His speech to the Fabian society on "Is Bigger Better?" will soon appear, I'm told, at
Meanwhile, here are some highlights from it. I think his remarks at the end about foreign ownership are particularly interesting, though one really needs to read the full speech before quoting them.
In September 2009 the Federal Government released
Treasury figures showing that our population would be 35
million by 2049. This was a big jump from the previous
projection of 28 million by 2049, made only a couple of years
earlier. The Government now refers to 36 million by 2050.
My response to the 35 million announcement was to say that
this was a recipe for environmental disaster, and to express
four key objections to a 35 million population for Australia.
First, the impact of a 60% increase in Australia’s population on
our native wildlife will be catastrophic. Already over 200
species of Australia’s birds are under threat – 30% of our 760
species. It’s not just the habitat destruction caused by
spreading suburbs, though that’s serious enough. It’s also
habitat?destruction from agriculture and the impact on our
river systems, which are already in a state of poor health.
Secondly, what about carbon emissions? The Government has
promised to cut carbon emissions by 80% over the next 40
years. How are we supposed to do that if our population is
going up by 60% at the same time? It’s pretty hard to reduce
your carbon footprint when you keep adding more feet. . . .
Canberra is not immune from the impacts of population
growth. In November last year the Canberra Times reported
that more than 8,000 residential flats are in Canberra’s
construction pipeline over the next 3 years.
It said, “Strong demand for Canberra apartment living is
in line with a national trend of high density living becoming
more popular as single homes become too expensive”. Let me
ask the question, if people in Canberra are moving into high density
flats because they can no longer afford a single home,
are we better off than before? Surely they are poorer than they
used to be.
Another 14 million people will not give us a richer country, it
will spread our mineral wealth more thinly and give us a poorer
one. It will make a mockery of our obligation to pass on to our
children a world in as good a condition as the one our
grandparents gave to us.
. . . [Here is] a really
significant comparison of the world at 7 billion in 2011,
compared with the world in 1999 when we crossed 6 billion.
Back then oil prices were at near record lows of $10 a barrel,
and the Economist magazine ran a cover story declaring the era
of cheap oil was here to stay. Oil is now of course $100 a barrel.
In 1999 world food prices were at or near record lows. Now
they have reached record highs. In 1999 hunger was on the
run. The World Food Summit had set a target of reducing the
number of under?nourished people in the world from 800
million to 400 million, and predictions were made that hunger
could be eliminated within 15 years. Instead the number of
people who are starving has risen to 1 billion, and will continue
Back in 1999, the international community was uniting to fight
global warming. We had the Kyoto Protocol and the European
Union setting up a carbon market. In 2012, though the impact
of climate change has become more pronounced, international
agreement to robust action is, to put it mildly, elusive. Now
other commodity prices are at or near record peaks.
Given the way the world has changed in the past 12 years, it’s
impossible to seriously contend that we are in better shape in
2012 with 7 billion than we were in 1999 with six. In that
sense, uncomfortable though it is to say it, the world is
. . . The national conversation we have to have about foreign
ownership has to be an informed conversation, one where we
are all in possession of meaningful information. I don’t think
we’re at that point at present. The Australian Bureau of
Statistics has conducted a survey of foreign ownership, and I
referred to this earlier, but I fear it doesn’t tell us anywhere
It was a survey. It depends on people giving honest and
accurate answers. It was a limited survey, most people didn’t
get asked. And it was not a transparent survey. You can’t find
out who the ABS asked, or check their work. I’ll give you an
example of why I believe this matters.
If someone asked you whether Mildura Fruit Company was an
Australian company you would probably say yes. It packs and
sells fruit in the Mildura region. As of 22 December 2011 it had
six directors, five of them born in Australia and one born in
New Zealand. It is 100% owned by Sunbeam Foods Group
Limited, which is based in Mildura and has the same directors
and secretary as Mildura Fruit Company. So it looks very
Now this is not easy to trace via company searches, but in fact
Food Holdings Pty Ltd, which is trading as Manassen Foods
Group, owns 100% of Sunbeam Foods, which owns 100% of
Mildura Fruit Company. On 30 November 2011 Manassen
Foods Group was acquired by Bright Foods Group Holdings Pty
Ltd. The shareholders of Bright Food Holdings Pty Ltd are
Bright Food (Australia) Co. Ltd, and Geoffrey Erby.
Now Bright Food (Australia) Co. Ltd. sounds Australian enough,
but it is in fact a Chinese company based in Hong Kong. Its
ultimate owner is Bright Food (Group) Co. Ltd, which is 50%
owned by the Shanghai Municipal Government, and the
remaining 50% by other Shanghai Government owned
Now I don’t think the ABS work, on the basis of which we’ve
been told we don’t need to worry about foreign ownership,
would even come close to detecting ownership structures that
are as elaborately hidden as this. I don’t think doing a survey
every couple of years is going to tell us what the real situation
I think we need national or state?by?state registers of
ownership of land, food and water companies, which give us
real?time information about who owns what. We’ve had State
and local government land registers for centuries, and we now
have modern technology like Google Earth – surely obtaining
and maintaining this information in a publicly accessible format
is not difficult in this day and age.