Australia’s Population Policy and Future

There have been discussions about the potential problems faced by Australia’s growing population. Australia’s population is projected to reach 35 million by 2050, making it the country with the fastest-growing human population among high-income countries. The fact that births outnumber deaths is the most significant factor driving population growth in Australia. The second is increased immigration, in which the number of people entering Australia exceeds those leaving (Hugo 2010). Concerns about the high population growth rate are related to concerns about Australia’s natural resources to sustain the big numbers that it is likely to host in less than three decades to come. The debates on population growth have renewed concerns over the sustainability and the capability of the nation to manage its natural resources. This comes even after the struggle by different generations of Australians more so those who reside in the rural areas to appreciate the unique environmental conditions of Australia (Thom & Mackenzie 2011). That is why scientists have participated actively in the debates by linking public policy to science with the aim of informing the decision makers to develop ways that can help the country adapt to the population growth and the changes to Australia’s environment condition. The purpose of this paper is to establish the significance of population policy in determining the future patterns of growth and settlement in Australia.


The Australia’s population question can be traced back to the nineteenth century. However, the concerns over the balance between rural and urban people and the population distribution came up during the early years of Federation. Environment mainly shaped the population development of Australia with the perception of increasing population to facilitate development (Hugo 2012).

After the Second World War, the human population of Australia was seven and a half million. The nation then adopted a population growth goal of two percent which saw the population increase to 18 million by 1997 and 22 million in 2010. In the late 1990s, the debates on population policy suggested that the natural leveling point for Australia is 23 million people due to the adoption of an immigration program that is modest and a slowdown in the population increase. The suggestions also considered the formulation of policies that are not ethnic discriminatory especially when making decisions that tackle the issue of immigration directly (Jones 1997).

Before the mid-1990s, the immigration program of Australia mainly focused on permanent migration and the temporary labor migration policy was introduced in the mid-1990s. The Long-stay business visa allows employers to have immigrant employees for six months up to four years. The program was aimed at avoiding the long delays associated with the off-shore permanent migration schemes.

But up to the current decade, Australia’s births stand at two for each death and the life expectancy increases each year with males having a life expectancy that is above 79 years and that for females going above 83 years. Moreover, the total fertility rate has been increasing to almost two children per woman. Immigration can be counted as a contributing factor to the population growth with a very high number of people who arrive in Australia do so as permanent residents. However, the greatest change in the Australian immigration is the increased entry of temporary residents. (Hugo 2010).In the run-up to Australia’s 2010 election, debates emerged over the high rate of the population which was considered to be exceeding the infrastructure capacity of the country which led to the instigation of inquiry to the future population growth of Australia.

Significance of Population Policies

Drawing from the debates around population growth and the future of Australia, it emerges that there is an increasing concern over the capability of the available resources to sustain the growing numbers. The fears are that if the population goes beyond 22 million probably to 35 million, then big cities like Melbourne, Sidney and Brisbane will experience double growth. At the same time, there is the group of people who believe the rapid population growth is essential for the development of Australia (Hugo 2012). That means, if policies are put in place that restricts population increase, there may occur negative impacts on the development and result in a stagnant GDP.

The future population growth in Australia will have different impacts for regional, metropolitan, coastal and inland areas. Increased population in the cities would include issues around sustainable infrastructure, employment, affordable housing, and growth management within environmental constraints. In the rural areas, the issues would be growth management, aging, depopulation processes and demographic decline (McGuirk & Argent 2011).

The arguments fall into the complex relationship between environmental sustainability, economic development, and population change. A continuously rising population is looked at by scientists as a threat to environmental sustainability while the economists see the high population growth as useful for economic growth (Hugo 2012). But some arguments posit that population is relevant in economic development but does not act as a key ingredient in the process. While there is the appreciation that lack of skilled labor force can hinder development, the high population does not create economic growth on its own. And so population increase can only successfully contribute to the regional development if it happens in regions that have enough resources to facilitate the economic growth (Hugo 2012). Policies that disregard the fact that population increase can only be an element for regional development when there are enough resources has led the Australian government to initiate investment schemes in areas that there is no potential for sustainable economic development.

In the same way, environmental degradation is often viewed as the result of population growth. The assumption of many debaters on the topic of population growth and environmental sustainability purport that the population of Australia should remain at 22 million because that is what the available resources can sustain. There is no potential for constructing new water reservoirs or create new sources of energy to suit the increasing population. While it is true that high population can constrain the local environments more so delicate ecological areas like the coasts, the manner in which the population settles on the land matters a lot. At the same time, increased population can translate into increased environmental stewardship and so both environmental conservation, population growth and economic development can take place simultaneously (Hugo 2012).

Looking at the aspect of water supply as a basis for formulating policies on population, Rutherford & Finlayson (2011), present that the water supply for food production and cities in Australia will not count as a primary limiting factor for population growth. Bothe water for direct needs and for sustaining the economy in Australia is sufficient, and so policies should only be formulated to direct more water supply to densely populated areas and regions of agriculture because agriculture consumes the highest amount of water in Australia.

Research estimations of population size based on the availability of water indicate that the water in Australia is capable of sustaining up to 280 million people. However, the assumption that increase in the water supply is proportional to increase in population does not work for all regions in Australia. That is why some decisions to increase water supply for the purpose of triggering population growth failed. An example is the Ord Irrigation Scheme which did not result in population growth (Rutherford & Finlayson (2011).

The internal migration in Australia can also be used to understand the reasons why some policies fail to yield the desired results. There has been stability in the national population proportions with little change in the populations living in rural, other urban and metropolitan areas (Hugo 2013). However, the projected increase in population is foreseen to happen in the capital cities which have experienced a considerable reduction in water usage via demand management in the past few years. Thus, if policies are put in place that ensures the capture and storage of run-off water in urban areas, the cities will continue harboring larger populations because the water from the run-offs will be enough to sustain the people. Other sources of water in urban areas such as groundwater, desalination, and recycled sewage will continue to support rising populations in the Australian cities such as Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sidney, and Perth.

On the other hand, water used for agriculture supplies the needs of twenty million Australians and policies that promote the efficient use of the water for irrigation, population growth cannot be prohibited by the water for food production. Therefore, what matters when it comes to water sustainability in Australia is how the population manages the water resources and not the size of the population (Rutherford & Finlayson (2011).

According to Hugo (2012), population growth is not experienced evenly in all regions of Australia. The inland areas are losing population or having population stability while the coastal regions are experiencing population growth and dynamism. But even with decline or stability of population in the inland regions, some of the areas have experienced significant growth. Such areas include ecological locations like River and Alpine areas which are also resort tourist destinations, some regional cities and remote areas with mining communities. Thus policies aimed at limiting population growth when extended to such areas would have adverse effects on the economic development of such zones.

The population distribution in Australia puts 87% as residing within 50 kilometers off the coast, 87% in urban areas, 70.5% live in the land area Australian continent and 64% in capital cities. The spatially concentrated populations form the big part of the debate concerning environment sustainability in densely populated areas and economic stagnation in sparsely populated areas (Hugo 2013). But as has already been stated in this paper, policies geared towards increasing population growth in some of the sparsely populated areas fail because there are no enough resources to sustain the populations. Though, should the decision makers factor in improving the resources in sparsely populated areas so that they can sustain bigger populations then there would be demographical changes with urban areas experiencing a decline in population and the least populated inland areas have increased population.

Another important aspect that in a big way influences the population changes in Australia is aging which also stands as the biggest challenge in population issues in the current and the next two decades (Fincher 2011). The aging discourse is mostly viewed from the angle of problems other than that of opportunities. Decision makers have focused so much on the medical problems related to aging and the strain it has on the health system. However, aging happens in at differing rates in the different regions of Australia and so remains a vital dynamic of population change (Hugo, 2012). Since the older population is growing at a faster rate in Australia when compared to the younger population, migration policies should be developed in a way that they encourage the entry of skilled personnel to help continue economic development. When a region experiences a massive drop in skilled labor because a significant portion of the population has aged, the area can fall into regressive economic and social processes, and so the decision makers need to look into the all the factors before deciding on increasing or limiting population growth.


The population of Australia has been on a continuous growth a fact that has spurred debates. One side of the political divide believes that the growth should be limited while the other believes that population increase is necessary for economic development. However as discussed in this paper, it is evident that several factors determine the usefulness of a big population. Those factors are intertwined in the complex relationship between economic growth, high population, and environmental sustainability. Thus, policy makers have the big task of ensuring that the decisions they make present appropriate population management measures that handle the problem of densely populated urban and coastal regions and the spatial population of inland and rural areas.


Fincher, R. (2011). Population Growth in Australia: Views and Policy Talk for Possible Futures. Geographical Research, 49(3), pp.336-347.

Hugo, G. (2010). Australia’s Future Population Growth: An Important Issue for All Australians. 1st ed. [ebook] Available at: [Accessed 21 May 2017].

Hugo G. (2012) ‘Australian Population Futures’ (Chpt. 3. pp 38-50) In M Raupach, A. McMichael, J. Finnigan, L. Manderson, B. Walker (editors) Negotiating our Future Living Scenarios for Australia to 20150. Volume-2 Australian Academy of Science, Canberra.

Hugo, G. (2013). Population Distribution, Environment and Development in Australia. Australian Population and Migration Research Center, [online] 1(7). Available at: [Accessed 21 May 2017].

Jones, G. (1997). An Australian Population Policy – Parliament of Australia. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 21 May 2017].

McGuirk, P. and Argent, N. (2011). Population Growth and Change: Implications for Australia’s Cities and Regions. Geographical Research, 49(3), pp.317-335.

 Rutherfurd, I. and Finlayson, B. (2011). Whither Australia: Will Availability of Water Constrain the Growth of Australia’s Population? Geographical Research, 49(3), pp.301-316.

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