Sunday, August 12

Standing room only

In November this year, I’ll celebrate the 30th anniversary of my first visit to Australia. I arrived in Sydney in 1988 courtesy of Procter & Gamble.  It had brought me across the Tasman as one of two short-listed candidates for an annual university graduate recruitment program.  I spent a week attending meetings and enjoying the city’s popular tourist highlights. I ultimately decided that a career promoting toothpaste and laundry detergent wasn’t the life for me.

Two years later, in 1990, a simple quirk of fate found me back in Sydney with credit card debt to repay after months of backpacking in Europe. At the time logic dictated that a Summer job earning Australian dollars would clear my New Zealand dollar debt faster than a job in New Zealand.  I ultimately settled here and have never looked back.

Compared to regional New Zealand, Sydney was an exciting and dynamic city.  At the time Australia’s population had just passed 17 million people while Sydney, its largest city, has reached 3.5 million.  New Zealand’s entire population at the time was a mere 3.3 million. However, despite its size, I found it easy to drive around inner Sydney and a parking space could be found with relative ease in the CBD. In the decades that followed Australia’s population has grown in extraordinary leaps and bounds.

Last week the Australian Bureau of Statistics' official population counter ticked over 25 million.  Greater Sydney’s population also passed the 5 million mark.  It’s staggering to think that since I've arrived in Australia another 8 million people have joined me here.  The largest single factor driving the increase is net migration.  An astonishing 33% of the population were born overseas including more than half a million Kiwis.

The strain of rapid population growth can be seen everywhere you go.  Sydney’s major roads slow to a crawl during peak hours and its trains are regularly filled to overflowing.  In our local area, thousands of new apartments have been built with thousands more under construction. The area between our apartment and airport is on track to become Australia's most densely populated district within three years.  

The resulting influx of residents has resulted in traffic chaos in rush hour.  Queues block the pavement at every bus stop and even during the weekend local trips regularly involve navigating your way through a perpetual traffic jam. It, therefore, comes as no surprise to hear that Sydney, and the state of New South Wales, is in the midst of a massive infrastructure boom.  

Two new rail lines and three motorways are under construction. Another rail line and four motorways are now in the final stages of planning. Between Sydney and Brisbane the notorious Pacific Highway is being converted to dual carriageway. Currently, about 81% of the 657 kilometre route between Hexham and the Queensland border are now four-lane divided road. An upgrade of the remaining section is scheduled for completion in 2020.

The 25 million population milestone is prompting a national debate about the nation’s high rate of migration.  On current trends, by mid-century Australia’s population could pass 40 million.  Some argue that this is too many, or at least, too many in too short a time frame.  Personally, I support a higher population. 

Over the last decade, a high migration rate has offset the impact of an ageing population as the average Australian lives longer.  It’s also helped sustain a quarter century of uninterrupted economic growth.  This performance recently became the world's longest recession-free growth period for any developed economy in modern times. 

While living in the UK we also saw first hand the benefits that come with a larger economy. Regular readers of this blog may recall that shortly after our arrival in London, the UK’s population passed 60 million for the first time.  A larger population increased the availability of all manner of goods, funded an impressive array of infrastructure and supported a bewildering array of cultural experiences including London’s famous West End theatre district.

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