It’s no wonder many Australians worry about whether our nation can sustain our current our quality of life with current levels of population growth.
Many baulk at the idea of a bigger Australia when their own lifestyle is being diminished by the negative effects of growth, like traffic congestion and pressure on schools and hospitals.
The missing factor in the public debate is the extent to which governments are failing to meet their responsibility to plan for growth by investing in roads, railways, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure.
Growth is inevitable.
But growing pains are not, as long as governments plan for the effects of growth.
Over recent decades Australian governments have under-invested in infrastructure. In particular, the Howard Government collected massive tax windfalls driven by the mining boom but failed to invest in nation building.
According to industry group Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, our nation needs to invest $700 billion to address our existing infrastructure deficit.
But on current figures, we are falling further behind.
At a time when the national population is growing by about 1.8 per cent a year, the current Federal Coalition Government is reducing infrastructure grants to states for rail, road and other infrastructure.
This financial year, the Federal Government will deliver $8 billion in infrastructure grants to the states.
This will fall to $6.2 billion in 2018-19, $5.1 billion in 2019-20 and $4.2 billion in 2020-21.
So over four years, investment will fall by about half – a level that Infrastructure Partnerships Australia has described as “its lowest level in more than a decade’’.
This makes no sense.
A key outcome of these cuts is worsening traffic congestion in our cities, which are home to one in four Australians.
Congestion is eroding Australia’s quality of life, particularly for people who live on the fringes of our cities where housing is most affordable, but who work in the city centre.
It also has an economic cost, with the Bureau of Transport, Infrastructure and Regional Economics having reported the problem cost the Australian economy $16.5 billion in 2015 in lost productivity.
But there’s also a dramatic social cost.
Too many Australians now live in drive-in, drive-out suburbs that they seldom see in daylight hours.
The long daily commute to work prevents them from taking a part in local community life and robs them of time with their families. Indeed, it is a tragedy that many Australian parents spend more time driving to and from work than they spend at home playing with their children.
When people who bear the effects of traffic congestion hear that the Government will accept 190,000 migrants this year, you can understand why some are concerned.
There are very good economic reasons to maintain a strong immigration program, but only if it accompanied by proper planning.
Our population is ageing. In coming decades there will be fewer Australians working to support those receiving Government benefits. More young migrant families will help to share this burden.
However, more people create more stress on existing infrastructure.
If the nation’s governments want Australians to accept population growth, they must be prepared to invest in infrastructure to preserve and enhance our quality of life.
That’s why the Federal Coalition Government’s infrastructure investment cuts make no sense.
State governments are doing what they can to invest in public transport.
But the Federal Government has refused to work with them to deliver important projects like the Melbourne Metro, Brisbane’s Cross River Rail and the AdeLINK light rail expansion.
All of these projects would enhance quality of life in their respective cities.
They would also help to take the edge off the public’s understandable concern about the rate of population growth.
To live in Australia is to have won life’s lottery.
When it comes to lifestyle, environment, culture and opportunity, it doesn’t get any better.
But it’s not all good luck. Previous investment has helped create our enviable lifestyle.
In the 21st century, we need to continue to invest in our nation, not just to preserve that lifestyle, but to deliver the productivity gains that will drive continued economic growth in the national interest.
Anthony Albanese is the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Cities.
This piece was first published in The Herald Sun on Monday, 9 April, 2018
Anthony Albanese is the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Cities.