05 August 2010

Dick's Population Puzzle

Excerpt from The Age, 5 August 2010

'...[Dick Smith' isn't one of the usual suspects; he's from the mainstream, a political agnostic, a poster boy for middle-Australian values and capitalism who could just as well serve as host on The Apprentice. Millionaire businessman and entrepreneur Dick Smith is an unlikely dissenter but on the evidence of Dick Smith's Population Puzzle, he's not a reluctant one.

His concern is that Australian and global population growth carries enormous risks, dangers that none of our political parties is prepared to address.

As Smith sees it, population growth is the thread that links myriad issues that the Australian public - if not its policymakers - has grave concerns about: urban growth, housing affordability, a stretched health system, environmental destruction and the impact that has on food and water supply and border protection.

Filmed over six months, Dick Smith's Population Puzzle follows Smith knocking on the doors of Australia's rich and powerful, attempting to get the issue on the agenda.

Some of those he petitions are pleased to see him; some aren't. Many disagree with his arguments but in raising the issue, he also teases out some sensitive matters that few are willing to embrace.

The documentary's maker, Simon Nasht, knows why the topic gets under the skin.

''We don't seem to be able to talk about immigration without getting sidetracked into a discussion about refugees, which is so tiny in the scheme of things as to be irrelevant,'' he says.

In the year to last December, overseas migration contributed 277,700 people, or 64 per cent, of Australia's 432,600-person population increase (the rest comes from ''natural increase'', which is births over deaths).

Nearly half of that increase came from short-term, non-permanent visa categories, mainly workers who are brought in to fill jobs where there are shortages.

Less than 10 per cent of the increase is the result of refugees but as Nasht contends: ''If you want to discuss immigration levels you are anti-immigrant.''

In any case, Smith argues for an increase in the refugee intake at the expense of other immigrants. He questions Australia's responsibility as an ethical global citizen when it recruits doctors from developing countries that have paid for their training and need them more than us. He wonders why we import workers while millions of Australians remain undertrained, under-skilled and undereducated.

More troubling for Nasht is that the discussion about population growth ''has been run through the vested interests of property developers, media companies who have a vested interest in more people, as do retailers, as does business in general.

''As Dick says, it's the easiest profit to make because you don't have to fight for more market, the market just gets bigger.

''Politicians love the idea of more taxpayers and Treasury estimates that half of our economic growth is just based on having more people. There's been a blind acceptance that Australia can keep growing forever.''

It's a massive social experiment and there's been no discussion about it, Nasht says. What makes the immigration debate so vexatious, Nasht says, is that it cuts across social and political lines and that for every benefactor of a ''big Australia'' there are just as many who will suffer.

Though many of Smith's arguments can be construed in alternative ways and some smack of exaggeration, his provocations have value and merit, Nasht says.

Smith's claim that Australia will run out of food and water should not be dismissed as alarmist, he says. Will we remain a net food exporter if our population increases and good farming land adjacent to Sydney and Melbourne is given over to housing, he asks. ''Some people believe these are serious issues that can't be ignored.''...'

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