Australia: `Sustainable population?' -- Scapegoating migrants and refugees for the capitalist system's ills

To read more on the discussion around population, click HERE.

By Graham Matthews

July 24, 2010 -- Green Left Weekly -- In one of her first policy changes after replacing Kevin Rudd as leader of the Australian Labor Party, Prime Minister Julia Gillard dumped Rudd’s idea of a “big Australia”. On June 26, Gillard said “Australia should not hurtle down the track towards a big population”. Instead, she called for a “sustainable population”.

Almost four weeks on, however, Labor’s policy has no details — just lots of rhetoric designed to pander to fears that immigration (particularly asylum seekers) is causing a raft of social problems.

There was evidence Labor’s factional leaders were unhappy with Rudd’s election prospects for some months. Polls showed a worrying decline from the lofty heights of his first two years; there were mounting signs he was seen as out of touch with the electorate. Media sources reported Rudd was being assailed by Labor MPs about concern over the government’s asylum-seeker policy. Immigration minister Chris Evans reportedly said on July 14 that the immigration debate was “killing the government”.

On June 19, Labor lost the NSW state seat of Penrith to the convervative Liberal Party in a by-election sparked by the resignation of a corrupt Labor MP. The Liberal Party received a swing of more than 25%. Its primary vote was double Labor’s. While Labor officially blamed the former MP for the party’s poor showing, the writing was on the wall for Rudd.

For the people of Penrith, most of who are in the federal seat of Lindsay, the issue of asylum seekers was paramount. “Everywhere you went in Penrith they were talking about boatpeople”, an unnamed Labor MP told the June 21 Australian.

On the evening of June 23, Gillard informed Rudd she was challenging him for the PM’s job. The rest is history.

`Sustainable population'

Gillard’s call for a “sustainable population” is intended to pander to the concerns of outer-suburban voters, who have seen their quality of life decline over the years. Trains, surgeries and hospitals have become more crowded, roads more congested and housing more expensive.

Labor’s suggestion is that population growth (read immigration, particularly asylum seekers) is the problem, and that Labor will ease the squeeze through its commitment to a “sustainable population”.

On July 20, Gillard appeared at the National Population Summit, organised by the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils. It was a perfect platform to repeat Labor’s mantra. “Sustainability is all about the liveability of our suburbs”, she said. “Growth should improve the quality of our lives, not make them worse.”

Gillard made sympathetic noises about western Sydney roads being more like Los Angeles traffic jams and the trains being a “sardine express to Central, Town Hall or Wynyard”. She said: “It’s time for government to ask this question: can we really ask western Sydney to absorb thousands and thousands more and guarantee the quality of our lives?”

Apart from saying there was “no quick fix”, Gillard offered no solution. She repeated existing policies, such as widening the M5 motorway in south-western Sydney, establishing medical superclinics and promised more funding for infrastructure.

But on what she would do to make Australia’s population “sustainable”, Gillard said only that Labor would develop a policy after the August 21, 2010, election.

What is the problem?

Labor is offering false solutions to a very real and increasing problem. Road congestion, overcrowded public transport, high housing prices and inadequate health services are eating away at working people’s quality of life. But is the problem caused by population growth?

The period of fastest population growth in Australia was in the post-World War II period, when increased fertility rates (the “baby boom”) combined with assisted migration. Between 1945 and 1979, the population of Australia almost doubled, from 7.4 million to 14.4 million, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Unemployment remained below 3% throughout the years of strongest population growth, only beginning to rise after the worldwide recession of the early 1970s.

Government investment in infrastructure led to the development of major projects such as the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme. Growth in social infrastructure was funded by government to account for increased demand.

The end of the post-war boom in the early 1970s created a fiscal crisis of the state. Fear of inflation became paramount. Governments across the world, beginning with the Conservative Party government of Margaret Thatcher in Britain in 1979, began to adopt neoliberal policies and massively cutting government spending.

In Australia, the neoliberal counter-revolution was begun by the Labor government of Bob Hawke in 1983. Since Hawke, successive governments — both Labor and Liberal-National Coalition — have continued the austerity drive. Government spending (apart from defence) has been wound down. Existing public infrastructure has been allowed to age and decay. Many public services (such as the “public” transport system in Victoria) have been privatised. Government subsidies for private health, private schools and private childcare centres have increased.

Gillard (and Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott) blame population growth for the decline of living standards, because that lets government off the hook.

But the real culprit is governments' failure to invest in improved services, and demands that any new investment be required to turn a profit, ahead of meeting needs.

Blaming increased population for the hurt being felt by working people is a smokescreen, designed to draw attention from the fact that both major parties intend to maintain the screws on public funding, lower taxes for big business and increasingly privatised public services.

What about the environment?

In spruiking “sustainable population”, Gillard seeks to appease those who are concerned about the environment. In the absence of a policy to deal with the threat of climate change, she is trying to change the agenda.

Neither Labor nor the Coalition is willing to invest in the huge transformation of energy generation, away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources, needed to make a real contribution to stopping climate change. Both parties are wedded to continuing Australia’s coal, oil and gas industries indefinitely, despite the huge contribution burning fossil fuels makes to carbon emissions.

In promoting her idea of “sustainable population”, however, Gillard makes a point of emphasising the impact that population growth has had on water availability. She ignores the fact that households used only 11% of all water consumed in Australia in 2004/05, despite the data coming from the federal government’s National Water Commission.

Countries with much larger populations than Australia make much smaller greenhouse gas contributions. With a population of 22 million, Australia emitted about 533 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2006, according to the federal department of climate change.

Spain, an industrialised country with a population more than twice that of Australia at 45.5 million, emitted 433 Mt in 2006, according to the United Nations Statistics Division. Carbon pollution is a result of unsustainable industrial processes, not unsustainable population.

Broad-scale land clearing remains the biggest threat to biodiversity in Australia, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. It also leads to soil salinity and increased carbon emissions. But most land clearance happens for agricultural reasons, in sparsely populated areas. The problem is caused by unsustainable farming — not unsustainable population.

Beating the drum of “sustainable population” will not make working people’s living standards any better. Lowering immigration, refusing asylum to refugees and reducing fertility rates will not reverse privatisation or force the government to build better public transport, hospitals or schools. The advantage to politicians is that talk is cheap.

Providing the social infrastructure that cities need at their current size — let alone accounting for growth — will cost money. Billions of dollars would be required to provide the transport, health and education systems that working people need, let alone the cost of dealing with climate change. But it’s money neither Gillard nor parliamentary opposition leader Tony Abbott are willing to spend.

While we allow government to be dominated by two capitalist parties, neither of which has the intention of challenging big business, weasel words about “sustainable population” are all we’re likely to get.

Fixing the problems is not about reducing population growth, but increasing government planning and investment. Neither contestant for the job of PM is promising that.

[Graham Matthews is an activist with the Socialist Alliance in the south-western suburbs of Sydney. This article first appreared in Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading socialist newspaper.]

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Tue, 07/27/2010 - 21:37



Posted by Don Arthur on Sunday, July 25, 2010

Shrinking suburbs in growing cities

"Lunchtime midweek in Campbelltown’s main street in the heart of western Sydney is a slow-moving affair", writes the Australian’s Jennifer Hewett. "Cars drive in and out of the one-way street at a leisurely pace. Business is not exactly booming in most of the small, tired-looking shops. There’s plenty of room on the footpath for pedestrians."

And it’s not surprising there’s plenty of room in Campbelltown. Between 2001 and 2006, the population of the Campbelltown LGA fell by 2.1% — a net loss of 3019 people.

As the map below shows, many areas of Sydney experienced population decline between 2001 and 2006 (pdf). Some of the booming new suburbs of the 1960s and 1970s are slowly emptying out. While the children have grown up and moved on many of their parents have stayed behind. And when these empty nesters own their own home, there is little incentive to move. To pick just one example, between 2001 and 2006, Sutherland Shire added 2494 new dwellings but failed to arrest the decline in population. With fewer people in each home, the number of residents fell by 1015 (pdf).

A declining population can go hand in hand with rising house prices. But with fewer residents and more of them on aged pensions, local shops will struggle. Planners in areas like Fairfield and Sutherland worry about the future viability of smaller retailers. A 2008 strategy paper prepared for Sutherland Shire Council reported:

… the negative growth rate of 0.15% represents a population that is stagnant. The lack of growth will have long term adverse consequences for Sutherland Shire. This suggests a difficult future for retailers in the smaller centres of the Shire, particularly given that Westfield Miranda also has the capacity to expand by 25% and it is expected to pursue this potential. Without growth, the local business community will not be able to compete against the strength of the largest retailers (pdf).

Not everyone is worried. Some argue that renewal is just a matter of time. A report prepared by the Victorian Department of Planning and Community Development explains:

With household sizes diminishing as a result of this out-movement of young adults, such suburbs experience population decrease. Over time such suburbs will see an ageing and dying off of older populations and a renewal as new households move into the area (pdf).

With so much of our urban space devoted to low density housing, Australia’s population debate seems surreal. Even inner suburban LGAs like Leichhardt are less densly populated than they were at the end of the 1960s. Leichhardt’s population may have increased since 2001 but the population was higher in 1971 than it was in 2001 (pdf).

Columnists like Andrew Bolt say that our cities "bursting at the seams" but even he knows that the problem isn’t too many people in too little space. The real problem is that we don’t have the planning and infrastructure we need to make our cities work.

Simply releasing more land on the fringe will dump more traffic onto already congested roads. And allowing yesterday’s greenfield developments to decay into underpopulated greyfields will see local shopping centres giving way to larger more distant shopping malls and even more traffic. Free parking might not last too much longer.

In time, the new suburbs on the fringe will go into decline. But if travel to work times rise and petrol becomes more expensive, some may never undergo renewal. In the Atlantic Christopher Leinberger warned that America’s outer suburbs may become the new slums. There’s a risk that some of our new suburbs will too.

This entry was posted on Sunday, July 25, 2010 at 2:26 PM and filed under Uncategorized. Follow comments here with the RSS 2.0 feed.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Tue, 08/10/2010 - 18:00


Tuesday, 10 August 2010

In recent months, calls for population control policies have come to the fore in discussions about how best to tackle climate change. Friends of the Earth Sydney is troubled by the risks associated with calling for population control in the name of climate change. Such demands can justify the undermining of women’s reproductive rights and fuel racist migration and border control agendas.

Already, we can see this playing out in federal politics. One of the first actions of Prime Minister Gillard was to utilise the rhetoric of “sustainability” as a rationale for dumping Rudd’s “Big Australia” policy.1 This clever use of our environmental concerns has been labelled by many as classic “dog whistle politics”; Gillard has appealed to the left with the rhetoric of sustainability whilst subtly placating the right with compromises of reduced immigration and suggestions of tougher border control policies. Whilst the “Big Australia” policy was far from perfect, we cannot let politicians and other power holders co-opt our concerns about sustainability and climate change to push through population policies that are racist and sexist.

As a movement, we should reject population control policies, and instead fight for solutions to climate change that are not only effective, but also just for the global community.

We can’t blame migrants for Australia’s over-consumption

Many climate groups who call for a sustainable population rely on the fact that when migrants come to Australia they often adopt Australia’s carbon-intensive lifestyles, which increases domestic emissions. We suggest that this is simplistic and dangerous argument. To begin with, by merely restricting the movement of people into Australia we do nothing to stop unsustainable levels of consumption by Australians that cause environmental damage.

But more importantly, we must recognise that our way of living in Australia, which is a rich so-called “first world” nation, has created the conditions where people want to escape poverty, labour exploitation and environmental problems in poorer “third world” nations by migrating. Yet it is this very process of “first world” development that has caused the climate crisis. We cannot then turn our backs on the very people that we have exploited to build our carbon intensive lifestyles; we must recognise our carbon debt and act in global solidarity to stop the global problem of climate change. 

As a huge emitter both historically and presently, Australia has an enormous ecological debt to pay.  By reducing migration we’re penalising migrants for a problem that Australians have caused. To challenge over-consumption and social inequity, we must target the social structures that are at the root of the problem, not the individuals who are victimised by them.

Furthermore, often arguments for population control overlook the fact that Australia is a colonised nation. The urge to protect “our” food and water reserves, fails to recognise that we are colonisers. We must remember that we are part of a culture that has and continues to disrespect Indigenous peoples and their lands and waters. We cannot demand population control – or any action in the name of climate change– that does not provide space for traditional owners to make decisions about their lives, lands and waters.

Because of climate change there is even more imperative to confront over-consumption and share the world’s resources. What we need to talk about is how to share these resources equitably and sustainably.

Demands for population control are feeding racist border control agendas

A side-effect of the focus on population, sometimes intentional sometimes accidental, is the use of the environmental concerns to push racist agendas.  At times, right wing groups have used arguments about environmental issues to benefit anti-immigration agendas (such as in July 2009, when the Australia First Party announced that it would contest the federal election on an anti-immigration platform for the benefit for the environment and social cohesion).2 Although such groups may pay lip service to arguments about sustainability, their aim is to persecute people from different cultural backgrounds. When we, as a movement, talk about limiting population growth, we feed these racist agendas.

Population control policies may open the door for sexist policies

Blaming climate change on population growth helps to make way for the re-emergence and intensification of top-down population policies, which are deeply disrespectful of women, particularly women of colour and their children.

Just one example of this is the PopOffsets project, launched by the UK-based Optimum Population Trust. The project enables predominantly white people in minority (rich) nations to continue to over-consume whilst absolving their climate conscience by paying an organisation to ensure predominantly non-white women from majority (poorer) nations access family planning centres and have fewer children.3 This project effectively pushes the responsibility of solving climate change onto women in the majority world and makes women into an object of control - all in the name of climate change. As a movement, we cannot support such policies. The risks for justice are just too great.  

A climate justice approach to population and climate change

We can envision a world with a safe climate that does not invoke racist and potentially sexist calls for population control. Whilst the population size, growth and movement of any community undoubtedly impacts on the relationship between people and the environment, population change does not necessarily mean climate change.

In Australia, many communities are already feeling the pressure from the lack of affordable housing, scarce water reserves, and aging public transport and infrastructure. These are real issues, but we cannot blame migrants for these problems. Nor can we ignore the history of colonisation in this continent, and Australia’s ecological debt as a wealthy carbon-hungry nation.  Instead, we can help build a global climate justice movement to confront the root causes of environmental destruction and work together to share our resources equitably and collectively so that our world is safe for all people, no matter where they live.  


[1]Bonny Symons-Brown, “Gillard Rejects Rudd’s ‘Big Australia’”, SMH Online, <>
[2] Jensen, Erik 2009, 'Right-wing genie out of the bottle', Sydney Morning Herald, 9 July, p 5.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Sun, 08/15/2010 - 19:20


M E D I A    R E L E A S E   -  F O R   I M M E D I A T E   R E L E A S E
 Socialist Alliance Newcastle
 472 Hunter Street
 Newcastle NSW 2300
 02 4926 5328 

People and Planet before profits  

What is the ‘sustainable population’ of
coal and uranium mines? Or livestock?

Socialist Alliance candidate for Newcastle Zane Alcorn believes that ‘population’- and boat people – are being used as a scapegoat for further climate inaction.

Talk of actual concrete programs to make any substantial reduction in Australia’s massive carbon emissions – for instance by replacing coal fired power with renewables- is conspicuously absent from the mainstream election debate. Dick Smith is promoting his concerns with the effect of population on water supply.

Alcorn believes there are other ways to save water than denying refugees their universal human right to seek asylum: “I was recently part of a protest at Olympic dam, the worlds largest uranium mine, which uses 37million litres of water per day, against the wishes of the traditional owners, the Arabunna people. If we need to conserve water why don’t we shut down that mine?”

“In December I will be attending climate camp at Bayswater power station; its water cooling system uses vast amounts of water. The coal burned in it is first washed with huge quantities of water. Wind and baseload solar energy, by comparison, use miniscule amounts of water. Why aren’t we reducing the population of coal mines and coal fired power stations?”

Alcorn says “I am not a vegetarian myself but I know many people who are - on ecological grounds - and I think they have a good point. According to the world water council it takes 13,000litres of water to produce one kilogram of beef; compared to 1000 litres for a kilo of wheat. Australia is home to over twenty million beef cattle; couldn’t we reduce that number by a few hundred thousand a year to save water?”

“The amount of water that is used to graze cattle is immense. The methane emissions are formidable. I’d rather see everyone eat a bit less meat than send Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka to get tortured and killed.”

“I’d rather see rainwater tanks and greywater recycling systems on every Australian house than send Afghan asylum seekers back to a country still occupied by a heavily armed and trigger happy US and Australian invasion force”.

“Australia could comfortably take many more refugees than we currently do. There is plenty of work to be done here- we have a renewable energy grid to build and an ageing population to take care of. What I want to know from the Liberal and Labor candidates is this: what do they think is a ‘sustainable population’ of coal mines? Or Uranium mines? Or beef cattle?”

“And when are we going to see a steep increase in the population of baseload solar thermal plants and wind turbines?”

Authorised by Simon Cunich for the Socialist Alliance Newcastle.