Australia frets over perils of a growing population

Last Updated 13 July 2010, 17:03 IST

As the country prepares for an early general election and awaits formal announcement from the first foreign-born female prime minister Julia Gillard, inevitably, both the ruling Labour and the opposition coalition will have to address the vital issue.

The country is already undergoing considerable turbulence over the delicate issue of ‘boat people’ in that Gillard’s reported messy handling of East Timor issue has been highlighted. On the one hand, the tense international student community is awaiting the outcome of the proposed Visa Capping Bill, on the other, ahead of the polls, the opposition has warned of a crackdown on the barging explosion of overseas students seeking the permanent residency.

Significantly, the opposition immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison (also called shadow minister for immigration and citizenship) contemplates scaling down the skilled migration figures as a viable strategy to contain population growth, primarily escalated in the student programmes.

Ever since the ruling Labour came to power, net overseas migration (NOM) has reportedly averaged 3,00,000 a year. It was a remarkable increase as compared to the NOM figures in the previous years. If this immigration rate continues unabated, the country could be touching 32 million in just two decades, thereby, requiring more efforts to handle housing, health care, education, transport and other infrastructure needs of the growing population. It is believed the NOM reached the highest level in past two decades, accounting for almost two thirds of the population growth in Australia.
The ABS accounts the net growth in overseas migration from UK, India and China — a nearly 64 per cent NOM — as one of the key factors for population growth.

Asylum seekers
Australia is struggling with the problem of asylum seekers, though it is not something new to the country which opened its borders to the Vietnamese ‘boat people’ during Malcolm Fraser’s regime. Since then, the asylum seekers have continued to haunt successive governments, including the present Gillard-led Labour, like the proverbial Banquo’s ghost!

Another cause of concern confronting the policymakers is that Australia’s population is already growing at one of the highest rates in the developed world, that is, an average of one birth in less than two minutes.

So while the Labour government has not launched any decisive population policy yet, Julia Gillard’s subtle shift from Kevin Rudd’s love for Big Australia as a perceived initial move to woo the electorate is significant. Julia, soon after being sworn in as prime minister, indicated her preference for a ‘sustainable Australia’ instead of her predecessor’s ‘Big Australia.’ She didn’t believe in a big Australia with a population target of 36 million by 2050. By rechristening the population minister as ‘sustainable population minister,’ she reiterated her oft-quoted statement, “to stop, and take a breath and develop policies for a sustainable Australia.”

Julia, herself a ‘10 pound Pom,’ who migrated to Australia as a child with her parents in 1966 from Wales, will however have to find ways to strike a rapprochement between her ‘sustainable’ Australia, devoid of woes of immigration and asylum seekers, and country’s growing demand for jobs and workers.

It is a general sentiment that growing immigration is taking its heavy toll on affordable housing, schools, hospitals, roads, transport, etc, as her very first interview extolled “a population, environment, water, soil, roads, freeways (and) trains that our services could sustain.” But she was equally cautious to add she did not mean banishing immigration all together.

Although she may have questioned her predecessor’s propensity of a big Australia, it is a grim reality that Australia will nevertheless continue to need skilled overseas workforce. But when elections are round the corner, she is pragmatic enough not to upset the young unemployed electorate.

While both Julia and opposition leader, Tony Abbot, have inevitably touched upon asylum seekers’ and immigration issues, a Sydney businessman has advocated a single-philosophy political party to draw attention to population for the future Australia. So while the election clock ticks, politicians will at least pay lip service for a while.
This is how Australia is counting its growing population with some trepidation:
Population Clock (From ABS sources)

On July 12, 2010 at 07:16:38 pm (Canberra time), the resident population of Australia is projected to be: 22,383,994. This projection is based on the estimated resident population at Dec 31, 2009, and assumes growth since then of:

*one births every 1 minute and 47 seconds,
* one death every 3 minutes and 44 seconds,
* a net gain of one international migration every 1 minute and 54 seconds, leading to
* an overall total population increase of one person every 1 minute and 13 seconds.

These assumptions are consistent with figures released in Australian Demographic Statistics, December Quarter 2009.

(Published 13 July 2010, 17:00 IST)

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