Genuine and considered debate on population needed

Opinion piece, by Professor the Hon Stephen Martin, published in The Australian on 23 March 2012.

Changes to Australia's population, and how it is managed, impacts on living standards of all Australians and that is why we need a genuine and considered debate on population, rather than a myopic xenophobic discussion centred on immigration and boat people.

The issue is so much bigger than these issues and has such wide ranging consequences that it is ridiculous the national debate is pigeon-holed on these micro elements.

The Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) will today launch a new research report. This report is the culmination of two years work and it has been undertaken to try to dispel some of the population myths and drive a much broader discussion on population.

We need to stop fixating on issues such as if Australia has a holding capacity and unreliable long-term population forecasts and focus on servicing the changes in our population structure and demography that we know are occurring or must occur, such as meeting skill shortages. Ultimately the quality of Australia won't be determined by its population size, but by how well government policies deliver on the living standard expectations of Australians.

At present we seem to be stuck in a position where there is public unease with the population debate so it is avoided by our nation's leaders, who are taking an ostrich approach and burying their heads in the sand.

The unfortunate thing is that public unease with the population debate is largely due to government policy or planning failures - from inadequate service provision in health and education to poor infrastructure planning resulting in traffic congestion and public transport systems exceeding capacity.

However, these failings of policy are often due to policy responses being reactive rather than proactive, resulting in a delay in the delivery of necessary infrastructure and services to meet population changes. This highlights the importance of government policy being planned well in advance and developed from robust discussions and a strong foundation of facts.

To allow more proactive policy responses, CEDA is calling for the Federal Government to establish an Australian Population Council to coordinate government service delivery nationally in response to population changes. The APC should be responsible for annual projections of demographic change for the purpose of ensuring smooth State and Federal Government service delivery.

In particular, it should focus on the areas of infrastructure delivery (roads and community infrastructure), education and health requirements.

In addition, the Federal Government should supplement the Intergenerational Report, which examines the ramifications of an ageing population, with a Future Generation Report, which examines the participation, education and training solutions that we need to mitigate the negative elements of Australia's current age structure.

Our leaders must not shy away from a robust discussion around Australia's demography and its implications for public policy. We need a comprehensive national focus on this issue because ultimately the greatness of Australia as a place to live and work will be determined by the policies underpinning population change, not by the size of our population.

CEDA, Chief Executive, Professor the Hon Stephen Martin

Opinion piece, as published in The Australian on Friday 23 March 2012.