President’s column

If housing affordability is related to demand, and demand is related to population growth, is it okay to ask if we have a population policy?

The ABC’s Four Corners program Big Australia: Are we ready? did the nation a service this week by examining these related issues in an intelligent and balanced way. I encourage you to watch it.

The program touched upon the fact that some of our earliest politicians expected Australia to have a massive population. Australia is about the same size as the continental United States, so the population growth of the USA was their model. In 1888 the Premier of NSW Henry Parkes predicted an Australian population of “100 million souls”. Many confidently expected Australia to reach that number in the 20th Century.

Whilst not reaching those lofty predictions, Australia has become one of the most urbanised nations on earth and is becoming ever more urbanised. Despite our size regional areas often struggle to maintain local populations, let alone grow, and few migrants want to settle in the regions. Therefore the main stresses of population growth are felt in our major capital cities.

But the population discussion is not one dimensional. Many councils in regional areas would warmly welcome an increase in population, and some have migrant attraction policies. Many regional areas have been losing population for years, both because young people find cities more attractive and because, over a long period, increasingly efficient farming methods have led to a decline in local job opportunities. 

If we have a population policy it must respond to these issues as much as the pressures in the cities, and the important role that migration and refugee programs continue to play in Australia’s success.

All levels of government need to be involved, and we need to engage with local communities meaningfully, with full disclosure about all the issues.

For example, should we encourage more people to move to the regions? How can we encourage young people to stay there, or return there with their city-gained qualifications? Should cities continue to grow, and if so how? And if not, is it actually possible to stop their growth? How important is growth to our economy? How do other economies survive and thrive without our level of growth? And how many people should or could we sustain in each location and as a nation?

And, in the midst of searching for all of these answers and policies, what is the impact on the viability of communities at the grass roots level? Growth provides additional revenue, but at what cost?

Do you have a population policy for your community? If not, why not?