Comforting Stories About Endless Growth
- At 14 March 2008
- medium Opinion
After-dinner speech to the conference of Sustainable Population Australia
University House, Australian National University, 14 March 2008
Which Australian politician said this?
“If Australia continues to grow at 4 per cent per annum for the next 20 years my
kids are going to be nominally twice as wealthy as they are now, but I know they
are not going to be twice as happy. One of the questions that is not put in the
political process by either side of politics, let alone answered is: Towards what are
we striving to grow?”
This observation – so resonant of Robert F. Kennedy’s famous speech in which he said
GNP “measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning;
neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything in short,
except that which makes life worthwhile ” – was made by none other than Brendan
Nelson, now the leader of the Opposition but then a back-bencher.
Dr Nelson was posing the most fundamental challenge there is to the whole basis of
politics in Australia. Yet I’d be surprised if he made a similar comment now. Once they
achieve positions of influence, those who doubt the benefits of continued growth,
including population growth, become mute.
Who remembers the strong views Nick Minchin used to express on the need to stabilize
out population? To give him credit, in 1999 as Minister for Science and Technology he
launched a book by Doug Cocks that pointed to the ecological dangers of rapid
population growth, saying:
“We need to consider, today, the consequences of continuing our relatively rapid
population growth. Do we want the mega-cities which could be the consequence
of a large-scale immigration program? What will our grandchildren inherit of our
Minchin was in a small minority in cabinet. For many years Peter Costello delivered
budget speeches in which he said we must increase productivity to get the economy to
grow faster, and introducing measures designed to get people to work more.
High income earners were given tax cuts because high tax rates were thought to
discourage them from working harder, and people outside the labour market were offered
carrots or beaten with sticks to get them to do their patriotic duty.
The fact that Australians work among the longest hours in the industrialized world, that
working hours increased from the early 1980s, and the economy was close to being fully
employed anyway, did nothing to puncture the Government’s determination to get us to
But why would we want to work more? Until the 1980s falling working hours were
universally accepted as a sign of national progress. We celebrated the 45 hour week, then
the 40 hour week and then the 37.5 hour week. We were happy to take part of our greater
productivity in higher incomes and part in more leisure.
But under the harsh ideology of the 1980s, something changed and the old ideas about
what constituted progress were wiped away; someone put a minus sign in front of
progress. In the new Calvinism of economic rationalism taking more leisure became an
indulgence. We had a duty first to the Economy.
I never cease to be amazed at how our leaders and thinkers can push from their
consciousness the obvious facts about the economic and population growth. It is as if
there is a whole part of the brain that is shut down because activating it makes them feel
uncomfortable and forces hard decisions on them.
We saw a display of this a fortnight ago in response to the latest news about the housing
shortage in Australia, which is causing serious difficulty for poorer households in
Yet our leaders are unwilling to consider, let alone mention, what is one of the most
important pressures giving rise to the shortage – the rapid growth of population fuelled
mainly by the record high levels of immigration. According to Bob Birrell, immigration
accounts for 40-50 per cent of the growth in household numbers.
Net immigration to Australia has grown to the unprecedented level of 177,000 per annum
when we include the surge in temporary entrants. This is easily the highest level we have
ever had. Net migration has exceeded 100,000 people for 12 of the last 20 years.2 Labor appears ready to increase levels above the extraordinary highs of the Howard years.
Instead of thinking about the causes of high levels of demand for housing, the focus is
solely on how to increase the supply. This has given rise to the crazy argument, dreamed
up by the Housing Industry Association, that we need to import 15,000 to solve it, this
time builders. Of course, the first question that must be asked is: Where are these
additional people going to live?
In the same week that everyone was wringing their hands about the housing shortage, the Victorian Premier was talking up projections that the rapid growth of Melbourne’s
population would see it become larger than Sydney in a couple of decades. What a source
of state pride. Others asked: Why stop at Sydney, why not Bangkok or Mexico City?
Once again the population blind spot appears; the refusal to consider the implications of
quantity for quality.
In addition, Ross Gittins has argued that, rather than high levels of immigration easing
inflationary pressures by solving skill shortages, the evidence indicates that immigration
adds more to the demand side and is therefore likely to increase inflationary pressures.
The third serious problem facing the country that is being exacerbated by population
growth, but no one dare mention, is climate change. Work by the Australia Institute
showed that the greenhouse gases of the average immigrant to Australia are about double
those that would have been generated had that person not migrated.
A few years ago Hal Turton and I modeled the effect of high versus low immigration
scenarios on expected growth of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Compared to a
policy of zero net immigration, high immigration (at140,000 per annum) say our
emissions increase by an additional 16 per cent or 65 million tones by 2020.
Yet as the Government looks down the barrel of major emission cuts between now and
2020, and even bigger cuts beyond that, no one in government will mention population
growth, one of the major causes of the rapid expansion of Australia’s emissions.
In his interim report Ross Garnaut acknowledges the fact that population growth, in both
fast-growing developing countries like China and mature economies like Australia, will
mean higher rates of growth of greenhouse gas emissions. This will require more
stringent, and more costly, programs to reduce emissions to the absolute levels required
to minimize the chances of dangerous climate change.
However, Garnaut seems to accept that the rate of population growth cannot be one of the
policy levers to be pulled to reduce emissions. I suspect he thinks it is simply not
politically palatable so there is no point in talking about it.
It is strange that population growth should be excluded from discussion of environmental
policy and housing affordability, because it is certainly part of the debate when it comes
to the ageing of the population. But then the answer is said to be higher population
It seems that the population lever can be pulled only in one direction.
One of the keenest advocates of unrestrained population growth is the conservative
columnist Angela Shanahan. One of her favourite targets is what she calls “one of the
most discredited movements of modern times: the zero population growth movement.”3 “These fanatics”, she writes, “have fostered the persistent delusion that overpopulation is
a problem and many people still believe it.”
This is not just her opinion; it is a fact she can prove. Shanahan refers to studies that
show that “the large family living on a suburban block is the most efficient consumer of
energy.” The more people in a household, the less per head they consume, she says, not
quite understanding that when you multiply a per person figure by more persons you
probably get a bigger number.
While Shanahan focuses on per capita and forgets about the absolute, other pro-growth
people focus on the absolute and forget about the per capita. Thus they claim that higher
immigration makes the economy bigger, seemingly blinded top the fact that our standard
of living improves only if higher immigration leads to higher per capita incomes.
The curious thing about Angela Shanahan’s radical pro-natalism is that her support for
fertility does not apply universally. Two years ago she wrote a piece for The Australian
titled ‘Breeding grounds for the disaffected’ which bewailed the alarmingly high levels of
fertility among Islamic women in Australia.4 Compared to a fertility rate of 1.7 for all
women, Islamic women breed at a rate of 2.68, she wrote. “Aside from Pentecostalist
Christians”, she notes, “no other single religious group has as many children.”
In passing she made the peculiar observation that “people who have children will be more
numerous in the future than those who don’t”. I think that is true only if you can clone
Understandably, Shanahan does not follow through on her argument and propose a
solution to the problem of excessive Islamic fertility. As she is strongly opposed to
abortion, and has attacked the pill as a blight on women, the only solution is to encourage
Christians to breed faster still. That’s what she’d like – a new race of fast-breeder
Incidentally, Shanahan herself is doing her best to tip the scales in the right direction. As
she rarely fails to point out whenever she gets near a microphone, she is the mother of
In an article in The Spectator titled ‘How I had nine babies’, Shanahan reported on how
Italian customs officials shouted ‘bravo’ when they discovered the size of her brood.5 The
tag-line for the piece read: “Angela Shanahan says the secret of fecundity is a dutiful
She and her hard-working husband, Dennis Shanahan, political editor for The Australian,
seem intent on single-handedly offsetting the dire consequences of Islamic fertility and
solving the ageing crisis.
So the population debate has generated some new mathematical devices. I can discern
three of them.
1. The per capita/absolute fallacy, whereby you are free to select per capita figures
or absolute figures depending on which gives the desired answer.
2. The incomplete specification model, whereby if the influence of one factor in a
statistical relationship is politically awkward, then feel free just to leave it out.
3. The tyranny of the straight line, according to which if more has been good in the
past then more can only be better in the future.
These are the enemies of reasoned debate over Australia’s population. They are
formidable psychological hurdles to be overcome. The response can be no other than to
keep plugging away.
In the political doldrums in 1986 John Howard famously said: “The times will suit me”.
For those of us who understand that the comforting stories of endless growth are no more
than stories, we too will need to wait until the times suit us.
2 Ross Gittins, ‘An inconvenient truth about rising immigration’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 March 2008
3 Angela Shanahan, ‘ Doomsayers on kids need to lighten up’, The Australian, 29 December 2007
4 Angela Shanahan, ‘Breeding grounds for the disaffected’, The Australian, 18 February 2006
5Angela Shanahan, ‘How I had none babies’, The Spectator, 23 November 23, 2002.