By Barry Cohen, a former minister in the Hawke Labor government

NOW that Kevin Rudd has informed us that he favours a “big Australia” with a population reaching 35 million by 2050, will he also tell us what happens then? Do we continue to pursue policies that will further double our population by 2100, causing us to cease immigration altogether and then apply the Chinese solution: one child per family? And if the population is to increase to 35 million, what’s the rush to get there so quickly?

Thanks to the ABC, Kerry O’Brien and The 7.30 Report, which devoted most of last week to showcasing the question of population growth, it appears that at last we are going to have the public debate some of us have been seeking for years.

I once asked in question time whether the prime minister was aware that immigration levels were causing concern because of the pressure they exert on “education, health and social services, housing and land prices and the consequent diminution in the quality of life that overcrowded cities have on our environment”. I asked for a white paper on immigration to evaluate the costs and benefits of continued large-scale immigration. That was on June 10, 1970, and John Gorton’s answer indicated he was none too pleased with my question. Neither was Labor’s immigration spokesman Fred Daly. Having written and spoken about the issue for 40 years, I’m delighted a serious debate is about to begin.

My view then was that Australia couldn’t have an immigration policy without first having a population policy. It hasn’t changed. The then minister for immigration, Phil Lynch, understood what I was on about. He set up an inquiry under Wilfred Borrie, but when Borrie eventually reported in 1978, no mention was made of population numbers.

What surprises me is that Rudd has decided to support a massive increase without the matter being debated in public, the parliament, the party or the press. I am not alone in my concern. What advocates of big Australia haven’t yet done is spelt out clearly the benefits from such a huge population increase. In the early 1990s our annual growth rate, including immigration as well as births and deaths, dropped below 1 per cent. It is now, thanks to more babies and more people living longer, almost 2 per cent.

With a population of 22 million, the deterioration in the quality of life in our cities is already obvious. Daily our media highlights the inadequacy of our schools, hospitals and transport system, housing and water shortages, and spiralling land prices. You don’t need to be an urban planner, demographer or sociologist to see the problems. If the 35 million predicted by 2050 is correct, with Sydney and Melbourne rising to seven million each, we are courting disaster. Double the population and life in the cities will be intolerable.

No, no, say the big Australians, we can take millions more. We can but who will benefit? It is up to the big Australians to show how this will improve the quality of life for present and future generations of Australians.

In the immediate post-war period, Australia, having just fought a war of survival with the Japanese, recognised that we could not occupy or defend a vast island continent with six million people. It may seem xenophobic today but fear of being swamped by the yellow peril before, during and after World War II was real enough. Most of these fears have now abated and, thankfully, with the end of the White Australia policy, most Australians recognise that our security is no longer dependent on increased population. If it is, what numbers will be necessary to repel the three billion who live to our near north? .

The other reason given at the time was that a larger population would provide our manufacturers with the economies of scale. That may have had some validity then, but Australia’s economy now depends more on mining, tourism and agriculture as well as financial and educational services rather than manufacturing.

The Prime Minister might also care to explain why the government is telling us we must reduce our carbon footprint while suggesting we should double the number of feet. We appear to be on two different planets. Some suggest that not to share our country with millions more immigrants is selfish and that we have the responsibility to help other countries to lighten their population load. Excuse me? What about helping them with population control?

Why has it taken so long for this debate to take place? One reason is that the ethnic lobby brands anyone who questions immigration as racist. That won’t work with the type of people who are now entering the debate. People of the calibre of Dick Smith, Bob Carr and, if I may say so, yours truly can’t be so labelled.

More and more Australians are speaking out on this issue and they will not be silenced out of fear of being blackguarded by those afraid to seriously debate the issue.

The pundits suggest the federal election will be fought on the economy, climate change, health care and education. To that we can add population and immigration. It’s the big sleeper. Rudd and Tony Abbott take note. It will be a debate not about who comes to this country but how many.

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