Better population projection is good, but implementing better transport policies would be better

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Accurately projecting population growth in order for Governments to plan better for our cities and regions won't mean much if at the end of the day local electorate politics trumps region-wide progress.

WA Senator Dean Smith led the ABC's National Wrap program on Sunday night and as host Andrew Probyn said in the opening remarks, the Senator wishes to start a national conversation on population growth.

The Senator said the population story around the country has not been uniform and the country needs to review how population projections are made.

I think what we need to do is take some time to accumulate the evidence. What is it that we know about our population projections? What is it that we know about why the population projections might have been so inaccurate for such a long time? 

And then around that, perhaps, [we need to] build better modelling so we can more accurately project population. 

Importantly, [we need to] make sure that we are properly planning for infrastructure and regional development against future population projections, and importantly it's not just the size of population but where the population might find itself.  

Does it find itself in regional towns and cities? Does it find itself predominanently in Melbourne & Sydney?

Because we know that the population story across the country has not been uniform.

Dean Smith, Senator for Western Australia - National Wrap

Evidence-based policy development and implementation is always welcomed and in any review of how population projections are made the Commonwealth Government will need to involve all the states and territories.  And should a new suite of tools for modelling population projections be developed, they need to be flexible enough to look beyond the federal level of government adn take state and local policy parameters into account.

In the population debate that has been running for a while now, attention seems to always shift to immigration - whether the numbers are right or wrong.  But as the Senator rightly points out, the population story across the country is not uniform, nor do states and territories callibrate their policies in the same way.

In 2008-2009 Australia had a net migration rate topping 300,000 people and in 2017-2018 the net migration level is down from that earlier peak in around the 250,000 level.

The difference between 2008-2009 and now is that late last decade the population growth was spread around the country evenly - Western Australia and Queensland were doing much heavier lifting than they are now.

This illustrates why trying to 'better' the projections for population growth must take a deeper dive on the policy work of each individual state and territory as they have many levers at their disposal which will have an effect on the population growth.

Whether it's long-term planning-focused reform like the Postcode 3000 project in Melbourne which turned the doughnut city into one which now is the most densely populated census region in the country or wielding economic policy that sees widespread regional employment opportunities that fuels population growth - like what happened to Western Australia and Queensland during the mining boom - states and territories have a major impact on overall national population growth.

States are getting on board the 'Infrastructure [State/Territory Name]' train and the primacy of the state/territory level agencies should remain in place.  States and territories are in a far better position to judge the needs of communities and the data, research and policy work should inform the federal body, not the other way around.

Road projects had their place but it's now time to focus on getting people out of their cars

Australian citizens and those on visas are free to move from region to region within the Commonwealth and any attempt to restrict that movement will likely result in a date with the High Court and therefore, once we are able to accurately project population growth (if we can at all), policy should focus on economics when it comes to rebalancing the load of growth around the country.

Political parties also need to get real about the state of our cities as well.  

While you can apply transport policies which favour active modes across the spectrum of Australia's cities - whether big or small - the needs of the metro areas of Melbourne & Sydney are different to those of Adelaide and Darwin and the needs of Benalla and Mittagong are different to Bendigo and Toowoomba. 

We see it around every state or federal election, the swinging voters are king and broadly located in areas that are seeing the highest amount of growth - in our context, that's generally on the fringe of suburbia where the normally the only infrastructure built to transport the new residents to and from their home is roads.  The logic follows that, well, a freeway! That'll buy us votes!

Melbourne & Sydney may be congested and have major public transport projects under construction, but they also have equally enormous road projects which suck up more even more capital and will invariably turn into congested arteries & orbital routes once the very well-researched induced demand phenomenon takes hold.

There's plenty of evidence out in the wild that public transport carries more people with a much smaller footprint, and if our electricity network keeps up the pace in its transition to more renewables added to the generation mix, electrified public transport will increasingly aid in reducing emissions levels in the transport sector.

There is very little appetite to pick a winner when it comes to delegating dollars to transport projects among state and federal governments, we're told we need more roads and rail ad nauseum.  

But how much longer can Melbourne & Sydney grow, both of which will have populations over 5 million soon, with this 'balanced' transport manifesto that sits alongside a policy of continued outward growth into defined corridors?

The Senators remarks are welcome, but having better population evidence isn't enough when a major part of the problem lies within the electoral DNA of political parties which find it hard to have a rational debate about appropriate transport policy for our largest cities.

Some political parties have targets - quotas - in areas such as gender which aim to get more women elected to parliaments around the country; we need targets which aim to rebalance the totally out-of-balance & reliance on the private car in our biggest cities.  Will the Federal Government come to the table on that?

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