Australia must increase its migrant intake if it is to fund its infrastructure splurge and compete on the world stage, an urban planner has claimed.
Australia’s population grew by 408,000 people last year and is expected to break the 31 million mark within the next 15 years.
The country’s growth rate is the fifth-fastest among the 36 OECD countries. And, in the eyes of many analysts, Australia’s infrastructure and social services are struggling to keep up.
But for one urban planner, the answer to Australia’s growing pains is to welcome more migrants, not less – a pitch described as “laughable” by a former Labor MP.
EG Property & Urban Planning managing director Shane Geha believes inviting more skilled migrants into Australia would, among other things, provide the tax revenue required to pay for its ambitious infrastructure agenda.
It would also bridge skills gaps and bolster Australia’s chances of developing into a world-leading, knowledge-intensive economy, Dr Geha said.
As he sees it, the government faces two options: Borrow cheap money to pay for infrastructure that allows the country to accommodate more people, or bring in the people first, so that you avoid taking on too much debt and pay for infrastructure through an increase in tax revenue.
“Both of those options can work, but my view is the better option is bring the people first, because … my view is that the people are the resource, not the objects,” Dr Geha told The New Daily.
“People worry about congestion and, yes, every strategy has issues.
“But we have to think, out of all the systems that we have, which one can get us to the objectives we want to get to in the future, to grow this country and its economy, to have a cleverer nation, a better nation, and I think that population growth is fundamental to all those views.”
Given its impressive liveability, “unbeatable” weather and strong economic foundations, Australia could take its pick of highly skilled migrants, Dr Geha said.
And the idea that Australia was bursting at the seams was driven by emotion rather than data, as Australia’s urban density levels were far lower than other cities around the world.
To make his point, he compared Tasmania with Taiwan.
Spanning just under 70,000 square kilometres, the Apple Isle is home to 531,500 people, while Taiwan’s 36,000 square kilometres are inhabited by roughly 24 million.
While Taiwan’s high population density probably wasn’t a desirable goal for Tasmania, the comparison provided some context to the contentious Big Australia debate, Dr Geha said.
“And I would argue that the congestion is not even genuinely caused by more people,” Dr Geha said.
“It’s genuinely caused by the planning system being so far behind the eight-ball, in terms of delivering high density near the newly constructed rail stations and bus nodes.”
The urban planner’s comments come after an Infrastructure Australia report found road congestion from 2031 would cost the economy $38.8 billion a year, unless the current high level of infrastructure spending became the “new normal”.
Victorian President of Sustainable Population Australia Kelvin Thomson said the report was “an admission of the futility of trying to build our way out of congestion”.
Despite massive infrastructure spend over the past decade, governments had failed to expand social services fast enough to cope with the country’s rapid population growth, Mr Thomson said.
And the idea that greater migration could alleviate Australia’s growing pains was “frankly absurd and laughable,” Mr Thomson added, with Productivity Commission research showing every 1 per cent of population growth required 7.5 per cent more spending on infrastructure.
The only real solution, Mr Thomson said, was to dramatically cut Australia’s migrant intake.
“There’s a case for saying that cities like Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong are better equipped to handle growth than Melbourne and Sydney – but I also think the idea that we could handle a migration program of 200,000 if only the migrants went to and lived in the right places is misconceived and a smokescreen,” Mr Thomson said.
Recognising the importance of soothing Australia’s growing pains, Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised in his election campaign that he would spend billions of dollars on “congestion-busting” projects over the coming years.
Since then, the Coalition has also said it will cut the country’s permanent migration intake to 160,000 and introduce new skilled visas which allow workers to gain permanent residency if they live in a regional town for three years.