The family and I have moved to Melbourne this week for a couple of months stay. I’m visiting Melbourne University for my sabbatical and so the whole family got in a plane on Monday, flew to Melbourne, drove to Ballarat to see the gold fields, drove back to Melbourne and have now settled into our two bedroom flat in the central city. It is not nearly as small as we had feared and the pool on the roof is a fantastic and probably necessary space in the weeks ahead as we start to hit some of Melbourne’s famous 40 degree days. (At the moment the weather is a little cool although the children are still enjoying the pool, Dad is not enjoying it quite so much!)
Anyway, we were driving to see a friend out in the South-Eastern suburbs yesterday and I was cycling through the radio channels when I came across an interesting debate on one of the news channels about the Chinese government’s influence on Australia, its society and, in particular, its political system. There seemed to be a consensus that the Australian political parties themselves need to do more to ensure that their members and the people selected for Parliament were not under the influence or control of the Chinese government.
Although some conversations along similar lines have taken place back home in New Zealand (indeed one of the opposition party’s MPs was alleged to have links to the Chinese security services) they have not really hit the headlines in the same way that they seem to in Australia. Australia is so much closer to Asia than New Zealand: it doesn’t have the luxury of a continent and a Tasman Sea bewteen them as we do back home!
And who has stepped into this national conversation about what Australia should do in response to the rise of China but ex-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Remember him? He was Prime Minister about five leaders ago and has more expertise in the matter than others insofar as he has studied Chinese history and culture and speaks Mandarin. I hadn’t heard much about him for a while (which is a good thing; there is nothing more likely to remind voters why they got rid of a leader than their constant popping back into the news after they have been removed).
Anyway, Rudd has popped back into the news with his latest contribution to the debate. Speaking at Parliament House last week for the release of journalist Peter Hartcher’s Quarterly Essay on Australia and China, he argued that Australia should look to itself in the coming decades to protect itself in an increasingly uncertain East Asian neighbourhood:
“Australia must also look to mid-century when we may increasingly have to stand [on] our own two feet, with or without the support of a major external ally”.
While President Trump’s current brand of America-First may only be a transitory political phase in the USA, there is a concern that some form of isolationism may take hold in the future as an expansive foreign policy becomes less attractive to the American public.
Exactly how, according to Rudd, should Australia prepare itself for a more isolated future? By pumping up! In particular, by doubling its population so that Australia is “big and sustainable”, a position that Rudd advocated for while in office. And why does Australia need a population of 50 million people?
“Only a country with a population of 50 million later this century will begin to have the capacity to fund the military, security and intelligence assets necessary to defend our territorial integrity and political sovereignty long term…This is not politically correct. But it’s yet another uncomfortable truth.”
Rudd believes that for too long Australia has been complacent in responding to the “profound geopolitical” changes now washing over it from China’s rise and is in danger of being “left behind”. While Australia is growing fast – in 2018 it passed 25 million people (24 years earlier than had been predicted in the government’s 2002 inter-generational report) – it has a long way to go to double its population in a few decades. The strain on the country’s infrastructure would be immense. The country would have to plan exceptionally well in order to ensure that the roads, hospitals, schools, jobs etc are available for another 20+ million people.
Where would these people come from? Large scale immigration is the obvious answer, but how will that happen? What incentives will the government give to entice people? And what social and political tensions will this raise?
Although I wonder about the particulars of his plan, I do think Rudd should be applauded for raising an important issue: just what plans does Australia have to deal with a changing geopolitical landscape? Is rapidly upsizing its population the way to go? The answers to these questions will be of importance not just for Australia, but also for its sleepy neighbour to the east which is not asking itself the same questions with any urgency.
Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet's blog on population issues.