In the recently released Overland 201, Dr Mark Diesendorf and former Greens senator Andrew Bartlett debate a progressive response to population policy and Gillard’s declaration that Australia ‘should not hurtle down the track towards a big population’. Mark Disendorf begins:
Long before population became a public issue, debate had been stirring behind the scenes. There had been internal arguments within the environmental movement, with tension between those who recognised population as one of the three drivers of environmental damage, and those who wished to avoid taking a public position against population growth for fear of alienating some of their members.
The debate was brought into the open when Mark O’Connor and William Lines published their book, Overloading Australia. Kevin Rudd made the issue newsworthy with his Big Australia speech, and Julia Gillard attempted to hose down the subsequent public concern by making reassuring noises, appointing a Minister for Population and trying the turn the issue into one solely about infrastructure provision.
It is, however, much more than that. Possibly because population is simultaneously an environmental, social and economic issue, it has been misrepresented in many different ways by those who wish Australia to continue with one of the fastest rates of population growth among OECD countries. Some claim that to oppose growth is racist or anti-refugee. Others argue that we need more births and young immigrants to look after our ageing population or to defend Australia or to provide the workforce for mineral development. Some assert that the real issue is the excessive consumption per person. In conversation at the launch of a wind farm project, I was even told by NSW Premier Kristina Keneally that population growth from births is much greater than from immigration. All these claims are false.
There is nothing inherently racist or anti-refugee about limiting total immigration. Indeed, one could argue more credibly that the existing immigration system is biased, because it allows unlimited entry to New Zealanders, facilitates the permanent residency of overseas students who graduate in Australia on the debatable grounds that education is an ‘export industry’, and restricts the entry of refugees escaping from devastated regions of Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. The system makes it easier for wealthy, well-educated people to enter the country, while excluding the needy and desperate.