Beyond the short-term political posturing, the idea of deciding a 'right size' for this country's population is a sound and overdue strategy

Beyond the short-term political posturing, the idea of deciding a 'right size' for this country's population is a sound and overdue strategy

By David Hargreaves

Why have we always accepted that immigration is something that just happens and population growth is something that just happens?

And yes while child birth is something that very much 'just happens' (wink, wink, snigger, snigger) this doesn't just mean we should accept whatever we are dealt with when it comes to population size and rates of growth.

The latest population projections released by Statistics New Zealand have come at an extraordinarily timely moment, with immigration a hot issue and more and more people posing the question as to what sort of size population is desirable for New Zealand and, as a corollary to that, what sort of size our largest city Auckland should be.

I'm not sure whether it's a good thing or not that our politicians have suddenly discovered population as an issue, but if we do at least start having a debate on the subject then good. What we don't want is typical political short-term, poll-driven, populist moves that end up getting chopped and changed around in perpetuity.

The fact is in a small country like New Zealand the size of the population matters. If the population stagnates or even shrinks there's a chance we just gradually sink into the Pacific. Grow the population aggressively and the country becomes quite different. Better? Worse?

What do we want?

So, it is beyond time there was some sort of proper attempt made at deciding what size of population we want. Obviously we can't set a target to within a small range of people and expect to exactly meet that. Birth rates will fluctuate. Outbound migration rates of Kiwis will fluctuate.

But we can control the inbound levels of migration and that's obviously the real hot potato at the moment.

In reading the best efforts of Stats NZ to compile population projections for the next 50 years it was really brought home to me what an inexact science the good stats people are trying to apply - without being able to know things such as future government policy on migration and without such a thing as an official population target.

Based on the all the current variables, Stats NZ gives projections by 2068 of a population between 5.3 million and 7.9 million in 2068. That's quite a range.

Perhaps most intriguingly, by just 2025, given net migration of 30,000 a year (which is well above historic averages but, crucially, less than half the CURRENT rate), our population could be 5.5 million - up from around 4.7 million now. That's a 17% increase in less than 10 years.

Just letting it happen

Is that something as a country we can just 'let' happen without proper planning? But I fear that given recent history, and the way this Government has cynically used immigration as a short-term kick-starter for the economy, that this is exactly what could happen if it's allowed. And the other thing is where would that 17% go? I'm just guessing, but I would say not spread around the country. Look out Auckland. Maybe those 'inflated' Auckland house prices won't look that way at all in future.

Given that our small economy is so sensitive to even modest changes in the size of the population, we really need to properly have this debate now. Just about any decision you choose to think of in terms of planning for the future and that includes building houses and roads, businesses setting up, you name it, comes back to how many people will be around.

The other point is we need to achieve some sort of political consensus. And, yes, that's when it starts to look like mission implausible. Our very short (three-year) electoral cycle lends itself to knee-jerk, policy-on-the-hoof, vote-grabbing political tactics.

One aside I would make is that perhaps it is high time we looked at a longer - I would suggest four-year - electoral cycle. The constant disruptive changing and then changing again that we see around policies would be calmed somewhat by such a change.

Can we agree?

Aside from the politicians, I suspect finding agreement among the people of New Zealand ourselves would be pretty tough. Based on the comments we get on this website, there's a least a reasonable number of people out there who would not like to see the population grow at all.

At the heart of it really is what sort of country do we want? Do we want a very large national park with a few cities sprinkled here and there (as arguably we've got now). Or do we want a more bustling economy, with a bigger population base to drive a 'new' economy less reliant on exports? Is there a middle ground?

I don't have any particular preference.

But I do think that the country needs to be making that decision now. What sort of country and economy is this going to be? And how are we going to target the population to fit that?

I could be being very unkind, but it seems we've ended up with a population of 4.7 million and an Auckland population of 1.5 million, totally by accident. It all just happened.

With the global population never more mobile than it is now, such leaving of things to chance won't wash in future.

Stay-at-home Kiwis

The other key point to make I think is that there probably remains an assumption within New Zealand that at some stage soon the large-scale migration of Kiwis that has always been a historic fact will resume.

I'm not so sure. The grass is always going to be greener for some people. But the 'tyranny of distance' that used to apply to this country as being further away from everything than anything else doesn't have the same relevance in the interconnected modern world. Your physical geographic location has never been so unimportant. The Peter Jacksons and Lordes would in bygone days have had to physically relocate themselves from New Zealand in order to 'make it'. Now you don't have to.

So, if we do accept that more Kiwis staying at home might not just be a passing fancy, this too needs to be thoroughly incorporated into our view of the ideal population size. And how we get there.

Talking about population size and the size you want the population to be might seem esoteric, trivial. But for a small country like this, where the size of the population will make such a difference in future, this is something we really need to be discussing now - and making some firm decisions about, decisions that can't then easily be overturned at the whims of fly-by-night politicians.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

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31 Comments

Do we have an extra April 1'st because it is a leap year ? ... I thought it was leap year because of the Olympics ...

.... but no , there's an extra April Fools Day because fine fellows such as David Hargreaves ( with a rip-snorting sense of humour ) bring us articles such as this one ...

.... you had me going there for a moment , Big Dave , until I twigged that this had to be a total wind up ...

" Population targeting " .... oh lawdy lawdy .... tee heee heeee .... you're a cracker , buddy !

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It takes guts to set a target; blindingly obvious that the environment can't tolerate too many humans; we can't solve the worlds population problems by importing more people.

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"we can't solve the worlds population problems by importing more people"
I see in yesterdays Herald the Chinese are worried they're not going to have enough with the birthrate stuck well below replacement at 1.5 babies per couple. They could have some of ours.
Seriously though it's very obvious the global population has overshot a safe level - Northern hemisphere fishing boats in the Antarctic, climate change, habitat and species extinction on an unprecedented level. Enough already!

Amen to that

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David, where do you get this idea that our economic well being is in anyway related to population growth rate?
I can categorically tell you that it is not and if you wish I can email you a group of spreadsheets analysing most of the countries in the world. They show that there is
- Absolutely no correlation between GNP growth rate and the total population number
- a very mildly negative correlation between GNP/capita growth rate and population growth rate. I.e. if you increase population growth rate you run a mild risk of reducing our per capita well being growth rate.

Aside from that I totally agree it is high time that we had an informed long term discussion about this. I would add that this should be followed by a referendum (preferably binding) because this has never been an election issue so as far as I can see our politicians do not have a strong mandate on something that is so important and is affecting individuals so much. (ask some one who cannot buy a house or is un or under employed)

Growth, as we have come to accept it, expect it, does actually rely on a continually growing population. There is absolutely no point in thinking that there is some sort of magical population number where suddenly all will be good forever and we will not need more people, because as we do things, there isn't one.
Look at Japan, they have people for Africa, but they are facing a falling population, mainly because people have simply decided to delay, limit or bypass breeding at all. This is seen as a problem for Japan, so clearly, the way things are, even their enormous population is not enough if it stops growing.
What we have to start looking at is how the human race as a whole can prosper without its numbers ever growing, because we do have to stopping our number growing. It is very likely the planet is now at least twice the number of people it can sustain at reasonably high standard of living levels.
The only growth available in a stable population is each individual increasing his/her consumption, but there is even a limit to that.
I have my own ideas about how this could be done, that does not involve war, numbers culling and infrastructure destruction so that at some point we can start the whole "growth" process again, but this is the issue our minds need to be turned to, not how we get more people or many is enough.
I know we have the smarts, I just wonder if we have the will.

Maybe NZ has to learn this but in my analysis there are about 25 countries around the world where the population is already decreasing including Germany. All except Micronesia have positive economic growth rates and there average is very healthy. So there is no big mystery that we have to solve.
Despite Japan's problems it still manages to maintain a positive growth rate per capita (just, it is the second lowest and is only just positive.) I doubt that you can blame their population dynamics for this. I think that it has a lot more to do with the aftermath of the property bubble, crazy government debts and poor handling of bank debt following their crash. My observation of their economy was that it lives in two parallel universe. The world of the ruthlessly efficient and highly successful exporters and the rest of the economy which is bloated and over staffed. The population drop could be easily accommodated by increasing the productivity of the non export sector. EG their boutique farming practices.

Well can you link to this analysis? I always believed growth (GDP) was predicated on population growth.

Surely the reason Japan has a stagnant economy is due to the rising costs of the elderly. They have a very generous social welfare system as well. And because they don't have a growing population, they suffer the consequences.

Love to Dave but I cant because it resides in my computer. I crunched a lot of raw data from the CIA world data base back when they made data available in a form that was easily downloaded and worked with. Sadly in recent years they have bundled it up in a form that is no where near as fulsome or easy to deal with on a pan global or wide time scale. Interestingly our statistics dept seems to have gone down the same track unless I am missing something.

Not really correct. Their standard of living has been maintained and Japan is still a very rich country. Nominal GDP growth is a poor measure - you add a person, you add GDP. What matters is how much better off the individual citizens are.

Japan. Actually it's a very successful place. While the big numbers seem of concern to financial services people, the folks themselves are highly productive, and in practical terms wealthy, with access to all the good things they need.
As for the falling population, what's the problem ? Probably makes the place better to live in.

Japan and China have relied on other countries' growth for their own. And you have touched on a couple of things that can solve the issue of the end of growth. The answer lies within your last sentence.

It would take an open and honest discussion for us to talk about population targets - two words that aren't common in a politicians vocabulary.

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Good article topic but you are really naive in your analysis of possible future.
eg "Or do we want a more bustling economy, with a bigger population base to drive a 'new' economy less reliant on exports"
You are clearly referring to some sort of internal consumption economy which consumes debt indefinitely??. You clearly are completely unaware that unless your environment has the RESOURCES needed by the local population, they need to plunder, trade or steal them from elsewhere. This is actually how cities even exist. Roll forward a few years, unless the Oil is flowing, the stuff wont be rolling into the over populated cities ... you get the rest.
So for a start a "sustainable" population for NZ is probably less than 0.5 million...

Well done for writing this article , and posing the question out there for public discourse .

Its astonishing that we were so blindsided by the migration numbers that have unfolded this year to date , and it now turns out we did not even have a plan to either cope with the numbers , or its seems, the Government had no idea how many people would arrive .

Its staggering , frankly .

Yes it appears that they just want to keep the flood gates open so that can blame population growth and the increase of luxury property buying, to try to justify having house prices beyond the million plus mark as a reasonable average.

It allows them not to acknowledge the existence of foreign buyers, as even Canadians did until the ran the figures but at least their Government was willing to admit their true figures and face up to reality.

What were the Canadian figures please? Like foreign buyer percentages I mean?

@ Davo36; Well the evidence is fairly over whelming though this article gives quite a nice outline and to the market reaction to their 15% property tax on foreign buyers: Plunging foreign investment in Vancouver real estate 'the impact we wanted': B.C. premier

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/foreign-buyers-tax-data-1...

Quote from article: "My hope is that many of those units that would have sold to foreign buyers, will now be sold to British Columbians," said Clark.

According to the data, in the seven weeks before the tax was introduced (June 10 to Aug. 1) the total value of all residential sales involving foreign nationals was $2.3 billion — an average of $329 million per week.

After the tax was introduced, the value of sales over a four-week period (Aug. 2 to 30) plunged to $46.9 million — an average of $11.8 million per week.

The percentage value of sales involving foreigners also fell from 16.5 per cent of all sales to 0.7 per cent in the month after the introduction of the new tax, the latest numbers also revealed.

Absolutely need an ongoing discussion/debate on population size. While population growth and a larger population may bring some economic benefits we must count the costs, both economic and non-economic. Kiwis value their lifestyle and need to think deeply about whether the lifestyle trade-offs from living in a higher population density country are worth the economic benefits(if there are really any). For example, as much as people may like to live on a quarter acre or a lifestyle block (as research polls shows), this is not physically possible with higher population density. Freedom to go hunting and fishing are two obvious valued kiwi lifestyle pursuits that would be seriously effected by a large population. Etc etc etc.

"Why have we always accepted that immigration is something that just happens and population growth is something that just happens?"

Yep, there's never any discussion around this at all. It's all just growth, growth, growth - both in population and GDP terms.

And politicians love it because it gets them re-electecd.

Absolutely right . The root problem is that the financial system necessitates it and human DNA is set to want MORE ...

One day for whatever reason the ship load of oil that our economy is dependent on isn't going to arrive.
Maybe the world runs out, or there's a war bigger than the ones happening now, or maybe we upset the USA and they trade embargo us.
One day when that shipload of oil doesn't arrive we will find out what our optimum population size is.
In the meantime we should be planning for that day just like you plan for your retirement.
We need to change our economic recipe for success.
Population growth is not a sustainable economic recipe.

Spot on ... and my guess is that it will stop because of the financial system crashing - nothing to do with running out. The financial system provides feedback about where resources are extracted and supplied to .. and central banks are now furiously trying to manipulate the loop ... But they are fighting diminishing returns with a system built to run on JIT / high capacity usage.

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Virtually uncontrolled immigration which we have now is a cancer on the people living here .
Our quality of life has deteriorated rapidly over the past decade with roads gridlocked, houses unaffordable and infrastructure not able to cope. Taxes have to increase to pay for all this.
The type of immigrants we are getting now is great for the wealthy and business people. It keeps wages down and increases the assets of the well to do.
There will be massive social problems in the future if we do not change and plan our immigration policies.

There are likely to be social problems unfortunately "super-diversity" will make coming to some sort of consensus on how to correct the problems virtually impossible.

Yip - massive social problems are a given worldwide - the building refugee crisis is just the start.
Peace is all about having abundant resources, war the opposite.

Too late itsme! NZ already needs 1600 more prison beds. The government has blamed the judges for sending more people to jail. (its always someone elses fault)
Social unrest is already unfolding. The bigger the gap between the haves and have nots the worse it will be.
Our current generation of young people is on the dust heap. Why spend time and money training them when we can employ an immigrant?

Perhaps my opinion is influenced by being close to Auckland and travelling through Auckland quite frequently, but over the last few years the liveability of the city has deteriorated markedly; rampant house price inflation, urban sprawl from Pokeno to Orewa and grid-locked traffic. I think we have enough people and it is absolute insanity to keep pumping migrants into the city.
While we were at it a discussion about the right number of tourists wouldn't go amiss either.

Oh my god David

Suggesting a four year term will make things better

Just look around the world and tell me where we can find better governance because of longer terms.

Are you saying four year terms in America produce better presidents - Hahahahaha

Does quality of life have anything to do with population size as i see no mention of that.

Does sustainability have anything to do with population size

And so on

How about we compare countries GDP per Capita and their size.

Do more densely populated areas have higher GDP per Capita?

I think that whatever John Key says should be the number of immigrants is correct, until he changes his mind and then that will be correct.

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