I am disappointed at the shallowness of much of what is passing for the so-called population debate. I expected the Murdoch press to push the big growth agenda, but I hoped for clearer thinking from Crikey and the so-called government and strategic decision-makers you say you’ve been talking to.

You say our policy makers are trapped in the gulf between public concerns about rapid population growth and Australia’s “moral responsibility” to take more immigrants from our Asian neighbours. Well, not for the first time the public has a better grasp of the situation than your experts.

Our gold-medal winning population growth wins us no friends in Asia. Most of our neighbours have spent years struggling with population issues of their own and they can only wonder why Australia is so keen to travel in the opposite direction. Our refugee intake looks ever more miserly as our population increases, and our climbing birth rate makes us the odd one out in the region.  The constant back-flips over a few boat arrivals must appear ridiculous compared to the almost 500,000 people added to our population last year. We may not see it for what it is, but they do.

You suggest we risk generating “resentment”  and being “out of sync” with our neighbours if we reduce our immigration even a little. Really? In fact it’s our current people-hungry policy that is doing damage to our reputation. I am currently making a documentary on population issues and am just now returning from Asia, having spoken to experts working at the two extremes of the population question: Bangladesh and Singapore.

Bangladesh has made great strides in reducing it’s population growth, but it’s still a crushing 160 million, five times the population density of China. In central Dhaka, I stood in the huge tent erected in the car park of the International Centre for Diarrhoea Disease Research where a thousand patients a day are being admitted for emergency treatment. Dhaka’s water table has now fallen to 60 metres below the city, and its 16 million citizens suffer from a desperate lack of clean water, exacerbated by the daily power black-outs. Australian Dr Kim Streatfield has been here for 18 years studying the impact of demographics on disease and poverty. Surrounded by dozens of suffering people, he told me how difficult it was to keep his trained staff. Doctors, nurses, IT specialists and analysts have all been poached this year. One of his most experienced doctors told me she’d be willing to “get a boat” to come to Australia.  Dr Streatfield said he considered Australia’s policy of sucking out the best trained locals as immoral, undermining Bangladesh’s ability to escape extreme poverty.  I agree with him, and our selfishness will not be forgotten here or in other developing nations we seem all too willing to plunder.

Singapore, on the other hand, has stabilised its population at five million and expects to keep it there, though it’s also struggling with the balance between immigration and natural increase.  Professor Gavin Jones is another Australian working on population at the Asia Research Institute.  He’s been researching demographic trends across the continent, and it’s ageing rapidly, presenting a far more serious problem for East Asia and China than it does for Australia.  There will inevitably be a human arms race for the world’s best and brightest, and looking at the incredible development going on along Singapore’s waterfront, it’s only a matter of time before Asia returns the favour and starts luring our own professionals for salaries we may not be able to match.  We can survive the loss of a few hundred currency traders and even a few cosmetic surgeons, but when they start coming for our local GPs there will be trouble.

Instead of relying on imported skills, we need to address the appalling lack of training of our own workforce. Julia Gillard recently received a shocking report from Skills Australia — all but ignored by most media commentators — showing that  4.7 million workers don’t have the literacy or numeracy levels to participate fully in a modern workforce.

In other words almost half the workforce is functionally illiterate!  This is a tragic indictment of our government and educational planners and a recipe for disaster. We currently offer adult literacy education to just 1% of those who need it. Meanwhile our TAFE system is in serious trouble, with the numbers of local students enrolled having stagnated for a decade. We ran down our higher education system by greedily trying to turn foreign students into permanent residents. And the Asian students who feel ripped off will not forget the experience in a hurry. Madness!

I suspect Minister Gillard is one of the few politicians who recognises the danger all this represents for our future prosperity.  Countering Kevin Rudd’s “Big Australia”  argument, she has warned that we are squeezing out Australians because of our addiction to  imported skilled labour and foreign students, which she has said “is  not in Australia’s best interests”.

The growth cheerleaders in the Murdoch press, who have suddenly discovered the population issue, continue to harp on about mysterious skills shortages and missing the resources boom.  Funny, they never admit that the mining industry employs just 1.5% of our workforce and that the overwhelming majority of new arrivals head straight to Sydney and Melbourne where they add to the infrastructure and housing crisis rather than helping it.

Would Crikey please go back to the government and strategic thinkers its been talking to and tell them the so called “policy dilemma” is in their imagination. They’ve been looking down the wrong end of the telescope and it’s our current high growth policies that are undermining Australia’s role in the region.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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