Australia’s population rising fast, but lag in public spending prompts debate over infrastructure demand

Australia immigration

Australia’s population rising fast, but lag in public spending prompts debate over infrastructure demand

Australia's population is growing at one of the fastest rates in the developed world, but a new report warns infrastructure spending is not keeping up
March 30, 2015 Dr Richard Denniss from The Australia Institute (TAI), which published the study, said last year's increase of 400,000 people showed growth was happening faster than many may think. "We're building a city the size of Canberra every year," Dr Denniss said. "Our report shows that the population is growing far faster than people realise."

Australia's population is on track to hit 24 million later this year.

While Australians are having more babies, numbers are growing mostly because of new immigrants.

In fact, in the 15 years from 2000, Australia's migrant population has risen by 2.75 million people.

That is more than the whole migrant intake during the 1950s, '60s and '70s, which was 2.54 million.

Population growth in Australia now exceeds the UK, Canada and the US.

"I have been quite shocked at our rate of growth relative to others in the OECD," KPMG's Bernard Salt said.

"I think the GFC was a turning point.

"We were the one shining light, and many people refocused their activities or intentions on this nation, and, in fact, our record level of migration ever was in 2009, the year after the GFC, where we accepted 300,000 migrants.

"Our long term average is barely 100,000."

Chinese and Indians are starting to catch up with Britons in dominating the migrant pool and Australia is also starting to see more migrants from the Philippines.

New Zealanders are leaving, attracted to return to a strengthening economy at home.

Melbourne suburb of Melton attracting 33 new families each week

Lokesh Sharma and Vidhu Paul represent this new face of migration.

After marrying in India last year, the couple moved to Melton, about 35 kilometres west of Melbourne, a hotspot for migrants in the country.

"I was looking for my future abroad and I chose Australia," Mr Sharma said.

"I was looking to build a new house so I can move with my family into a new house — our house. "Not a used one or not an old one — the fresh feeling of a new house."

Residents are drawn to Melton by affordable housing — a house there costs about $200,000 less than suburbs closer to Melbourne's CBD.

Mr Sharma and Ms Paul are expecting a baby in September, adding to the 42 births in Melton each week.

Melton City Council says 33 new families are moving into the area each week, adding to the 130,000 people currently living in the area.

Melton's infrastructure is coping with its new residents, so far.

But elsewhere in Melbourne — and in other outer urban areas across the country — demand for transport, education, health and other public services is outstripped by demand.

TAI is challenging leaders to take a clear position on population growth in Australia.

"Every new citizen is a new taxpayer, that's good for the budget on the revenue side," Dr Denniss said.

"But every new citizen is someone who deserves the same quality services as we have.

"Or, indeed, we don't want more people using the same number of hospitals or the same number of trains.

"So, I think politicians are taking the easy way out. They love the revenue that comes with new taxpayers but are avoiding the responsibility that the millions of extra citizens they want obviously need."

Report calls for infrastructure spending to grow with population

TAI points to New South Wales in particular, where per capita spending is set to fall from $9,000 to $8,700 over the next four years.

Similar drops in spending are expected in Queensland and Victoria, according to TAI researchers, putting pressure on services everywhere.

TAI has identified other population pressure points including the Perth suburb of Ellenbrook which has seen its population almost tripled from 2003 to 2013.

The Gold Coast/Tweed Heads region also continues to attract overseas and internal migrants, which has pushed its population almost 20 per cent higher in the same period.

At the current rate of growth — an estimated 4 million people a decade by the TAI's calculations —Australia's population will hit 40 million by the middle of this century.

With the population growth unlikely to slow dramatically, an infrastructure and services crunch is inevitable.

Mr Salt would like to see a major rethink of urban planning.

"Do we need more airports, do we need more dams? … Do we need more motorways, freeways? How do we pay for this? How can we organise a Sydney or a Melbourne or a South East Queensland at 7 million people?" Mr Salt said.

"If we were to go from 24 to 40 million people, could we initiate a policy where every new household needs to have a water tank, a rainwater harvesting tank?

"If there is pressure on our ability to deliver electricity or power for instance, should every new dwelling be mandated to have a solar panel cell?

"This is my idea of creating what I call multi-nucleated cities.

"You don't just have one CBD, you have six or seven CBDs and people live, work, play, recreate in the local area.

"It's a better quality of life, it reduces stress on infrastructure."

Dr Denniss said Australia should not just think about enlarging the cities that we already have, but should consider building brand-new cities.

But if the plan is to double our population in the next 50 years, he said, politicians need to start planning.

"The politicians that want that rapid population growth aren't simultaneously saying, 'and here's my plan, here's where we're going to build the new hospitals, here's where we're going to build the new schools, here's how we're going to move all the people around'," Dr Denniss said.

"Population growth is a big issue and for political parties to ignore that, I think that's a cop out."

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