Friday, January 26, 2007

Personal Reflections 26 January 2007

Youngest Daughter on phone to friend: "And Happy Invasion Day to you too".

Today is Australia Day. Lexcen had a good post that drew out some of the internal tensions involved, as well as a list capturing some Australian things.

Reflecting the period in which I grew up, the current obsession with Australia Day - this year it was apparently Australia Week - makes me very uncomfortable.

Even when I was a kid there were those on the right and left of Australian politics who tried to use nationalism, if in different ways, to achieve their political ends. But for most Australians we were just that, Australians, and did not feel the need to take ourselves too seriously. In fact, we knocked those who did.

I remember when I went overseas for the first time on official business back in the eighties, I received a little pack from the Department of Foreign Affairs containing various Australian stick pins - flag, kangaroo etc - that I was apparently meant to wear and hand out. I thought that this was all very American and silly. Now I see that the little flag worn on the lapel has become common.

The problem, at least as I see it, with the way that Australia's political leaders such as PM Howard, NSW Premier Iemma and Opposition Leader Rudd and the media are promoting and playing on Australian nationalism is that it's actually creating or perhaps bringing out a sometimes nasty, exclusionist streak. In some ways we have a strange, bizarre, bidding war as to who can be the most "Australian". I think that this is all a bit silly.

All this said, I am always in favour of a good party, especially a family friendly one like Australia Day.

I write a lot on this blog about Australian culture, character and history, trying to explore different aspects of the Australian experience.

I am driven here in part by the need to better understand my own experiences and the changing nature of Australian society and culture, to explain them to others. However, I am also driven by my persistent curiosity, finding great fascination in the way this takes me down new paths, teaching me things that I did not know before. A case in point.

I did a story on the New England, Australia blog on the Sydney Government's new set of planning strategies for the NSW coastal strip. You will see from the story that I was not very impressed. I said in part:

None of the planning documentation that I have seen actually discusses the various demographic drivers likely to affect population outcomes, nor are there any discussions of alternative scenarios. None of the documentation looks at issues associated with changing population composition that might flow from different combinations of outcomes from the demographic variables. There is little discussion about the flow on effects of the various planning assumptions.

The difficulty in all this is that specific investment decisions based on flawed planning then create new self-fulfilling but sub-optimal outcomes.

I have been mulling all this over since, trying to look further at the underlying numbers. This has further confirmed my view that the strategies are flawed, perhaps even dangerous. But it has also raised all sorts of issues about the evolving nature of patterns and interactions within NSW.

I am in the process of writing a full story or perhaps stories about this, but in the meantime thought that I would give you a heads-up on some of my conclusions minus evidence and supporting analysis.

The Government's various coastal strategies assume that the NSW coastal strip will experience annual average population growth of 68,000 - 71 per cent of this in Sydney - over the next twenty five years. Part of this growth will come from new population, part from continued internal migration from inland NSW. The overall planning focus is on controlling and managing this projected growth.

Initially I focused on the realism of the population growth assumptions, concluding that they could well be far too high since they depended critically on assumptions about net overseas migration to NSW. Looking at all this led me to ask some new questions.

One question was the extent to which the current drift of inland population to the coast might continue. Here - and this conclusion may surprise given history and the way the recent drought colours thinking - I actually think that we are coming to the end of the drift. If anything, the flow may well be the other way over the next twenty five years.

A second question was just what the NSW population structure might look like in twenty five year's time given current trends. This led me into a broader question, diverging population structures across Australia.

Prior to mass migration, the Australian population was relatively homogeneous. There were area differences, something that I have always been interested in as a historian, but the overall pattern across the country was broadly the same.

This is no longer true.

In the case of NSW, for example, Sydney's population structure is different from much of the rest of the state in terms of age (younger), Australian born (lower) and ethnic mix (more varied with a lower proportion of Anglo-Celts). Further, these area divergences are growing and will continue to do so because of the dynamics of chain migration and child birth.

I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with this. I am simply interested in the way it is creating varying geographically based sub cultures within the broader Australian culture. We can see this at city level by comparing the very European feel of Melbourne with its cafe society with Sydney's more Asian feel.

These varying population structures need to be taken into account in public policy, something that is actually difficult to do at times because we are effectively not allowed to talk about certain issues for fear of being branded as racist.

You can see the problem if you look at Neil's (Ninglun's) story on the Granville Lebanese video. Suddenly everybody is frothing at the mouth as Sydney talk back radio, the print press and the polies beat it all up. Something similar happened with Tamworth and refugees. Then look at Neil's story on the Big Day Out and the flag.

All this makes it hard to address the underling public policy issues. Well, get used to it. We cannot turn the clock back. Things such as these going to keep on happening as we work our way as a nation through the issues.

How does all this link to the NSW Government's coastal strategies?

Well, given the importance of overseas migration to the projected population growth I looked at the relationship between some of the Plan's proposals and migration patterns, asking myself where the people were to come from that would go into the new housing estates and cities, what did this mean for public policy? I may be wrong, but I think that there are some very real problems that will need to be addressed.

Just to illustrate. Of the projected increase of 1.2 million in the Sydney population over the next 25 years, between 420,000 and 480,000 are to be located in new urban developments in south-western and north-western Sydney.

For the benefit of overseas readers, the Sydney conurbation now stretches 95k (59 miles) to the south west. New developments will be fitted along this existing strip.

What type of person will go there, what will they do, where will they come from? How do we avoid the problems of isolation and social deprivation that have progressively marked so many new developments in western Sydney, made worse where the areas acquire a specific ethnic culture?

We live in interesting times.

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