Apr 1, 2010

Bob Carr: Why our cities will really choke with population growth

The population debate is not about multiculturalism, says former NSW premier Bob Carr: it's about how adding millions of people to our nation’s population will affect the environment, water reserves, economy, infrastructure and quality of life.

The debate is not about immigration and its benefits. We all believe in them -- Australia is a migrant nation. The debate is not about multiculturalism and it's not about the source of migrants. The debate is about whether immigration should be running at very high levels. It’s about whether we end up with a population of 36 million in 2050 in contrast to the previous expectation of 28.5 million. There are strong economic arguments against this immigration surge. Immigration worsens skills shortages. The tradesman who’s recruited for a specific job arrives with his family. Immigration adds more to the demand for labour than it contributes to the supply. The Productivity Commission Research Report (2005) The Economic Implications of an Ageing Australia made clear migration does not reverse the ageing of the population. Bob Birrell has pointed out you would have to run immigration at very high levels for a very long time to have the slightest effect on population aging. The population is aging in Australia and just about everywhere else. Get used to it. Nurture older workers instead of driving them out of the workforce the moment they turn 55. High immigration is not the solution. There have been very silly comments about immigration and infrastructure. I don’t know of any period in the nation’s history when people said that infrastructure had kept pace with population growth. It can’t. The worst gap was in the 1950s when the roads of new suburbs were unpaved and Gough Whitlam’s children had to travel from Cronulla to the city to go to high school and people had to wait years for a PMG-delivered telephone connection and Queensland was an education slum, etc. We will never see that level of under-servicing again. Federal and state governments struggle to keep pace. But struggle they always will. Increase the intake and the infrastructure gap will be more acute. South-east Queensland makes the point. In January one academic on the 7:30 Report said that we need a new federal authority to take responsibility for all planning. This, he declared, was the answer. Once we have it we can stick to high immigration. Really? As if shifting responsibility to another level of government would dispose of all the arguments over densities, sprawl, social equity, environmental assessment, design and sustainability. Actually Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide (I don’t know enough to comment on Brisbane and Perth) already have very sound, environmentally sensitive metropolitan plans. Among other things they identify transport corridors and areas around rail stations or transport hubs as locations for higher density development. So they are public transport-based. They work to limit urban sprawl. Sydney has been most successful at this, achieving the highest percentage of dwellings in high and medium density. It has also got the highest percentage of the population using public transport. But our cities will be more congested with 36 million, no matter how much goes into public transport. The arguments over sprawl and higher densities will be more intense. There will be environmental loss and a loss in quality of life: the beaches choked, the adjacent national parks degraded by force of numbers, the congestion of peak hour more intense (there is no public transport system anywhere in the world that avoids peak hour congestion). The cities will work. They will be different cities and it would be a brave person who would promise they’d offer a better quality of life. Yet I’m far more worried about water -- that is, about Australia’s erratic rainfall as a constraint on the over-ambitious population growth we seem locked into. The business lobby won’t acknowledge any of this; they are focused on the total size of the economy, a crude measure. They don’t look at GDP growth per head. Increasing productivity is going to be harder, not easier, if this runaway immigration continues. And business should stop imagining it can have lower corporate tax rates and high immigration. High immigration mandates higher government outlays, and therefore higher taxation. You can’t add millions to the nation’s population and expect a lower tax regime. Public opinion has moved -- is moving -- and I don’t think the high growth option will be entertained politically, by either side.

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257 thoughts on “Bob Carr: Why our cities will really choke with population growth

  1. Michael


    All this from undoubtedly the worst, most incompetent, most ineffective politician to set foot in any Parliament in the last 50 years?
    The very person who through his spin and through his disastrous policy initiatives – or perhaps lack thereof – single handedly turned NSW from one of the worlds’ most efficient and prosperous societies into the embarrassing backwater that it is today?

    Listen up ‘wing nuts’ go back to your new residence in NZ and spare us any more advice please!

  2. Michael

    The hide of the man!

  3. snesn11

    Bob Carr’s weakness is that he led a government that failed to respond to Sydney’s infrastructure needs, especially in providing new rail and mass transit services in Sydney.

    In fact, his government was well-known to have a secret contempt for public transport users that dismissed them as just the poor and the no-hopers – shocking stuff from a Labor government but indicative of the fact that the current rot started well before Iemma, Rees and Keneally came along.

    So before he puts in his twenty cents about what our cities can cope with I would like to hear him account for his own government’s lack of provision for the long-term needs of the city.

  4. Greg Angelo

    It is quite obvious to anybody with half a brain that exponential population growth cannot be maintained. Suggestions have been made by politicians that the population of Bangladesh is sustainable therefore we have nothing to worry about. Australia’s standard of living is a function of the population levels relative to the resources available in the environment. This includes clean air, water, and open space.

    Melbourne has already outgrown its environment. We cannot survive on the available water within the Melbourne catchment area without significantly degrading the environment. Accordingly we have a totally amoral and hypocritical government turning highly polluting brown coal for both a desalination plant (which we wouldn’t need if we are constrained our population), and aluminium smelter (fed by under priced electricity) which we don’t need except to feed a few union subscriptions into the ALP coffers.
    Unfortunately and we also have an unholy alliance between building unions, ALP factions, property speculators and land developers, and of course ordinary householders whose property values are steadily rising as a consequence of property scarcity. All of these players have their snouts in the trough while the environment is being trashed.

    Here in North Balwyn, trees are being bulldozed for McMansions and I cannot you get enough water to keep my garden green. Yet we have a Premier who is hell bent on a 5 million population for Melbourne whilst we are choking with inadequate public transport infrastructure, and inadequate roads investment whilst steadily increasing the population density per square kilometre in the inner suburban areas.

    At the federal level we have a lunatic running the asylum where we have a 300,000 new immigrants per annum placing additional pressure on the environment and our living standards.

    It is sad that Bob Carr was silent on these matters while he was Premier of New South Wales and it would appear that he has had a “deathbed conversion” now that he is no longer subject to factional supplication .

  5. Charu Khopkar

    Bob Carr and Bob Birrell – a match made in heaven when it comes to whining about immigration and immigrants. The latter supplies dodgy stats and the former the media spin to give them spurious accuracy. On Bob Carr, no one could have said it any better or succintly than “Michael
    Posted Thursday, 1 April 2010 at 1:46 pm” (see above).

  6. baal

    Carre has been consistently bleating this message for years. As have the Greens and Tim Flannery. As if of all countries Australia couldn’t solve the problem of how to live with its environment. They are all the same these characters. What have they done to deserve this suburban paradise? And keep it to themselves? So we might have to change our lifestyle!

  7. Frank Campbell

    “the beaches choked”

    Only an Australian would say that. A capital city dweller at that.

    “Sydney has been most successful at this, achieving the highest percentage of dwellings in high and medium density.”

    Bob was Premier of where? Sydney Successful? Oxymoronic. All those dismal flats, congestion… The least desirable urban area in Oz.

    “Yet I’m far more worried about water”.

    But the cities can buy their way out of water shortage. More desal. Pipes. They’re doing it now. Most water isn’t used in the cities. Look at rapacious agriculture.  Land degradation is more intractable a problem than urban water. Urbanites rarely give that a thought.

    I trust everyone reading Bob Carr’s piece notes that there isn’t a whiff of Global Warming in it, anthropogenic or otherwise. AGW is probably a furphy, but GW probably isn’t. So better give it some thought. Once again, GW (if it continues) will mainly impact the environment. For those of you unsure, the environment is not in the cities. It’s the stuff you fly over.

    Maybe Crikey should be renamed Crikey Metro, because the environment is almost never mentioned. (I exclude the endless hysteria from Calvin Hamilton and the Climate Cultists, naturally).

  8. Elan

    Would this be the same Bob Carr who qualified for all the very generous perks of former political office-even more generous for ex-Prems,-that now works for the Mac Bank?

    Wozzamatta Bobby? Frightened you might have to make your money stretch further?

  9. snesn11

    Increased density would actually improve many areas of Sydney and Melbourne. If you visit some of the suburban wastelands in Sydney the you see areas that are crying out for the higher densities that would support a higher provision of amenities of all kind. It would also give these areas the community feel they currently lack.

    As examples look at some of the stations along the Liverpool line. You go through station after station where there is almost nothing around the station other than old low-standard suburban houses. Transform, with higher densities, the area around the station and you would have a hub that the whole surrounding community would benefit from.

  10. billie

    So SNESN11, Elan, Charu Kopkhar, Michael do you think you will be better off with a larger population?

    At the moment I push my way onto my peak hour tram, then push my way onto the train. I notice that pedestrians get half the space that they had 35 years ago [in the Elizabeth St subway and exits] and the population has doubled.

    The advantage of increased population is that the trams are crowded at night and thus its safer to walk round after dark than it was 20 years ago.

    Like Greg Angelo I wonder how much further I can cut my water consumption without concreting my yard and installing air conditioning.

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