Is a ‘BIG’ Australia really our most sustainable path forward?

Jul 20, 2023
Population management becomes an issue in Australia whenever the notion of a BIG Australia is raised. Source: Getty

According to the world population clock, over 8 billion people inhabit our planet.

Each day, over 200,000 people are born and over 100,000 will die. That’s a net increase of at least 100,000 people every day, which works about to an extra 25 million each and every year – or almost the entire population of Australia, which sits at just over 26 million.

This exponential population growth of humankind is outstripping available resources and confounding initiatives to remedy the damage our species has wreaked on the Earth and to prevent further damage to it. Population management is looming as humanity’s greatest global challenge.

Population management becomes an issue in Australia whenever the notion of a BIG Australia is raised. The main argument for a BIG Australia is an economic one.

In short, a larger population equates to a bigger economy. The more consumers, the greater the demand. The greater the demand, the more goods are sold – cars, furniture, appliances, linen, crockery, cutlery, clothing, shoes, haircuts, communication devices, cosmetic and entertainment experiences. The list is endless. In fact, you name it and consumers will, at some time, need or want to buy it, which is terrific for business – and for business getting BIGGER. 

The economic benefit of unfettered growth is undeniable, but there are counterarguments to make. For a start, business getting bigger doesn’t necessarily equate with a better life for Australians, in general, or better preservation/protection of the environment, either. 

Australia lacks the essential infrastructure needed to become BIG (or even bigger). It does not yet have sufficient affordable sources of renewable energy to satisfy the needs of the existing population. Then there is the housing crisis. Demand for housing far outstrips supply in Australia.

Not only is the cost of buying a house prohibitive, but finding rental accommodation, at any cost, is almost impossible, as well. Homeless individuals sleeping rough are a common sight in our cities and major towns, while desperate families now resort to living in caravans, tents or cars.   

The supply of public hospital beds is also inadequate. There are long waiting times for treatment in emergency departments and for surgery in public hospitals.  At the same time, the demand for public health facilities is increasing because our population is living longer. Half of us have a chronic disease and one in five of us has two or more. 

While most Australians live in suburbs, there are few, if any, public transport options available to them. In NSW public schools, there is a chronic shortage of classrooms. New figures reveal our schools are relying on over five thousand demountable classrooms to house students.  

Supporters of BIG Australia will complain about staff and/or skills shortages. Hospitality, for example, has been hard hit with employers unable to find enough workers – or, alternatively, ones that will work for uncompetitive wages and conditions. Coffee shops and cafes – and there are SO many of each – that cannot offer their employees fair wages and conditions, should, of course, be forced to close their doors. Theirs is a failed business model that has no place in Australia. Anyway, why do we need so many coffee shops and cafes? Here’s a thought – if there were fewer coffee shops and cafes, perhaps surplus hospitality workers could be redeployed to aged care.  

Staffing aged care is another area of concern. The answer has always been to bring in workers from overseas, but that only works in the short term because as those workers age (and they must), the need for more places in aged care will increase, as well.  After all, the larger the population, the greater the demand.

While there is no simple answer, the permanent solution to reducing job vacancies in aged care and in other hard-to-staff industries lies in making the jobs more desirable by offering fair wages, better working conditions and providing secure employment.

Australian governments and businesses stopped investing in skills training decades ago and in that sense, we are now lying in a bed of their making. In NSW, technical and vocational training (TAFE) has been deliberately gutted. The long-term answer to overcoming the current (and inevitable) skills shortage that has resulted from this neglect is not to plug gaps with overseas trained workers but to restore our capacity to build our own skilled workforce. If not now, then when? I would say that is the very least we can do for our young.     

Overcrowding and traffic congestion in our major population centres are constant reminders that we must slow down or find alternatives to growth. However, while overcrowding is not ideal, it does not, in itself, preclude further growth. Living without an adequate or reliable supply of water is another matter.

Sure, we’ve just experienced a couple of years of above-average rainfall, but it wasn’t so long ago, that we were in the middle of a severe drought and living with water restrictions.  I am no meteorologist but as sure as night follows day, another drought is on its way.  

The Greater Sydney Water Strategy acknowledges that the current supply to Sydney is stretched by droughts, population growth and climate change. Without major investment in alternative pathways to maintain and increase our water supply, including reuse programs and additional water from desalination, Sydney risks severe water restrictions or even permanent drought.

Will the money needed to secure Sydney’s water supply be spent where it is needed?  Who knows? What we do know is that our relatively small population must cling to the coastline because we live on a dry continent where vast swathes of land are barren. 

A long-standing argument in favour of a BIG Australia is geopolitical. Australia is a large mineral-rich land mass, for the most part, uninhabited and uninhabitable, with a sparse population relative to its size.

Geopolitics being what it is (and always has been), may make us (at some time in the future) a desirable acquisition for a larger power. In that case, having an enormous (and expendable) population would be a strategic advantage. Although, let’s face it, a BIG Australia would never be able to compete, population-wise, with the world’s most populous nations in our region. 

In summary, then, building a sustainable economic model in a not-so-big Australia may have a downside (or two), but it is the only sensible way forward. 

The conversation about population management must be had in Australia, and all over the world, as well. After all, how many people can our planet comfortably carry? Considering the hunger, disease and extreme poverty endured by hundreds of millions around the world, the current population of eight billion may have already exceeded the limit.

The worst aspects of human nature – greed and selfishness – have, so far, prevented cooperation in dealing with climate change. How we tackle the challenge of population management will define this century.  

Disclaimer: The following text is an opinion piece and should not be taken as factual information or professional advice. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of the platform hosting the article. The purpose of this piece is to stimulate discussion and encourage critical thinking. Readers are encouraged to conduct their own research before making any decisions based on the content of this article.
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