Table of contents
 - featured image
By Ross Elliott

Why do we keep falling for the idea that the rate of population growth in Australia is inevitable?

There is nothing inevitable about the rate of our population growth in Australia.

So why does so much of our urban planning assume that the rates of growth are something “we can’t do anything about” when the opposite is in fact true?

Only recently we proved it can be done when we pulled the policy levers on growth to ‘halt’ for the first time in many decades - thanks to Covid.


Given planning for growth is about demand as well as supply, why is it we seem to accept rapid growth as ‘fate’ rather than plan for growth at speeds we can actually handle?

Our population clock shows there are now nearly 26.67 million of us.

The biggest driver of that growth is net overseas migration – which is a direct result of national policy.

When net overseas migration slows, our overall rate of population slows.

Our natural (births over deaths) rate of growth is very modest by comparison and (unless you’re adopting a Community China approach to birth control and family planning) is beyond the reach of policymakers.


So population growth in Australia is invariably a discussion about net overseas migration numbers – something we seem sensitive about lest we be charged with racism or some other allegation.

Nearly every country around the world views control of its borders as a primary responsibility, and with it, management of its own population.

We are no different.

Australia’s rates of net overseas migration really took off in the early 2000s.

After bouncing around at the 100,000 per annum mark for the best part of 50 years, it surged to double that and momentarily to triple that before crashing to negative as a result of the global Covid border shutdown:


Ironically, the rapid acceleration in rates of net overseas migration followed a 2001 pre-election speech by then Prime Minister John Howard, who seemed to suggest the opposite was coming:

“I hold very strongly to the view that this country has an obligation as part of the international community to conduct a generous refugee program and we have done so to our credit now for some decades.

We are one of only nine countries in the world that has a resettlement program and we take more refugees on a per capita basis than any country in the world accept Canada.

But my friends we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come and we'll decide that applying humane equitable principles and international refugee assessment.

What is involved in this debate about asylum seekers is the proposition that some people have, namely if people can quite literally present themselves at Australia's borders and demand entry no matter what the background or no matter what the circumstances are.”

That won him much support at the time, and the phrase “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” has become one of his signature lines.

The speech was in response to national security concerns flowing from global terrorism but was also widely taken to refer to immigration policy generally.

But population numbers boomed to record levels in the next term of his office as Prime Minister.

The ALP too have had views on our rates of population growth.

Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, when he was Opposition Leader, called for a “mature debate” on population growth rates.

In response to an Infrastructure Australia report that warned rapid growth rates would require $40bn per annum in spending, he had this to say:

“It’s a matter of appropriate population growth… 

What we can’t have is what has historically happened of just opening up land release, growth in outer suburbs, people not located near jobs without working out where they will work, where they will access health and education services, where their kids will play.

There is a role for government in just not allowing the market to let rip and having significant development occurring without looking at the social infrastructure that is required in order to improve liveability and sustainability.”

Now elected to office, that debate hasn’t happened.

Instead, our rates of net overseas migration have been again set at record high levels.

To illustrate the speed of that growth, consider this graph which compares the various rates of predicted growth in our three major cities (where most growth pressure is occurring) with a range of global cities.

While other cities (such as LA or London or San Francisco) may be significantly larger in number, their rates of growth are much slower.

Since I did the research for this graph, LA and San Francisco have entered negative territory.

In the case of LA, the US Census Bureau said it had “the largest population loss of any county, losing 159,621 residents in 2021.”

This hasn’t led to a collapse of the LA economy.

Our rates of population growth, pre-pandemic, were three times that of many global cities we like to compare ourselves with.

They are comparable only with the hyper-growth rates of cities like Shanghai and Beijing in Communist China.


Let that sink in.

The consequences of our inability to deal with these very rapid rates of growth are everywhere – housing shortages, hospital shortages, school shortages, rising congestion (doubling the population of a city but relying on the same transport infrastructure networks that were there in the 1980s will do that!), potable water shortages, energy shortages, shortages of parkland… if you think we’re doing OK you’re very much in the minority (a recent article of mine went into some of these shortages in more detail).

What does the Australian population think of these rates of growth?

Invariably, whenever their opinion is asked, the answer isn’t what the development industry or big business lobbies want to hear.

A 2021 poll of Sydney and Melbourne residents for Fairfax media for example found that two-thirds of residents wanted net overseas migration numbers to return to lower levels than pre-pandemic.

Only One in five were happy with pre-pandemic levels or higher.


It's hard to suggest these somehow reflect racist views, given that both Sydney and Melbourne are highly multicultural cities and a diverse range of cultures would invariably be included in that sample.

So if rapid rates of growth are leading to obvious critical infrastructure shortages and eroding our quality of life in major cities, and if the majority of the population has significant reservations around the speed of growth and net overseas migration, why are we doing it?

There are arguments in favour of rapid growth – that it’s essential for the economy etc.

Those arguments are often promoted by ‘big end of town’ interests motivated by selling cheap apartments or finding low-cost labour to plug labour resource gaps.

Critics have argued that support of high migration policies is the equivalent of a pyramid scheme.

Not all critics are cranks either, such as this article from the respected economist and journalist Terry McCrann:

“The next big battle for rational policy that adds value to Australia and individual Australians and not just dollars to the bottom lines and bank balances of developers, construction companies and assorted billionaires has to be over population. 

Two years of the virus put Australia’s ‘Population Ponzi’ on hold – the idea that you could build a healthy and strongly growing economy on simply bringing more and more people into Melbourne and Sydney, every year, forever.

Yes, we got bigger aggregate growth in the economy, but we most certainly didn’t get quality growth, that actually improves the lives of ordinary Australians.”


The argument that we might be better advised to grow at more modest rates to ensure that our provision of critical infrastructure can keep up and that our quality of life (and access to essentials like housing) doesn’t get worse, isn’t a discussion we seem ready to have.

Keep in mind too that the wealthy and privileged easily self-insulate from the adverse consequences of rapid growth, while enjoying the material benefits of it.

They may promote higher infill housing density for their business interests’ sake, but rush to oppose it when a project threatens their own personal residential amenity.

The problem of public hospital shortages doesn’t worry them either as they have the best private health coverage available.

Issues around state government schooling aren’t a worry, they have their children in the very best private schools.

Rising household energy costs aren’t a concern for people who can afford $100,000 electric cars to openly demonstrate their eco credentials.

And so it goes on.

There is nothing inevitable about our rates of population growth.

They are the result of policy decisions we, as a nation, deliberately make.

There is however something inevitable about the reluctance of our leaders in public policy, business, and government to engage in an informed debate about the impacts of rapid growth and whether or not a more modest pace would benefit a greater number of people.

About Ross Elliott Ross Elliott has spent close to 30 years in real estate and property roles, including as a State Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Property Council of Australia, as well a national executive director of the Residential Development Council. He has authored and edited a large number of research and policy papers and spoken at numerous conferences and industry events. Visit
No comments


Copyright © 2024 Michael Yardney’s Property Investment Update Important Information
Content Marketing by GridConcepts