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Federal

Apr 7, 2010

Population in Australia: 2050 versus 1950?

There's a difference in population between crowded and congested. The real issue they ignore is that Australia and Australians must change their ways -- that business as usual is inadequate.

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In a recent op-ed piece (What’s wrong with us) the New York Times, writer Bob Herbert lamented the disastrous lack of American investment in infrastructure.  In a blog comment that appears tailor-made for Australia, the answer is in Pogo’s classic line “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  And Bob Carr.

In last week’s Crikey Bob Carr and Dick Smith argue over whether our population should be 36 million or 28.5 million by 2050 but the real issue they ignore is that Australia and Australians must change their ways — that business as usual is inadequate.

In roughly the same span and timeframe of Carr’s time as premier, Paris has gone from a bike-unfriendly city to one of the best cycling cities in the world, cemented in 2007 — after a decade creating cycling paths and retraining their super-aggressive car drivers — with the Velib free bike hire scheme, which has been a phenomenal success.  We do not need to recount here what has happened to Sydney in the same timeframe under Carr but it does make one’s jaw drop reading his article.

In citing the Intergenerational Report that “migration does not reverse the ageing of the population” Carr is correct in that one cannot “outrun” population ageing with immigration, but the reality is that among developed countries, Australia has one of the lowest age profiles, and consequently will have a longer delay before the onset of population ageing effects, because of only one reason, immigration. Our median age is 37.1 years compared to 39.5 for Canada and 36.7 for the US compared to more than 40 for most European countries and 44.2 for Japan.

All of this would be significant if our population was high in any relative sense but on any basis we are underpopulated.  Australia’s overall population density is less than three people per square kilometre.  At about 46 people per arable square kilometre we are a bit denser than Canada at 38 but both countries are in a completely separate league to most developed countries such as the UK (837), France (332) Japan (2,570) and one quarter of the USA (163).  Canada has the highest per capita immigration rate in the world.

The big difference between Canada and Australia is that the latter has been preparing for this growth for the past five decades. In the 1960s Toronto decided to invest more in public transport rather than adopt the US road-based city transport paradigm.  The city also has a strong cycling culture. Along with Montreal and Vancouver these Canadian cities are studied as models of how to cope with a growing population against a strong tendency to be car-based.

Carr claims that for our east coast cities all development plans are based around public transport.  The problem is that not one of these cities has a plan that anyone takes seriously. Sydney has no end of plans for upgrading its inadequate rail transport — several in just the past year alone.

By his statement “our cities will be more congested with 36 million, no matter how much goes into public transport” he is confusing crowded versus congested.  He left the city in the latter state.  All large cities with even the best public transport still suffer crowding at peak hours but people still get to their destination in a consistently predictable time.  On the other hand congestion prevents people (and goods) getting to their destination on time and is predicted to cost the Australia economy up to $30 billion per year as soon as 2020. That is just the tip of the iceberg of a business-as-usual strategy.

Sydney may well have the highest proportion of commuter journeys using public transport in Australia but at 23% it is still woeful compared to 54% in New York (all five boroughs, much higher on Manhattan), 80% in London, 52% in Paris, 78% in Tokyo (57% in Greater Tokyo).  And not just in those very large world cities (which actually Sydney and Melbourne like to compare themselves) but also in comparable sized cities such as 90% in Hong Kong, and 32% (plus 16% cycling) in Toronto.

Bob Carr could also claim increasing use of public transport during Labour’s rule but the problem is that it has nothing at all to do with improved public transport but entirely to do with increasing road congestion. Not only could his government not implement any serious program for expanding the rail network but it managed to waste $95 million on a failed integrated travel smartcard. The same company awarded the Sydney contract, ERG, is responsible for the highly lauded Hong Kong Octopus card system, the first such card in the world. London’s Oyster card is similar, as is Brisbane’s Go card.

In Melbourne and Sydney the politicians and transport supremos could not accept the notion of simplifying zone/fare structures and thus brought certain disaster.  It defies the imagination how Melbourne can spend $800 million on the Myki card system and still it is dysfunctional. Sydney went back to the drawing board and finally, in Kristina Keneally, NSW has a premier with enough common sense to replace the antiquated complicated fare structure. Our politicians need to have enough common sense and backbone to over-rule the bureaucrats, nitpickers and bean counters with their false economic models.

This author has elsewhere countered the argument about water as the limiting resource for our cities where I wrote:

“In the case against further population growth many cite Brisbane’s experience in the recent prolonged water concerns. Yet it shows the exact opposite: people responded beyond expectations in going from about 300 to 140L/cap/day. No new dams, desalination plants, pipelines, recycling or rainwater harvesting were needed to get us through one of the worst dry spells in our history”

Two days after Carr called for an inquiry into population and Australia’s carrying capacity, Tony Burke was appointed federal Population Minister.  It is not yet clear what a “population strategy” will encompass.  The problem of trying to determine Australia’s carrying capacity will be in defining the key parameters.  If one uses our current practice and simply extrapolates our lamentable infrastructure, then yes it is clear that we are probably beyond the limits.

Stopping immigration will not be enough to rescue our unsustainable way of life.  But technological progress, particularly in clean energy, water conservation strategies and smarter infrastructure spending such as in urban planning, city transport and inter-city transport can have a profound impact.  Do Carr and many other commentators seriously think we should just stand still? Stick with this 1950s mindset that only Australia and America persist with?  In that case his prognosis is self-fulfilling defeatism.

A few weeks back Lindsay Tanner made some common sense remarks on some of these panic scenarios re population. The message was in the title:Issue is profligacy not population“. Unlike almost all of his fellow ministers Tanner appears to appreciate the true issues and solutions and is willing to explain the ugly truth in public:

“We have been very profligate in how we’ve managed our environment, our water resources, the development of our cities and how we’ve managed our economy in general in recent decades. Regardless of what our population is in 2050, for Australians to continue enjoying the quality of life we currently do, that profligacy has to stop.”

Bob Carr appears to very Australian in his near-total pessimism and complacency about our ability to change to meet future challenges.  His only “idea” is to shut the door on immigration, the only thing that has stopped us — just — from being the most boring place in the known universe.  Instead of being Cassandra he should be part of the solution, but then he never did that when he held power. Being from the boomer generation he should remember the saying, if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.

Michael R. James is an Australian research scientist, writer and former Parisian cyclist. He addressed some of the issues of population growth in a recent three part series: 1. Population and Transport; 2. Population and Housing/Urban Planning; 3. Population and Resources.

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14 thoughts on “Population in Australia: 2050 versus 1950?

  1. Michael R James

    Some responses to Scott Grant, Gary Stowe & others:

    Yes, I do claim that Brisbane will manage with water even if we double our population in SEQ. You could read my fuller argument in the hyperlinked article but essentially it is (1) we got through this one even though water restrictions were applied late–now we will never be allowed to be as wasteful again so the rundown of the dams will be much slower (and this has broad community support) (2) pipeline network will give much greater flexibility to cope (unfortunately the pipes do not have the capacity to allow moving the excess water in the Gold Coast Hinze dam up to Brisbane’s dams but it will make a significant difference to running down those dams); (3) household rainwater tanks–this is still somewhat contentious because industry hates them and they are not as common as they should be but long-term this will play a bigger role in rainwater harvesting (in the city which now receives more rain than the dam catchments further inland) and conservation of potable water (4) water recycling –possibly restricted to industry but still significant; ultimately the community will accept using recycled water as a direct source if really necessary (as much of the developed world already does). Of course there is also desalination–unfortunate because it is not justifiable and is an expensive totally un-green industry boondoggle (the GC plant is still not operating properly).

    The comparison with Canada and Europe was to put our situation in some perspective. I agree it is not perfect but in fact one can also argue that a considerable part of our arable land (stats from OECD website and also CIA world factbook) is more productive than Canada which are inactive due to sometimes 6 month of winter! Ditto Europe. In some places (FNQ and coastal strips) farmers get not just two crops but sometimes 3 per year, compared to one in most of these other countries! All the other countries are vastly more dense and the fact that Canada is obviously planning for a growing population shows they will get a lot more dense. Also, far too big a subject for here, but Australia does primitive farming and can improve log-orders, for example in water use (and needs to, to stop salination). I am biased because I am a molecular geneticist but I strongly believe in using GM to improve fertility of marginal lands and ability of crops to grow in these lands.

    My position on population? We will have trouble attaining what I consider a viable population–in realms of 40-60M. Demographic forces are ineluctable and the whole world is leveling off as we will too. (It is pointless getting bogged down in polemics on world population about which no one can do anything but prepare.) Our appalling complacent record on everything (eco, water use, land use, rivers, urban planning, energy, transport etc) is due to this stupid and false notion that there are so few of us that we can lead this extravagant lifestyle and ignore these important things. We cannot and even at a lower population we are unsustainable–so we must change our ways. I have lived and worked all over the world and I swear Australians are even worse than Americans on these things. I believe the Asianization of Australia is fantastic and the sooner the better as this complacent destructive Anglo complacency is driving me despondent (I am–regrettably–a lilly white anglo). My dream Australia will be Eurasian and much smarter, like a France (one of the best run countries in the world) Hong Kong/Singapore and Californian hybrid.

  2. Scott Grant

    There are some things in this piece I agree with and a lot that I do not.

    “Australians must change their ways”. Well, yes, I agree with that. The difficulty will be in persuading people to accept a lower living standard in order to accomodate more people.

    Sydney IS bike unfriendly and the Labor government has indeed done bugger all about it, despite more than a decade in power. It is nice that the last two premiers have been cycling enthusiasts, but we are yet to see anything come of that.

    Age profiles: Can anyone answer the question of whether the TOTAL number of economically dependent individuals is growing? If the age profile is shifting upwards, does that mean that there are less children, and therefore less need to provide resources for them?

    “on any basis we are underpopulated”. Rubbish. Comparisons with other countries is
    pointless. Population density based on total land area is such an obvious falsehood, that the author felt compelled to restate it in terms of arable land. Yet, not only are we the driest continent on earth, even before climate change, but we have some the oldest and poorest soils as well. We simply cannot grow as much food as Canada or the US or Europe. We manage to produce a food surplus partly because of our relatively low population. That does not necessarily mean we can feed a large population, and certainly not that AND produce a surplus AND maintain biodiversity.

    One big difference between Canada and Australia is that Canada has almost unlimited fresh water. Another seems to be a willingness to embrace solutions too tainted with “socialism” (ie planning and government funded infrastructure) to appeal to the Australian Labor Party.

    And, yes, public transport policy and transport policy in general has been an abysmal failure in Sydney. As someone who uses the rail every day, I well remember the dark days when the rail system almost collapsed under Michael Costa’s stewardship. Almost a decade later, it still has not recovered to the level of service it provided under Carl Scully.

    And, yes, public transport ticketing in Sydney has been an almost unbelievable fiasco. Coming from Perth, where we had zone based tickets across all modes of transport 40 years ago, I could scarcely believe the antiquated, nineteenth century ticketing system in Sydney. Of course it could not be computerised!

    Back to water. The argument that, because Brisbane just managed to scrape through the last crisis, it can therefore scrape through the next crisis, despite more people, seems a bit odd.

    Lindsay Tanner is wrong. The issue is profligacy AND population. It is an error to leave out either part.

    We need to reduce our total environmental, ecological, footprint. That means the existing population must live more sustainably. To do so requires a massive investment in infrastructure, even if we reduced out consumption. It also means we must restrain population growth. Otherwise any gains in efficiency will be overwhelmed by population growth.

    Apparently, Cassandra could accurately predict the future. She just was not believed. I think she would have been right at home in a modern environmental movement.

  3. Michael R James

    @John Bennetts 3.13pm.
    We are already the most urbanized country in the world. Yet we could use the tendency for treechanging and seachanging to reverse some of this. The trouble is it cannot rely upon car transport. And any regional development plan MUST have high speed efficient public transport at its heart. Ultimately the more expensive HST line up the coast connecting Brisbane can fertilize two or three major cities on that route.
    Yesterday Stutchbury in The Oz talked about a soon-to-be-published book: What If?, edited by Peta Seaton which proposes government-led devolution by moving the NSW government apparatus to Newcastle. In my NT articles I proposed something similar but prefer somewhere like Goulburn so that it fits in with a High Speed Train to Canberra. Similarly the Canberra-Melbourne HST could encourage the growth of the old Whitlamite idea of expanding Albury-Wodonga. I reckon Canberra should be a much bigger city too and once connected by a <90min fast train to Sydney and a bit more to Melbourne, the resistance to living there will dissipate. Add to that a new international airport, say near Goulburn (probably replacing Canberra airport) and there would be another key economic driver for the region (plus of course removing Sydney's need for a second airport; discussed in my article hyperlinked under "inter-city transport" above).
    These ideas are no-brainers. They are actually affordable. Trouble is they do require our politicians to have both some imagination, to think beyond terms of office and to stop funding roads to the exclusion of everything else. But most of all Australians need to embrace them, because even without the need to win another election the likes of Bob Carr cannot get out of the old mindset.

  4. John Bennetts

    Not a word suggesting that Dick Smith was/is wrong.

    By all means fix our cities, which seems to be the thrust of this whole debate, but what about the regions and, in particular, the small towns, many of which which are bleeding dry due to depopulation?

    Let’s consider town planning for what it should/could be in this information age. Remember the promises of working from home, at least part of the time, of flexible working arrangements, of enlightened living which requires less and less transport?

    Where I live, near a rapidly growing town, more and more of the decisions which affect our daily lives and futures are made out of town. Three examples:

    The hospital relies ever more on a helicopter and ambulance service to transport patients to mega-hospitals elsewhere, thus depleting the services available locally and so the spiral winds down. Perhaps the worst of this is the need for friends, carers and relatives to drive (yes, DRIVE – there being no option) for an hour or more, daily, in order to maintain contact and to bring those small things which count. Thanks, Health Department.

    The Rural Fire Service is based not where rural fires might happen, but in Homebush! Talk about importing jobs from the bush into the city! Hundreds of them, refugees from the bush if ever there were. City folk going about what city folk do so well – building bureaucracies. There are now several thousand paid staff in this circus, where formerly; only a couple of decades ago; there would be as few as 0.5 or 1.0 dedicated local manager to coordinate the volunteers and provide administrative support. Perhaps 300 total. I have never witnessed a bloke behind a desk putting a fire out. However each full time staffer, plus vehicle, mobile phone, pager and 2-way (Must stay in touch with the volunteers doing the job in the field, mustn’t we?) – each staffer’s pay and perks amounts annually to about the cost of a fully equipped and operating fire station where none exists, or about half of a heavy tanker. Time for a review, methinks.

    Of course, town planning must be the third example. Where once the local council could be entrusted to determine the fate of a development application, nowadays anything controversial or large will certainly be snapped back to Sydney for determination by folk who have no personal connection with the issue, the locality, or the history. Especially in NSW, it has been seen that money talks – so much so that current DA paperwork includes a stat dec to the effect that the applicant hasn’t pulled strings. Poppycock!

    So, population from the bush also drifts to town. Get used to it, citydwellers. Next time you take a trip to Birdsville for the races or whatever, look at the towns you drive through. Consider them emptying out into your suburb as the local jobs which remain in these areas are filled by fly-in-fly-out or drive-ditto types working 12 hour days a few at a time, then returning next door to you to add to your traffic jams.

    And to think that some doubt the need for a population policy.

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