The people factor in the Anzac deal

Australia is just too attractive. Refugees aim for the big island. Other migrants pour in — 7 million in all since 1945. Half a million Australians were born in New Zealand. That’s stitching a new meaning on to Anzac.

An Australian Treasury report last year projected the population to climb by three-fifths to 35.9 million in 2050 from 22.3 million now. Just to keep up — to stay one-fifth the size — we would have to grow to around 7.1 million from 4.4 million now. Statistics New Zealand’s median 2050 projection is 5.6 million (a rise of a bit over a quarter).

If the two official projections are right the imbalance will keep growing. New Zealand will become even less significant to Australians. As it is, on Sunday most Australians will think Anzac is a name for something distinctly Australian.

Australia’s population has tripled since 1945, New Zealand’s risen by two and three-fifths. And Australians want more. Polling last month for the Lowy Institute found three-quarters (72 per cent) of its sample of Australians want more compatriots.

But only a quarter (23 per cent) want 40 million and one-sixteenth 50 million. Of the 72 per cent 43 per cent want no more than 30 million in 2050. A fifth (22%) want no more than now, 4 per cent want fewer.

The poll’s striking fact is not the numbers but that someone has bothered to collect them. That is because in Australia population is a values issue and a policy issue.

At most here it bubbles up as a periodic anti-immigrant itch. Winston Peters exploited older people’s disquiet at rapid immigration from Asia to secure 16 more years in Parliament after National gave him the chop.

In other words, in this country the politics of population are reactive, not proactive. No one asks if we should have a strategic policy related to resources and economic and social goals, as distinct from periodic ad hoc changes to immigration rules, mainly to plug the huge workforce hole left by emigration. We have been exporting and importing nearly 2 per cent of our population a year on average.

In Australia, population has climbed to a high-ish spot on the political agenda. Pundits and policymakers debate how many people the country needs or can or should contain and the mix.

In early April, as this issue gained traction, Rudd appointed Agriculture Minister Tony Burke, a rising younger minister, as population minister to “get our population levels as right as possible”, though not actually to come up with a number. Rudd in the past has backed a “big Australia” but “many Australians have legitimate concerns about the sustainability of the populations levels in different parts of the country”.

One of those with concerns is former long-serving Labor Premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr, who scathingly asked in a newspaper article earlier this year where the water was going to come from for the extra 14 million people. (Well, there is the ocean.)

Burke has a year to report, which parks the issue until after this year’s election.

A desire to park hot issues prompted Rudd 10 days ago to freeze asylum applications from Afghanis for six months and Sri Lankans for three months, with a clear signal that more applications would be refused and some applicants sent home.

This clampdown takes us back to Anzac. It underlines the difference of strategic perspective between the two countries.

New Zealanders see far less threat in the big wide world than Australians do. New Zealand is not up close to Indonesia, which has in the past been volatile and occasionally belligerent and is the world’s most populous muslim nation.

New Zealand is comfortably distant from south-east and east Asia, which have been unstable in the past and could be again. As a result of these past experiences, Australia has clung to the United States alliance, even joining the ill-judged Iraq invasion against the tenets of international law. New Zealand junked the United States alliance in 1985 in favour of today’s looser amicable deal.

New Zealand is not, as is Australia, No 1 destination for boatloads of refugees — some real, some just hunting juicy pickings in a lucky country. We experience the boatpeople phenomenon at most secondhand, as in the Tampa episode when Helen Clark rescued a floundering John Howard. Asylum-seekers are not the stuff of pub and club talk here.

That different strategic perspective, reflected in our military policy, is part of the reason Australians think the NZ is silent in Anzac.

Another reason is size. And on official projections the asymmetry will grow. Even more New Zealanders will be Australians. The economic gap will widen: Australian National University demographer Peter McDonald says labour demand is the key immigration driver.

The temptation to throw in our lot with big brother might therefore grow. Unless Carr is right. In which case guess which country has the water.

Anyone for 10 million here in 2050? Anyone (Peters apart) want to start discussing it? It’s an Anzac matter.


* Since publishing this column the Greens have reminded me that they have a policy to limit population to environmentally sustainable levels.