Business School Topics
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Ahead of his speech at The University of Western Australia Business School's Breakfast by the Bay series in mid-February, demographer Bernard Salt has called for significant population growth in Western Australia's northwest.
The author of Man Drought, The Big Picture, and The Big Shift argued that the state's booming economy would benefit from population growth in the northwest. Western Australia's population, he said, needs to double from its current 2 ½ million, to five million within the next few decades.
"The big issue for Western Australia in the next year, the next ten years, and even the next 20 years, is migration and labour force issues," Salt said. "Managing Western Australia is like riding a bucking bull at the moment and the state has barely enough labour, people with skills, to manage the ride."
Currently, the Kimberley and Pilbara regions each have a population of around 45,000 people. This labour force isn't large enough to service the mines, and so what has resulted is a Fly In Fly Out (FIFO) culture.
"If it had have been ten years ago, and predicting the 2000s, you would have been predicting the Seachange and Treechange movements, but not FIFO," Salt said. "No-one saw it coming. It was here before everyone recognised it as a significant social force.
"The problem is that there's not the commitment to the community by FIFO people. Their heart, their family, their spending capacity lies somewhere else. The message we send is that we can't stand this place.
"In Perth, meanwhile, workers do ten days on and ten days off. This means that a family is without a father figure for half the time, so you have now got young kids in the streets of Perth without the presence of a male, not so much to enforce discipline, but to role model. Therefore you often end up with kids with discipline issues who don't really come up against a male authority figure until 12, 13, 14, and then it's the police. So I think there are major social issues that need to be dealt with in terms of long-term policy.
"Broome and Karratha each need to be between 50,000 and 100,000 people. Then, you could have wives and families; your five-year-old daughter could go to ballet school, your school teacher wife would have job opportunities."
In order to grow the Pilbara communities, Salt suggests creating a movement that is ‘fashionable, romantic, de rigueur,' similar to the rapid growth experienced by California during the gold rush of the mid-nineteenth century. He ponders several names: Pilbara Shift, Mine Shift, Frontier Shift.
"It needs to become a national project, like the Gold Coast of ten years ago," Salt emphasises. "It is a cultural and social issue that the whole nation needs to embrace, not just Western Australia.
"Growth should be measured and planned and responsibly managed and I think that is the challenge going forward. There is a great economic opportunity coming out of WA, and we do need the manpower to manage that. But we need to ensure that Perth and the major cities are appropriately and sensibly planned and not endless sprawl."
The other benefit of population growth in the northwest, says Salt, is that Australia's defence capabilities would be improved. In a column in The Australian late last year, he suggested that a military barracks should be built on the Pilbara coast, in order to protect infrastructure such as that associated with the Gorgon project.
Despite this, Salt acknowledges that an increased military presence in the northwest may not solve all of Australia's perceived defence problems. "I don't think that any number of people is going to make Australians feel safe and secure," he said. "We are a nation of 22 million people now. Even with 70,000 immigrants a year, which is a figure the conservationists want, we will still get to 28 million. I would like to see 35 million people by 2050. But even if it was 50 million, we're still not going to see Australia change in terms of exposure to more populated parts of the world. It is simply an observation about Australian culture and geography: we have been concerned about invasion for 200 years and will be for another 200 years regardless of population."
While Salt's demographic work attempts to tap into the national consciousness, it sometimes attracts criticism for the way in which it groups, labels, and stereotypes individuals. Salt, however, defends the work of demographers.
"The fact is that labels are very important to communicate with business and government about what society is doing," he explained. "Some people say, 'I was born in 1965 and so I am a Generation X but clearly I don't think like one.' But the business of governing, management, and administration isn't about catering to the individual. It is about understanding what the common denominator is in a particular segment and managing the expectations of that group. That's why we segment and if people get upset I'm not sure what we can do about that.
"The mystery is that people are fascinated by demographics even if they find classifications close to the bone; they still love observations about how the community functions. When I wrote Man Drought, I had no idea there was that much interest in the numbers of men and the numbers of women. 'Sex sells,' I have discovered. If I could manufacture columns and chat about that topic 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there would be a market in the media and the community to listen to it. People are endlessly fascinated by love."
The fascination with love, it appears, is a given. What Salt would like to see now is an Australian love affair with the northwest.
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