Let’s play a game today.
Think of it as a world-builder computer game like SimCity or Civilization.
We start with a blank slate. We are given the continent of Australia – all of it. Flora, fauna, soil, weather patterns, and terrain are just as they are today. No people though.
Sounds a bit like how the early colonialists viewed Australia, doesn’t it?
Absolutely no-one worth mentioning lives on the continent – ‘terra nullius’ so to speak. Well, our game isn’t racist in nature, we simply want to think about urban planning and nation-building from a different angle.
To start the game, we are handed 25.7 million people. We are tasked with placing our residents into settlements. We can put them wherever we want on this big island. How many towns, cities, metropolises should we build?
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Where to start?
We probably should first think about our food supply. So, we build some towns near the most lucrative agricultural stretches of land. We are building wheat towns in Western Australia, dairy towns in Victoria, and while we are at it, we might as well throw in some cotton towns around the NSW-Qld border too.
How big should we make these towns? For starters, they should be large enough to ensure essential services (medical facilities, utilities, supermarkets) and a few joys of life (sporting clubs, eateries, cultural services) are financially feasible.
We better also add mining and harbour towns. We have expensive stuff in the ground and want to sell it. We also need to throw in a few Belgium-sized cattle stations and some tiny remote communities.
We’ve still only settled very few of our 25.7 million people at this stage. Time to pull out the big guns. Let’s build ourselves some capital cities and regional hubs.
This is where it gets interesting and where our version of Australia could differ vastly from our current reality. As of 2021, we cram two-thirds of our population into just five cities (add to this 20 per cent living in cities ranked 5 to 100 and 13 per cent living outside the top 100).
No country on earth (excluding city-states like Singapore) has such a high share of the population concentrated in its five largest cities.
Were we extraordinarily clever in concentrating our population so heavily? Maybe we could benefit from spreading our urban population across more than just five cities? Our current configuration makes it easy to keep our top five cities connected through airports (the Sydney-Melbourne route always pops up in the top 10 busiest flight routes in the world).
Maybe we could imagine some sort of super-fast train or hyperloop network along the east coast. This way we can connect our new million-resident cities of Wollongong and Newcastle with the quarter-million cities of Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour.
While we are at it, we make Far North Queensland into a population growth powerhouse by sprinkling an additional two million residents evenly across Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, and Rockhampton. On the west coast, we create Gold Coast sized towns evenly spread from Geraldton down to Margaret River. This way we can shrink Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane down by a few million.
But what’s the point?
Before this all gets too silly, we should pause our computer game and ask what the point of this population reshuffle is? I only wanted to open your mind to the idea that our current population distribution patterns weren’t inevitable.
This game of ours isn’t a computer game, it’s reality. The only difference is that we don’t start the game with a blank slate. We start the game today, with 25.7 million people settled wherever they are now.
Our current policy settings suggest that, over the next 40 years, Australia will add 13.1 million people. It’s easy to dismiss this upcoming growth, to ignore it, to complain about a migration Ponzi scheme, to rant about politicians and big business lining their pockets. You are free to think any of these things. I suggest we prepare for this very likely future whether we like it or not.
Imagine yourself standing in Melbourne, on Federation Square, in 2010 and you are being told that within the next decade every single resident of Adelaide will move to Melbourne (this is the actual growth that Melbourne experienced in the last decade). What would you have done? What should you have done?
With the power of hindsight, it’s easy to realise that infrastructure growth didn’t occur at the same rate as population growth or that we didn’t add enough family-sized dwellings even though everyone knew the Millennials were eventually going to need such housing.
Learning from the past
The past is boring unless we learn something from it. We collectively must have productive discussions about where we want to channel an additional 13.1 million residents over the coming four decades.
Once the borders are open again, people will trickle back into the country. Eventually, 300,000 to 400,000 additional people per year will need housing, education, employment, and all other necessities of life.
Feel free to call for lower migration, to shame people for having kids, say whatever you want. Population growth in Australia, much like a changing climate (more extreme weather events and generally hotter), are realities that the nation will face. You can’t escape them, but you can plan for them.
That’s why it’s crucial that we de-politicise infrastructure development. No more on-again, off-again tunnel projects. Empower Infrastructure Australia to effectively prioritise projects.
We also need to fix housing fast. The Australian ideal of giving everyone a fair go requires that every working Australian can afford to own a house. Adding supply must be a key priority – a very uncontroversial statement. Much more controversial would be ending negative gearing so investors won’t outbid first home buyers.
After Bill Shorten lost the ‘unlosable’ election of 2019 because of just such a suggestion, the Labor Party scraped negative gearing from its program. Once again, you can love or hate this policy but you better work around it since it isn’t a feature in a computer game that you can just turn off.
Finally, we need to have a big national discussion where we would like to have our 13.1 million new Australians settle down. Should our capital cities carry most growth? Should we push for growth in regional Australia? If so, dare to imagine what Wagga Wagga would look like at twice the population? What infrastructure would be needed?
Our world-building computer game is well underway, and we will continue to play today, and tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, and…
Simon Kuestenmacher is a demographer and regular columnist for The New Daily, where this article first appeared.
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