Population growth in Australia: how environmental groups are responding.

Author:Walker, Matthew P.A.

Projections in the Third Intergenerational Report, released in September 2009, indicate that Australia's population may grow to more than 35 million by 2049. This revelation has sparked a new population debate, a debate which has challenged three of the country's main environmental groups. This article describes how they have responded to the challenge and offers a way of explaining the different paths that they have taken.


On 18 September 2009 Treasurer Wayne Swan detailed some of the projections made in the forthcoming third Intergenerational Report (IGR 2010) (released 1 February 2010). These include a 65 percent increase in Australia's population to over 35 million by 2049. (1) This contrasts with the second Intergenerational Report, released in 2007, which anticipated a population of 28.5 million in 2047. (2)

On 22 October, in a speech on the forces affecting Australia's economy over the coming decades, Treasury Secretary Ken Henry contemplated the implications of this population increase for environmental sustainability:

[W]ith a population of 22 million people, we haven't managed to find accommodation with our environment. Our record has been poor and in my view we are not well placed to deal effectively with the environmental challenges posed by a population of 35 million. (3) That evening, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd responded:

I actually believe in a big Australia. I make no apology for that. I actually think it's good news that our population is growing ... I think it's good for us, it's good for our national security long term, it's good in terms of what we can sustain as a nation ... Let's be optimistic about the fact that this country is growing. (4) The following morning the then-Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull offered his opinion: 'Australia is going to continue growing and I do welcome a larger population'. (5) His successor, Tony Abbott, agrees: 'My instinct is to extend to as many people as possible the freedom and benefits of life in Australia. A larger population will bring that about provided that it's also a more productive one'. (6)

Since this time the issue of population growth in Australia has gained extensive and prolonged media attention. (7) Meanwhile, several public figures, including former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, Federal Labor MP Kelvin Thomson, former Australian of the Year Professor Tim Flannery, and Businessman Dick Smith, have echoed Henry's concerns. (8)

With the issue of population growth in Australia being publicly east in terms of environmental sustainability, and in the light of the scale of recent projections, the responses of Australia's environmental groups are significant for several reasons. Firstly, if an environmentally harmful policy receives bipartisan government support, then such organisations can raise awareness and, with their political and media know-how, help to articulate and lobby for a coherent alternative. Secondly, the responses of environmental groups affect the perceived legitimacy of population numbers as an environmental issue.

The input of these organisations therefore forms an important contribution to public dialogue on how to achieve a more environmentally sustainable society. Despite this, many of Australia's environmental groups have made little effort to engage in this dialogue. (9) This article will examine the perspectives of several prominent national environmental groups, including one political party, that have addressed population growth in Australia. These are the Australia Conservation Foundation (ACF), Friends of the Earth Australia (FoEA), and the Australian Greens.


Changes to the population size of a country result from natural increase (births minus deaths) and net migration. In an industrialised nation the replacement level total fertility rate (TFR)--the average number of babies born to a woman throughout her reproductive life--is roughly 2.1. Australia has maintained below replacement total fertility rates since 1976. Due to the relatively young age structure of Australia's population, however, births continue to outnumber deaths, and so natural increase remains positive. (10)

Preliminary estimates for the year ended 30 June 2009 are of an increase of 443,100 persons (2.1 per cent) to Australia's population. Of this, 157,800 (35.6 per cent) is attributed to natural increase, while 285,300 (64.4 per cent) is attributed to net overseas migration. (11) The majority of Australia's population growth is, therefore, controlled directly by government though migration policy. (12) This control is evident in the wide fluctuations in net overseas migration from year to year. (13)

Immigration to Australia is comprised of several categories. Of these, the humanitarian program granted visas to 13,507 people in the 2008-2009 year, of which the refugee intake was 6,499. (14)


Environmental groups that contribute to discussions on population numbers will, presumably, be familiar with the above figures. This section outlines the positions of the three groups under consideration.

The Australian Conservation Foundation

On 22 September 2009 the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) released an article warning that, due to current rates of population increase: 'Australia's population is on a collision course with our natural environment'. The group argues that: 'We need a long-term population policy aimed at stabilising our population and consumption at sustainable levels and helping other countries to do the same'. Accordingly, the ACF agrees with Federal Labor MP Kelvin Thomson that a 'reduction in migration to more sensible levels is needed'. (15)

Several days later, in an article for the Canberra Times, ACF President Ian Lowe wrote that: 'There is a clear link between population growth and environmental damage' and therefore:' A responsible government would be acting now to curb the unsustainable growth, rather than celebrating the disastrous trend ... Our aim should be to stabilise our population. This means we must have a look at migration levels'. (16) Lowe has since repeated this message:

We should be particularly concerned about the loss of natural areas, the continuing spread of housing onto good agricultural land and the improbability of meeting responsible targets to slow climate change if the population keeps growing rapidly ... A sustainable future has to be based on stabilisation of both population and consumption. (17) Meanwhile, Charles Berger, ACF Director of Strategic Ideas, has critiqued both the IGR 2010 and the government's response:

The Government's stance has vacillated between claiming that such rapid population growth is inevitable on the one hand, and assuring us that it is good for Australia on the other. The claim of inevitability is disingenuous and easily dismissed. While some degree of growth is inevitable over the next few decades, both the pace of growth and the ultimate trajectory are well within the government's power to influence. Migration is the largest determinant of long-term population growth for Australia, and different migration levels mean the difference between population stabilisation and ongoing rapid growth. (18) ACF leadership have clearly made efforts to contribute to public debate on this issue, and have communicated a consistent stance: that Australia's population size should be stabilised in the interests of the environment, and that this requires a reduction in immigration. This reflects official ACF population policy, which holds that: 'Unsustainable consumption of resources by a large and...

To continue reading