Just because Tony Abbott advocates a particular course of action doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Nor should his strange decision to launch a book by the anti-immigrant campaigner Pauline Hanson preclude reasonable consideration of his views on contentious issues of the day.
Former prime ministers are entitled to be heard, whether you agree with them or not.
What Abbott had to say in a recent address at the Sydney Institute about reducing immigration to enable the country to pause while an infrastructure deficit is overcome represents a reasonable response to an extraordinary level of community concern.
“My issue is not immigration; it’s the rate of immigration at a time of stagnant wages, clogged infrastructure [and] soaring house prices,’’ he said.
Let’s put some numbers around the issue. In the latest ABS Demographic Statistics report, Australia’s population grew by 1.6 per cent or a tick over 388,000 in the twelve months to June 2017.
Victoria easily outstripped the other states – and the national average – adding 2.3 per cent in 2016-17, or 144,400. This compared with a gain in NSW of 121,800, or 1.6 per cent, bang on the national average.
The surge shows no sign of slackening: to the contrary. In the 12 months to June 2017, the net overseas migration (NOM) figure of 245,400 was up 27.1 per cent, or 52,400 people on the previous year of 193,000. Let’s repeat that: 27.1 per cent.
In a country with one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems, these sorts of population increases are not sustainable, whatever self-serving arguments for a bigger Australia might be advanced.
Former NSW premier Bob Carr, a long-time advocate of a rational immigration policy, put the quality of life argument quite well on Q&A. "Do we really want to be adding a million to our population every three and a half years? Would it be such a departure from God’s eternal plan for this continent if we took six years about acquiring an extra million?"
Among OECD countries, Australia’s population increase in 2016-17 is at the top of the scale compared with Canada, up 0.9 per cent over a comparable period, the United States up 0.7 per cent and Britain 0.6 per cent.
Put another way, Australia’s population expanded between 2003-16 at 2.5 times the OECD average. The NOM is running at three times the national average in the years since Federation.
In commentary accompanying a report out in March – Housing Affordability: Reimagining the Australian Dream - the centrist Grattan Institute in Melbourne cautioned that Australian governments were “squandering gains from migration with poor housing and infrastructure policies’’.
Grattan warned that “unless the states reform their planning systems to allow more housing to be built, the Commonwealth should consider tapping the brakes on Australia’s migrant intake’’.
Since I doubt that anyone, including John Daley, Grattan’s chief executive, believes that governments will make significant inroads into the nation’s housing shortage in the foreseeable future, this can be read as a call for a review of the country’s migrant intake.
For Melburnians who have borne the brunt of a population surge, the following numbers will be no surprise. In the decade to 2016, the city’s population increased by 1.1 million, or 30 per cent. In the same time frame, Sydney grew by 845,000, or 20 per cent.
According to Grattan, Melbourne’s traffic congestion is as bad as Sydney’s, if not worse, especially given a single bottleneck via the West Gate Bridge across the Maribyrnong waterway to the city’s western suburbs.
These suburbs towards Geelong and the Surf Coast are among the fastest expanding urban conurbations in the entire country.
What should be making Melburnians’ and Sydneysiders’ blood boil is the failure of successive governments - federal and state - to get on top of infrastructure challenges. This reflects a monumental planning failure – and demographic forecasting that vastly underestimated population growth.
In 2002, around the time then treasurer Peter Costello was telling Australians to have “one kid for mum, one for dad, and one for the country’’, the ABS was forecasting a population of 26.4 million by 2051 from numbers then of 19.7 million.
We are now less than 10 per cent shy of that projection with population edging towards 25 million.
In 2002 the ABS forecast populations for Sydney and Melbourne by 2051 of 5.6 million and 4.7 million respectively. As things stand, Sydney’s population exceeds 5 million. Melbourne will overtake Sydney by mid-century, both with populations above 8 million.
What all this means is that as governments scramble to accommodate population growth way beyond demographic predictions, they are being forced to retrofit strained infrastructure at a vastly inflated cost.
In all of this, a reluctant political class would be making a huge mistake to ignore public disquiet on the issue of population pressures, and in the process enable anti-immigrant populism to fester exemplified by Pauline Hanson’s calls for a zero-immigration intake.
“A strong immigration program in the long term doesn’t preclude a smaller one in the short term, especially when there’s acute pressure on living standards and quality of life,’’ Abbott told the Sydney Institute.
I couldn’t agree more.