Thursday, April 12, 2012

Two Bobs each way

Senators Bob Carr (Labor) and Bob Brown (Greens) have made an each way bet on policies designed to support a bigger Australia all but impossible: the odds are presently unbackable and hostility to growth is now all but official policy. 
Bob Carr, a former NSW State Premier, was earlier this year elevated to fill a casual Senate vacancy at the request of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and was immediately appointed to Federal Cabinet as Australia’s Foreign Minister. What’s that got to do with population policy and planning for a bigger Australia? Simply, Carr’s views on population are well documented: he famously declared as Premier that ‘Sydney is full’ and put into effect a strict urban growth boundary and other policies designed to contain growth. What followed was rapidly worsening housing affordability, increasing congestion and a period of economic malaise in the NSW economy to such an extent that it was widely viewed as a brake on national GDP.

Not one to let the evidence of damage caused by his policies when Premier interfere with his current views, Carr has continued to campaign on the notion that Australia ‘lacks carrying capacity’ and is too fragile to handle more people. In a blog published late last year, before his elevation to the Senate, he wrote:

I was honoured to give the opening address to a strategy planning workshop of Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) [of which he is a Patron] .. The population debate had turned around after former Prime Minister Rudd’s statement in 2009 that he made no apologies for believing in “a big Australia”. The public reaction forced him to retreat within about two months... Remarkable thing is the strength of a backlash to the big Australia notion. Now the ALP, the Coalition, the Green Party and environmental groups refused to endorse anything like “a big Australia”... I told the group to beware of the ridiculous arguments that “It’s not population, it’s just infrastructure.” As if nobody was interested in building any. Or, “It’s not population, it’s just consumption.” Of course it is both. Or, “It’s not immigration, it’s just planning.” Wrong – fast population build-up stresses even sound urban plans. Population growth is the basis of all environmental pressure.  And I recommended they join the political party of their choice and increase their political activism, leaving them with a message of hope: “You are winning this debate. Population advocates in big business feel isolated. Most Australians agree with us.”

Carr draws a clear connection with population growth and business interests, claiming the only reason for proponents to back further growth in Australia is, by implication, greed. It’s a common theme among those who actively oppose growth.

His arrival in the Senate was due to the support of the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Gillard famously disputed the man she deposed as PM – Kevin Rudd – who in 2009 declared he was in favour of a ‘big Australia.’  After Rudd made those comments, it wasn’t long before Gillard countered with her view that Australia should not ”hurtle down the track towards a big population.” 

Gillard, a former Shadow Minister for Population (in 2001) went on to say as Prime Minister (in mid 2011):

"My position on our nation's future sustainability is plain and clear. I do not believe in the idea of a big Australia, an Australia where we push all the policy levers into top gear to drive population growth as high as it can be...  One of the things Australians often say when we've spent a few days in a crowded, congested city in Europe or the United States: it's a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there... I will not allow Australia to ever become a country of which it is said: it's a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.”

Her approach since then has been to resist the idea of promoting or supporting population growth and she will find an enthusiastic cabinet ally in Carr. What Gillard now does with Tony Burke, her ‘Minister for a Sustainable Population’ (formal title: Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities), is unclear. Perhaps the use of the word ‘sustainable’ in a Minister’s title is really these days a by-word for ensuring nothing much happens. Sustainable growth, in government speak, means no growth. Ditto for our population? The Minister hasn’t issued a single media release on the topic of population since the start of the year. Maybe it’s best to ignore the topic and it might go away?

There’s another incongruous aspect to Gillard’s comments about crowded and congested European and US cities: these have been the very models held up as poster children of planning policy virtue under State Labor Governments. Densely populated Euro and US cities have been favoured destinations for countless study tours and public policy references. The problems encountered in these cities of excessive housing affordability problems are just not mentioned (Vancouver, often cited as a model of planning ‘reform’ has the most expensive housing in the world and a median house price of $1.5 milllion, along with the massive social dislocation that goes with it). By contrast, study tours to less dense, more affordable and less congested cities just don’t seem to find favour.

And the role of the Carr NSW government in failing to address transport systems while at the same time promoting a high density urban model also seems to fail to rate a mention. Under Carr, Sydney quickly became one of Gillard’s “places you wouldn’t want to live” (unless you’re wealthy) - as the exodus of population and capital proved.

Bob Carr and Julia Gillard have been supported by a third prominent voice who opposed population growth and whose influence on federal policy stretched well beyond the single figure levels of support they gained at the polls: Bob Brown, former leader of The Greens. What’s Bob Brown had to say on population? In 2009, responding to the 3rd Intergenerational Report released by the then government, he said: “This population boom is not economic wisdom, it is a recipe for planetary exhaustion and great human tragedy.”

Planetary exhaustion and human tragedy? This doomsday scenario, Bob would have us believe, is because we might in Australia reach 35 million people by 2050. It’s not a big number by any stretch of imagination. But sufficient for Brown to warn of impending doom. Brown, among other things, is an avowed Malthusian and fan of Paul Ehrlich’s ‘Population Bomb’ published in the late 1960s, as this exchange from ABC’s ‘Q&A’ in 2010 shows:

BOB BROWN:  We're chewing up more than the planet can sustain and we're giving future generations a deficit for having been here. Malthus warned about this 2 or 300 years ago...

JOHN ELLIOTT: And he was totally wrong.

BOB BROWN: Well, he was right.

JOHN ELLIOTT: He said the food - we're going to run out of food in 100 years.

TONY JONES: Hang on, John, you'll get your chance.


JOHN ELLIOTT: He was useless.

BOB BROWN: The Ehrlichs wrote The Population Bomb in the 1970s and they've been laughed at, but the serious matter is that in my lifetime, Tony, there were 2.7 billion people when I was born onto this planet in Oberon, New South Wales. There are now seven billion and we're headed for 11 billion and the planet - we need two or three planets to be able to provide that and we obviously don't have them.

No, we don’t have extra planets Bob, but maybe we once did and they were ruined at the hand of man (and alien) kind? If you think I’m taking this too far, maybe you haven’t read Bob Brown’s Third Annual Green Ovation, delivered only last month (March 2012). Bob Brown opened his speech with the welcome: “Fellow Earthians” - and it just got stranger after that. (Read the whole speech here if you don’t believe me).  

Brown’s thesis was that maybe alien life had existed on other planets but our ‘intergalactic phones’ aren’t ringing because they ‘extincted’ [sic] themselves, much as we humans are doing. Overpopulation and capitalism, in Brown’s mind, go hand in hand, and the solution lies in a global democracy and a global parliament of one vote, one value. Just where that leaves a country like Australia, population 23 million, is unclear.

[You could be forgiven for thinking, when you read this sort of material, that The Greens have a black armband view of human kind full stop. Elements of The Greens might be happier without humans on the planet at all, or if we are to exist, it’s as primitives in caves living the subsistence existence of a noble savage.]

Brown has of course now resigned but his influence will live on. The Greens may begin to fracture but they will continue to hold the balance of power until at least the next election. They’re highly unlikely to be any more amenable to growth than Brown was. More likely, they’ll be even more hostile and shrill in their anti-growth messages.

So the Prime Minister’s views, and those of her influential Foreign Minister, supported by the views of The Greens under Bob Brown (and probably more so post Bob Brown)  have been antagonistic to population growth and hostile to business pleas that growth without people in a country the size of Australia is a problem. The prospect of any public policy change for the better in Canberra is remote.

There are a couple of big questions which rise from this: does this policy view reflect mainstream Australia’s interests, and where does it leave us if growth slows to a stall?

On the question of policy fit with mainstream Australia, some clues might lie in recent state elections in NSW and Queensland. In both, the Labor vote collapsed. Population growth was not an election issue in either, but economic growth and the state of the economic management clearly was. In Queensland, a once strong economy with a strong budget was rendered impotent under low growth and high debt. The construction industry in both states sunk to historic lows, putting pressure on trades and with them, pressure on household budgets. ‘Green’ initiatives added to living costs and served as brakes on economic development. The anti-growth, anti-car, anti ‘sprawl’, anti-expansion and anti-development views that the trendy left of inner cities took as policy gospel were perhaps out of favour in the suburbs where many traditional Labor voters lived.

As Graham Richardson noted after the political slaughter of the ALP in Queensland:

“The intriguing thing about last night is that in the inner-city the swings were 10 and 12 per cent, but you get out into the suburbs – the further you go, the bigger the swing. They are 17 to 20 per cent out there. So there is something seriously wrong in working class voter land. The Labor base no longer votes for it. And Labor is going to have to work out why.”

Is it possible that the suburban heartland Labor once took for granted is more interested in employment prospects and the costs of living than the inner city latte set give them credit for? In tougher economic times, jobs and the cost of putting food on the table and paying for your utility bills and petrol prices are of more concern. Housing affordability is a real issue to people on working wages trying to enter the housing market. To be told they have to ‘give up the dream’ of home ownership and detached housing by a social left policy alliance is not what they want to hear.

On what it means to Australia if no-growth becomes a reality by virtue of do-nothing policy settings, the consequences are pretty straight forward. An ageing population will have to rely on a smaller tax base of working age people, who will be increasingly taxed to live in an economy of higher living costs and higher housing costs, because new supply won’t be stimulated and costs of occupancy, travel and daily living will rise (via initiatives like the carbon tax and other measures). Economic growth will slow, and if the resources ‘boom’ takes a breather (as it surely must), the two speed economy quickly becomes a one speed economy. That speed is currently ‘dead slow.’

Falling prosperity means fewer government services and a falling capacity to pay for personal services. Standards of living will fall. Is this what the electorate have already sensed in the trendy dialogues of policy debate, and what was rejected in the recent polls? Is this why the Green vote fell in the latest Queensland election, and why outer suburban swings to the LNP were more pronounced than in the inner city?

Labor and Green opposition to population growth is opposition to prosperity and living standards for working Australians. We’re not talking here about an Australia of 100 million or more, just the prospect of 35 million by 2050 – and that was based on long term growth rates which we seem to have managed in the past, and still ended up with higher standards of living. If Labor and The Greens want to re-connect with mainstream values, their blind opposition to growth will need to be rethought.

1 comment:

  1. you are a fucking traitor, selling out the future of our children. Or at least my children, I am sure yours will live happily on the 30 million pieces of silver you have received from the property industry. cunt