Building the country's population to 15 million over the next 50 years was proposed in a New Zealand Institute of Economic Research working paper a year ago. The objective was to bring the size and density of the population to levels closer to those of more prosperous European countries. Among other benefits, this would overcome the disadvantages of spreading high fixed costs, including infrastructure, across a small population. And with the right selection parameters, more relaxed immigration policies could help New Zealand deal with the looming fiscal challenges of an ageing population.
The need for a much bigger population was reiterated later in the year, in a report prepared for Export New Zealand on how to lift the country's export performance. Smallness and isolation stifled export growth, the NZIER then argued. Increasing the population by easing immigration rules would create bigger domestic companies, which could translate into expansion into overseas markets.
Federated Farmers president Bruce Wills was among business leaders who championed the NZIER plan. New Zealand exports were more likely to grow if successive governments targeted a population of 15 million by 2060, he asserted, because more people bring more capital and more ideas.
But he recognised they bring more problems, too, for land use and the environment. We had to find a way of adding more people without worsening urban sprawl, he said, so that New Zealand farming could continue to be the economy's "star turn" in terms of value and productivity (notwithstanding the demands for other resources - such as clean water - that would be heightened by adding some 9 million people to our population).
The federation's chief executive, Conor English, has kicked the issue along over Christmas by proposing that we stop building out in Auckland and start building up, in a policy of "Manhattanising".
Certainly, something must be done to slow the steady loss of productive farm and horticultural land to urban development for the country to make the most of its primary industry potential. Whether people would rather live on the 30th floor of a skyscraper than on a patch of land in suburbia is not so obvious.
- © Fairfax NZ News