Australia population | What's in a number?

Australia population was 23.5 million in mid 2014. This is just a little over one third of the UK population and just 0.35% of the global population. There are roughly the same number of people living in Taiwan, Mozambique and just a few million more live in the state of Texas. 

In other words Australia is not a hugely populous place.

To put this in context, there are 23 million people living in the administrative district of Shanghai, China. Mexico City is home to roughly the same number of people as in the whole of Australia.

Births and deaths are roughly in balance in Australia. This is typical for a mature economy that provides near full employment and comfortable lifestyles for the majority of people. However, population size is increasing slowly due to net immigration.

Contrary to media hype, the vast majority of these people arrive legitimately and not via illegal boat traffic — immigration rates have risen steadily for several decades bringing in people from all over the world to help maintain economic growth.

What is often lost in the rhetoric related to what the politicians prefer to call ‘Irregular Maritime Arrivals’ [as asylum seekers who arrive by boat are labeled] is that population expansion that economists say is needed to satisfy ensure there is a workforce to growth the economy will only be possible through immigration.

the  rather unusual sight of a near empty Australian sports stadium during a professional sports fixture — one-day state cricket this time

Australia population debate

Around the time Nelson Mandela was released from jail I was living in Botswana, a small African nation of a little over 1 million people. The economy was developing rapidly thanks to government run diamond mines — there were only two mines but they generated enough foreign exchange to make interest on the nations foreign reserves a major earner in itself. 

The population issue in Botswana at the time was not people but elephants. There was an increasingly vocal debate about exactly how many elephants there were in northern Botswana.

Was it 80,000? Was it 110,000 or 92,421? 

Nobody really knew for although elephants are large they are actually quite difficult to count because they live in widely separated groups in remote areas and they move around a lot. The debate became increasingly about the accuracy of population estimate — what was the specific number?

This happened because establishing numerical precision was less confronting than doing something about the real problem — truck sized herbivores eating themselves out of their habitat and reproducing as fast as was biologically possible whilst their cousins elsewhere on the continent struggled to avoid poachers.   

Every once in a while a similar debate over numbers happens in Australia. 

Would 26 million Australians or 36 million be best? 

And whatever the number is, how should immigration be set to time the growth rate?

If immigration were set at 75,000 per year [a little under half the current rate] then 26 million would be reached in a steady fashion by 2050. 

Some like the Australian entrepreneur Dick Smith suggests a stable 26 million is best and that the extra 3 million or so should be achieved by limiting annual immigration to 75,000 per year [from the current 185,000] and letting the number climb steadily. Smith’s sets 26 million as optimum because this is number of humans he believes the environment can handle.

Bernard Salt, a financial analyst, believes 33 million by 2050 is essential because otherwise Australia will run out of workers. Baby Boomers are leaving the workforce and there are not enough new workers leaving school to replace them. Annual immigration of 180,000 over the next 15 years would prevent serious labor shortages and inoculate the economy.

These two contrasting views of Australia population capture the essence of the debate that has also begun to spread to the political sphere.

Should the optimal population size be determined by available resources (Dick Smith’s view) or by the need to maintain the economic system (Bernard Salt’s argument)?

Before we try to unpick this conundrum, some context is needed. 

World population growth will see 7 billion grow to at least 9 billion within decades. This is the modest estimate and it may reach 12 billion before a steady contraction occurs, back to around 5 billion around 100 years from now. 

Just as growth in elephant numbers in northern Botswana was a biological certainty, so too humans. There are already many youngsters in big families who will themselves reproduce. In the absence of global calamity, the continuation of the growth phase of the demographic transition is a certainty.


Australia population could easily become the 33 or so million that Salt says is essential. This 8 million increase would be the proportional share of the global population growth to 2050.

Australia is also capable of feeding far more. There is land, technology, infrastructure, a stable economy, and the people smarts to overcome challenges of irrigation, nutrients and old soils to grow far more food that the resident population would require. In the future, as now, agriculture will be an important export industry for however many Australians live on the continent. 

Australia will struggle to remain competitive under the current economic model without some immigration to fill the gaps left by an ageing workforce attracted to early retirement. How it manages the rates will be the challenge. Who to bring in, when and how often.

Unfortunately Australia population has become a bit like the elephant problem — a debate about how many instead of how.

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Confused Confucius spurned the monastic life for the world of work, moral conundrums and mobile devices. His sayings, questions and incongruous idioms on the environment and modern life bring delight and bafflement in equal measure...  check out more Confused Confucius sayings.

farmers in NSW — several rural populations are declining in Australia

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