. More than a fifth emigrated from Britain, but the countries that contributed the most new citizens reflect current geopolitics and Australia’s place in a changing world. Most came from India and China, followed by South Africa, New Zealand, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Malaysia and Bangladesh.

Just as the European immigrants of the twentieth century changed Australia, and were changed by the experience of living here, so the Asian, African and Middle-Eastern immigrants of the twenty-first century will both be changed by Australia and change it. Moving country is not done on a whim, especially these days.

Over six decades more than four million immigrants have become Australian citizens – about the population of Sydney or Melbourne. The seven million settlers who have moved here since World War II have changed the perception that Australia was a little country a long way away from anywhere. Twenty-two million, three hundred and eighty-three thousand, two hundred and forty-one people may not count for much in China, India or even the United States, but it is not the population of a small country. Globalisation and technology have brought the world closer.


AT SOME POINT in the past decade Australians seemed to become less confident of having ‘boundless plains to share’, even of the desirability of being big. The rates of immigration have varied only a little from year to year for decades, hovering just under the 1 per cent of population that Arthur Calwell set as a target in 1945. Yet in recent times political hysteria about a few thousand refugees has threatened to overwhelm a successful population strategy. A unique and successful approach to multiculturalism, which promised and generally delivered inclusion, respect for diversity and equity, came under threat. Environmental concerns became a reason to stop new arrivals rather than a reason to exercise imagination and ingenuity, and frustration about congestion gave way to despair about urban liveability.

Listening to social researchers who take the pulse of the nation is rarely an uplifting experience. Behind the ah-hah moments that confirm impressions gathered from random daily interactions is a portrait that lacks zing. Researchers report complacency about Australian exceptionalism (the lucky country), and that most people, while neither particularly stressed nor satisfied, have turned inwards to rely on their closest family, happy to delegate responsibility for the big issues to others. Expectations have been lowered. The message seems to be: What’s the point?

Giving up is not really an option. The challenges of the next forty years are crystallised in the Treasury’s recent Intergenerational Report, which analysed and predicted national demographics: the ageing population, declining productivity and the need to encourage participation. As part of the analysis the report predicted that current birth and death and immigration rates would see the Australian population reach thirty-six million by 2050.

The population prediction was one of the least important elements of the report, but it captured the imagination of the baby boomer commentariat, who grew up when the population was less than half what is it today. It seemed that for many the jump to thirty-six million was remarkable, rather than a predictable, incremental increase over time.

Polls were commissioned to test public responses to the prediction, and the usual suspects lined up to welcome or decry the number. Business leaders cheered for growth; environmentalists suggested slowing down; almost no one put the prediction in the context of a corresponding global population of nine billion.

Confusion with numbers prevailed. A Lowy Institute poll asked respondents how they felt about the population remaining at about twenty-two million, rising, or falling. Three-quarters said that they favoured a larger population. Depending on how you grouped the responses, the survey either showed that 72 per cent wanted the population to rise up to fifty million, or that 69 per cent wanted a population of thirty million or less.

Reports of the survey overwhelmingly favoured the smaller number, and asserted authoritatively that most Australians did not want the population to grow. This was a misleading interpretation, but it quickly became the received wisdom, repeated in news bulletins, the starting point for analysis ad nauseam. Almost no one pointed out that the prediction of a population of thirty-six million actually required a slower rate of growth of 1.2 per cent a year, just under the 1.4 per cent per annum that has occurred for the past forty years.

The Intergenerational Report‘s preoccupation was how to maintain a high standard of living with lower rates of population growth, a falling GDP and an ageing population, within the limits prescribed by environmental capacity and climate change. Contrary to impressions in the media, it was not a document advocating unconstrained growth. In April the Prime Minister responded to the mounting public anxiety, and the real challenges, by appointing Tony Burke as the new Minister for Population and giving him twelve months to develop a Population Strategy.


UNTIL QUITE RECENTLY, the catchcry ‘populate or perish’ could have been the undisputed national slogan. Even before 1945, when Caldwell announced a scheme ‘essential to national welfare above all sectional interests’ to grow the population by matching the birth rate with immigration, there has been preoccupation with increasing the number of people on the continent.

This has become more complicated in recent decades, as the limits of the environment and the consequences of congestion have become clearer. The transition from an economy based on rural production (agriculture and mining) to one dependent on city-based manufacturing and services has resulted in great prosperity. It has also produced extraordinary growth in the major cities – and the counter-desire to escape to pleasant coastal and country towns.

None of this happens randomly. Population and settlement are uniquely responsive to rules and regulations. Who arrives and under what circumstances is indisputably a matter of policy, as is where we live and in what circumstances. There are economic, environmental and social factors to take into account, but settlement does not happen without thought and planning, even in a market-driven economy. Land is released and zoned in response to public need and sentiment, and political decisions; housing is designed and constructed according to the accepted norms or fashions; transport corridors are developed, schools, hospitals and universities are built, and industrial zones created.

Knowing the population will grow provides a great opportunity to create the future. It is clear that there will be sufficient growth and scale to think imaginatively about how a bigger Australia might look and feel – about the mix of city size and style.

Despite the mythology, Australia has an urban history; most people have always lived in the cities. The precise mix and nature of those cities now needs to be reconsidered. The logic of two major cities made sense with a population of eleven million, the mix of major and minor cities works (sort of) now that the population has doubled, but the best mix for a population of thirty-six million remains to be seen. Sociologists tell us that big cities offer more opportunities, that cities make us free. But they also have a downside if the settings are not right, if inadequate services cause congestion rather than encourage productivity, connection and creativity.

There are tentative signs that policymakers are looking to get a better mix between big, medium and small cities, to look at the capacity of smaller cities to grow into more interesting yet still connected places. One of the biggest changes from earlier attempts at decentralisation is the presence of universities in most major regional centres. These universities already employ thousands of people and could be the hubs of regional economic and social innovation, reduce the gap of services and opportunities between the big and small cities, and, when combined with technology and transport, foster greater regional economic diversity in congenial environments.

Getting the balance of growth right is always a work in progress – and, as the Goss government in Queensland found in 1996, no political leader wants to be in a position where the electorate feels it must chose between koalas and roads…

14 June 2010

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