Many, perhaps most, media commentators and some environmentalists seem to believe that the population debate is all a dog-whistling exercise orchestrated by the bigoted and xenophobic. While there are of course some of those people around, that is far from STEP’s position.

The population debate is not about boat people, not about race, not about culture, not about religion, not about refugees in general and not about how many children one should have. It's a bigger issue. There can of course be rational discussion on all of those matters but they are peripheral to population.

We start from a world view where we see population heading to over 9 billion with much of it climbing rapidly out of poverty towards our level of consumption so that finite resources are being used up at an ever-increasing rate and huge natural areas being alienated to accommodate people. We see increasing rates of extinctions and the virtual impossibility of reducing the greenhouse effect in time to avert disaster. Jared Diamond's book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed informs us of the human race's dismal track record. We see the possibility, indeed the probability, of famine, war and massive dislocations.

At home we see that Australia's fragile environment is already highly stressed. We see cities like Sydney growing exponentially and using up farms and bushland while placing ever-increasing demands on scarce resources such as water. We see our mines sending ever-increasing supplies of coal that will add to world pollution and we see places such as the Barrier Reef degrading.

We also see our leaders, almost without exception, promoting never-ending GDP and population growth. We see the effective lobbying of churches and that of the BCA and its powerful members for exponentially expanding markets and consumption. And we see almost none of our leaders prepared to admit that there could be a problem looming or to discuss the issue.

We see that at our current rate of growth of about 2% per annum, Australia will have some 90 million people in 75 years and Sydney 18 million. With the lower rates of growth some are talking about it will take a little longer but the result will be the same.

So what is our vision?

We would like our leaders at all levels to openly discuss the issue. We want our leaders to appreciate that there cannot be infinite growth in a finite world and we would like them to plan to do something about it. It must be appreciated that there are many wealthy countries without increasing populations that are doing well and that per capita wealth, rather than GDP, is the real measure of financial well-being.

We have heard many politicians at the state and local level say that they cannot do anything about the problem because it's all the fault of the Federal Government. We see that as the ultimate cop-out. State and local government leaders have an obligation to engage the Federal Government on all issues affecting their domain. They engage with them on health, education, the Murray-Darling and other such issues. Would it not be negligent to not engage them also on population?