Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 14, 2019

Bigger or Better? Australia’s Population Debate, by Ian Lowe

The irony about this book is that there isn’t really a debate about the size of the Australian population.  There may be mutterings in the pub about rapid population growth in Sydney and Melbourne, but seven years after the publication of Bigger or Better? Australia still doesn’t have a population policy… though this article argues that we don’t need one.

My interest in this book was triggered by another book that I’m reading.  I’m about half way through Tim Watts’ recently published The Golden Country: Australia’s Changing Identity and there’s a fair bit in that about the impact on population of the Howard Government’s changes to immigration policy, and how Australia has mostly fudged the question of population policy.  More about that later when I’ve finished it, but it’s been interesting to companion-read Lowe’s book, even though some of it is now out of date.

This is the blurb:

When Kevin Rudd responded to a government forecast that the Australian population could reach 36 million by 2050 by saying he believed in ‘a big Australia’, there was a strong public reaction. One insider said that ‘the focus groups went ballistic’. Julia Gillard renamed the relevant minister’s portfolio ‘sustainable population’, implicitly criticising pro-growth policies of previous governments. Tony Abbott vowed to ‘stop the boats’ if elected (thus limiting immigration), despite generally supporting a population growth agenda and clearly having no way of stopping the boats. The Murdoch press attacked both major parties, accusing them of pandering to base prejudice by discussing the social impacts of immigration or suggesting that population growth had negative environmental impacts. It urged politicians to champion what it claimed were the self-evident economic benefits of rapid population growth. The issue is clearly a political hot potato.

This book clarifies the subject, as the debate has been confused by serious misconceptions. It provides an historic account of Australia’s population growth and an analysis of the data. It looks at the components of the growth, such as birth rates and immigration, as well as the more recent trend of our ageing population. It also analyses the motives of different interested parties, both those who promote population growth and those who argue against it.

Bigger or Better? makes the complex and controversial issues around population accessible to general readers and will contribute to public debate about this important topic.

Well, I remember this flurry about ‘big Australia’ but it’s not a topic in the media at the moment.  There seem to be two reasons for this: one is that the nexus between population growth and economic growth is ‘settled’ dogma, and the other is that it’s a complex subject easily subverted into prejudice about migration.  Lowe’s book is useful for clarifying the issues, and it appears to me to be reasonably even-handed, but he is upfront about being a patron of Sustainable Population Australia so it’s clear where his opinion lies.

The book consists of a brief history of population growth in Australia, tracing the years when it was generally accepted that Australia needed to grow its population, through to the early 1970s where there began to be world-wide concern about the earth’s capacity to support an ever-increasing global population.  But nothing much happened.  Then there was another flurry in the 1990s but immigration and the national birth rate went on increasing under the Howard government’s policies anyway.

There’s a longish chapter about the economic arguments for and against, most of which suggest that we’ve been led up the garden path about the benefits of population growth—but what I found most interesting of all was the chapter titled ‘Who’s Who in the Population Debate, and What are their Agendas.’ Whether it’s intended to or not, this chapter goes a long way to explaining why in fact there is so little discussion about the future of our population.  It’s very complicated indeed.

Lowe begins by profiling the ‘Traditional Expansionists‘.  These are the people who think that a bigger country means a bigger economy and it makes us a country likely to be taken seriously by other nations. There is also a belief that it would make us more secure and better able to defend ourselves. Amongst these proponents, Bob Hawke, for example, thought that a bigger population led to economies of scale and would make Australian business more competitive.  An extreme example of this position is held by Phil Ruthven who thinks we should aim for 200 million people. (Yikes!)

Then there are the ‘Minority Expansionists’.  These groups are often not keen on some of their bedfellows, as you can see from their varying positions:

  • Pro population growth but anti migration;
  • Pro migration if certain criteria are met, i.e. if migrants conform to religious, ethnic or political ideological criteria.  The White Australia Policy was a version of this position;
  • Anti migration altogether because they’re anti-multiculturalism, and since it’s politically and legally unacceptable to discriminate, they’d rather not have any migration at all and would prefer to encourage the birth rate;
  • Migrant organisations wanting family reunion;
  • Growth-orientated state and territory governments, i.e. SA, NT and WA;
  • Humanitarians wanting a more generous refugee policy.  Within this group there are sub-groups who:
    • want an open-door policy, allowing in anyone who applies
    • want to restrict a more generous refugee intake to people in fear of their lives but excluding ‘economic refugees’ i.e. people who want a better life.
  • Economic libertarians, i.e. ‘evangelical’ free traders who think that restrictions on migration are inconsistent with their ideology, and that restrictions on the movement of workers protect the less productive.  They want the Australian workforce to be challenged by competition from foreign workers, so that they are forced to become more productive or accept lower wages.
  • Vested interests (who are rarely explicit about how they benefit directly from a growth in population):
    • entrepreneurs with direct economic interests (migration agents, estate agents, lawyers);
    • the housing industry, the retail sector and employer groups.

Then there are ‘Majority Protectionists‘ opposed to population growth:

  • Mainstream environmental groups like the ACF who are concerned about the pressure on the environment and argue that continued growth puts biodiversity at risk because of over-consumption.  They want the population stabilised;
  • Urban residents concerned about their quality of life because of the growth of cities;
  • Infrastructure providers who argue that limited resources can’t cater for increasing needs e.g. Sydney’s water supply problem.  [LH: A problem apparently persisting despite the desalination plant that opened in 2010].
  • People (including politicians from both major parties) who think that migrants come here wanting handouts instead of to make a contribution to Australia
  • Unemployed and under-employed people who argue that migrants take their jobs so they object to importing skilled workers. This argument waxes and wanes with the state of the economy i.e. the unemployment rate.
  • Humanitarians who object to importing skilled workers from poor countries that need them.  An example given is the shortage of doctors in South African hospitals e.g. in Soweto, because doctors trained in South Africa have migrated to wealthy countries that should be training enough of their own doctors.
  • Cultural protectionists opposed to multiculturalism i.e. One Nation and its bedfellows.  Their objections are overtly racist.

There are also ‘Minority Protectionists‘:

  • Groups who think that further growth will reduce their political influence, i.e. Indigenous groups, because their culture and lifestyle has been destroyed by migration since 1788;
  • Offshore humanitarians, who think it’s better to help people in their own countries because you can help more people with foreign aid than you can by allowing relatively few of them to migrate here. The argument is that the annual increase in India and China is more than the entire population of Australia so there’s no way we can really help many out of poverty with any realistic migration program. [LH: Our meanness with foreign aid is a pet peeve of mine.  The UN target is for 7% of GDP to go to foreign aid, but Australia spends $4.044 billion dollars – that’s just 0.22% of our gross national income, or 22 cents in every $100. See the article at The Conversation about our misconceptions, and how the budget keeps cutting it year after year.]

Finally, there are professions that are Pro-Growth:

  • Economists who think that growth is a virtue in itself (with notable exceptions like Ross Gittins);
  • Engineers and physicists who are optimistic about the potential of technology to solve problems (compared to biological scientists and ecologists who are less confident about the carrying capacity of the planet in general and Australia in particular). Engineers and physicists, Lowe says, would rather genetically modify crops than try to fix unfair distribution systems, or promote nuclear power than reduce overconsumption. And he says, we ought not to hold future generations hostage to possible inventions to solve our problems.

These groups who are for and against population growth make for a complex political dynamic, and Lowe tackles a lot of their arguments, especially the economic arguments as simplistic.  If you’re interested, I recommend reading the book.  But I will share his rather alarming conclusions (bearing in mind that this book was published in 2012, seven years ago:

  • The annual difference between births and deaths was then about 150,000 and the migrant intake was 200,000+ so growth has been set in train for decades to come.  Even if we cut migration to balance those who emigrate (a radical step in itself, he says), our population would reach 30 million before stabilising.  Our population would be 40 million by 2050.
  • The Treasury projection of a population of 36 million would, if it follows current trends, locate 70% of people in the cities.  Our population is now 26 million, but Lowe bases his projections on 14 million more than the 22 million population in 2012.  Using those figures, he projects 10 million more people in our cities, that’s 3 million more in each of Sydney and Melbourne; one million more in each of Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide, and the remaining million in the rest of our cities.  (The rest of the increase i.e. 4 million people would be in rural and regional areas).
  • Both Sydney and Melbourne would need one-and-a-half million more dwellings, impacting both on urban sprawl and ‘improbable levels of infill housing’ in the inner suburbs.

Imagine that!

PS (the next day) By coincidence, I discovered this article about micro-apartments at the Guardian.  (I wonder where they put their books?)

Author: Ian Lowe
Title: Bigger or Better? Australia’s Population Debate
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2012, 208 pages
ISBN: 9780702239090
Source: Kingston Library

Available from UQP (also as an eBook) and from Fishpond (there were second-hand copies available on the day I looked): Bigger or Better? Australia’s Population Debate



  1. Tasmanian Liberals are always going on about bringing more people to live here and more and more tourists but the infrastructure is sadly lacking. So are educational opportunities with the downgrading of TAFE and dismantling of Adult Education. Not to mention they don’t want migrants. I get enormously frustrated with them.


    • Well, I must admit that for me, part of the charm of Tasmania is that it isn’t crowded. I would hate to see it suffer from over-development, but then I don’t live there and suffer from a lack of work opportunities.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I saw this book in our local library yesterday and didn’t pick it up – after reading your review now I’m going to have to reserve it!

    I’ve lived in a very tiny apartment and it drove me nuts – I got claustrophobia from being so confined. Anyway, I love my books too much – no way do I live without books! Nowhere to put them in that apartment in the video!

    Interestingly I’m in a large regional centre where the growth of population (people fleeing Sydney house prices) has exceeded the original town’s capacity to cope – with the result that parking and traffic are becoming a nightmare – I’m seriously thinking of moving somewhere smaller (but then there’s the lack of library and facilities etc!)


    • I don’t think I’d mind the lack of space so much as the noise from other apartments. If they’re well-made this shouldn’t be a problem, but often they’re not.
      I’ve always been a city person, my roots are in London after all, and I absolutely have to live within walking distance of the sea:)


  3. I was born and lived much of my life in Sydney which is where I had a small unit and yes the sound proofing was bad – you knew every time your upstairs neighbour flushed the toilet etc… Spent much time in Melbourne (my favourite city in Oz!) and still have family there but alas circumstances mean I am not able to live there – I was in Seddon (before Yarraville got gentrified – we had a great eclectic mix of aged pensioners, students in share houses, young famiies and singles) and years ago as a young thing also in a large shared house in West St Kilda which was heaven!

    I’ve lived in the central west of NSW which I love and also the mid north coast of NSW and love both of them. Had so many friends caught up in those fires recently in northern NSW but thankfully all are safe. Meanwhile the drought here is almost unbelievably bad and I wonder if some city people have any idea how dire things are… we are running low on drinking water, there are no stock in the paddocks (no feed or water) and the ground is just dust – no grass. I’m not sure where people are going to get their food from soon, much less water. This is prime orchard growing area – or rather, it was. On the mid north coast there hasn’t been decent rain in years and it’s tinder dry, hence the terrible fires around Port Macquarie, Taree etc. It used to be lush sub-tropics.


    • I think is why people are so frustrated by the climate change debate. I mean, I shouldn’t even be using the word ‘debate’ – it’s settled science. It’s the refusal to discuss it that means we have not prepared for it. And heads should roll for that.
      But being practical, I think we have to give up on trying to get this government to admit it… what we need to do is lead them towards acknowledging the practical impact (the first, the farms in crisis etc). That would enable them to take some forward planning action without losing face.


  4. I love migration (to Australia) and the diverse population it produces. I’m not too fussed about the size of the Australian population, but rather the world population which is already ridiculous. Remember when Suzuki warned that simple maths meant that the (world) pop would go from 2 to 4 to 8 billion every 30 odd years. Which means the next step is 16 bil which will surely precipitate a major Malthusian population crash.


    • I’m not too fussed about it as it is now, but I do think we should be much better at planning for the future and that means having given some thought to what the size will/could be, and equally importantly, where all the people are going to be. It breaks my heart to see the death of small towns and depopulation in the bush, and I feel really sorry for people who have very long commutes to get to work. I only had about 35 or 40 minutes in the car each day and I found that soul-destroying towards the end of my working life. I just love *not* using the car in my retirement.
      So I do think we should have a population policy.


  5. […] (You may remember that it was the catalyst for my recent reading of Bigger or Better, Australia’s Population Debate by Ian Lowe). […]


  6. […] Bigger or Better? Australia’s Population Debate, by Ian Lowe […]


  7. […] Bigger or Better? Australia’s Population Debate, by Ian Lowe […]


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