Monday, February 2, 2015

Queensland Government Knocks Over the Witches Hats

In 2010 I visited Queensland on several occasions to give speeches about rapid population growth, in Brisbane, on the Sunshine Coast, and at the Woodford Folk Festival. I encountered great unhappiness at the impact rapid population growth was having in Brisbane and South-East Queensland, and was not surprised when the Queensland Labor Government was defeated in 2012, although the scale of the defeat was remarkable.

In many respects the Queensland Government had fallen victim to the same problems that had beset the Victorian Labor Government which was defeated in 2010. But like the Victorian Labor Party the Queensland Labor Party has now pulled off an astonishing turnaround, apparently regaining office in a single term and toppling an elected Premier in the process. Ted Baillieu was replaced by his own party and did not get to contest the election; Campbell Newman lost his seat.

Political commentators are astonished at this growing political volatility. Kevin Rudd was elected as Prime Minister and replaced by Julia Gillard before the 2010 election. She in turn was replaced by Kevin Rudd before the 2013 election. It is now widely speculated that Tony Abbott, too, will not get to seek re-election as Prime Minister. So what is going on?

No doubt factors like broken election promises, the 24/7 media cycle, the Global Financial Crisis, and voters choosing State and Federal Governments of different complexions, are having an impact. But one feature of the past decade is regularly overlooked. In 2004 Australia had a net migration program of 100,000. Then in the space of three years it ratcheted up to well over 200,000, where it has stayed. This doubling has given Australia rapid population growth for the past decade – we now have an extra million people every three years. Prime Minister Howard, who introduced this rapid increase, lost his seat at the 2007 election.

I have become convinced that rapid population growth and political instability go hand in hand. I think of this as the Witches' Hats theory of government. Think about those Advanced Driving Courses that require drivers to drive in slalom fashion through a set of plastic or rubber orange cones, commonly called witches hats. The driver's mission is to avoid the hats. If they hit a certain number, they fail the test.

I think the re-election task of a government has some similarities. It you think of each hat as an area of public policy, such as education, health, housing, transport, aged care etc, if a government mucks up an area of public policy it is akin to hitting one of the witches' hats. If a government hits a number of hats, ie fails a number of public policy tasks, it is likely to be voted out, just as the driver who hits the hats won't get their Advanced Driving Qualification.

Now it seems pretty obvious that if you're a driver, you are much more likely to avoid the hats if you are travelling at 50 kph, whereas if you're driving at 100 kph, you're pretty likely to hit some hats. And if you're a government you're much more likely to solve peoples' problems if you have a population that is growing slowly, rather than one that is growing rapidly.

The Queensland and Victorian Liberal Governments were elected on the back of public discontent with issues such as planning, public transport, cost of living, housing unaffordability and job insecurity. But as these things had been caused by rapid population growth, and the growth continued, they did not solve those problems, and paid a massive electoral price for it. For example Governments get punished for trying to sell off public assets. They do it to raise money to build new infrastructure, or pay down debts incurred as a result of past infrastructure building. But they would not need so much money, or so much infrastructure, if the population wasn't growing so fast. The Queensland academic Jane O'Sullivan says that population growth of 2 per cent doubles the infrastructure task compared with that in a stable population.

It is not only in Australia that rapid population growth drives political instability. It happens right around the world. Governments in the Scandinavian countries with slow population growth are able to solve people's problems and enjoy considerable political life expectancy. Countries which have high birth rates, like Egypt, Nigeria and the Philippines, have chaos. In the Pacific Islands Samoa has had a relatively stable population, and stable government, for decades, whereas Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have had neither.

It is not fashionable to focus on our past decade of rapid population growth as a cause of Australia's political instability and volatility. Some are happier focussing on the alleged personal qualities of our leaders – they heap praise or derision on Anna Bligh, or Tony Abbott, or Campbell Newman, when the fact is that a different leader with the same policies would have led to the same result. Others want to interpret election results through a highly ideological prism, and come unstuck as a consequence of believing too much of their own propaganda.
It is probably too late for Tony Abbott. But perhaps his successor, or successors, and other political leaders around Australia, might want to ask themselves "do I want to be yet another casualty of our equivalent of the Colosseum, or do I want a respectable time in office, as Prime Ministers and Premiers had as recently as the 80s and 90s?"  And if so, isn't the way to improve my political life expectancy to slow the population car down and focus on solving people's real life problems?


  1. The naked emperor that only those with vision talk about. "population growth of 2 per cent doubles the infrastructure task compared with that in a stable population". At some point this kind of statistic be broadened/translated into waiting list times to get into child care, the hospital, to get to work etc.

  2. Great analogy with the car drive going too fast to avoid obstacles and governments trying to steer a reasonable path in a " population vehicle" which is also going much too fast.

  3. This is the key sentence for the banana benders.
    "For example Governments get punished for trying to sell off public assets. They do it to raise money to build new infrastructure, or pay down debts incurred as a result of past infrastructure building. But they would not need so much money, or so much infrastructure, if the population wasn't growing so fast."

  4. Population growth puts pressure on our every day lives, services, infrastructure and prices. If population growth is running at 2% per year, all the infrastructure, funding, and services should also increase by the same rate, but instead, budget shortfalls mean that they end up being cut-back. The costs of population growth is more than the benefits! It means that the public are short-changed, as they have to pay more taxes and charges, and what they have must be shared between more an more people!
    If the public could see benefits, and prosperity, from population growth, there wouldn't be any controversy, but the costs are more than the benefits. The only reason governments persist is to dilute the ageing population, and satisfy the demands of businesses and corporations - under the guise that we should appreciate "diversity" of cultures?

  5. Why the need to pile up people in Queensland, or any part of Australia? Where's the cost/benefit analysis of all this growth. If public infrastructure must be sold off to pay for new infrastructure, privatized, then where is the State heading? It's a headlong drive for some elusive "prosperity" at the end of the tunnel, and a pot of gold under the rainbow that's always out of reach.
    The crush of people will only outpace any attempts to keep up, in services and infrastructure. Population growth is often a hidden impact, and it's become part of our experience. It's disguised by imposing planning schemes, the creep of housing onto open spaces, and more and more high rise developments. Developers and corporates make the profits, and the cost is cast to the public to pay for.

  6. Spot on. It is an issue that isn't talked about very much. Usually the issue talked about is asylum seekers, which form a relatively small amount of overall immigration, rather than the overall immigration intake. It seems deliberate, while people are talking about asylum seekers, they are not talking about overall immigration. But I have to wonder, your federal government was complicit in it also, didn't exactly do anything to change it.

  7. Agree 100%.
    Can you please champion this idea in the media.
    You will surprised with how much support there is out there for a small Australia policy. Whichever political party chooses to limit population growth will be in power for the next 20years.
    The Population Ponzi scheme must end.
    As a young Australian, I despair about the future of this once great country.

  8. Great analogy of the witches hats. I also feel Queensland has effectively acted as a test canary for the rest of the country as to what happens when major governments on both sides chase endlessly the tails of infrastructure deficit and asset sales whilst the population continues to spiral out of control.

    I have wondered how WA, with the highest population growth in the country, managed to hold onto its Liberal government for a second term, who has taken budget deficit to a new level. Perhaps the resource bubble only burst after the reelection?

  9. Is it really growing at 2%, anyhoo, it is clear that they want

    this high population growth to maintain pressure on the housing

    market, to prop up the prices with increased demand. Just like

    the RBA has painted itself into a corner, it can never

    significantly raise rates again unless willing to accept the

    massive housing defaults that would result. So many people

    have bought at the top of the market, a crash would be

    Is our GDP growing at more than the population growth and

    inflation? If not we are going backwards fast. Someone please

    do the research.
    Also how much of the 200K increase become a burden on our

    welfare system? Any data here?
    Given our low real tax rates, anyone on non professional

    salaries is taking more from the system than giving - in terms

    of Government resources.
    When will we have to start printing money to cover the ever

    increasing debt?? Are long dated gov bond issues the same

    thing as printing money?
    Many questions to be investigated, instead the brain dead media

    fuss about who the twats are that are leading us - or not

    leading due to a gridlocked senate - much like in the USA. We

    are a Banana Republic again.