Attitudes to immigration and population growth in Australia 1954 to 2010: an overview.

Author:Betts, Katharine

Australia has a long series of polls on altitudes to the number of migrants coming to the country but, because of general ignorance about demography, these cannot be used as reliable indicators of attitudes to population growth. However recent, very rapid, growth has sparked a new and wide-ranging debate about population growth, and the role that immigration plays in forcing the pace. In future voters should be able to draw more accurate conclusions about this role. There is now a groundswell of community concern; for example, in April 2010, 87 per cent wanted Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to either stay the same size or have a smaller population. While some commentators see the pro-stability position as racist, or as the product of political manipulation, the evidence shows that it is based on concern about local training and the stress that growth imposes on both the man-made and natural environment.



Since 2006 Australia's population has grown rapidly. Growth in Australia is nothing new--numbers have been increasing constantly since WWII. But these numbers were not as large as in recent years and, for most of the post-war period, the wisdom of growth was not questioned. (1) From time to time aspects of the immigration intake were criticised and heated debates ensued, (2) and asylum seekers have, in later years, been a point of bitter controversy, (3) but population growth itself has not inspired the same degree of public interest. Today the situation is different. For the first time population growth has been a theme in a national election and widely debated in the mainstream media.

Growing numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat have drawn many voters' attention to immigration and border control, but a key reason for the increased focus on growth is the magnitude of the recent increase in legal immigration. (4) For most of the preceding decades people were aware of growth, as suburbs expanded on the urban fringe and faces and accents diversified in the inner cities, but these changes were relatively gradual. One could be for them or against them but, for most people, they had little immediate impact on their daily lives. After 2006, as Figure 1 shows, the rate of growth increased sharply and, by 2008 and 2009, it was directly evident to most city dwellers. House prices (and rents) were rocketing out of reach, (5) roads in the major cities were much more congested, (6) and public transport became a peak-hour nightmare. (7) Commuters no longer hoped to get a seat; they struggled to find a secure handhold.


Some commentators are keen to interpret the public's growing concern about growth as yet another manifestation of prejudice, claiming that the population debate 'perpeluate[s] racism' and concerns about infrastructure are being 'purposely blurred to fan xenophobia towards migrants'. (8) They tell us that 'population debates cannot be allowed to be proxies for racist prejudices and social marginalisalion', (9) and worry that 'Green Australia' might be the new 'While Australia'. (10) Others, such as Andrew Markus, acknowledge that growth itself might affect altitudes but attribute much of the new concern to 'the politicisation of immigration issues'. (11) The implication is that if Australians were not prejudiced, and if politicians would only refrain from talking about immigration-fuelled growth, public opinion would remain undisturbed. From this perspective growth imposes no real pressures on people; public concern is simply a product of racism and political opportunism.

In 1999 the then minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, said that there was no need for a population policy as the nation was on course to reach 23 million 'by the middle of next century. At this point it would stabilise in both its size and age profile'. (12) In 2007 Treasury's Second Inter-generational Report increased this figure to 28.5 million by 2047. (13) But in September 2009 Treasury announced a new projection for 2050:36 million. (14) And in October 2009 the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, told an astonished electorate that this growth had his blessing; he believed in a big Australia. From then on population growth became political; opinion leaders discussed it, polls were taken, television programs were devoted to it, Rudd was deposed and, in the August 2010 election, leaders of both major parties came out against the idea of a big Australia.

Rapid growth and the clumsy politics that framed it sparked the population debate, but the national conversation which followed was not always well informed. The baby bonus (introduced in 2004), which may have had a minor effect on fertility, and asylum seekers, who have had almost no effect on the numbers, have jostled for air space, while the unchecked entry of New Zealanders, which added 36,000 to the population in 2007-08, went almost unmentioned. (15) And advocacy based on demographic nonsense was commonplace. For example, calls to increase the migrant intake in order to offset the ageing of the population have been frequent. Despite numerous studies showing that immigration has a minimal effect on the average age, (16) growth advocates still cling to this false argument. (17) But given the long silence on demographic fundamentals, punctuated by alarmist misinformation, it would have been surprising if the new debate had been well informed.

This silence does not happen by accident; some well-placed people and groups, including parliamentarians, prefer us not to talk about population growth. For example, in August 2010, Dick Smith asked Senator Bob Brown, Leader of the Greens, why he had not raised the question, saying: 'Why don't you kick up a fuss as the Greens, we hardly hear you about it?' Brown replied:

Well, I'll take responsibility for that because I can tell you that the single most common question I get in public forums out of the blue is about population. I bring it into this place [federal parliament] and you run straight into a wall of putty. ... Why is the media so frightened to take up the issue of population? We've really got to get out of that mindset. (18) How can the general public know what the real situation is if it is not discussed in a disinterested fashion, and how can they know whom to believe if there is no steady and accessible source of reliable information?


A handful of surveys over the last 40 years point to widespread ignorance about the size of the population, as well as of the size of the migrant intake, and thus of the difference that numbers in the present might mean for numbers in the future. (19) In 1971 demographers at the Australian National University (ANU) surveyed married women in Melbourne about their use of birth control. But they added what seemed to them to be some simple demographic questions, including one on the population of Australia. Only half could make even a rough guess, and 20 per cent did not even try. This ignorance was not a neutral matter. Respondents were 'visibly upset' by their inability to answer; the population question caused more distress than any of the intimate questions about family planning and the researchers were obliged to move it to the end of the schedule. (20)

One cause of this ignorance is that demography is not widely taught; another is the difficulty that citizens have in discovering reliable information for themselves. (21) The American scholar, Gary Freeman, has developed a powerful theory explaining why immigration in liberal democracies often runs at higher levels than the electorate prefers. His main theme is client politics; immigration produces concentrated benefits (such as new customers for housing developers, more customers for retailers, and cheaper labour for employers) together with diffused costs (increased housing costs and congestion for existing citizens, together with lower wages and less environmental amenity). The concentrated benefits mean that it is in the interests of those who profit from growth to lobby governments hard to keep the migrants coming, while the diffused costs mean that it is not necessarily in the interests of any one citizen to put time and effort into lobbying to slow the intake. He also says that citizens are 'rationally ignorant' about immigration, both because the personal costs of obtaining information are high and because debate on the topic is constrained. (22)

Most people active in policy debates about economics have knowledge and understanding as far as economics is concerned; they know how unemployment rates and the GDP figures are calculated and how to interpret changes in these indicators. But they can flounder if the conversation turns to demography. While he was still Prime Minister, Rudd, for example got tangled during a recent radio interview because he was not clear about the distinction between net overseas migration (NOM) and the formal immigration program. (23)

Such difficulties have their origin in the paucity of debate, the absence of a serious public dialogue about population policy. (24) And silence has other consequences. Major newspapers, for example, employ economics editors; they do not employ serious journalists who specialise in demography. (25) Another consequence is this: until recently, surveys on attitudes to population growth have been extremely rare. In contrast, though polls and surveys on attitudes to immigration have not been frequent, they are much less rare. Ignorance and silence go hand-in-hand.

But the situation is changing. The new debate means that people are getting more information, and city dwellers can put their own experience of diminishing quality of life into a broader perspective. (26) While few people will have even approximate numbers to the forefront of their minds, the wall of putty is shifting. More voters are aware not just of their immediate constraints but that growth is occurring at a national level and that the...

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