Population policy is one of those deeply vexed issues that often seems to bring out the worst in political discussions. Too often it is used as a cypher for racist politics. Too often, those who are honestly trying to grapple with the issue sensibly are labelled racist by association. I wish I knew which of those two categories Julia Gillard’s comments of recent days belong to — dog whistle or unfairly criticised as such. I suspect we’ll find out very soon.

Meanwhile, within the Greens Party membership it’s no secret there is a long-standing dispute over how to deal with and communicate on the issue. I stress that these are my opinions and not necessarily those of the party.

Having got the preamble and the caveats out of the way, here’s my two cents’ worth on population.

Australia is not an island.

Not on this increasingly small globe, it isn’t. And it’s not earth-shattering to note that population is an issue of far greater significance globally than it is locally. Population stresses overseas dwarf any here in Australia. With business-as-usual approaches to foreign policy, aid and climate, those stresses will inevitably boil over and inexorably head our way. And here’s the rub.

Australia, frankly, cannot be a fortress. No matter what we do, if people want to come here — as they will in coming decades more and more — we won’t be able to stop them. If you think a few thousand refugees each year is difficult to handle, wait until climate-related desertification, sea-level rise and storms start uprooting tens of millions of people from Bangladesh to Kiribati, from the Mekong Delta to the plains of western China. Scott Morrison’s tough rhetoric will not be able to stop them coming to Australia.

We need to accept that the path we are heading down currently is a dead end. We have to change direction.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey