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Publications archive - International Activities and Commitments


Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

Australia's report to the UNCSD - 1996

Implementation of Agenda 21
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, 1996
ISBN 0 6422 4868 0


Chapter 5 of Agenda 21

The Australian Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs has primary responsibility for broad population issues at the national level. The Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) has responsibility for family planning related issues in Australia's overseas aid program.


Australia's population at 30 June 1994 was estimated at 17 843 300. This compares with a population of 14 807 400 at 31 December 1980 and of 17 169 800 at 31 December 1990.

The population growth rate for the 1994 calendar year was 1.06 per cent, compared with a growth rate of 0.98 per cent for the calendar year 1993. The annual rate of population growth has been decreasing steadily since 1988 when it was 1.78 per cent; the 1993 growth rate was the lowest since 1975. At this rate of growth, Australia's population will double in sixty-nine years. Natural increase (annual number of births minus annual number of deaths) has declined since the early 1970s, fluctuated within fairly narrow margins during the 1980s, and has shown a small rise in the early 1990s.

Australia's total fertility rate (the average number of children that a woman would bear throughout her lifetime according to existing fertility rates) fell below replacement level in 1976. It is currently at about 1.9 children per woman.

While Australia's overall population density of 2.3 persons per square kilometre is very low by international standards, over eighty per cent of the population is concentrated in a narrow corridor along the east, south-east and south-western coastal regions, in a land area representing under four per cent of Australia's total land area. Australia is a highly urbanised country, with seventy-two per cent of the population living in cities of over 100 000 people and eighty-five per cent living in urban centres of at least 10 000 people. The remaining fifteen per cent of the population live in small towns, on farms or in remote settlements.

There are a number of resource and environmental constraints which presently place limits on the size and distribution of Australia's population such as generally thin soils of low fertility and water supplies subject to high levels of seasonal and annual variability. Most of the interior of the continent is arid and not conducive to high density settlement.

The environmental and economic impact of the urban nature of the Australian population has led the Government to look at ways to promote greater migration away from metropolitan centres. On 11 May 1995, the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs announced a pilot scheme, called the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme, which enables regional development organisations (bodies established by the Commonwealth Department of Housing and Regional Development) and relevant State and Territory authorities to facilitate the sponsorship of skilled migrants to settle and work in areas away from metropolitan centres or metropolitan centres experiencing low rates of growth.

Population Policy

Australia does not have an explicit or formal population policy, although it is keeping the issue under consideration. After considering the 1991 Population Issues Committee report, the Government decided that a formal population policy (particularly one which would specify population targets) would not be appropriate for Australia, given its low levels of fertility and diversity of community views as to the character and objectives of such a policy. The then Government considered that it was more important to ensure that the effects of population change are well understood by the public and effectively incorporated in policy and decision-making processes.

Australia does, however, have in place a wide range of policies and legal measures that many consider to be the constituent elements of a population policy including a formal immigration policy and a range of policies generally relating to broader social, economic, environmental and health issues. These policies are outlined in the report, 'Australia and the ICPD'.

Australia and the international conference on population and development

The report, 'Australia and the ICPD', provides an overview of Australia's position with respect to the Program of Action adopted by consensus at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in September 1994, in Cairo.

It reports systematically against the undertakings in the ICPD Program of Action, highlighting, as appropriate, government initiatives in place, outstanding challenges and proposed future action. The report is a useful reference document on Australia's current position in relation to a wide range of population issues.

The report concludes that Australia very substantially meets the undertakings in the Program of Action. It finds that a multitude of initiatives is in place, in a range of population-related areas. Measures aim to promote equity and social justice. Families are given a high priority while vulnerable groups, such as Indigenous Australians, are particularly targeted for assistance. Other initiatives are aimed at ensuring access to employment, education and health services; improving the status of women; promoting ecologically sustainable development; protecting the environment; and encouraging more liveable cities.

Linkages between population and environmental degradation

The extent to which population factors affect the environment in Australia has not been clearly established. What is clear, is the complex nature of the relationship that exists between the size of the population and environmental degradation. Factors relating population and environmental degradation include patterns of population distribution, patterns and levels of consumption, public sector pricing policies, lifestyle choices, technology paths, land management practices and product mix at national or regional levels. Non-permanent population flows, such as tourists, also impact on the environment. Increased attention needs to be paid to the interactions and environmental implication of all these factors.

In Australia population pressures can be seen to contribute to environmental degradation. These include large urban areas and certain high growth coastal regions, where native habitat and wetlands are often at risk, as well as agricultural areas with fragile soils. In some rural areas, for example, agricultural practices rely upon introduced animals such as cattle and sheep subsisting on land with fragile soils that are susceptible to high levels of soil erosion.

While high rates of unemployment and relatively moderate rates of economic growth are common to many countries, Australia acknowledges that economic reforms should occur in the context of environmental sustainability and has in place a range of strategies, agreements and programs, aimed at a more sustainable utilisation of natural resources.

Australian Governments have sought to reflect the principles of ecologically sustainable development (ESD) in their policies. The principles do not imply a reduced quality of life but, rather, aim to meet the needs of Australians today while conserving our ecosystems for the benefit of future generations. Policies should seek to influence and respond to population change so as to advance Australia's well-being in relation to ecological integrity. Initiatives such as the Better Cities program and the South-east Queensland 2001 (SEQ 2001) strategy are seeking to address some of these issues.

Public debate

As population issues are all pervasive and governments regularly make decisions which impact on the population arena, it is inevitable that there will be considerable public debate on possible approaches to public policy-making in this area. Australia's large land mass and comparatively small population had earlier led to the view that there was little need to consider the management of the population. However, in the last decade, attitudes towards population levels have been modified by a growing awareness of the effects of environmental degradation and high consumption.

The issue of linkages between population and environmental degradation has been considered by a number of government inquiries into population. For example, in 1991 the Australian Government commissioned the Population Issues Committee report titled 'Population Issues and Australia's Future: Environment, Economy and Society', focusing in particular on the relationship between population, the environment and ecologically sustainable development.

More recently, in 1994 the House of Representatives Standing Committee for Long Term Strategies, conducted an inquiry into Australia's population carrying capacity. The committee concluded that there is no numerical population level beyond which the social fabric and environmental quality might be expected to go into precipitate decline and rejected the view that Australia is already close to its maximum carrying capacity. It recommended the adoption of a population policy, including the possibility of revised administrative arrangements for policy and research responsibilities within the bureaucracy, but rejected the notion of a single optimum population target. The committee also noted the importance of consumption patterns in determining the environmental impact of any given level of population and recommended the adoption of a consumption strategy.


A large research effort into the complex issues surrounding immigration and broader population questions has been initiated by the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research (BIMPR). The BIMPR was established as an independent, professional research body within the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs to commission, conduct and promote research into immigration and population issues. Research is commissioned from tertiary education research centres, community groups and the private sector, as well as undertaken through a research grants program or in-house.

This research program has increased public understanding and contributed to informed debate on the impacts of immigration and population more broadly. In this context the work of the BIMPR seeks to place immigration within a broader demographic framework and provide an effective information base on which debate and decision making on issues such as the economy, the labour market, society and the environment can be carried out.

The BIMPR also maintains an active and wide ranging information dissemination program which includes conferences, seminars, book and publication launches and workshops. A feature of the immigration and population environment is the bi-annual National Immigration and Population Outlook Conferences. Such activities, as well as extensive library and statistical services, enhance accessibility of information on immigration and population and contribute to informed public debate on these important issues.

Bureau research has commenced examining such questions as: how does population size affect ecological integrity, particularly biodiversity, and the viability of food and water supplies; how does population size and distribution affect the quality of life; what economic costs and benefits are associated with current and projected population levels and distribution; and what is the Government's role in relation to population issues. The body of research related to these questions, while still not large, has begun to increase.

Population issues and Australia's development cooperation program

The Australian Government has accorded a high level of priority to population-related activities in the development cooperation program. Australia's policy principles for population activities promote access by choice to high quality reproductive health care, provided by skilled personnel. Population activities supported under the aid program are required to meet rigorous guidelines that emphasise respect for human rights. Under the four year, $130 million Population Initiative introduced in the 1993-94 aid budget, the Government supports a range of reproductive health, safe motherhood and family planning programs aiming to improve the knowledge and means by which women and men can have healthier families. In 1994-95, expenditure on population activities amounted to over $33 million.

The Government believes that population programs play a vital part in promoting better health and well-being, improving the status of women and alleviating poverty. This view was supported by the Independent Inquiry into Population and Development commissioned by the Government in 1993. The inquiry found that slowing population growth from current high levels, especially in poor agrarian societies facing pressure on land and resources, is advantageous not only to the environment, but also to general economic development, health, food availability and housing.

Australian aid is also addressing the broader socio-economic factors that constrain people from having smaller families, particularly those which limit women's access to education, health awareness and income opportunities. The 1995-96 aid budget, therefore, included a $25 million Basic Education Initiative that covers activities in Bangladesh, Mongolia, the West Bank and Gaza, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. The Government also recognises the potential for small-scale credit schemes to assist the poor, especially women. The 1994-95 aid budget included an initiative which will take funding for micro-enterprise development to approximately $14 million over the period 1994-95 to 1995-96.