australia crowd

Population growth restriction – in the form of cutting migration – has made its way from the fringes to the centre of political debate, on Monday night becoming the focus of both 4 Corners and Q&A.

It’s unsurprising that cutting migration as a response to pressures such as housing affordability has entered the mainstream debate. Population is an issue that regularly raises its head, last flaring up at the end of last year when Sydney was declared “full” in a poll.

The poll had suggested inner city areas were full and growth needed to occur elsewhere. Now elements from both sides of politics are suggesting that perhaps all this growth isn’t as inevitable as we’ve been led to believe, and that we should cut back on our high levels of immigration.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott last month made headlines for suggesting migration needed to be cut almost in half, from around 200,000 to 110,000. Abbott referred to high house prices, congestion and wage stagnation in support of his plan (though to appeal to his base also “ethnic gangs” in Melbourne).

While he was rebuked by colleagues, elements of the Labor Party have smelt a vote winner and jumped on board. NSW Labor leader Luke Foley last week emerged from the political wilderness to support Abbott on looking at migration levels and developing a national population policy. Former NSW premier Bob Carr has also jumped aboard (though he says Abbott is following his lead) in calling for immigration reductions, becoming the main event on Monday’s Q&A.

The audience on Q&A too seemed largely in favour of a reduced migration intake too, citing the quality of residential development being foisted on people, rising house prices and choked major city transport systems.

Many panellists, taking a supply-side perspective, argued for a shift to higher density development to house the growing population, like this isn’t already occurring on a mass scale. Medium and higher density development is already the norm. And you just need to take a look around the freshly forming hellscapes of suburbs like Zetland in Sydney to understand why it’s not cutting through, why we hear that cities are full, and why migration reduction has become the go-to solution.

People are fed up with the cookie-cutter junk architecture of city redevelopment, with too similar, too close, too dense buildings highlighted in garish colours that only seem to draw attention to the poor quality – the street interface of many a blank wall or car park.

People are fed up with large-scale residential development preceding supporting transport infrastructure, schools, hospitals, green space and the provision of affordable housing.

If this is what restrictive zoning is now delivering – as the Reserve Bank of Australia has argued – what would the kind of development happening in suburbs like Zetland and Mascot look like without these “restrictions”?

Property Council NSW head Jane Fitzgerald told the Q&A audience that development needed to be done better; transport needed to go in first! It’s something we’ve heard for aeons but no matter the governance bodies and design guidelines put in place, many of the PCA’s members don’t yet seem to be doing things any better. So it’s unsurprising communities have no faith in continuing the experiment.

As we noted in our editorial last year, it’s not actually that we can’t handle increases in population, it’s that we’re being failed by our governments in doing so – the wrong transport projects pushed through without justification or transparency, development at scales many times what communities see as reasonable, a lack of proper accountability and community input.

In the housing affordability context, we can’t then be surprised at the emergence of demand-side solutions such as migration cuts, and that they’re more popular than ones that aim to increase supply of housing.

Other levers fall off

It’s unfortunate, though, that population growth has become the sole target, as it draws attention away from fine-tuning the housing system and pulling the levers that last year were at the very centre of how to temper our housing affordability crisis.

Important demand-side solutions like negative gearing and capital gains tax reform have been absent from the current debate. Though a less publicised AHURI report from last week found that reforming negative gearing could lead to savings of more than $1.7 billion without affecting those “mum and dad investors” the property lobbies bring up whenever we talk about changing the system.

Value capture is another option

To his credit, the Grattan Institute’s John Daley on Q&A also brought up value capture in the context of upzoning land, which could be used to help fund much-needed infrastructure and affordable housing, helping with amenity concerns and the congestion that screams “we’re full”. However, it’s an idea that needs more than a passing mention, especially when competing with the heated conversation on migration.

So let’s have a discussion about the pros and cons of our current high levels of immigration, but in the context of housing affordability and city planning, let’s also remember there’s multiple solutions that need to be on the table at the same time.

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  1. I am dismayed that many seem to believe that with better transport and housing we can sustain a population growth rate that is the highest in the OECD. Nobody seems to address the real constraints such as water and soil. The ecological underpinning of our life on this, the harshest continent, seems to be forgotten in this debate. Sure technological fixes may push back this reality for a while but at a very high cost and definitely not forever.