Are There Limits for Australia?

By Joseph Smith
Volume 2, Number 2 (Winter 1991-1992)
Issue theme: "Getting past the immigration taboo - an international perspective"

Which developed country would you imagine has the highest rate of population growth? If you guessed the United States or Canada, you are wrong. It is Australia, whose population is increasing at a rate 50 percent higher than either of those North American countries.

This population explosion is taking place in a deceptively large country, where three-quarters of its residents are virtually crammed into a few coastal metroplexes, the on-going expansion of which is destroying the best remaining arable land. In terms of its natural resource base (breathable air, clean water, fertile topsoil), Australia is already seriously over-populated. Yet her population continues to grow, fueled by an immigration intake 2 to 3 times higher, per capita, than that of Canada or the United States.

Although opinion polls indicate that the over-whelming majority of Australians oppose the current high rate of immigration, as in our country, in Canada, and in Western Europe, public concerns have not been translated into new political policies. In Immigration, Population and Sustainable Environ-ments The Limits to Australia's Growth, Joseph Wayne Smith, Queen Elizabeth II Research Fellow in Bioethics at Flinders University of South Australia, has collected twenty-seven papers prepared by experts from the fields of demography, environ-mental studies, economics, philosophy and politics. These shake the foundations upon which Australia's pro-growth programs rest.

Four contributors discuss the economics of immigration. They cite a 1989 Australian Treasury report admitting that the high rates of immigration were contributing to the country's current serious account deficit, and that large scale immigration provides no long term economic benefits to the nation at large. (Real estate developers, businesses that are labor intensive, and ethnic lobbyists are among the special interests which do recognize gains.) Immigration helps spur the population growth that is responsible for a host of problems - among them an overburdened infrastructure, severe housing shortage, and the redirection of capital investments away from programs that benefit people already residing in the country. High levels of immigration may not be the root cause of Australia's economic and environmental problems, but there can be little question that immigration exacerbates them.

Specious demographic arguments are often offered as justification for expansive immigration policies. As with their U.S. counterparts, proponents of large scale immigration charge that Australia's population will shrink, age, and be less vital without the infusion of vast numbers of newcomers. Christa-bel Young of the Australian National University points out that Australia's population will continue to grow, even if no new immigrants are admitted, due to the on-going impact of the post-war baby boom. Asia is now the source of much of Australia's latest wave of immigration. Graeme Hugo of Flinders Uni-versity documents the existence of an international immigration industry which is promoting this great movement of peoples to Australia, North America and Western Europe without regard to the best interests of the countries of destination nor, often, even of the migrants themselves.

Environmental concerns are discussed by thirteen contributors. Australia's environmental movement has failed to forthrightly address immigration - something that is also true of environmental groups in the United States. In Australia, as elsewhere, the cry of racism has been effectively employed by expansionist forces of both the Left and Right to suppress debate. Evonne Moore of the University of Adelaide observes that the charge of racism has stifled discussion of what should be widely argued issues.

F.E. Trainer of the University of New South Wales places his country's population questions within a global context. Here he notes that the world now confronts two population problems The most evident one is in the Third World, where many regions are experiencing high rates of population growth along with diminishing capacity to provide for people. Much less understood is the serious over-population of the rich countries which becomes glaringly apparent when numbers are multiplied by 'living standards.'

The admission of refugees has become a contentious issue in Australia, as it has in so many other countries. John Coulter, who serves as a Senator in the Australian national parliament, takes the sensible view that it is far better to help refugees at the source rather than move them about the planet. W.F. Smyth, who holds concurrent positions at Mc-Master University in Canada and the Curtin Univer-sity of Technology, goes further. In one of the most trenchant essays in this symposium he persuasively argues that the ideology of multiculturalism - an intellectual prop of the expansionist lobby - is, in practice, sparking polarization wherever it is allowed to influence public policy. All too often, he observes,

The immigrants have come, not because they care about the institutions, customs and traditions of their adopted country; they have come because they want more wealth, more comfort, more opportunity, better social services - understandable, but not noble ambitions. Multiculturalism allows them to expand these horizons; they find they are encouraged to try to change their new country to suit their own preferences - their own customs and traditions - and that, further-more, anyone who argues against these attempts is called bad names. ... Multi-culturalism brings permanent multipolar-ization.

The reader should not imagine that I am opposed to people who wish to preserve their culture and identity. On the contrary, it is precisely because I very much wish to pre-serve my own way of life that I am able to understand those who feel the same way about theirs. The point is, however, that I do not wish them to preserve their culture at the expense of mine.

The concluding essay is by Richard Sylvan who is with the division of philosophy and law at the Australian National University. Sylvan declares that, There has been a concerted effort to conceal critical philosophical issues concerning immigration, even to close down crucial ideological parts of a proper immigration debate, and to remove informed opposition to immigration. Sylvan takes some fifty pages to dissect the philosophical positions of those who call for virtually unrestrained population growth. For all practical purposes, he feels that the United States and Canada are lost causes that have become politically locked into an out-moded growth and development ideology. Australia should learn from their experiences, he argues. It is not wise strategy to attempt to resolve the over-population problems of other countries by promoting population expansion in the as-yet habitable portions of the globe.

Readers in other developed countries will come to appreciate that the problems they are now trying to face are already being confronted by the Aus-tralians. Many of the critiques and changes of policy that apply to Australia are worth considering by other developed countries that hope to preserve a sustainable political economy, defined here by Senator Coulter as one which remains within the ability of the environment to sustain indefinitely the impacts which the economy places on it.

In Immigration, Population and Sustainable Environment, Smith gives us a model for the thoughtful analysis of these pressing issues. A book on this order is very much needed for American readers. By calling into question the ideology of perpetual population and economic growth, the contributors bring to mind a point raised in the last century by John Stuart Mill when, in his Principles of Political Economy, he exposed the fallacy of imagining that prosperity requires unending industrial expansion. Mill suggested that there are no compel-ling reasons why a country with a stable population should not be able to maintain both prosperity and justice - worthy goals for any society. ?

[Immigration, Population and Sustainable Environ-ments Limits to Australia's Growth, 487 pp., edited by Joseph Wayne Smith is published (1991) by the Flinders Press of the Flinders University of South Australia, Bedford Park, AUSTRALIA 5042.]