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Apr 1, 2010

Dick Smith: the people have spoken, halt population growth

For the past three months Dick Smith has been travelling the country talking to people about plans to rapidly increase Australia's population. Nine out of 10 oppose the idea, he says.

For the past three months I’ve been travelling all over the country talking to people about plans to rapidly increase our population. Nine out of 10 people I talk to oppose the idea.

The ones in favour are property developers and the people who work for them, including most of our politicians. Little wonder. I’ve made more money out of Sydney real estate in the past 20 years than I ever did from electronics and publishing. Why grow a real business that employs people when you can sit back and let population growth make profits for you? We’ve become addicted to this simplistic formula, but I fear we are going to pay a terrible price.

The government claims to be concerned about housing affordability, climate change, congestion and the preservation of our environment, yet it welcomes massive population growth knowing full well it makes all those other problems far worse. It seems to be able to put all the challenges into separate boxes without ever admitting that they are, in fact, all related.

Let’s get real about the scale of what we are dealing with here. Last year we grew our population by almost 500,000 — the equivalent of the entire state of Tasmania. Think of the infrastructure in Tassie: three major hospitals, a multi-campus university, 200 schools, 200,000 homes and thousands of police, medical staff and teachers. That’s the scale of investment we need every 12 months just to prevent our standard of living falling backwards, yet as we all know nothing of this scale of infrastructure building took place.

Our cities are clogged, our public transport is failing and our hospitals are stressed. Soil degradation is costing us billions each year and our long-term agricultural security is threatened. None of the major issue we face is made any easier by vastly increasing our population, yet we are the international gold medallists of growth.

I ask a simple question: why? What good does it do us and why are we taking such risks? I fail to get a coherent answer from anyone promoting the idea. They argue we have an ageing population, yet in reality we have one of the youngest populations of any advanced nation. In any case, the advice from the Productivity Commission in 2005 was very clear: “Increased migration cannot do much to avoid population ageing.”

Those favouring massive immigration argue that we have mysterious “skills shortages”, yet more than 100,000 young Australians left the workforce last year, while we continue to throw our most experienced workers over 55 on the scrap heap.

Meanwhile, we have corrupted our higher education system, turning it into a crude factory for permanent visas, while we plunder poor nations of their best and brightest doctors, engineers and others they can sorely afford to lose. In terms of foreign aid, we give very little in return. And what do we think will be more welcomed by developing nations: an Australia that takes a tiny fraction of the world’s rapidly growing population, or one that continues to be a major contributor to global food supplies? It is clear we cannot be both.

It’s not people that we lack — it’s a people policy. When it comes to population, Kevin Rudd drifts from welcoming “Big Australia” to having “no opinion on that” — the biggest issue facing our country. This doesn’t sound like leadership to me. It’s more akin to what ALP backbencher Kelvin Thomson calls “sleepwalking to disaster”.

In aviation we plan for worst-case scenarios, insisting on rigorous safety analysis and design and building aircraft that are planned to last for decades. Yet when it comes to population, Australia has no risk assessment and no plan. Given the implications this has for all Australians, it beggars belief.

We need a national inquiry into Australia’s carrying capacity, a commitment to implement its recommendations and a ministry for population that will embrace not just immigration, but a realistic assessment of its true costs. And I and others might just have to get used to not making any more easy capital gains out of the property business.

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72 thoughts on “Dick Smith: the people have spoken, halt population growth

  1. Michael

    Can someone please take Dick around the back and shoot him?

    What part of “no one cares what you think Dick cause you’re OK mate!” doesn’t he get?

  2. Meski

    “Increased migration cannot do much to avoid population ageing.” – but to be accurate, doing nothing will not avoid it either.

  3. Jenny

    Finally – some sense!

  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.

    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.

  5. pixillated

    I’m with you Jenny. Finally someone making sense! The trouble is we measure the economy with tools that don’t count ‘externalities’ such as environmental degredation or even feeling stressed and squashed!

    Lets stop measuring the economy with the same tools that got us into this mess as if they are the only ones that count, and start looking at and measuring by ‘society’ and ‘environment’ so we can see what is really happening!

  6. Brett Forge

    Beautifully articulated Mr Smith!

    I would have thought these comments was totally obvious to anyone with the slightest intelligence. I too have never heard a coherent rebuttal of this argument, and yet one almost never sees it stated or published.

    I suspect it is to do with mainstream economic teachings. These are addicted to growth because of its obvious short term benefits and without ever looking at the larger picture, that is short term rewards and pleasure for long term disaster and annihilation. Our economic and finance writers therefore worship the growth religion as do the politicians.

    Like preventative health, education and most other important things the benefits are not accrued within the usual electoral cycle so our politicians will not pursue it.

    I would think the only system of governance that would embrace non growth economics would be a benign dictatorship or a democracy with elections every 20 years.

  7. Meski

    Greg, who was suggesting that exponential growth could be maintained? Or are you just setting up a convenient straw man to shoot down?

  8. Scott

    Why is the answer always more government? A ministry of population? Surely “Silly Walks” must be next. If Dick is so concerned about this issue, let him start a private think tank. Maybe the “Smith Institute of Population research” or SIPR?. He has the dosh.

  9. Tim Malone

    Dear Dick,
    I am 55. I understand that in the year I turned 40 there were twice as many people alive on earth and in the year I was born. Where the hell do you think they are all going to live if some of them don’t come here?
    Why do you think that this is not an issue on which government should lead puiblic thinking rather than following public opinion?

  10. Michael

    Jenny, Pixie & Brett

    What a trio!
    Hey geniuses – why not ask the bespectacled one what he thought about large population catchment areas when he was a retailer.
    Yes, you know, before he got his greasy hands on that $150M 15 years ago.
    Yes thats right, the money that buys him all his toys.
    How easy it is for him to now say – “look do as I say – it might take some sacrifice but you know what? I’m all right jack”

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