Bigger or Better? Australia’s Population Debate
By Ian Lowe
University of Queensland Press,
$34.95, pp 208
Australians have always had strong — if not always coherent — opinions on population policy, perhaps because the number of people in the country seems strangely disproportionate to the size of the continent. Professor Ian Lowe, former president of the Australian Conservation Foundation and a patron of the Sustainable Population Australia group, claims that this book is meant to settle the confusion by providing clear and unbiased information. Had he been able to stay on the point and write a book which was actually about population policy, he might have done so. Unfortunately, he appears to be more interested in scoring points and pushing barrows.
Lowe makes some interesting points, particularly that Australia’s population is currently increasing due to natural growth — the annual difference between births and deaths is about 150,000 — and a migrant intake of around 200,000 a year. He calculates that these trends would result in population of approximately 40 million by 2050. This, he says, is a recipe for economic, social and environmental disaster. There is no end to the problems he sees looming: water shortages, terminally clogged cities, collapsing infrastructure, not enough of anything to go around. And, worst of all, the sewers will back up.
But there is a lingering impression that the author actually sees population as a secondary issue. The real problem, Lowe says, is the idea of economic growth. It is this which prevents any recognition of the imminent disaster, he believes. Most Australians see a growing population and a growing economy as linked, a point with which Lowe agrees. Where he diverges from mainstream thinking is the idea that growth in both is good. Lowe is not sure whether this is wicked or merely foolish, although he hints that conspiracies and brainwashing are involved somewhere along the line.
The desire for a steady-state economy is a central tenet of Green thinking, and Lowe sees it as so obviously correct that it is effectively beyond discussion. In fact, he has a marked tendency to treat organisations that share his views as paragons of independent authority and expertise while dismissing any groups that do not agree with him as ‘right-wing’, ‘conservative’ or ‘extremist’. Perhaps the most distasteful example of this is his attack on the Australian Family Association; his main reason, apparently, is that it was founded by a Catholic. (Why, exactly, is this sort of discriminatory attitude so common among the Green Left?)
Equally, Lowe’s sniping at Tony Abbott and John Howard reinforces the impression that population policy is not much more to him than a handy vehicle for a larger agenda. It must be said that he also takes aim at the idea of a ‘Big Australia’ put forward by Kevin Rudd when he was Prime Minister, a comment that created a firestorm of commentary on both sides of the issue. He has some problems with Julia Gillard, although he congratulates her for linking population growth with environmental sustainability (even though the main expression of this seems to be a small change in the name of a ministerial portfolio).
Lowe is aware that environmentalists are not the only ones who want to curtail Australia’s population growth. He acknowledges various groups on the political fringe that equate population growth with immigration, especially from non-Western countries, and oppose it on racist grounds. Lowe doesn’t like them, and doesn’t like the idea of attempting to curtail illegal immigration. He seems to be saying that legal migration is bad, but the under-the-counter type is acceptable, even desirable. Oddly, he doesn’t appear to have a problem with this position, although many other people would.
Lowe does not put forward a particular figure or target that he sees as optimum for Australia’s population. Broadly, he suggests that the current figure is reasonable, although he also believes that climate change will put the environment under even greater pressure, which would seem to indicate that he would like to see a lower number as a way of compensating.
Either way, he fails to put forward any solid ideas as to how population stability and zero (or very limited) economic growth could be achieved. If there is natural growth in the population through births, does he think that there should be a government policy to discourage copulation? Some sort of reverse baby bonus, perhaps? Or a publicity campaign to induce Australians to emigrate? Even if zero population growth is desirable — a point by no means as clear as Lowe seems to think he makes it — achieving it would be extremely difficult.
Perhaps he implicitly looks to the authoritarian, super-state streak that runs through the Green view of the world. If so, where that might lead when applied to population control in the name of environmental preservation is a worrying thought.
Maybe this is trying to ascribe intentions to Lowe that are not there. Maybe he is, as he claims, merely trying to contribute to an important public debate. But this would have been easier to accept if the book looked less like an environmental Trojan Horse. The nasty streak leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, and he often seems to dislike Australians for being, well, Australians. Lowe is obviously intelligent and articulate. It is a pity that the book is not as honest as it should be.
Derek Parker is a regular reviewer for The Spectator Australia.