Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Populate... and panic?

The politics of population will be high on the public policy agenda of 2010, with three “summits” already planned for Queensland. So dust off your 1968 copy of ‘The Population Bomb’ or your 1798 copy of An Essay on the Principle of Population, by the Rev Thomas Malthus. It seems everything old is about to be new, again.

“A DECADE of unprecedented population growth in Queensland will leave a chronic shortfall of 50,000 houses by the middle of next year.” This was the opening sentence of one media report which canvassed the issues of population growth and housing shortages in Queensland.

The reality, as usual, is much less dramatic. Even boring. Far from being unprecedented, Queensland’s rate of population growth is trucking along within the 2% to 2.5% per annum band, much as it has since the late 1980s (see Fig 3, Department of Infrastructure & Planning’s “Population Update 2009”). Further, Government projections are for a slowdown in growth, as (then) Planning Minister Paul Lucas told Parliament in 2008: “the latest state-wide population projections for the next 25 years showed an estimated annual growth rate of 1.7 per cent, well down on the average rate of 2.4 per cent in the five years to June 2006.”

So why this sense that we’re now growing faster than before? Why the need for summits? More to the point, what are they likely to conclude?

The Bligh Summit & others

On the 7th December last year, Premier Anna Bligh announced a population growth summit, saying “here in Queensland, population growth is both our biggest challenge and our best opportunity." A seven member panel of growth ‘experts’ (including the ACF and Tim Flannery) has been appointed and will advise the government by “putting forward ideas that are concrete, real and practical, so that that summit will actually generate actions that can help manage our growth."

There’s a saying in politics about ‘never holding an inquiry until you know the outcome in advance.’ While the Premier has maintained she is ‘pro growth’, the composition of this panel of experts tends to point to a less positive view on growth, especially from the environmental lobby.

Also getting in on the act is the Local Government Association of Queensland, who are holding their own Inquiry into Population Policy, led by Prof Peter McDonald and Professor Lyndsay Neilson (the latter of whom was the architect of much of the ‘Better Cities’ program, and is a pretty capable and clever bloke). Announcing the inquiry, LGAQ President Paul Bell said "By 2031, current estimates are that the state will be home to 6.3 million people, a long-term annual growth rate or more than 1.7 per cent per annum.” That’s slower than the 2% to 2.5% of recent decades, but still sufficient reason to have an inquiry and to create a population policy. Bell made some sense stating: “We believe a state population policy could provide clear guidance towards the future locations of population growth and infrastructure provision. At present, we simply react to the trends in growth rather than seeking to influence aspects of population growth.” You have to ask however what purpose the SEQ Regional Plan is supposed to serve if not precisely that.

And because there’s no show without punch, the Property Council are also holding a ‘population symposium’ of industry views, the results of which will be taken to the official Bligh Summit. The symposium will include “a panel of ‘three wise people’ who will be tasked with observing the day’s proceedings and developing the Property Industry’s Population Growth Action Plan.”

Some perspective.

Opinions on population are about to be as common as warts on a toad so some perspective will be handy.

In terms of growth, The Pulse last year tried to pour cold water on the notion that Australia was somehow experiencing runaway growth (see here). The same applies to Queensland where growth rates of under 2% are hardly noteworthy on a global scale. Have at look at the global table of city growth, provided through the website www.citymayors.com
[table removed for print purposes]
What’s interesting is that growth rates of below 2% don’t get close to being in the top 100 on a global scale. The US cities of Austin and Atlanta come in at 76 and 78 – with roughly the growth rates experienced by Queensland in recent years but with our predicted growth to slow to 1.7%, we’ll be well down on the list.
The same website provided some interesting urban comparisons of scale and urban density. (Keep in mind the definitions of urban boundary and population counts may vary, but this is still a handy ready reckoner for order of magnitude comparisons).
Demand, or supply?

So if our rates of growth aren’t much different to what we’ve experienced in the past, and if in global terms our growth rates, population size and urban density aren’t exactly noteworthy, why the concern over population? Is it really about growth (ie demand) or something else?

The answer could lie with supply – the supply of infrastructure needed to keep pace with growth, of any magnitude. If the people of the south east corner are concerned about growth, they commonly express this in terms of frustration with increased traffic congestion, capacity of public transport, limits on water, availability of hospital beds, energy provision, housing shortages, etc. These are really issues of limited infrastructure supply in the past 20 years. We’re now in a catch up mode under both the Brisbane City Council and State Government infrastructure priorities and work lists, but there’s a lot of catching up to do, something generally acknowledged by governments of all persuasions. Hence the frustration expressed by the community?

Would it concern us if the population of the south east reached 4 million (as predicted under the SEQ Regional Plan) in 30 years’ time, provided the traffic still flowed, public transport wasn’t stretched for capacity, and there were enough houses to go around without inflating prices, sufficient public hospital beds, plenty of water supply, power supply and other infrastructure to maintain the quality of life?

How ‘big’ is ‘big enough?

I suspect the physical population numbers and rates of growth around 2% aren’t the root cause of community and political concern. Providing adequate infrastructure to keep pace with growth seems more like it, but everyone will have their own opinion.

One question though is going to be difficult to answer: just how big is big enough? If a future population of 4 million in the south east should be readily managed provided we match it to infrastructure, what about a population of 6 million, or 8 million? Sure these aren’t big numbers on a global scale - Boston has a population of 4 million already but is still noted for its beauty, and Paris comes in at close to 10 million and seems to manage its reputation well enough – but how will the future residents of south east Queensland feel about numbers of that magnitude?

What will they conclude?

The range of community opinions soon to be sought on the questions of population and growth will span everything from ‘stop everything now’ to ‘just keep going forever.’ Where in this arc of opinion will the pendulum of summits stop? What will we conclude as the result of these summits?

Hopefully, rational heads will prevail and we’ll conclude there is no emergency of growth now or in the foreseeable future. But there is a huge infrastructure burden that’s an immediate consequence of growth. Somehow it needs to be funded, and delivered.

Will the population summits focus on how that’s to be done, or will they go the way of the great Kevin Rudd ‘Australia 2020 Summit’ – largely a ‘conversation’ and ‘discussion’ but one that has quickly been forgotten?

One thing’s for certain: you’re likely to be asked your opinion very soon. You might as well be ready with an answer.


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