Review of Overloading Australia, Mark O'Connor and William J. Lines.

Author:Betts, Katharine
Position:Book review

Australia's population is growing rapidly. In March 2009 it stood at 21.6 million. The current Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, takes it for granted that it will grow to 35 million by 2051. (1) In 1999 when Philip Ruddock was Minister for Immigration he told Australians that there was no need for a population policy because we were unlikely to grow much beyond 23 million. He added that the 'nation cannot afford to return to [an immigration] program characterised by big numbers and little thought'. (2) Nonetheless the current growth surge, keenly embraced by the new Labor Government, began quietly under the Coalition soon after Ruddock's 1999 statement. (3)

Much of Australia's growth is directly due to immigration (nearly 60 per cent in 2007-08) and much of the growth from natural increase is attributable to the Australia-born children of immigrants. For example, in 2007, 25 per cent of all births were to overseas-born mothers.

For those with their eyes open population growth and the immigration that fuels it are never out of the news. There is the unaffordable housing that drives young families into debt slavery (4) (even pushing some to the less-expensive urban fringe where a number died in Melbourne's recent fires). (5) There is strained infrastructure leading to blackouts, cancelled train services, and to traffic congestion, draining energy from the economy and from human lives. (6) There are hospitals that can no longer care for the people they serve; (7) water supplies that dwindle as drought and growth desiccate cities and stretch the capacity of farms; (8) pleasant suburbs degraded by intensive redevelopment; (9) greenhouse gases that refuse to abate; (10) and a natural environment wilting under the burden of numbers.

But while stories of water shortages and degraded infrastructure abound, few of the public figures who comment on them acknowledge the role of population growth in creating these problems and making them harder to overcome. Here Mark O'Connor and William Lines have done us an important service; they have joined the dots between these social and environmental ills and our rapid growth.

From the picture they create a reader could, at first, believe that Australia's pattern of growth was promising. It is mainly due to government immigration policy, so shouldn't it be relatively easy to rein it in? Besides immigration is not popular; support for the post-2000 increase is minimal among both the Australia-born and migrants themselves. (11) But as O'Connor and Lines make clear, immigration in fact makes it harder to halt growth because the businesses that profit from it lobby for it, and property developers with deep pockets appear to have bought the favour of some of the politicians who create it. (12)

High migration means more customers, cheaper labour, and minimal training costs. All of these boons intensify pressures from self-interested groups to keep the numbers coming. As O'Connor and Lines put it: it is no surprise that the housing industry lobbies not for the size of housing industry that Australia's population needs but for the size of Australia's population that the industry needs'. (13) The concentrated benefits enjoyed by special interests (on the right of the political spectrum) trump the unorganised interests of the majority who bear the costs.

At the same time many opinion makers on the left are quick to decry criticism of immigration-fuelled growth as...

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