Well, the Australian population has passed 25 million. Twenty five million! When I opened a primary school geography book in the 1970s, it was less than 14 million. Older readers — most of my readers — might remember when it was less than 10 million, before the end of the 1950s. You’d have to be 80 or over to remember when it was in the 7 millions on the census (which excluded Indigenous Australians, remember) — a genuinely small Anglo-Celtic outpost at the bottom of Asia, settled in part so as to make it easier to colonise Asia, and thus scaring itself to death from the 1870s onwards that Asia might reverse the process.
Twenty five million is an absurdly low number of course. Prior to any consideration of whether the continent could take that many more, reflect on how singular and ridiculous this place is. Forty percent of the population are in two cities. Even if you look at where people really are, we are enormously empty. Draw a line from, say, Portland, Victoria, to just above Brisbane, and the resulting “green triangle” will contain about 70% of the population, and still be largely empty. That triangle is about the size of France and Germany combined, or mainland South East Asia, each hosting nine-figure populations.
But it never feels that way for most of us, living in the three big cities (including Brisbane-Gold Coast), either in dense inner-cores, or in mountain-to-coast sprawl concreted over every natural feature. So the politics of this vast, sparse continent are really that of city-states — intense battles for turf, identity, recognition, and the maintenance of comparative social power between different groups.
Around them, neglected hinterlands look on. This too is an accident. Until 1910, more people lived outside of state capitals than in them, and the green triangle hosted a far more geographically balanced society. Country cities had their own newspapers, theatre companies, lecture circuits, civic life, all offering just about everything that could be got in Melbourne.
We began to tilt towards the capitals after that, and we have been tilting ever since. Melbourne now has more than four million people; the next-largest city in Victoria is Geelong which has about 150,000. The imbalance is absurd and unhealthy — the product of combining high levels of immigration year-on-year, with the failure to have a truly integrated regional and urban development policy. The imbalance occurs as much within our capitals as without, as, instead of creating multi-polar cities, we have simply added concentric rings of suburban footprint around the existing ones. In Melbourne you can see where the city “should” have stopped by the extent of the tramlines.
Decades ago, we should have been turning country towns into cities, small cities into bigger regional capitals, connecting them by short-distance high-speed trains. Instead, we let it go, and we are paying the price for it, and will do so for quite a while to come.
The immigration rate isn’t likely to come down anytime soon, barring a real economic crunch. Both major parties will pay lip service to reduction, to please sections of their base, but it will go on. Founded in geopolitics, as a base to forestall the French, our population bursts have always had that spirit. We began our post-Anglo transformation in 1948, the year the British quit India, and the empire ceased to be a framing world order. We are building furiously now for the decades to come, when the end of the American century comes near, and climate change begins to categorically shift global relations.
Then everything is up for grabs, the most striking possible result being a protracted third world war, in which the arrangements put in place by expanding European imperialism in the 1820s and 1830s are finally abolished. In those circumstances, the bigger the better to have as much bargaining power as possible. In a burning world, our green triangle might have to take many times 15 million people. There is no reason that the entity known as Australia founded in 1788 could not be ended a summarily in 2067 or 2059 — or 2031 for matter.
Whatever is said about our reasons for doing it, those are the real reasons, the sort of thing that a political-administrative-military deep state maintains as governments come and go. Multiculturalism, the form of top-down cultural refashioning to serve quantitative needs, is, in the last analysis, a form of military engineering.
So if we’re going to do it, it better be done well — not with the haphazard neoliberal half-in, half-out, but with good old fashioned statist dirigisme, for really big stuff. The money figures should be in the tens and hundreds of billions for multi-decade projects, as we pass 25 million, and head towards 50, in whatever form geography will be taught in, in the years and decades to come.