CANBERRA OBSERVED by News WeeklyNews Weekly
, December 4, 1999
Boat people, population policy and the ALP
The recent panic about armadas of illegal immigrants descending on Australia over the coming months has disguised what is likely to be one of the 'sleeper' issues in the lead-up to the next federal election.
For the first time in many years the major political parties now have markedly divergent views on immigration, decentralisation, fertility rates, and where they see Australia's population heading over the coming decades.
Federal Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, probably against his private instincts, has categorically rejected calls for a formal government population policy.
It is a debate the Coalition is reluctant to start for fear of the electoral fall-out it might provoke, and where it eventually might lead.
Mr Ruddock currently has plenty on his plate grappling with the serious problem of waves of boats of illegal immigrants coming from China and the Middle East.
The illegal immigrants are highly organised, with connections with organised crime in Australia. They are enormously costly to catch, care for and send back to their home countries.
Mr Ruddock is also confined by elements of the Liberal and National Parties which are ever wary of the persistence of the One Nation factor, particularly in regard to immigration and population levels.
Largely in response to the apparent popularity of One Nation's anti-immigration stance, the Howard Government has tightened up the immigration numbers severely, particularly in the family reunion category.
It may well be true that the winding back of immigration numbers is the correct policy response in times of high unemployment.
However, this is still no excuse for accepting a policy drift on the vital question of what level of population Australia needs for the next 50 years, and whether that population will be home grown or imported.
On September 17 Opposition Leader Kim Beazley delivered a little-publicised landmark speech in Adelaide where he outlined Labor's intention of accelerating Australia's population growth rate.
Mr Beazley argued that a higher population was economically beneficial, vital to national security, and would improve Australia's ties with the rest of the world.
Most importantly, Mr Beazley said a larger working age population would help future governments afford the extra costs which will come as a result of an ageing population.
Mr Beazley wants a mix of higher immigration numbers and a higher fertility rate in response to Australia's falling birth rate, which is already well under replacement level.
'The average age of migrants might be less than the average age of the current Australian population, but the average age of newborn kids (last time I checked) is zero,' he said.
'Yet Australia's birth rate is now at an historic low and is projected to fall further in the near future. Without some measures to improve our national birth rate, it is projected to fall from 1.78 in 1997 to 1.65 in 2006.
'Policies which improve Australia's birth rate will not only address the ageing of our population in the future, they are important contributions to a better society right now.''Family friendly'
Mr Beazley's views have been recently fleshed out by Labor's shadow spokesman on population, Martin Ferguson, who says that if elected his party would establish an Office of Population. Labor will market its higher population policies as being 'family friendly', giving men and women maximum options in being able to raise children and work.
It was significant that Mr Beazley chose Adelaide to deliver his speech.
South Australia and Tasmania are two states suffering an exodus of people, particularly young people, and those with skills and talents seeking jobs and higher wages in the larger cities.
Pushing for more migrants to come to Australia is not a vote winner, although it is strangely ironic that some of the strongest anti-immigration views come from the same areas which are most in need of higher populations.
In fact, Labor has chosen a bold, controversial and certainly in some quarters, unpopular path, which is fraught with political dangers.
Many environmentalists and a significant proportion of the left of the Labor Party itself believe Australia's population is already much too large, and Labor is certain to suffer some flak from these quarters.
But the real danger for Mr Beazley lies in actually implementing his strategy of changing the population mix.Fertility rate
Lifting the fertility rate is a monumental task. Not only will it require a rethink on economics and tax; welfare, childcare, and industrial relations policies will also need to be changed.
Large families also go against decades of changing social attitudes to having children and entrenched feminist ideologies about the identity of women, parental roles and the 'anachronism' of the traditional family.
Labor's posturing about encouraging city people and migrants to live in the regions has also only ever been attempted by governments in a half-hearted way with resulting failure.
Nevertheless, Labor is at least attempting to open up the debate on this vital issue which is the ticking time bomb for Australian governments of all political persuasions.
At the moment there is one Australian of retirement age for every five Australians of working age. At current levels of migration, by the year 2021 there will be one for about every 3.5.
By the year 2051, the ratio will be one retired Australian for every 2.5 working Australians, a demographic which would make it impossible for governments - and more particularly the burdened taxpayer - to fund pensions, aged care, and hospitals.
Unless there is a drastic rethink on Australia's population future, something will clearly have to give.