Population growth: what do Australian voters want?

Author:Betts, Katharine
Position:Survey
 
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Immigration-fuelled population growth has accelerated under the Rudd Government. Recent projections suggest that Australia may grow from its current 22 million to 35.9 million by 2050. This prospect has sparked a public debate about the country's demographic future. If population growth were to become an election issue how would Australia voters respond? Relevant new data are available from the latest Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, a mailout questionnaire sent to a large random sample of voters. It was completed between December 2009 and February 2010. The results show that only 31 per cent want growth while 69 per cent want stability. This is an increase on the proportions who have been pro-stability in the past: 50 per cent in 1977 and the 65 per cent in 2001.

THE ROLE OF IMMIGRATION IN POPULATION GROWTH

In December 1945 there were 7.4 million people in Australia. (1) Since then, there has been continual growth. Table 1 shows that, in the 26 years from December 1982 to December 2008, the population grew from 15.3 million to 21.6 million, an annual average growth rate of 1.3 per cent. In the latter years of the Howard Government (2005 to 2007), numbers and rates increased sharply but, with the election of the Rudd Labor Government in November 2007, growth accelerated further. For example, in 2008-09 the population grew by 2.1 per cent, adding 443,100 people, an all-time record, with 64 per cent of the growth due to net overseas migration. (2)

Table 1: Population growth, Australia, December 1982 to June 2009 Year to Natural NOM (1) Total Total Per cent 31 Dec increase increase (2) population growth 1982 125,100 102,700 227,800 15,288,900 1.6 1983 132,500 55,000 187,500 15,483,500 1.3 1984 126,600 59,900 186,500 15,677,300 1.3 1985 126,000 89,400 215,400 15,900,600 1.4 1986 128,400 110,800 239,200 16,138,800 1.5 1987 126,600 136,100 262,700 16,394,600 1.6 1988 126,300 172,900 292,500 16,687,100 1.8 1989 126,600 129,500 249,600 16,936,700 1.5 1990 142,600 97,200 233,100 17,169,800 1.4 1991 139,300 81,700 217,200 17,387,000 1.3 1992 139,200 51,400 194,300 17,581,300 1.1 1993 137,800 34,900 178,700 17,760,000 1.0 1994 131,500 55,600 191,500 17,951,500 1.1 1995 129,800 106,800 244,600 18.196,100 1.4 1996 124,800 97,400 224,200 18,420,300 1.2 1997 122,500 72,400 188,800 18,609,100 1.0 1998 120,800 88,800 205,200 18,814,300 1.1 1999 122,000 104,200 224,000 19,038,300 1.2 2000 120,400 111,400 234,300 19,272,600 1.2 2001 117,100 136,100 261,400 19,534,000 1.4 2002 114,600 110,500 237,000 19,771,000 1.2 2003 116,300 110,100 240,900 20,011,900 1.2 2004 116,200 106,400 240,200 20,252,100 1.2 2005 132,000 137,000 292,000 20,544,100 1.4 2006 134,000 182,200 304,700 20,848,800 1.5 2007 148,100 216,200 331,800 21,180,600 1.6 2008 152,700 253,400 406,100 21,644,000 2.2 Year to June 30 2008-09 157,800 285,300 443,100 21,874,900 2.1 Sources: Australian Demographic Statistics, Time series, March 2008, Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Catalogue no. 310101 for 1982 to 2007; Australian Demographic Statistics, June 2009, ABS December 2009, Catalogue no. 3101.0 for 2008 and 2008-09 figures. Notes: (1) NOM stands for net overseas migration. (2) This is natural increase plus NOM. It does not add exactly to the increase figures that can be derived from changes in the year-on-year total population figures. Minor discrepancies are in the original data: the ABS adds that differences between total growth and the sum of the components of population change prior to September quarter 2006 are due to intercensal discrepancy (ABS Catalogue no. 3101.0, December 2009. p. 10). Most voters would not be aware of the figures but, as the first decade of the new century wore on, congestion in the major cities and escalating housing prices were symptoms of growth that few could miss. At the same time, drought and water restrictions brought home some of the constraints imposed by the natural environment. And informed critics, together with growth supporters, were mostly well aware of the underlying demography. In September 2009 the projections in the Treasury's Third Intergenerational Report were announced.

These were based on assumptions shaped by current growth rates and said that Australia's population could reach 35.9 million by 2050. For the first time in many years, critics and supporters began to engage in a lively population debate in the media about the costs and benefits of population growth.

The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (AuSSA) (3) was planned early in 2009 but, by the time it was in the field, from December 2009 to February 2010, many citizens would not only have been feeling the pressures of growth for some time, a number would have become interested in the debate. The demography of the period, and the media's reaction to it, therefore play a role in shaping people's attitudes to what otherwise might seem rather abstract questions: is population growth something that voters think Australia should be pursuing? Do they want it?

Recent demography has not been shaped by immigration alone. Fertility rose from a total fertility rate of around 1.72 in the early years of the decade to 1.97 in 2008-09 (4) and life expectancy at birth also increased. From 1988 to 2006-2008 males added an extra 6.1 years and females 4.2 years. (5) These trends, together with a rising base population, have lifted natural increase to numbers not seen since the final years of the baby boom. (6) But as Table 1 shows, net overseas migration, the variable most directly under government control, has risen much faster and is making the more significant contribution to total growth.

Net overseas migration (NOM) counts all people arriving in Australia for stays of 12 months or more, minus all departures for 12 months or more. (7) This means that it is different from the formal permanent immigration program, described in Table 2. The latter only counts new settlers granted permanent visas. It does not include New Zealanders, or temporary migrants, and it does not take account of departures. Sometimes one of the series of numbers is larger, sometimes the other. But in recent years high levels of temporary migration have pushed NOM way out in front; it is now much higher than the official permanent immigration program (which itself is nonetheless very large).

Table 2: Permanent immigration program, Australia, selected years Category 1996-97 1998-99 2001-02 2006-07 2007-08 Family reunion 44,580 32,040 38,090 50,080 49,870 Skilled 27,550 35,000 53,520 97,920 108,500 Special eligibility 1,730 890 1,480 200 220 Humanitarian 11,900 11,356 12,349 13,017 13,000 Total 85,760 79,290 105,440 161,217 171,000 Category 2008-09 2009-10 (1) Family reunion 56,370 60,300 Skilled 115,000 108,100 Special eligibility 180 300 Humanitarian 13,500 13,750 Total (2) 185,230 182,450 Sources: Population Flows, Immigration Department, various issues. Note: (1)The figures for 2009-10 are planning figures and come from Ministerial media releases. (2) Originally 203,800, but reduced to 185,230 in March 2009; see text. The ballooning numbers in the NOM series are partly due to the explosion in the numbers of international students entering Australia on long-term temporary visas, partly to the free movement of New Zealand citizens, and partly to the influx of temporary workers on 457 visas. For example, in June 2009 there were 548,256 New Zealand citizens in Australia, 386,523 international students and 146,370 holders of 457 visas. (8) This gives a total of over one million temporary residents, without counting any other foreigners present on long-term visas such as working holiday-makers or people on bridging visas.

Though these temporary numbers are, in principle, under government control, the permanent migration program is the aspect of immigration policy most immediately affected by government decisions. Table 2 shows how this program has changed since the mid 1990s. When the Howard Coalition Government was elected in March 1996 it moved to reduce the numbers. However, by 2001, these were increased until, by the time the Coalition lost office in November 2007, they were very high. Today, however, they are higher still.

THE NOVEMBER 2007 ELECTION

Immigration was not an election issue in 2007 and the economy was strong; it did not begin to falter until the global financial crisis developed in September 2008. The new Labor Government was led by Kevin Rudd. One of its first acts was to increase the permanent migration program for 2008-09 to a record 203,800, a number later reduced, in March 2009, to 185,230 as the economy weakened. (9) But this new figure was still the highest ever for the official program. (10) The Rudd Government also, as Table 1 shows, presided over the increasing numbers of net overseas migrants, an increase which was historically unusual in a time of economic downturn.

During the election, Rudd's enthusiasm for immigration-fuelled growth was a well-kept secret; voters were told nothing. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) campaigned under the overarching slogan of The future versus the past', a phrase chosen for its soft message of non-threatening generational change. (11) While Rudd said he wanted to ease pressure on working families suffering from high petrol and grocery prices, (12) his six main election themes were: an education revolution; a national plan to fix hospitals; decisive action on climate change; balance and fairness in the workplace; maintaining national security; and a strong economy that delivers for working families. (13)

Immigration was not one of the big six and the website hosting the 24 documents outlining the 'complete official ALP policy documents for the 2007 federal election' did not refer to it. (14) Up until October 2008 the link to immigration policy on this site simply took the reader to a speech delivered at the ALP National Conference in April 2007 by the then shadow minister for immigration, Tony Burke. This document emphasised human...

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