One of the more pointless public debates revolves around the notion of a ‘big’ Australia. With a population of just 21 million occupying a continent you’d think this wouldn’t be much of a problem. But former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd caused a huge kerfuffle when he told the 730 Report that he supported a ‘big’ Australia.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says he believes in a “big Australia” and that the population forecast is good news for the country, but he does concede that it poses complex challenges.
A rare instance of Rudd being exactly correct. But it all went downhill from there.
And the Opposition’s sustainable development spokesman Bruce Billson says the Government has made big promises but doesn’t have a big plan.
“[It is] quite bitsy. They’re not connected to a strategic plan for our major cities,” he said.
“The Prime Minister might be excited about a big Australia but what I think Australians are concerned about is the Federal Labor Government has no plan for coping with this enlarged population.
“We’ve seen no coordinated strategic plan about how the population will be settled, no consideration about what extra pressure that will be putting on our environment.
There are many people who are quite comforted by the fact that the government had no plan. Government has an appalling record at planning.
Nonetheless the notion of a Big Australia is very confronting for many people. Kevin Rudd went on to lose the Prime Ministership and Julia Gillard dumped the idea in her very first major policy speech.
It is against this background that Pantera Press has published the third book in their series ‘Why vs Why’. These clever booklets contain both a yes and a no argument for major issues. Previous books relate to nuclear power and gay marriage.
The structure of the book is as follows: it contains both sides of the argument including a rebuttal on reverse sides. The reader can decide which argument to read first. No particular argument is favoured by the book structure. So far so good. A particular defect, however, is in the footnoting. Each argument contains copious footnotes – yet they are not included in the book, they have to be downloaded from the internet. I understand that footnotes take up space and add to the production cost of the book and many readers don’t like them, etc. etc. etc. But I want to see the footnotes. Not endnotes, footnotes. They are important and as I’ll argue below quite problematic in this debate.
Jessica Brown and Oliver Hartwich – both formerly of the CIS – mount the ‘yes’ case while Mark O’Connor, poet and environmental writer, mounts the ‘no’ case. So it is a case of libertarians and a statist taking at each other. The idea is that the reader makes up their own mind, yet I did find the lack of a synthesis somewhat troubling. I’m not sure if that is because readers have come to expect a synthesis but reading the book left me feeling unsatisfied. Having said that I did enjoy the rebuttals more than the original ‘yes’ – ‘no’ arguments.
Reading through the arguments I’m left wondering if these are the best arguments that can be brought to the debate. The ‘yes’ argument – that I think is correct – relies on inevitability and all those bad things that are supposed to happen being not so bad. While the ‘no’ argument relies on ‘peak oil’ and those bad things being really bad.
‘Peak oil’ arguments are just rubbish and should be treated with the contempt they deserve. But at the same time I wonder if the ‘inevitability’ argument is convincing. I suspect not. ‘It is going to happen anyway so get used to it’ could apply equally to many different things both good and bad. I would have liked to see more argument about the unambiguous benefits of a larger population – it is not just about skilled migration. Something that I think is sorely missing from the Australian debate.
O’Connor engages in some of the dodgy practices that have so undermined green arguments about climate change. He tries the old ‘peer-review’ and ‘appeal to authority’ stunt.
… my opponents would need good support from independent demographers. Yet they offer only a demographic paper they themselves have written.
Population projections are a job for skilled professional demographers. My opponents, like myself, are not demographers (which is why I cite the publications of qualified demographers) and their paper was not published in a peer-reviewed journal.
He then goes on to cite Gary Banks of the Productivity Commission, Graeme Hugo (a professional demographer), and an Immigration Department report. But neither the Gary Banks statement nor the Immigration Department report are published in a peer-reviewed journal. As it turns out neither is the Graeme Hugo citation. In the footnotes – available on the web – the Graeme Hugo cite turns out to be an Australian Climate Change Adaptation Research Network for Settlements and Infrastructure discussion paper.
A perusal of the ‘no’ citations shows a lot of government reports, newspaper articles, various media websites, the Wikipedia, and blogs as references. I also note several citations to the ERA C ranked journal People and Place – a controversial journal that faced allegations of xenophobia and racism during its 18 year run.
Going beyond the merits of this particular book I think there is something else going on. The ‘Big Australia’ debate is a proxy debate for something else. To my view this is really about migration and the type of migrants coming to Australia. I have no qualms in labelling that debate as being xenophobic and racist. In principle I agree that it is possible to oppose migration and not be racist but I doubt those individuals make up a large proportion of the anti-immigration contingent. There is nothing wrong with hating foreigners and if Bryan Caplan is to be believed anti-foreign bias is common. But be honest; don’t pretend to be an environmentalist to mask prejudice.
The book series is an interesting idea – I wish them commercial success. Longer rebuttals and including the footnotes in the book itself would be improvements (to my mind anyway).