By Tina Perinotto

29 June 2010 – The Planning Institute of Australia today came out in support of the Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s “more measured approach” to population growth for Australia, but it will have a fight on its hands from the property sector.
Key to the new approach, said PIA president Neil Savery, was use of the word “sustainable” in a population context.

“The Prime Minister’s approach is not advocating that there shouldn’t be an increase in population or that certain areas should not be subject to more substantial increases over others, but by inclusion of the word sustainable, it helps shape the policy debate around other critical issues linked to population growth, which includes things such as patterns of consumption, demographic change, the speed of growth and the capacity to transition,,” Mr Savery said.

“In the context of Australia, it in turn links to our ability to meet current and future greenhouse gas emission targets, as well as build resilient communities for the inevitable affects of climate change.

“Much of the community’s concerns about a high growth scenario is about the provision of infrastructure to support growing cities.  Congestion, high house prices and a sense of overcrowding all conspire to reduce support for what others see as ‘unlimited’ growth”.

Mr Savery said that the PIA argues that five principles should drive a policy approach to sustainable population growth:
1.       To the maximum extent possible, inward migration should be equitable in its distribution, have long term predictability and be linked to employment growth to support the vibrancy of the economy, enable cities and regions to plan for growth, and provide housing and infrastructure to support growth.  A review every five years rather than every year would assist this approach.
2.       Significant infrastructure investment must support a growing population in the major cities.  Infrastructure linked to a strategic plan of all major cities is essential for the long term sustainability and quality of life in Australia. This must include the improvement of public transport networks, schools, health facilities, and housing.
3.       Consideration must be given to the development of regional cities as destinations for all Australians, including migrants.  This will require investment in jobs and fast public transport networks to link those destinations to the major cities. Smaller cities have many benefits for residents’ quality of life.
4.       The protection of productive agricultural land, the supply of water and energy, the issues of salinity, flooding and the environmental protection of threatened species must shape the fringe growth of all cities, including smaller regional centres. These issues must be addressed in all plans to grow our cities.  Serious consideration of new options for making the best use of urban land must be actively canvassed as part of any sustainable population policy.
5.       It will be necessary to adjust Australia’s appetite to consume beyond its means and generate waste in a way that pollutes the environment, including the gases contributing to global warming, if Australia is to accommodate an increase in population in a sustainable and responsible way.

The apparent shift in approach by the Prime Minister has been greeted with dismay by development lobby group the Urban Taskforce, which has been fighting the growing voices arguing against a smaller, not bigger, Australia.

“Federal government population projections already assume a sharp cut in Australia’s historical rate of population growth and more reductions would harm the economy, according to the,”  Urban Taskforce chief executive Aaron Gadiel said last week.

He said that Australia had grown at an average annual rate of 1.4 per cent over the last 40 years and that the Federal government’s projection of 35.9 million people in 2050 already assumed a 14 per cent cut in our historical rate of population growth to just 1.2 per cent a year.

“If the government were to try and limit Australia’s population to less than 30 million by 2050, the average annual growth rate would plummet to just 0.7 per cent – half its historical level,” Mr Gadiel said.

“It would mean the economy would be 15 per cent smaller than it would otherwise have been.

“Any reduction to our nation’s rate of population growth puts at risk the very things that have made Australia what it is today.”

Mr Gadiel said that population would grow because of the birthrate, people living longer and because “Australia attracts talented and skilled workers from all over the globe.”

“These are all fundamentally good things.”

He said: “A restrictive population target would aggravate the problems associated with an aging population, such as the greater demands for publicly funded social services.”