Monday, August 30, 2010

Fortress Australia: ground hog day

Roughly ten years ago I penned a series of articles lamenting the sudden lurch to all things rural and the demonisation of urban interests. Pauline Hanson was in full flight and politicians the country over were happy to promise anything to disaffected (largely rural) voters to regain their trust. City slickers were persona non grata. I thought we’d made some gains since then, but the results of the recent federal election are shaping up as ground hog day for urban and regional policy. Only this time, it could be worse.

Two things are shaping in the aftermath of the 2010 Federal Election as portents of things to come for our economy and the future of our urban and regional centres. They are the combination of what seems now to be an orthodox view that Australia is close to reaching its maximum sustainable population, combined with the political tilt to the Bob Katterisms of rural politics. Together, this could mean we are about to usher in an era of low growth, high protection policies. Fortress Australia could easily become a reality no matter which side ultimately claims the keys to The Lodge.

This is in part because prior to the last Federal Election, both sides of politics became suddenly shy of the long term growth patterns of population in Australia. In September 2009, Wayne Swan released some early findings of the Intergenerational Report, which predicted Australia could reach 35 million by 2050. Although this rate of growth was pretty much the same as the preceding 40 years, the figure was greeted with alarm by media, the community, and much of the political herd. ‘Australia Explodes’ went the headlines and the lemmings followed. (See this blog post from a year ago).

A month later, then PM Rudd was proclaiming that he believed in ‘a big Australia’ but by mid 2010 his later nemesis Julia Gillard was proclaiming she ‘did not believe in a big Australia’ and as Prime Minister declared we shouldn’t ‘hurtle’ toward 36 million but instead plan for a ‘sustainable’ population, renaming the Population Minister the Sustainable Population Minister in the process. The word ‘sustainable’ in this context stands for ‘slow down or stop.’

Then came the election campaign with Abbot promising to ‘slash’ the ‘unsustainable’ immigration numbers (that his mentor John Howard had been responsible for) and to ‘turn back the boats.’ Population growth was to be cut to 1.4% (a long term trend) and migrants potentially forced to settle in rural areas (some dodgy form of postcode migration policy).

However you look at it, the message from both Gillard and Abbot was clear: support for a ‘big Australia’ (that being 35 million by 2050 or the same rate of growth we’d seen in the last 40 years) was gone.

Add to that the quixotic entrepreneur Dick Smith and his population documentary ‘The Population Puzzle’ where he alleged Australia was at risk of running out of food, out of space and out of control, comparing us (oddly) with places like Bangladesh. Smith might be mad but you can’t discount the impact he has on Australian popular opinion. People believe him, and plenty more people would be thinking we’re about to be overpopulated as a result of his documentary than before, politicians included.

Could it get any worse for the prospects of maintaining even modest levels of population growth? The last election outcome means the answer is yes. We now have the balance of power in the Senate controlled by The Greens, and in the lower house by a handful of notionally old school National Party independents. The Greens’ view is clear on population growth – they don’t support it (unless you’ve arrived illegally, by boat). "This population boom is not economic wisdom, it is a recipe for planetary exhaustion and great human tragedy” said Bob Brown when the Intergenerational Report was released.

The independents’ views on population are harder to work out, but it would be a fair guess to suggest they would lean toward the Abbot view: turn back the boats, and slow the overall rate of growth. They are quite likely to also push for a redistribution of economic riches to a range of projects for rural and regional areas, which could be fine provided these projects were subject to a rigorous business case (unlike the mooted National Broadband Network and its $40+ billion plan for faster porn, unsupported by any sort of economic analysis). The irony that the election result hinged on big swings in urban seats but that a handful of rural independents are now trying to call the shots shouldn’t be lost on anyone.

Not to be left out, the Local Government Association of Queensland’s annual conference this year will focus on population growth, leaning toward limits on growth unless bountiful riches are showered on local governments to cope with ‘unsustainable’ rates of growth. Association President Paul Bell says “councils cannot let population growth exceed infrastructure needs.”

"Where we find water supplies no longer match the size of the community, where we find roads are congested, where we're seeing other infrastructure whether it be health or education are falling behind," he said, population growth was by implication to blame.

The bottom line? Population growth is now a dirty word and for any business which relies on growth for its prosperity, this is not good news. Everything from airports to property to construction to farming to retailers, manufacturers and tourism will be affected by slowing growth. For Queensland, which no longer relies on interstate migration for its growth, it could be worse: any slowdown in international migration will hit state growth quickly and dramatically. (See here for why).

Even social services could suffer if growth is deliberately slowed by this cabal of anti-growth movements. Why? Because in 50 years time, without migration or natural growth, there may only be two working adults for every five retired. You wouldn’t want to be one of those two and paying their tax bill in 50 years’ time.

How has this come about? The answer is pretty simple: growth itself has never been the problem. Note to Paul Bell and others – it’s been a notoriously inefficient planning approach which has misdirected precious infrastructure spending, which has pushed up housing prices, which has caused frustrations at rising congestion, which has seen hospital wait lists grow and which has been the root cause of much of the community angst about the symptoms of growth where policy not only can’t keep up, but tries to slow everything down. In the last decade, can anyone honestly claim that our planning schemes are now more efficient and quicker, or more easily understood, or better targeted, than a decade ago? I doubt it.

Would it be too much to ask for a sensible, evidence-based approach that ties population growth to urban and regional strategies, which emphasises economic progress while maintaining lifestyle and environmental standards? How about some decent plans to link regional urban centres to major cities, based not on pork barrels to influential independents but based only on the business case and community mutual benefit? Or how about putting the ‘growth’ back into smart growth, with some policies that allow our urban areas to expand in line with demand matched to infrastructure spending, rather than policy dogma?

Those same questions were being asked a decade ago. Welcome to ground hog day.

If you’re interested, here’s a couple of yarns from 10 years ago.

Slicker Cities for City Slickers. October 1999.

Nation Building and a National Urban Strategy. May 2001.

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