Opinion

Never before and never again will Australia grow like it did during Queen Elizabeth II’s reign

The reign of Queen Elizabeth II coincided with a unique period in human history, both in Australia and around the world.

During the 70 years of her reign, the world’s population grew by a phenomenal 5.5 billion, from around 2.5 billion in 1950 to around 8 billion today.

Never before, and never again, will the human population grow at such a rate. Over the next 70 years, human population growth will slow sharply. By 2080, if not much earlier, it will begin an ongoing decline.

And while the median age of the world’s population fell in the early part of her reign, it has subsequently increased from around 23 to over 31 today. It will keep rising for the rest of this century. In many nations of Europe, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, the median age will approach 60 if not more.

The rise in median age is the result of the world’s fertility rate falling from five births per woman at the time of the Queen’s coronation to around 2.3 births per woman today. Life expectancy increased from around 45 in 1950 to almost 73 today.

What of Australia?

After a period of very slow economic and population growth from 1930 to 1946, Australia was transformed from the time of the Queen’s coronation.

The post-war baby boom and migration program caused Australia’s population to grow at 2.4% per annum during the 1950s and 2% per annum during the 1960s – by far the highest rates of Australian population growth for any decade since federation.

While our first immigration minister, Arthur Calwell, told Australians the bulk of new migrants would be from Britain, he knew that would not be the case if his immigration targets were to be delivered.

Ben Chifley was the first to break the logjam of who would take the displaced Jews after the war. That resulted in a surge of Jewish refugees to Australia, many from Poland, who would go on to become leaders of Australian society.

Bob Menzies would start the Colombo Plan for students from many parts of Asia and immigration minister Harold Holt would drive up migration from many other nations of Europe.

At the 1947 census, only 10% of our population of 7.6 million was overseas born, with around 80% of the overseas born being from either the UK or New Zealand. Only 10% of the overseas born were from other European nations such as Germany, Italy and Greece.

By the 1966 census, when we first started abolition of the White Australia policy and my own family migrated, the overseas-born portion of the population of 11.5 million had increased to 18.5%.

The UK and New Zealand portion of the overseas born had fallen to 45%. The “other European” portion of the overseas born had increased to 52% with large increases in the population born in Italy (over 12% of the overseas born); Greece (6.6%); the Netherlands (4.7%); the former Yugoslavia (3.6%) and Poland (2.9%).

The population born in China in 1966 was only 0.8% of the overseas born and the India born was even less at 0.7%.

Dismantling of the White Australia policy from 1966 – put into law by Gough Whitlam in the 1970s – made little immediate difference as overall immigration levels were significantly lower for most of the 1970s.

While the Vietnam-born and Lebanon-born population increased from the late 1970s and early 1980s and the India born began to increase with the larger migration programs of the mid-1980s, all of these were off a small base.

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The China-born population did not begin to increase until the start of the international education export industry from the mid-1980s and Bob Hawke’s decision to allow Chinese students in Australia at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre to remain in Australia.

In 1988, John Howard argued we should slow the rate of Asian migration – a proposition shot down by Hawke who led a parliamentary motion that entrenched non-discrimination in our permanent migration program – Ian Macphee and Philip Ruddock crossed the floor to vote with Hawke.

Ironically, it was the Howard government in the early 2000s that dramatically expanded Australia’s international education industry with explicit pathways to permanent migration.

That led to our population growing to 25.4 million by 2021 with almost 30% of the population being overseas born.

While the UK remains the largest source of overseas born at 16.4%, the portion born in India (9.6%), China (7.8%), New Zealand (7.5%), Philippines (4.2%), Vietnam (3.6%) and South Africa (2.7%) has significantly overtaken the overseas born from nations such as Italy, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands.

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During the Queen’s reign, we went from being an insular backwater to a more dynamic and increasingly multicultural nation.

Due to our migration intake, Australia’s population is one of the very few in the world that is projected to still be growing, albeit very slowly, in 2100. While we will be a lot older, we are projected to also remain one of the youngest in the developed world.

That gives Australia significant advantages.

But that cannot be taken for granted. As all the world ages significantly further and the populations of most nations go into sharp decline, competition for young skilled migrants will intensify. The immigration policy commitments coming out of the recent jobs summit will be critical.

The Queen would not recognise the world’s future demography and immigration policies.

Abul Rizvi is special adviser at Michelson Alexander and a former deputy secretary of the immigration department

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