Danger in growth for growth's sake


Barry Cohen | August 06, 2007

Scene: The House of Representatives
Date: 29-5-2007
Time: 2pm
Program: Question Time

IS the Prime Minister aware that the basic reasons for the introduction of Australia's excellent immigration policy by the Chifley government in 1946 and continued by successive Liberal governments are considered by many people to be no longer applicable? Does he realise that vast population increases, once considered highly desirable, are now being questioned due to the pressure it places on education, health and social welfare services, housing and land prices and the consequent diminution in the quality of life that overcrowded cities have on our environment? Will his Government bring down a white paper on immigration so that a cost-benefit evaluation can be made?

Good question isn't it? It shows that at least one backbencher is on the ball and understands the crisis Australia is facing. There's one problem. I lied about the date. The question was asked on June 10, 1970. Modesty prevents me naming the prescient backbencher.

The prime minister, who, at the time, happened to be John Gorton, was shocked at the question and appalled that it had been asked by a Labor MP. Fred Daly, then Labor's shadow immigration minister, was none too pleased either. Questioning Labor's sacred post-war immigration policy was not on his or his colleagues' agenda. .........

In the decades that followed nothing much changed and then suddenly the debate about climate change exploded. Headlines daily scream about greenhouse gases, global warming, water shortages, air and water pollution, urban congestion and so on. What had, for years, been primarily the concern of the dark greens overnight became mainstream. The worst drought in our history suggests the Cassandras might be right. Even the sceptics, agree that action must be taken.

What is bizarre about the debate is that rarely is the connection made between the apocalyptic scenario painted by eminent scientists and the demand for a greatly expanded population. Why is that?

In part because public figures are nervous that any call by them for a slowdown in population growth will be interpreted as less immigrants which the multicultural lobby will call racism. That is nonsense but it will bedevil any attempt to develop a concerted attack on the environmental catastrophe many believe Australia is facing.

If our population continues to expand over the next 40 years as it has during the previous 40, by 2050 Australia will have a population more than 40 million. If that happens, all the solutions now being proposed by politicians and public figures won't amount to a hill of beans.

Barry Cohen was a federal Labor MP from 1969 to 1990.