Costello liked to say it was an incentive. His theory gained traction last week with the release of Australian Bureau of Statistics figures pointing to a population boom. A record 293,600 babies were born last year, up 4per cent or 11,400 babies on the previous record. The fertility rate is now at its highest since the ’70s and close to the figure needed to maintain population by birth alone.
Demographers believe two factors are at play – women have heard the message about not waiting to have children; and economic security, which includes payments like the baby bonus.
There is also talk of a trend back towards larger families.
These figures come as the Treasury forecasts rapid population expansion – a 60per cent rise to more than 35million over the next 40years. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd thinks a “big Australia” is a great thing, so long as the population is planned for.
The head of the Treasury, Ken Henry, is more circumspect. He sees a continent stretched to its natural limits and wonders if a near doubling of the population can be managed. There are already signs the country is not coping – the Murray-Darling river system is struggling and drinking and water supplies are becoming a huge planning problem.
The big cities are already struggling to cope with moving people around. Public transport is not good enough to get people out of their cars and off the roads. Too little thought is given to where people live and work.
Overdevelopment is the last vestige of nimbyism; people may support immigration and bigger families but they don’t want those extra medium- or high-density developments in their neighbourhood.
All of these topics of conversation need to be funnelled into a larger debate about population and the consequences for lifestyle and the environment.
This wide-ranging debate is largely missing from the national political stage. Neither Rudd nor Malcolm Turnbull blanched when the Treasury’s population forecasts came out. But they were of great concern to one person.
Labor backbencher Kelvin Thomson has been increasingly vocal about the ramifications of a larger population. He is a thoughtful man and his interest stems from his time as environment spokesman during Labor’s long period in opposition, when climate change and emissions trading were not mainstream issues.
He believes the environment simply cannot sustain more and more people. Now that Labor is in government Thomson has proved to be a bit of an oddity – a backbencher prepared to speak his mind.
He has already called for greater immigration checks, scrapping the fringe benefits tax on company cars and criticised the pension increase for not being generous enough.
Last week Thomson went further, saying the population should be stabilised at 26million by 2050 – 9million people less than the current forecasts. He proposed stopping uncapped migration from New Zealand and cutting total immigration (although increasing the number of refugees).
The baby bonus and family payments are also in his sights.
Thomson thinks the bonus should be done away with and family payments made only to those families with one or two children. The money saved could be spent on education and foreign aid.
These are not the sort of the ideas that would appeal to the last treasurer.
But they are the kind of ideas that need to be discussed.