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Big Australia

Nick Bryant | 10:46 UK time, Friday, 23 October 2009

Driving across the Nullabor Plain this week, I was struck, as ever on journeys through the outback, of the vast Australian emptiness - a sparseness of human life which is explained, of course, by a statistical gap. This is the world's sixth largest country in terms of acreage, but only the 52nd in terms of population - 22,026,000 according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and rising fast.

Over the next four decades, the population is expected to rise to 35 million - a 60% increase. Kevin Rudd said this week he welcomes a "Big Australia", despite publicly voiced concerns from the country's most high-profile civil servant, Treasury Secretary Ken Henry, who said it would "test the limits of sustainability". Handled correctly, said Henry, Australia could look forward to a "period of unprecedented prosperity" - a golden era - but he's clearly worried about a fast-paced population surge.

Given that much of the growth will come from immigration, the subject obviously touches on racial attitudes, the topic of the last three blogs. But I want to shift the focus of debate to the issue of sustainability, and whether the Australian people are quite as enthusiastic about a "Big Australia" as the prime minister.

Perhaps it is worth imagining what a Big Australia would look like. Melbourne's population would almost double for a start, rising to over 7 million. An extra 4.5 million people would end up living on the coastal strip between Sydney and Brisbane. On the urban fringes of major cities, the creep of cul-de-sacs would become a headlong rush. Chronic water shortages are already a fact of life across the country, so Australians would presumably have to get over their aversion to drinking recycled water and step up the construction of desalination plants, which are always controversial.

The Sunshine Coast in Queensland already has a 'No Growth' policy, since it reckons it has reached a saturation point. The Gold Coast, which has been Australia's fastest growing region, suffers from an infrastructure lag - the accident and emergency department at the Gold Coast hospital, for example, is said to be the busiest and most overburdened in the country. It was not designed to serve such a large local population.

Sydney already suffers from major road and rail problems, and is becoming a sprawling metropolis. One of the more remarkable facts about the city is that its geographic centre is at the Olympic Stadium in a place called Homebush, which is almost an hour's drive from the beach.

Kevin Rudd favours a population boost because he thinks it is good for national security and, presumably, national prestige - especially when some European countries are heading in the opposite direction. Rudd clearly wants Australia to have an enhanced diplomatic role, regionally and globally. A "Big Australia" would mean that its diplomatc punch would be more commensurate with its size.

Australia is the most sparsely populated developed nation in the world, with only 2.9 people per square kilometre. Certainly, there is enough space, but are there enough resources?

PS One of the many joys of getting out into the outback and bush is that you are exposed to a very different news agenda from the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne axis. So I particularly enjoyed the "Zap me with a Taser pleads politician" story from South Australia. The state Liberal leader Isobel Redmond said she wanted to be zapped to make the case for putting tasers in the hands of the South Australian police. "I have had three babies," Ms Redmond said. "I can tell you, five seconds of excruciating pain is more than bearable if you've had three babies. But I wouldn't want to do it on a full stomach or a full bladder."


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