population growth
(Image: Unsplash/Madeleine Ragsdale)

Walk out the front door of your rental accommodation — the one you’re stuck in because your apartment building has serious defects that have made it uninhabitable — get in your car and spend an hour stuck in congestion, or crammed up against other passengers on public transport, knowing that the same commute next year will be more congested and more crowded, not less.

That’s the future for the people of Sydney and Melbourne on present policy settings, and it’s the price we’ll have to pay for policymakers’ and business’ obsession with high immigration. We’re addicted to it, and, as Infrastructure Australia’s latest Infrastructure Audit demonstrates, ever-worsening congestion is the price we’ll pay.

The recurring theme of the 2019 Audit is the impact of a rapidly growing population on infrastructure, with an entire supplementary report on Urban Transport Crowding and Congestion identifying how much worse congestion will get in Sydney and Melbourne over the next decade, and what it will cost the economy.

“The future the report paints is one of growing congestion costs and public transport crowding, driven by a growing population,” it says. “In the last 10 years, Australia’s population has grown by 4 million, nearly twice as many new Australians than the previous decade.”

But “Australia’s urban population has also been growing twice as fast as other areas.” And that growth is concentrated in Sydney and Melbourne. The total cost to the Australian economy will be about $39 billion in 2031. But congestion isn’t a nebulous economic cost spread across all our economic activity — it has real social and human impacts in terms of quality of life, time spent with family and major decisions such as where to live.

It isn’t merely transport — the audit proper covers all varieties of infrastructure. On water, for example, it offers this warning :

While climate change is tightening water supplies in many parts of the country, our population has grown rapidly, with growth concentrated in urban areas. This trend is likely to continue, with the population of all capitals projected to grow faster than the balance of their respective state or territory. Impacts will be felt most in the south-eastern regions, where the joint factors of population growth and climate change are expected to be most pronounced.

While the government insists that it has reduced immigration — as minister Alan Tudge did overnight — in fact it has only tinkered at the margins, reducing the permanent migration level by a few thousand while presiding over a massive increase in temporary migration.

As a recent report by temporary migration spruikers CEDA shows, temporary migrant numbers have surged from already high levels over the last decade: working holidaymakers are up 35,000 a year since 2010, special category visas up over 100,000, bridging visas — primarily due to the government losing control of the onshore humanitarian visa program — more than doubled to over 170,000 and, most of all, foreign students, up to nearly half a million a year.

In 2005, there were around 800,000 temporary visa holders in Australia, apart from tourists; in 2018 there were 1.6 million. Even now, the government continues to boast about adding to the number of migrant workers.

The influx has meant that big infrastructure investment programs by the NSW Coalition government and the Victorian Labor government have barely kept pace with the needs of Sydney and Melbourne as those cities deal with rapid increases in population. Infrastructure Australia’s report effectively concludes state governments need to maintain the recent surge in investment just to keep pace with projected population increases — let alone catch up on the backlog.

The beneficiary of this extraordinary surge in temporary migrants under the federal Coalition has been the business sector, which has used it to push down wages and engage in an epidemic of wage theft that shows no signs of abating despite years of revelations about rip-offs of visa holders. Ordinary workers have in effect paid the price twice over, with stagnant wages and growing commuting times and more crowded infrastructure, while business has enjoyed stronger demand and lower costs.

And while the NSW government has worked hard to keep a stream of major infrastructure projects moving forward, it has done virtually nothing to fix the catastrophic mess of building certification in NSW that it inherited from Labor, despite being repeatedly and bluntly told that major problems were unfolding. Even now, it continues to drag the chain on re-regulating a sector that should never have been deregulated in the first place as population pressure drove the move to medium and high-density housing across Sydney.

At home, on the commute, at work — millions of people continue to pay the cost of our addiction to temporary migration and the failure of policymakers to deal with the infrastructure challenges it has created for us.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey