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Sustainable Society:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.









April 2002

Policy objectives



  • Australia's capacity to sustain a large population is limited because the continent is largely arid with old, nutrient-poor soils and a variable climate;
  • Only six per cent of the continent is arable1;
  • Dryland salinity threatens to destroy up to 17 million hectares of agricultural land by 20502,2a;
  • Our rivers show severe signs of degradation through extraction, regulation by dams and other forms of habitat destruction, and increasing salinity is likely to make the water in many of them undrinkable and unfit for irrigation within a matter of decades, further reducing the possibility of large settlements, particularly inland3,3a;
  • Global climate change will lead to a deterioration of natural ecosystems through increased temperatures, extreme weather events and less rainfall in the southern part of the continent, thus reducing its capacity to sustain a large population even further4;
  • Australia's population growth rate of 1.2 per cent is one of the highest of developed (OECD) countries, with annual natural increase (120,000 to June 2001) being slightly ahead of net overseas migration (immigration minus emigration - 109,700 to June 2001)5;
  • According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australia will have a population in 2051 of between 24.1 (fertility 1.6 births per woman and net overseas migration over 70,000 per year) and 28.2 million (fertility 1.75 and net overseas migration 110,000)6;
  • Australia's net overseas migration (immigration minus emigration) has averaged around 80,000 over the past ten years (nearly 90,000 over the past 50 years) but it has fluctuated significantly from year to year7;
  • For Australia to achieve a population of 50 million by 2050, as some business leaders suggest is desirable, annual immigration would have to exceed 450,000, a level which would be totally disruptive and unaffordable since most migrants would be unskilled or without English and in need of training before being able to contribute to the Australian economy7;
  • Australia, one of the top 12 biodiverse countries in the world and the only one in the OECD, has signed an international agreement for the protection of its biodiversity;
  • Australia has a very bad record with respect to extinction of species, particularly mammals7;
  • Clearance of native vegetation for human settlement and agriculture is the single most significant threat to terrestrial biodiversity8;
  • Australia is currently a net exporter of food but, unless land degradation is checked, could become a net importer within a generation9;
  • Australians have one of the highest consumption rates and their greenhouse gas emissions per capita are the highest in the world10;
  • Greenhouse gas emissions are directly proportional to population growth, so as population grows, it is increasingly difficult to meet international targets with respect to climate change, whether in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol or its alternatives11;
  • Global warming may cause the inundation of many neighbouring Pacific atolls such as Tuvalu, leading to the prospect of many more environmental refugees seeking refuge in Australia12 as immigrants come to Australia from less industrialised countries their consumption increases as they adapt to the Australian life-style11;
  • Most environmental indicators (biodiversity, water quality, soil etc) are declining in Australia, meaning the current population is not living sustainably at the current standard of living13;
  • Global population was three billion in 1960, six billion in 1999 and is expected to reach nine billion or more in the next 50 years with the extra growth almost all in the less developed world14;
  • Looming water and oil shortages may seriously affect the ability of some countries to feed themselves and there may be insufficient food on the world market for them to buy food as global population continues to grow15 16;
  • Up to a billion hectares of natural ecosystems may need to be cleared to grow food for the three extra billion people, depriving the world of the ecosystem services they provide (absorption of carbon dioxide, purifying water etc) and hastening the extinction rate of other species17;
  • Australia has an ageing population, though compared with most other developed nations, it has a comparatively young population;
  • Ageing is caused by the transition from an expanding to a stable population and also from increased life expectancy as health care improves;
  • Immigration will not alleviate ageing, except at very high and socially unacceptable levels18;
  • Several reputable studies have shown that the prospect of an ageing population is not a major problem for Australia and potential labour shortages can be off-set by keeping people in the workforce longer19,19a,b,c;
  • Australia's current fertility rate of 1.7 is high enough not to lead to rapid ageing20but low enough to lead to stabilisation of the population, were net overseas migration to fall below 70,000 per annum (alternatively, fertility of 1.65 and net migration of 75,000)20a;
  • Australia's official migration program is distorted by the large number of New Zealanders coming to Australia freely under the Trans-Tasman agreement (net gain of 30,000 in 1999-2000)21;
  • An increase in GDP generally results from an increase in population but does not necessarily translate into better GDP per capita, nor is it equally distributed22;
  • In 2001, eleven of the 15 wealthiest nations, based on GDP per capita, had populations lower than Australia's23;
  • Providing infrastructure and housing for an ever-growing population diverts money from investment in education, research and development, and in hi-tech industries that lead to real development rather than simply 'growth'24;
  • When the population of a country exceeds its natural resource base, that is, when it becomes unsustainable, the cost of providing infrastructure and basic services such as water supplies increase25;
  • Poorer members of society (often new migrants themselves) bear the brunt of high immigration through the downward pressure on wages and through increased costs of housing and services26;
  • Australia depends heavily on skilled migrants27, often from poorer countries that cannot afford to lose them, because its educational and training institutions do not provide enough of the skills required for proper functioning of its economy; and
  • Australia falls far short of the UN-recommended 0.7 per cent of GDP for overseas development assistance yet well directed aid could alleviate many of the push factors that drive people from their own countries.28



  • The size of any population must be kept within the limits of its natural resource base;
  • For any given level of consumption, the more people there are, the greater the environmental impact;
  • Social and economic sustainability is dependent on the protection of ecological processes and systems and the preservation of biological diversity;
  • Australia has a responsibility to help people in impoverished developing nations;
  • Australia has only a limited capacity to alleviate the social, economic or political problems of more populous countries through immigration, but can and should do more to help others through increased and better directed foreign aid;
  • The benefit per dollar of foreign aid far exceeds the benefit from money spent in resettling people within Australia;
  • The Federal Government has prime responsibility for determining who settles in Australia and not the would-be immigrants themselves;
  • As a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Australia has an obligation to provide temporary refuge to those fleeing a genuine fear of persecution, but does not have an obligation to provide permanent residency for them; and
  • In the interests of intergenerational and intragenerational equity, Australians need to reduce their consumption rates and improve energy efficiency dramatically.


Policy Objectives

  • To initially stabilise human population numbers both nationally and internationally as soon as possible; and
  • To determine what is an ecologically sustainable population at an acceptable level of material consumption, both nationally and internationally, and to seek to achieve that in a humane, non-coercive manner as soon as possible.



That the Federal Government:

  • Includes a Minister for Population in Federal Cabinet, rather than a Minister for Immigration, recognising that immigration is but a sub-set of the broader issue of population;
  • Develops and implements an integrated population policy that encompasses immigrant intake, natural increase, aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, tourism, foreign aid, internal migration, and education;
  • Ratifies the 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Program of Action;
  • Establishes and funds a Bureau of Population Research that will address all environmental, social and economic aspects of population policy;
  • Maintains non-discriminatory immigration to Australia but at significantly lower levels than at present;
  • Gives higher priority to the Humanitarian Program within this overall reduced migration program;
  • Makes provision for the intake of some environmental refugees within the migration program, particularly those from the region and those affected by global climate change;
  • Adopts an integrated population, training and labour market strategy;
  • Ensures that Australia's educational and training institutions are adequately funded such that they provide all the skills needed for the functioning of the economy and for the welfare of its citizens;
  • Adopts social policies (e.g. maternity allowances) that allow couples to provide adequately for their children but at the same time discourages them from having more than two children;
  • Adopts economic and housing policies, such as encouraging more public housing, that discourage land speculators from reaping excessive profits from population growth;
  • Increases Australia's overseas development assistance (ODA) to the UN-recommended 0.7 per cent of GDP, or more;
  • Ensures that the family planning component within ODA is at least 4 per cent, and that greater priority is given to other measures that reduce the birth rate, particularly primary health care and education of women;
  • Ensures that Australia's treatment of asylum seekers is as humane as possible;
  • Retains measures that will deter others from trying to enter the country illegally;
  • Adopts a precautionary approach to tourism, recognising that temporary residents and visitors also place a burden on resources while travelling to and within Australia;
  • Adopts a consumption strategy that will encourage lower levels of resource use while retaining reasonable quality of life;
  • Provides incentives for energy efficiency to reduce Australia's total greenhouse gas emissions and ecological footprint;
  • Ensures that sex education programs in Australia are adequately funded and that a wide variety of contraceptive measures are available and affordable to all who need them; and
  • Counts New Zealanders in the overall Migration Program, even if it means abandonment of the Trans-Tasman Agreement.



1. < http://www.auslig.gov.au/facts/dimensions/compare.htm>.
2. Australia State of Environment Report 2001. CSIRO Publishing. p 53
2a. < http://www.csiro.au/index.asp?type=mediaRelease&id=SaltAustraliasGreatestBattle&stylesheet=mediaRelease >.
3. Australia State of Environment Report 2001 pp 57-69
3a. < http://www.csiro.au/index.asp?type=mediaRelease&id=Prwhitebook&stylesheet=mediaRelease >.
4. Peter Whetton. Climate Change – Projections for Australia. CSIRO Atmospheric Research brochure. < http://www.dar.csiro.au/publications/projections2001.pdf >.
5. Australian Bureau of Statistics 3101.0 December 2001.
6. DIMIA. 2002-2003 Migration and Humanitarian Programs - a discussion paper (rev.ed.Jan 02) p.7
7. DIMIA. 2002-2003 Migration and Humanitarian Programs - a discussion paper (rev.ed.Jan 02) p.23.
8. Australia State of Environment Report 2001. CSIRO Publishing. p.73.
9. Dr Mary White, speech, national conference, Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population, Sydney 1997.
10. The Australia Institute. News release "Australians worst polluters". 17 Sept 2001.
11. The Australia Institute. News release "High population policy will double greenhouse gas growth" Dec 20, 1999.
12. UNFPA State of the World Population 2001."Footprints and Milestones: Population and Environmental Change"pp19-22.
13. State of Environment Australia 2001. CSIRO Publishing. < http://ea.gov.au/soe/2001/overview.html >.
14. UNFPA State of the World Population 2001. "Footprints and Milestones: Population and Environmental Change" p3.
15. UN Wire Services "UN Warnings of Global Water Crisis" 23 March 2002. < http://www.unwire.org >.
16. David Goodstein "Oil doesn’t grow on trees" March 14, 2002. New York Times.
17. D. Tilman et al (2001). Science 292, 281-284.
18. DIMIA. 2002-03 Migration and Humanitarian Programs - discussion paper (rev.ed.Jan 02) pp8,9.
19. Pamela Kinnear. "Population Crisis: Crisis or Transition?" 2001. Australia Institute, Canberra.
19a. Natalie Jackson. "The policy-maker's guide to ageing: key concepts and issues" FACS 2001.
19b. "Population Ageing and the Economy" Research by Access Economics. Comm.of Aust. 2001.
19c. Christabel Young "Australia's Ageing Population - Policy Options". Comm. of Australia 1990.
20. Peter McDonald, personal statement, APA conference, Melbourne Dec 2000.
20a. DIMIA. 2002-03 Migration and Humanitarian Programs - discussion paper (rev.ed.Jan 02) p10.
21. DIMIA. 2002-03 Migration and Humanitarian Programs - discussion paper (rev.ed.Jan 02)p11.
22. "One Nation - Two Ecologies" House of Representatives Report into Australia's population carrying capacity (chair Barry Jones) Dec 1994, p109.
23. CIA World Fact Book, July 1, 2001. < http://www.mrdowling.com/800gdppercapita.html >.
24. "One Nation - Two Ecologies" House of Representatives Report into Australia's population carrying capacity (chair Barry Jones) Dec 1994, p106.
25. Catalyst. ABC-TV 14 March 2002. "Running Dry". < http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/s498835.htm >.
26. Deidre Macken, "Where policy's too close for comfort" Aust.Fin.Review 2 March 2002.
27. DIMIA. 2002-03 Migration and Humanitarian Programs - discussion paper (rev.ed.Jan 02) p14.
28. "How much aid does Australia give?" < http://www.ausaid.gov.au/makediff/howmuch.cfm >.
For further information please contact:
Sustainable Population Australia, Inc.
P.O. Box 297, Civic Square ACT 2608
Ph.: 02 6235 5488
Fax: 02 6235 5499
Email: <info@population.org.au>
Website: < www.population.org.au >.


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