Although Australians might like to portray themselves as outback living, Crocodile Dundee types, the lucky country/West Island/world’s largest penal colony is actually very urbanised. Its population is concentrated on the coast in a few cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Newcastle and the Gold Coast. The only inland towns of note are Canberra and Alice Springs.
In short, the country is massive (the sixth largest in the world, Australia is 95% the size of the continental USA) and it is largely empty in the middle. In fact, it is largely empty full stop – (there are only nine countries with a lower population density than Australia, and one of them is Greenland). Its current population is a bit over 24 million people, and it is currently growing at about 350,000 people a year, a population rate increase of about 1.5%. However, two-thirds of that population growth is due to net migration of 210,000 people per year. And some think that that rate is too high and is putting pressure on Australia’s infrastructure and social cohesion.
Dick Smith, the entrepreneur behind the electronic chain store, has recently launched an ad campaign calling for the current net migration levels to be reduced back to the historic average of 70,000 people per year. Some commentators have blamed “unsustainable” high immigration levels for falling living standards and rapidly increasing house prices.
In response, another Australian businessman, Gerry Harvey, a billionaire owner of Harvey Norman (another electronic and homeware company) has predicted a future for Australia that is very much larger. Speaking to an Australian new site, Harvey said that Australia is a “great big place and no one lives here”. Compared to China, India, Indonesia, Australia was “one funny little country”. And the status quo cannot remain:
“It's not possible you can maintain a population of 25 to 30 million people. In 100 years from now Australia will have a population of 50 to 100 million people. That's going to happen regardless of what Dick Smith thinks, I think or you think, it's just inevitable.”
Why is it inevitable? Doesn’t the Australian Government and the people have some say in whether or not Australia quadruples in size in the next 100 years? Not according to Harvey:
“‘The problem is you can't control it,’ he said. ‘The rest of the world at some stage is not going to let you control it. Sometimes when you smell the inevitable you've got to go along with it.
You're going to come under immense pressure, it may be like boat people coming in huge numbers. It's a utopian idea that some people have, in a lot of ways I can see the worth of it, but will you ever be able to hold it to some number under 25 to 30 million? Not a chance in hell.
It was obvious to me [since] university. Australia is going to become an Asian country, 100 per cent for sure. It's just a matter of when. You might have close to four billion Asians in the world, where do you think they're going to live?’”
Now, when you have large numbers of people coming to Australia who aren’t wanted, that’s called an invasion isn’t it? And according to Harvey, the Australian people should just accept it and move on. Get used to being an Asian country of 50-100 million people. But surely the people of Australia do have a choice; unlike Europe, it is not that easy or short a boat ride to Australia. The Australian navy and air force can still control the borders unless there was outside military aid supporting largescale migration.
Migration is the hot topic of the moment, and will continue to be in the next few decades. However, I cannot see how stating that something is “inevitable” is that helpful really. It really tends to shut down debate with a meaningful discussion. And unfortunately there is too much of that already happening in immigration debates around the world. For now, Australia has the sovereign ability to choose its immigration levels. There is nothing inevitable about an Asian Australia of 100 million people.
NB This blogpost has been amended. An early version incorrectly described Mr Smith's ad campaign as “anti-immigration”. This was not correct.
Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography Is Destiny, MercatorNet's blog about population issues.