The need for a comprehensive vision for Australia’s population

How many more people do we need to plan for? emmettanderson/Flickr

On May 13 2011, the federal government released its eagerly awaited population strategy, Sustainable Australia – Sustainable Communities. But in avoiding population projections, the strategy is selling Australia short.

In launching the strategy, Population Minister Tony Burke emphasised the need to create jobs in suburban areas, further develop Australia’s regional areas, create a set of sustainability indicators and promote regional living.

The 85-page document is full of positive statements about sustainability, liveable communities, valuing diversity, investing in regions, enhanced prosperity and other general goals that almost everyone would agree with.

The Strategy carefully avoids any references to “big Australia” or projections of national population growth. Instead it shifts attention to the local level and how life can be enhanced in local communities.

In some parts the document moves from general statements to set out specific aims.

Funding commitments to develop regional infrastructure and education are amongst those (page 77), as are increases in Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme numbers (page 79). These are to be welcomed.

But the strategy generally avoids setting out measurable goals. “Rather than setting a target, the central objective of this Strategy is to lay the platform for a more sustainable Australia.” (page 25).

Unfortunately, the limited number of measures set out in the document, together with a series of very broad objectives, do not really add up to a coherent vision for Australia’s population over the coming decades.

What should a population strategy include?

A comprehensive strategy would have much to say on the nation’s fertility rate. It would take a close look at maximising the benefits and dealing with the costs of population ageing, one of the most fundamental and long-term transitions currently occurring in Australia’s demography.

It would describe the preferred long-run trends in immigration and emigration. It would set out some detailed plans for managing population growth in the capital cities and the more densely-populated coastal areas.

A plan for providing housing for the growth and changing nature of households would ideally be part of this strategy.

It would also specify how the policy of reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be achieved in the context of large future population growth, requiring a substantial drop in per capita emissions.

The three expert panel reports produced in advance of the strategy were full of good ideas on many of these issues.

The strategy shies away from population projections, stating furthermore that it does not see long-term projections as particularly useful.

With reference to sustainability, it argues “In contrast to relying on long term projections, this can be better achieved by managing the impacts of all aspects of our current population” (page 25).

Projections are uncertain. That’s OK

Avoiding the use of population projections in a policy document whose purpose is to look to the future is unfortunate.

One of the reasons sometimes given for avoiding projections is that they don’t always provide precise forecasts of population.

In fact, that will always be the case because some of the factors affecting population change are essentially unpredictable – for example, global recessions, conflicts generating large refugee flows, government immigration policy, choices about childbearing, and so on.

The way to handle these factors is accept that the population future is uncertain and devise projection models which incorporate uncertainty.

The Queensland Centre for Population Research has just built a new generation population projection model which does just that. Instead of calculating an exact population figure for each year into the future, it instead expresses future population as a range.

In a paper shortly to be published in Geographical Research we show that there is a 95% chance that by 2031 Australia’s population will be between 27 and 33 million, and by 2051, between 29 and 43 million. The further into the future, the greater the uncertainty (see graph).

Australia’s uncertain demographic future.

Whilst the range is quite wide several decades into the future, these projections do at least give an idea of the plausible limits within which policy can operate.

They show that a “big Australia” of 36 million by mid-century is very likely, and we estimate a 50% chance of the population being greater than 36 million.

These projections also provide information to guide long-term policy development and planning. In fact, despite the unenthusiastic stance towards long-term projections, the strategy does acknowledge “Due to the long lead times to build major infrastructure, planning that takes account of future demand for infrastructure is vital” (page 48).

Surely long-term projections are essential to estimating this future demand?

In developing policy for Australia’s growing population, one option is to react to demographic changes as they occur.

Alternatively, we can take a forward-looking approach, aim for a desired future demography within plausible limits described by projections, and plan for the coming demographic changes well in advance.

Australia would be well served by such an approach.