Do Australians reject a larger population?

Nearly three-quarters of Australians do not want a bigger population, a recent survey shows.

That’s the lead of an SMH article this morning, citing a paper by Katharine Betts using Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2009 results.

Graphic: SMH

But the meaning of surveys like this can only be discerned in light of other polling. Last month, for example, a Morgan Poll found that support for the migration program – an annual figure of 170,000 was mentioned – was at 58%. At the weekend Pollytics blog gave us details on a Nielsen poll (also reported in the SMH) showing that half the population thought immigration was either about right or too low.

The AuSSA result is not necessarily inconsistent with these immigration results. The question of whether Australia ‘needs’ more people is not the same as whether we should or could take more people, though that is the way it is being interpreted.

Questions on immigration and population should be considered like questions on taxing and spending; two things linked in practice but often separated in people’s minds if pollsters ask about them in isolation. It’s one thing to say that there are inconveniences from a growing population, but another to say that we should reject foreign workers (anyone fancy trying to get medical care in this country without imported medical staff?), keep migrant families separated, or dash the hopes of many others for a better life here.

The Morgan Poll looks to be best practice on these things, and finds that most people are comfortable with the population heading up towards 30 million. We may not ‘need’ that many people, but we are comfortable with having them.

19 thoughts on “Do Australians reject a larger population?

  1. Very interesting.
    I would also like to see a question on top of that, being:
    ‘And who is in favour who migrants that adhere to a certain religion?’

    Hmmmmm, very interesting indeed.
    Question is, this is want the people want, so why don’t we get it! Or better still, WHEN and HOW will this change come?


  2. Baz – Click on the last link, and you will see that your polling wish has been granted. You may be less pleased to find that a majority of Australians favour Muslim migration.


  3. One of the really interesting things about this debate is actually why numbers like 30 and 35 million were chosen (apart from being nice round figures) and why people like one and not another — I find it really to hard to image what the actual difference between those two numbers would actually mean to my life in two decades from now.


  4. The 35 million was around a government forecast, but you are right that it is hard to conceptualise what it might mean in practice.


  5. Andrew Norton said:

    The Morgan Poll looks to be best practice on these things, and finds that most people are comfortable with the population heading up towards 30 million. We may not ‘need’ that many people, but we are comfortable with having them.

    I suggest a rule for all those who propose to boost the rate of immigration and optimum population size. Henceforth only those who utter the two magic words maybe taken seriously on this subject: sub-way.

    Mass transit system planning is, by its nature, impossible for the average citizen to model. They must rely on experts to draw out the implications of mass society.

    Once suburban based cities start to exceed three million they need efficient rail networks to move the millions of people freely and easily around the metro area. The only solution to this problem that has been found to work at acceptable economic, ecologic and logistic cost is a sub-way.

    Any discussions of the need or tolerance of the AUS citizens for populations in excess of 30 million must be premised on the assumption that the three major metro agglomerations which will take the bulk of immigrants – Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – will be staggering under the weight of populations in excess of five million, possibly up to seven million.

    Otherwise one is taking the road that leads down the track to Los Angeles, Sao Paulo and possibly Bangkok. Any takers, I didnt think so.

    So where are the mass sub-ways – I’m talking NY, London and Paris scale – under construction or being planned. None that I can see.

    The pop. boosters are not serious.


  6. Jack,

    I think the reason we don’t have many subways in Australia is that the population density is too low to make them profitable.


  7. conrad, what Jack is saying is that, if governments were serious about increasing the population markedly, they would be creating the infrastructure for that population, including underground rail systems, right now.

    I think he’s right. The discussion that we currently have is stuck at the pre-school level.


  8. Jeremy,

    I agree that they should be creating infrastructure, but no matter what they do, it’s hard to see them creating large amounts of underground rail — the problems with cities like Melbourne and Sydey are not in the inner city areas (say a 10k loop) — these places are already well catered for (excellent in Melbourne) and I doubt it would be exceptionally hard to make some aspects better (e.g., sticking on more trams, getting the train system running lke it did in 1960 etc.). It’s the really low density burbs where everyone else is living that is the problem, and underground rail will never get there. That’s why I think people livingn in those places are doomed for LA style traffic, apart from a few corridoors when you can use light rail.


  9. Yeah, thankfs for the tip andrew – bit disappointed about the slightly less than majority support to ban peaceful religion migrants….but still solid supoprt there. Also, appreciated the term ‘Iago’. Have to admit, it’s a bit beyond my vocabulory bank, but a quick wiki or two later, and I reckon I’m down for that character assesment! Nonetheless, in general I don’t really like fancy words – makes reading inaccessible for the common man. In particular, I reckon there should be a ban for words with more than three syllabols.
    The interesting thing on trains for me, is that much of Sydney’s train infra was built a 100 years ago.. If the population, ‘can-do’ attitude and wherewithal were there back then, why can’t they do it now??? The daily telly even says that the trains are runnin slower now than back in the 1950s.


  10. does it matter what people think or want – they will get immigrants willy nilly. Look at the UK. And here is a very similar government to that of the UK for 13 years.


  11. conrad @ #7 said:

    I think the reason we don’t have many subways in Australia is that the population density is too low to make them profitable.

    High population-density cities and sub-way mass transit systems go hand-in-hand. The only way to logistically manage a high-density mega-city’s demand for transportation is through a sub-way mass-transit system. And the only way to economically finance the supply of a mass-transit sub-way system is by tapping into the resources of a high-population density city.

    In the second half of the 19th C, the golden age of subway construction, the population of Inner London (roughly the catchment area of the Tube) was around 3 million, inhabiting a land area of around 300 sq km. That gave a population density of 10,000 per sq km – about five times as dense as Melbourne’s current population density, around 2000 per sq km.

    But Melbournians are at least ten times richer than Londoners at the turn of the century. And the earth moving technology that we have at our disposal now is more than ten times better than the stuff they had around then. So the job of building a sub-way system that covers a 10 km radius from the CBD is doable, technically and economically.

    So we can surely able to finance a major subway system, providing we have the political will to do so. But the fact that our elites are not willing to put up and get up such a scheme suggests that they are not serious about dealing with infrastructure demands of massive population growth.

    They keep talking about “vision” for the future. But when it comes down to brass-tacks all they are interested in is increasing sales turnover on a fixed capital base, to improve ROI: otherwise known as “churn & burn”, “pump-and-dump” or squeezing the last drop of blood out of a stone.

    They are more interested in laying down broad-band cable, which is kind of odd since so much broadband traffic is now migrating to wireless.


  12. Even if we created the public infrastructure to deal with a doubleing of the population over the next 30 years, that does not make the whole exercise justifiable. All that does is stop the cities becoming living hells along the lines of Los Angeles, Jakarta and Bangkok.

    The question is, are the per capita economic gains (take-home income) of mindless growth worth society’s ecologic pains (spill-over costs). Even the Productivity Commission admits that the percapita improvements in median income from a high population growth strategy are trifling – about $400 pa extra by 2050.

    And most of these These benefits are mainly reaped in the form of economies larger scale and savings in labour training costs.


  13. Jack:

    Are you kidding or have you forgotten your heritage and when your family moved from the old country. Australia in the 50 and 60’s saw one of the biggest pushes in migration as a proportion of population ever experienced in a peace time.

    And yet the country was able to deal with infrastructure issues. Infrastructure is a red herring. Get rid of 90% of building code and height restrictions and then lets talk turkey.


  14. I recall as a kid, very few traffic lights at major intersections. Single lanes for some really major highways. A ferry to get you over the Yarra to Williamstown. Lots of accidents and it took 3.5 hours to get to the airport from the southern side of the city.



  15. Well, the Bracks Government definitely seemed to be planning for a denser Melbourne. The Brumby Government appears to recognise the necessity, but also the fact that people who aren’t voting citizens yet aren’t the people who are going to vote for or against them in November. The City of Melbourne wants that too (although part of that is probably a desire to increase property values and therefore rates—it surprises me that more fully developed councils don’t try the same thing).

    And there’s plenty of private groups who are advocating higher density development, better public transport, and better cycling facilities. Although I don’t think any group is expressly asking for both, and there’s some groups asking for better infrastructure and less people, I’m not aware of any group that is asking for more immigrants but less infrastructure (outside of political parties, which aren’t the topic of this paragraph).

    Then there’s a much less vocal group of people who exist and ask for better development of regional centres instead of focusing all our development on the big three. I think these generally constitute a very small proportion of the debate, though.

    But I don’t think it’s fair at all to argue as Jack does. Outside of the federal government, it’s recognised that population growth means infrastructure growth and density growth. Inside the federal government, they don’t recognise it but they don’t have to because there’s no way a federal government can take over infrustructure development in cities. The real problems are that the federal government controls all the states’ funds and that the general level of political debate in Australia on economic/investment topics is infantile.


  16. Good point Andrew – exactly what I thought listening to this being reported on the radio. If you asked the question in reverse “Does Australia need fewer people” you would surely also get an overwhelming rejection.

    The better question is to ask people what they think our annual rate of population growth should be (relative to what it is now), and how much they care about it either way.


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