‘Even with slower population growth the total population is projected to be 35.9 million people by 2050.’[1]

These are the words, contained in the Treasury’s 2010 Intergenerational Report, which sparked a frenzied debate in the lead-up to the Federal Election over the trajectory of Australia’s population growth. As the Productivity Commission’s Chairman Gary Banks said in March 2011 at its Sustainable Population Roundtable, ‘[c]onfusion and contention have reigned supreme.’[2] The Australian public were suddenly bombarded with ‘claim and counter claim about the merits or otherwise of immigration,’[3] forced to choose whether to trust the likes of then Prime Minister Rudd, advocating the desirability of a “Big Australia,”[4] or the likes of Former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, who is persuasive and vocal in his arguments against a 36 million person Australia.[5]

In amongst the fray, and arguably responsible for popularizing the debate, is Dick Smith. This former Australian of the Year considers his forays into the population debate as ‘the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life,’[6] and his documentary Population Puzzle exudes precisely that kind of zeal.

First aired on ABC1 in August 2010, Population Puzzle presented to the Australian public an exposé (in the vein of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 or Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me) on the dangers associated with Australia’s ‘unplanned social experiment’ into what Smith considers to be unmitigated population growth. Smith’s intention is clear: motivated by a nostalgic view of Australia as it was when he grew up, and a fear of the devastation of Australia’s social and environmental health, he seeks to mobilise public opinion against the current projected rates of population growth.

As such, the tone of Population Puzzle is far from neutral, and its content is carefully selected, arranged and presented to manipulate the emotions of its viewers. This manipulation is not ill-intentioned; far from it. Smith is clearly arrested by his conviction that the trajectory Australia’s population growth is apocalyptic. However, the thrust of the documentary lacks the kind of nuance necessary when dealing with an issue wrought with such obvious complexity.

This is not to say that Smith does not address the opinions that run counter to his own. The documentary features clips of Tony Burke MP disagreeing with Smith’s assessment that the ‘Government was hell bent on higher population in a very aggressive way’; Lindsay Tanner MP deeming Smith’s claims as ‘grossly irresponsible and completely absurd’; and Bernard Salt advocating why high net overseas migration (NOM) is instrumental to ameliorating the problems associated with an ageing population. However, the lack of nuance comes through his simplistic treatment of these opinions.

For example, the dismissiveness and shallowness with which he handles Salt’s opinion regarding immigration damages the currency of Smith’s case. Rather than taking the discussion to a more substantive level, he defers to Ross Gittins, who whilst is indeed a ‘respected economic commentator’[7], is not an expert on the economic ramifications of demographic trends. Gittins dismisses Salt with a somewhat flippant one-liner, that ‘[i]ncreased immigration is actually not a very satisfactory way to cope with the ageing of the population.’ Instead of unpacking why that is the case, Gittins skirts by, instead digressing into his opinion regarding why population ageing ‘is an exaggerated problem’.

The question of immigration is the most contested of all the issues Smith raises. At its core, Smith’s argument is targeting the failure of Australia’s leadership to acknowledge ‘the impossibility of endlessly expanding our economy and population in a finite world.’[8] He begins Population Puzzle by citing that Australia’s population grew by 480 000 in 2009, and that two-thirds of that number were migrants. Whilst the number is accurate, Smith frames this as the projected norm for population growth, rather than as it probably was: an aberration. This aberration, Pearse argues, was caused by ‘Australia’s economic strength during a global recession, and the surge in foreign students using vocational education as a path to permanent residency before the Gillard government clamped down.’[9]

Smith is attempting a corrective to the government’s evasiveness regarding immigration and its impact on population policy. Rightly so. In seeking to avoid the political sensitivities associated with migration issues, the government has failed to properly engage in an open discussion regarding what is normative for immigration rates. However, the manner in which Smith executes this corrective is questionable.

The Intergeneration Report released by the Treasury in 2010 states that NOM ‘is expected to continue at a rate equivalent to 0.6 per cent of the total population per annum on average, as per the average of the past 40 years.’[10] Contrary to the way Smith portrays it, a high immigration rate is not the government’s silver bullet to redress the fiscal pressures associated with population ageing. It is true that the report does present immigration as playing a role in ‘ameliorating the ageing of the population because migrants tend to be younger on average than the resident population’. And indeed, there are valid arguments against treating immigration as the solution to an ageing population.[11]

However, what Smith neglects to canvass in his presentation is that immigration is but one of three responses the government makes to the issue of population ageing. The report acknowledges that ‘[e]conomic growth is a function of productivity, participation and population’. These ‘3 Ps’ demonstrate that, whilst Smith portrayed a deep malaise in the government’s attention to the indispensability of increased investment in infrastructure, the government is indeed prioritizing investment in infrastructure: $4.6 bn to improve metropolitan rail networks in six major cities; $3.4 bn to improve the quality and efficiency of Australia’s road network; the implementation of the National Broadband Network; and measures to accelerate COAG’s reform under the National Water Initiative.[12] 

Smith’s vague reporting of the government’s measures to redress the pressures of population ageing stem from a severe under-assessment of the significance of the issue of population ageing. ‘Everyone’s always worrying that Australia’s an ageing society. It’s as if we oldies give nothing back to the community.’ This is, to say the least, an incomplete dealing of the issue of population ageing. Australia is projected to experience an ‘increase in the proportion of the population aged 65 and over’ from ‘13.5% in 2010 to 20.3% in 2031 and 23.8% by 2051.’[13] This is a substantial structural shift in Australia’s demography that will induce significant fiscal pressures, requiring increased total government spending from 22.4% of GDP in 2016 to 27.1% by 2050, and consequently, ‘spending is projected to exceed revenue by 2.75% of GDP in 40 years’ time’[14]. These pressures will be compounded by ‘slower economic growth associated with ageing, increased demand for age-related payments and services, expected technological advancements in health and demand for higher quality health services.’ [15] Population ageing needs to be engaged with seriously.

The Intergenerational Report also states that if Australia were to decrease its NOM from 180 000 per annum, in order to slow population growth from 1.2% p.a. to 0.8% p.a., that real GDP per capita would be around 2% lower in 2050. Smith handles this by imploring Australians to be prepared to have a lower increase in GDP in order to maintain their quality of life. This does not engage with the data which shows the strongest variable correlated with improved wellbeing is higher GDP. As Chris Berg states, ‘Growing richer means getting healthier. People in wealthy countries live longer.’[16]

Smith’s perspective is characteristic of the polarization evident in the contemporary discourse in Australia: ‘a push for rapid population growth in response to the [need for growth in the workforce due to the ageing of Australia’s population]’, pitted against ‘a demand for stopping growth’ due to ‘substantial environmental constraints on population growth which will be exacerbated by climate change’[1]. Smith is clearly representative of the latter, and many of his arguments have some validity. However, as the Demographic Change and Liveability Panel argues in its report, the ‘complexity of population impacts needs to be acknowledged.’ Smith’s simplistic rendition of the issues, whilst making his case accessible to the broader Australian public, lacks the kind of nuance and substance needed to make helpful progress in this discussion. As Guy Pearse commented in The Monthly, whilst Smith ‘has pushed population higher up the agenda’, and ‘highlighted the lack of planning to sustainably meet Australia’s infrastructure needs whilst maintaining our quality of life’, these positive contributions are so diminished by his ‘cherrypicking alarmism’[2] that he ends up undermining the case he so passionately seeks to make.

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[1] Demographic Change and Liveability Panel,  2010, ‘Demographic Change and Liveability Panel Report’, available online at http://www.environment.gov.au/sustainability/population/publications/pubs/demographic-panel-report.pdf.

[2] Pearse, G., 2011, ‘Comment: Dick Smith’s Population Crisis’, The Monthly, June 2011.


[1] The 2010 Intergenerational Report, p. 2.

[2] Productivity Commission, Sustainable Population Roundtable, p. 1.

[3] Productivity Commission, Sustainable Population Roundtable, p. 1.

[4] Rudd, K., 2009, The 7:30 Report, ABC, 22 October 2009.

[5] Carr, B., ‘Why our cities really will choke with population growth’, Crikey, 1 April 2010, available online: http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/04/01/bob-carr-why-our-cities-will-really-choke-with-population-growth/

[6] Smith, D., 2010, ‘Population Puzzle’, Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

[7] Smith, D., 2010, ‘Population Puzzle’, Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

[8] Smith, D., 2011, ‘The idiocy of endless growth’, Sydney Morning Herald, 29th May, available online at http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/the-idiocy-of-endless-growth-20110529-1fata.html#ixzz1pzFA0lYZ.

[9] Pearse, G., 2011, ‘Comment: Dick Smith’s Population Crisis’, The Monthly, June 2011.

[10] Intergenerational Report, p.2

[11] Carr, B., ‘Why our cities really will choke with population growth’, Crikey, 1 April 2010, http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/04/01/bob-carr-why-our-cities-will-really-choke-with-population-growth/

[12] Intergenerational Report, p. 9 and 10

[13] Bell, M., Wilson, T., and Charles-Edwards, E., 2011, ‘Australia’s Population Future: Probabilistic Forecasts Incorporating Expert Judgment’, Geographic Research, 49(3): 267.

[14] Intergenerational Report, p. 3.

[15] Intergenerational Report, p. 3.

[16] Berg, C. 2010, ‘The pursuit of economic growth,’ The Drum, 22 June, available online at http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/35118.html.