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Wednesday, 13 March 2002
Page: 726


Senator PAYNE (7:20 PM) —It was a pleasure to see and hear Senator McLucas in the chair this afternoon. I want to make a few remarks this evening on a broad policy area, often known as population policy. The day before yesterday, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Population and Development met. It is a group of which I have been a member for some time and which is usually focused on population policies in our region. I was very pleased to be made the secretary of that group this week. I am hopeful that there will be a focus in this parliamentary term on population policy issues in Australia. I suspect that if media attention since last month's population summit in Melbourne is any indication, this is likely to occur.

What is more important is that the debate is an informed, serious-minded one and, most particularly, an open-minded one. While the national media attention is welcome, for the most part it has glossed over the finer detail of issues, including, some would say, the state of the environment. That has been a disappointment of the coverage. The link between population and environment is extraordinarily complex and deserves deep consideration. Within each component part of the population debate, such as the environment, there is great divergence of views. Take for example the argument that population size is not the dominant factor in environmental outcomes. Agricultural activity in this country is geared more towards our overseas markets. For example, Australians consume only eight per cent of the total Australian water consumed. The rest goes into our agricultural exports.

While population size may not be a dominant factor in environmental degradation, it is very important as an indirect link. In a globalised economy, the bigger the population size, the more imports we require to be brought into Australia. It follows naturally then that we would have to ride our primary industries and our processing industries to drive our exports to pay for those imports.

There is a range of views amongst environmental policy activists concerned with population. Some would describe as austere and perhaps technologically pessimistic the view of the Australians for a Sustainable Population Group, who basically want nothing short of immediate action to reduce our population. That, on the other hand, is tempered by bureaucratic analysis which, while being concerned about long-term sustainability, asserts that we will in fact face a critical stage in about 70 years from now.

So those who have promoted panic in the recent past concerning resources have, on some views, burdened themselves and some aspects of the green movement as a whole with a credibility challenge. In the 1980s, for example, some environmentalists misinterpreted the findings of the Club of Rome as saying that the world's natural resources would be consumed by the end of the 1990s. Clearly they did that to spur reform. Instead, because the world has not ended as perhaps predicted, aspects of the green movement are not always treated as seriously as perhaps they ought to be. In the Australian just this week, for example, one columnist wrote:

... the notion that Australia can't hold any more people without choking implies that science, the supposed ally of the greenie, won't find new ways to protect or improve the environment in the future.

So, aside from those who oversimplify the debate, we have others who dismiss some very real concerns in the community. That is a tension that does not add anything but rather detracts from the seriousness of the debate itself. People have every reason to take a serious look at ethnic harmony, the economic negatives of unskilled migration— as they are often called—the environment and other factors. All of these issues deserve consideration. One does not need to be dismissive of problems in absorbing New Australians or of concerns about the environment to promote population growth. I think that any difficulty in absorbing New Australians is more than made up for by their long-term productivity and the enrichment they bring to Australia and to the national diversity, which will be a real asset in an increasingly globalised system.

We have only to look at, for example, the celebration of next week's Harmony Day. I have spoken before of the richness of our Australian community, particularly of course in Greater Western Sydney. Next week's Harmony Day coincides with the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It has been growing bigger every year. As the Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs has said:

The concept of Harmony Day grew from the Commonwealth Government's Living in Harmony initiative in 1999 and provides a valuable opportunity for people to celebrate Australia's cultural diversity and stand up against racism.

So whether for Harmony Day this year you are a supporter of Guides New South Wales, a fan of Killing Heidi, a member of the Returned Services League, a member of Scouts Australia or a supporter of Surf Lifesaving Australia, all those diverse groups will be part of the celebration of that diversity on Harmony Day next week.

On the issue of environmental concern, although I am in favour of an increased population for Australia over the next 50 years, I can also acknowledge that resource management is a serious problem, if not an immediate crisis. That is not about holding two opposing views; that is about balance. Our over-reliance on non-renewable energy and inefficient use of renewable resources have to be addressed. Real concerns about our environment should be the driving force for investment in new technology and infrastructure. It is entirely possible that a larger population would, in fact, mean more money to invest in green technology. I want to refer briefly to Minister Kemp's speech at last week's Ian Clunies Ross National Science and Technology Award presentation dinner where he said:

... there are some very positive signs. Domestic and international demand for `green industries' is high. More Australian businesses and environmental industry customers are adopting a triple bottom line approach and voluntarily taking action to improve their performance—the environment as a business externality is being progressively internalised.

At a recent forum on research setting priorities, Australian scientists nominated the environment and sustainability issues as the top future research priorities. Clearly, there is a strong concern and a need and desire for knowledge.

An OECD study indicates that only half of the environmental technology the world will need in 2015 has been invented. In 40 years time there will be many well-to-do industries that do not exist today.

According to a CSIRO team that has reviewed the findings of the Club of Rome, it has always been a misinterpretation that `adjustment pain' would happen sooner rather than later. The CSIRO says that the club's position was that serious resource scarcity would occur in around 2070. But, clearly, from the blase comments in the press, typified by the one I referred to earlier, many remain to be convinced.

We need to bring together sufficient power and force to really deal with long-term problems that can be resolved only in a series of electoral cycles, not in one government term. One of the most pressing is changing our stock of infrastructure rather than only the invention of new technologies. That is a process that takes decades. The big inertia that holds back progress is the investment of dollars and technology that we currently have in our current infrastructure into new systems to the point that it actually has a real effect on cleaning up air and water.

The last time we had a major population debate in this country was post World War II, and we are all enjoying the legacy of the decision to boost our population through increased immigration 50 years on. The link that is often drawn between environmental damage over that same period and population size many would say is largely spurious. In fact, it is rather a problem that lies in environmental management. While the environment must be a factor in population forecasting, other considerations will also prevail. The effect that population growth has on our economy, the effects of the mix of our refugee, family reunion, skilled migration and general migration streams have on the economy, the issues of internal distribution of our population and international relations are the key issues that should be top of mind in Australia's population debate.

I am interested to note the involvement of Professor Borrie in a population conference to be held in Sydney this coming October. The 1973 Borrie report was the first indication that Australia's ageing population was a cause for concern and that government policy planning should take note of this issue. This had an enormous effect and was one of the things that led to, for example, the introduction of a superannuation system in this country and, in more recent times, many would say, a broad based indirect tax. I will look with great interest at that October demographers' conference because it does have the potential to deliver some real suggestions on population policy rather than just being another talkfest.

It is interesting to note that, since the conference in the late 1940s, we have had countless others which have been important for public airing of opinions and for sharing of information and theories but they have not really reached the sort of agreement that occurred in the 1940s. Since so much time has passed since World War II, it is also important to note that international relations does not seem to be the same sort of dominant consideration, notwithstanding the recently launched war on terror. The most recent Melbourne conference indicated in parts of its communique that there were other factors which they regarded as important to be part of an integrated policy framework. I look forward in this term to continuing to discuss the issue of population policy and exploring other challenges and developments in this area.