Powerful people magnets
For a country that has been built on growth, some of Australia's political leaders seem to be increasingly ambivalent about the concept.
Population is now firmly on the political agenda. The federal government is preparing a population policy, state and federal politicians are debating the merits of decentralisation, the NSW Premier has (extraordinarily) called for a 50 per cent cut to Sydney’s immigration, and other MPs seem to believe they can switch off growth via media release.
So what should a population policy for Australia look like?
Firstly, having a population policy is a good idea. For a concept that has been so central to our economy and to our successful multicultural society, it hasn’t had the focus that it should have. It’s time that the Australian growth reality was explored and some clear policy directions laid out.
Immigration levels are central to such a policy, but are just one input. Growing GDP, increasing per capita incomes, filling skills gaps, balancing our ageing demographic, and the strategic benefits of a higher population are all good reasons to continue with our current strong and highly targeted migration program.
Ensuring the states are plugged into this process is sensible. Expert advice from the Productivity Commission, the Treasury and Infrastructure Australia would also be important.
The Government has flagged it wants to incentivise some migrants to live outside of the larger, fast-growing capital cities. So long as this is a targeted program and they learn the lessons of past decentralisation failures, this can also be a good thing. There are certainly many regional and smaller cities that would welcome more people with open arms.
However, the reality is that Australia’s larger cities will continue to act as powerful people magnets. The economic opportunities and the urban vibrancy of these cities will continue to attract people from around the country and around the world. It’s a sign of success and one to be fostered and curated.
A central plank of any future population policy must be to help our fast growing cities make a successful transformation through ‘good growth’ that delivers economic benefits, but also big liveability dividends for the current and future residents.
That means a population policy needs to be aimed at helping to create great Australian cities, not just sending people to the regions. It must focus on new infrastructure, clear planning, investment in place-making, improved governance structures and a good dash of leadership. It’s also important to learn the lessons of other fast-growing successful cities around the world – the focus of the Property Council’s Creating Great Australian Cities project launched earlier this year.
So let’s have the discussion about population – but keep the focus on the main game which is making our cities great so we grow well into the future.