Dick Smith – Solving the Population Puzzle
Dick Smith has squeezed a lot into his life. He was the first person to fly a helicopter solo around the world, and the first to fly to the North Pole, among a long list of aeronautical achievements. Dick founded Australian Geographic Magazine in 1986 and was named Australian of the Year that same year. He also founded Dick Smith Electronics, which he sold to Woolworths in 1982. Dick was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia and was named an Australian Living Treasure.
In more recent times, Dick has turned his attention to what many see as the biggest threat to our future – the ever increasing number of people on the planet…
G’day Dick, you were born in Roseville and spent your childhood there; what were your fondest memories growing up on the North Shore? In those days, Roseville was surrounded by bushland at Middle Harbour and I would come home from Roseville Public School – get home about 3.20pm – and the only instruction was, “Change out of your school clothes and be home by dark.” I would then disappear into the bush, walk down to Middle Harbour, and just be on my own until five or six o’clock when it was dark and I’d get home. I loved the freedom of being able to disappear into the bush.
That bushland’s no longer there, at Middle Harbour? A lot of the bushland is still there, it’s called Davidson Park, but definitely not in other places. Chatswood now has high-rise, we are heading in the direction of making Sydney like Shanghai. The reason so many people come from Shanghai to live in Sydney is that they believe Shanghai has too many people, and I’d agree with them. We don’t want to turn Sydney into Shanghai. I’d rather try to keep as many houses as possible with backyards, so the kids can play cricket and build their cubby houses.
Do you think life in Sydney was better back when you were a kid than what it is now? Yes. For middle class and working people, it was definitely better back then because families could afford a house with a backyard. My dad was a salesman, my mum was a housewife. They bought this house in Roseville and could pay it off. We were free range kids, whereas children today, quite often, end up living like battery hens in high-rise and I think that’s a real pity. I believe that one of the great advantages of Australia is that we have a lot of space, but if we’re not careful we’ll end up turning Australia into some of the most densely populated cities in the world. I don’t think that’s good for quality of life.
I’m 40 years old and my brother and I have had a reasonably successful business for the last 13 years. He just had to move down the coast because he couldn’t afford to live in Sydney with his young family, and I rent a shoebox with no chance of ever buying my own house in Sydney. What is the population of Australia now? What, in your view, is the ideal population size for our country? The population of Australia today is about 25 million. What’s serious is the present growth rate of 1.6 per cent per year. If we keep that up, we will have 100 million people in Australia at the end of the century when my grandchildren are still likely to be alive. That’s quite serious because, even though I’m sure we can hold 100 million people – we’re very astute human beings in the way that we can accommodate and modify our lifestyles – I think it will end up like America, which has clearly gone past the sweet point. We’ll probably have 30 or 40 million people who are really poor, who will probably never have a job, and that means you get social instability. As someone once said, that’s when the pitchforks come out, meaning that it’s going to be like the French Revolution. There’s definitely a sweet point, and I think we’re probably past it – probably around 16 million was the sweet point. I’m very pro-immigration, but at sensible numbers. If we bring our immigration down to about 70,000 per year – the long-term average – down from 200,000 per year, we’ll stabilise our population at 30 million, and I believe that would be a good idea.
I go to a friend’s place for a barbecue every Tuesday night. It’s called Tuesday Night Barbecue, but sometimes it’s on a Monday. Well, it can be on any day of the week, but it’s always called Tuesday Night Barbecue. Anyway, we have some pretty heated political discussions and every time I put forward reasoned argument to support cutting net migration into Australia – even when I make it quite clear that I don’t want to cut the refuge intake, in fact I think we should increase it because we have an obligation due to our involvement in all the stupid wars that cause these problems in the first place – I get called a racist. The discussion gets shut down and it is so frustrating. How do you deal with these people? The way you deal with that, with the believers in endless growth – and I often say to my friends, like John Singleton and Gerry Harvey who want lots of growth – I say, “When we end up with a trillion people in Sydney, will that be too many?” They have to laugh, and then say, “Well, I agree with you, Dick – one day we’ve gotta stop growing.” And I’ve said, “Well, do you want to leave that to a future generation?” And, basically, that’s the answer. Everyone agrees that you can’t grow forever. It’s only cancer cells that grow forever and they normally kill their host. You have to stop growing one day. My suggestion is we start planning for that now. The only way we can stop growing in population is to bring the immigration back to a more sensible level, which is the long-term average. In other words, it’s still pro-immigration, because 70,000 per year is very high per capita by world standards. It’s nothing to do with racism at all. My belief is we continue to bring in people from all around the world like we’ve always done. I agree. I believe we could increase our humanitarian intake, we can do that to be a bit generous there. We don’t have a problem with our birth rate – Aussie families are having about the replacement number of kids. Even if we put our immigration up to 300,000 or 400,000 per year, we can never do anything about the world population problem, because they’re estimating that it’s going to increase from 7 billion to 11 billion people by 2100 and that’s a catastrophe for the whole world. Australia should be concentrating on overseas aid, on educating women, because once you educate women the birth rate comes down. And the United Nations should be concentrating on trying to reduce the extraordinary population growth, because it’s complete madness and it will completely destroy the world as we know it today if we allow it to go on.
How are our immigration numbers actually composed? I assume it’s a small refugee intake and a lot of skilled migrants? Yes, the 200,000 per year is made up of about 15,000 refugees, and then the rest of them, they call them skilled visas and family reunions. The most important thing is that if we go back to the long-term averages of 70,000 per year, we can still have an adequate number of family reunions. Yes, it will be tougher on business – they’ll actually have to train Australians into these jobs. Some Aussies are pretty lazy so you have to enthuse these people to give them a job. You have to be tougher on giving social services, and say, “No, if you can get a job – if you have to travel to a country town – you go and do it, otherwise we’re not going to pay you social services.” So, we can do that. The biggest problem is that our present economic system that we’ve had for the last 150 years, that we’ve done so well out of, is a type of Ponzi scheme. It requires perpetual growth and perpetual feeding, as any Ponzi scheme does, otherwise they collapse. That’s impossible; you cannot have perpetual growth in a finite world. The reason the government is supporting such high levels of immigration is it gives you this growth figure, and that looks as if the economy is doing better. In fact, per head – for working people – they’re actually going backwards. But, of course, the really wealthy – the billionaires have increased their wealth by 200 per cent in the last five years – are doing okay.
So, someone like Gerry will be selling a lot more TVs and fridges, but the average person’s cost of living goes through the roof and there’s downward pressure on their wages, so it results in a widening gap between rich and poor… Yes, yes, yes. The big thing with the record immigration that we have is it means it’s really directed at benefiting the wealthy, because it keeps the wages down, because you have more and more people apply for the jobs that are available. Then, it also makes the wealthy even wealthier because they have more customers. It’s very pro the wealthy and it’s the wealthy who donate money to political parties. I have a thing called the Dick Smith Fair Go Group. I suggest you Google “Dick Smith Fair Go” and click on the manifesto and have a look at my manifesto because it explains how we could change Australia to make it better. It means increasing the taxes on some of us wealthy people. The startling thing it brings out is that the one per cent of the wealthiest people in Australia have the same wealth as the bottom 70 per cent. When you start getting such disparity in wealth, you could end up with revolution, where the poor people revolt. I was in Russia a few years ago, where I went to the building where all the czars children were killed, and they were killed because the czar and the ruling class were getting wealthier and wealthier and the working people were getting poorer and poorer, and so in the end you get revolution. I wonder if we’ve ever learned that you actually have to spread the wealth otherwise people will get incredibly angry?
If richer people are continually getting more and more wealthy, and they can buy more influence and lobby to keep policies like these in their favour, at the expense of the average resident, voter or whatever, wouldn’t the solution be to just totally outlaw any kind of political donation whatsoever, so that they can no longer buy that influence? Well, my Dick Smith Fair Go policy is that the political donations would be funded from tax revenue. It’s tiny, it’s about five dollars per head in Australia per year. And there would be no donations at all, but you need money to run an election, and for a party to be able to inform the constituents what their policies are – that would be completely funded from between five to ten dollars per head on each Australian, and there would be no political donations at all. Now, that’s going to be a hard one to fix because the people who give the political donations are politically powerful and the parties at the present time want this enormous amount of money. But look, one thing you’re touching on is that the two major political parties don’t have a population policy, and if they don’t at the next election you’ll get a Pauline Hanson and people like that getting more and more votes. I’m hoping that before the next election one of our major federal parties will have a population policy. It happened in New Zealand and Labor were the outsiders, but they said they were going to reduce immigration to more sensible levels and they are now in power. The same thing will happen here. Eight out of ten Australians want a population policy, they want it to be discussed. Most importantly, every Australian family has a population policy – they can have 20 children in their lifetime, but none do. They all decide on the number of children they can give a good life to. Now, we have to get our government to have an equivalent policy. That is, the number of Australians that we can give a good life to, and that’s not going to be 100 million, which is what we’re heading towards.
A common argument against lowering the number of immigrants coming into Australia is that we’ve got an aging population and we need more workers coming in just to support these people in their retirement; can you quickly address that? The most common argument of why we need higher immigration levels is because we have an aging population, but that just makes the situation worse and puts it off because those immigrants you’ve got in now will get older of course, but there’s more of them so it doesn’t solve anything – it’s a type of Ponzi scheme and it’s completely unstable, so you will never solve, other than for the short term, the aging problem by bringing in more immigrants now. In fact, it’s a very selfish way of putting off the problem so our children and grandchildren will have to solve it. We actually need to pay more superannuation now. I think we pay on average a bit under 10 per cent superannuation. Paul Keating was correct, he was planning that we go to 15 per cent superannuation, and if we do, that means you’ve put enough aside for your old age, so it means you don’t have to have this Ponzi-like growth to pay for our old age.
It’s kicking the can down the road in effect, really, isn’t it? It is absolutely. We’re kicking the can down the road and just putting off the delay or the problem, and that’s not fair for younger people, for our children and grandchildren. In fact, my whole campaign to have a population policy is purely because of my concern for my grandchildren. It won’t affect me at all. I’m fortunate, I’ve benefited from growth and it would be easier for me to say absolutely nothing but I’m very concerned about my grandchildren, I want them to have a life as good as the life I’ve had.
One of the conclusions that could be drawn from all of this is that at some stage a generation needs to basically step up and take a bit of a hit, just to solve the problem long-term. We’re enjoying the highest living standards that any generation has ever had, so shouldn’t we be the ones to do it? No, it’s not going to happen. We’re not going to solve the problem until we have some enormous crash. I believe we’re heading towards a collapse far greater than the Great Depression, and then we’ll all get together and fix it. We’re incredible human beings, so in the long-term my view is positive, but I believe there will be some major form of economic crash that forces us to live in balance. Already, if you look at countries like Japan, they’re going from 120 million population now to 90 million in 2050. Now, why is that happening? Because Japanese women are sensible, they’re not having that many children. The government is giving 20 thousand dollar baby bonuses, but it’s not working. Germany has a slightly zero population growth rate. Of course, the economists say this is a disaster, but it really isn’t. It’s a gradual way of living in balance. It’s the best thing I’ve ever heard. I go up to Japan and the country, with regards to lifestyle, is doing really well because instead of having to build millions of new houses and put everyone jammed like termites into high-rise, they now just spend their money on making everything better. They have this enormous amount of money to keep plenty of people employed by making things better. The train that used to do 200 kilometers an hour now does 300 kilometers an hour, the hospitals are getting better, they’re just pouring the money back into improving. As an example, a young couple, instead of you going out and buying a new house that’s bigger, let’s say you just spent your money on making your existing house better. That’s the way you keep the economy going.
Another argument that I hear at Tuesday Night Barbecue is, “What about the jobs?” Australia’s economy is addicted to housing, so if we’re not growing and we’re not building, what do people do for work? That’s a very valid argument, an extremely valid argument, but it can’t be solved by perpetual growth because you end up with a limit of the resources when you end up with billions of people. We have to re-tune our system of Capitalism. At the present time, and for the last 150 years, it’s required perpetual growth in the use of resources, energy, and in the population. We have to change that to a different form of growth – growth in efficiencies, a growth in removing waste – but there is going to be a time when, in effect, you can’t get an eternal increase in standard of living. You just have to say, “Gee, we’re doing pretty well now.” Then, what you do is you reduce working hours. Instead of making more and more stuff to try and keep people in work, you actually reduce working hours. They need to go down to about 30 hours a week, but still on the same pay we get now, because of our robotics and automation. In fact, if we don’t reduce working hours, we’re going to have enormous unemployment problems.
Are we the only country on the planet that doesn’t have a population policy? No, most Western developed countries don’t have population policies, it’s one of just perpetual growth, because the economy would collapse if you don’t have perpetual growth. Most sensible people know that it’s not stable. A few weeks ago I was talking to a person in the Canberra bureaucracy and he said, “Dick, all the people in the treasury know what you’re saying – they know it’s a Ponzi scheme – but they don’t have an answer.” So, in the meantime, they’re just going to keep feeding it with growth and hoping it doesn’t collapse on their watch. They’re just hoping the collapse can be put off.
What is the actual process that determines the migration level? Say Malcolm and Scott are sitting in the control room or whatever, tweaking all the levers; how do they decide what our net migration is going to be? First of all, we’re in total control. Our population increase is completely in our control because it’s linked to the staggering number of immigrants we have. It’s gone from the long-term average of 70,000 to 200,000 – that’s completely controllable. The Federal Government can say how many immigrants we’re going to have. At the present time, they want this huge figure because it makes it look as if they’re better economic managers than they are. It gives you the impression that we have growth, but in fact, growth per capita, we don’t have. Most working people are going backwards. Yes, the wealthy are doing okay – they’re increasing their wealth – but working people in the last five years have dropped by about 3 per cent in their real wages. There’s no light on the horizon because when you end up with too many people to apply for each job, and every two years we have the population of Canberra coming in, it keeps wages down, and that’s why the wealthy fund the political parties and are so keen on keeping the present economic system. It’s so they can keep wages down, and they say that’s a great way of selling products at the lowest cost and that’s how Capitalism works. I tend to agree with that except as you start to get to the limits of growth it becomes very cruel to people, especially to the people at the bottom of the working group and they are the ones who end up out of jobs or getting paid so little they can’t really afford to even buy or rent decent accommodation.
What countries have got it right? Well, the countries that have got it right – Italy, Germany, Japan – all have basically zero population growth, they’re stable. One of the advantages for Australia is that we could go to zero population growth because there’s still plenty of growth left in the rest of world. We’re going to be providing minerals, especially to China, India and Africa, and they have a right to grow because they need to get the standard of living of their people up. We can, at least in the short-term, depend on that growth. That’s what Japan does; it doesn’t have a growing population but it’s benefiting from the growth in other parts of the world. Of course, in the long-term, one day we have to live in balance – everything in nature lives in balance – and the famous economists of 200 years ago all predicted that one day you would get to an equilibrium where you didn’t want more growth in the use of resources and energy because it was impossible.
One point that my old man often makes is that the population size of any species of living thing is determined primarily by the availability of food and water, so the fact that we have a desalination plant at Kurnell to turn ocean water into drinking water is a good indication that Sydney is full, right? Well, it’s interesting you say that. Many people would say, “No, that’s an example of how we could go to a billion people in Australia,” because we have enormous reserves of uranium and we could put nuclear power in to desalinate water, so you could have some enormous population that’d all be living like termites jammed into 100-story high-rise. We are ingenious creatures, that’s why I never say there’s really a limit to population in the short-term – in the short-term you could expand enormously – but the quality of life would go down. Already our school kids are being forced into what they call vertical schools – schools in high rise tenements – and I hate it. Fifty years ago I went to Hong Kong and I felt so sorry for the school kids who were jammed on the fifth floor of a tenement getting their school lessons. Fifty years later, we’re now doing that in Sydney, and it’s ridiculous. The school kids want to have lots of beautiful grass, fields and bush around them. That’s what they should be doing.
On April Fool’s Day in 1978 you attempted to tow an iceberg from Antarctica into Sydney Harbour as a new source of fresh water. Although this was obviously a joke, do you think it would have actually been a better idea than the desalination plant? Yeah, I didn’t actually attempt it. I’d stated to everyone that I was planning to bring an iceberg up to Sydney, which I genuinely did do. I genuinely planned to do it and I was going to cut the ice up into ice-cubes and call them Dick-sicles and sell them for ten cents each for people’s drinks. That was going to raise me a million dollars and it would cost about a hundred grand to tow the iceberg here. In fact, I didn’t do that, but one day just before April Fool’s Day I towed a fake iceberg into Sydney Harbour, just as a bit of fun. But look, one day you could tow ice to the more arid areas but it would be very expensive to do. The other thing is the ice is melting, and I’m a person who believes that there’s no doubt that we’ve got temperature rise. I don’t think we know at the moment who’s going to get advantages and disadvantages. People from the left tend to make out that as the climate changes everyone is going to be worse off. In fact, as with most things, you’ll probably find there are some people who benefit and some people who are worse off – that’s just how it happens. I don’t think we know who benefits and who’s worse off at the moment. I think weather is so complex that we haven’t been able to work that out.
You mentioned that Pauline Hanson’s is the only party that actually has a population policy; what is her population policy? Is it driven by common sense or is it driven by xenophobia? No, no, Pauline Hanson’s plan is – from what I’ve seen, I don’t know it in detail – to bring the immigration back to 70,000. It’s completely balanced on common sense. It’s not racist. All I’m saying is that the major parties have to be very careful. If they just keep making out that all the people that vote for Pauline Hanson are doing so because they are racist, well, the major parties are wrong. People who are voting for Pauline Hanson – the vast majority at least – are concerned that we have to live in balance and they’re just sensible Australians. A racist person is an evil person and luckily we don’t have many of them in Australia, and that’s where we’re very fortunate.
What’s her policy on the refugee intake – the humanitarian intake? I don’t know. I don’t know the details on it. Her controversial policy is about Muslim immigration, but it clearly says words to the effect of, unless we can show them to be safe she wanted Muslim immigration stopped, and I can’t see the problem with that because we want to be safe. That’s what we’re doing now, anyone who comes to this country – it doesn’t matter what culture or religion they come from – is carefully screened. That’s sensible because you don’t want terrorists coming into this country; the screening of people who come here has always been there, and I support it.
The worry is that someone with as little credibility as Pauline supporting this population policy is actually bad for it. The two people who have come out and supported it most notably have been Tony Abbott and Pauline Hanson, and I think that turns a lot of people off the idea… Not most people. The most recent surveys show that 53 per cent want our immigration numbers brought back, but what’s the more important survey is that eight out of ten Australians want a population policy. Eight out of ten Australians all say we need our Federal Government to come up with a policy on population. That’s eight out of ten, and if these major parties keep ignoring that… They’re ignoring it because they’re very nervous that if you stop the growth, they’re scared the economic system will collapse. And there’s the potential for that, that’s why we need to get the best brains together to show how we can move to a different form of growth – a growth in improving efficiencies, a growth in removing waste – so we can be better off, but not just by having an endless increase of more people, heading towards a trillion people, which is ridiculous.
And possibly a slight decrease in our living standards, for the greater good of every future generation of Australians? Well, yeah, a change in our way we measure our living standards – going from gross domestic product, GDP, which is a wartime measure, moving to the general progress indicator, GPI, which looks more at satisfaction and happiness. There’s no doubt, yes, we need to change the way that we measure our success. At the moment, if you have a war, or if you have a flood and spend more money on repairing the flood damage, that shows that we’re doing better, when in actual fact we’re not. We need a better measure of our success.
You took out full page advertisements in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age recently to raise awareness of what we’ve been discussing; how was the response? Yeah, well, incredible. I’ve probably spent about one and a half million dollars on this campaign, starting off with my Grim Reaper-style television campaign, which was about world population. It’s been extraordinarily successful because now just about every day it’s in the media. I believe one of the major parties is going to crack. Before the next election, I believe you will find one of the major parties will have a population plan, and that’s all I’m looking for, it’s a democracy. Whereas a year ago there was simply no discussion, especially on the ABC. It’s interesting, you’d think the left – the left believers and the left media – would have population plan. No, they don’t. The Greens Party has no population plan because they automatically link it to xenophobia and to racism, and that has to be changed. You have to openly discuss all of these issues, and population is the most important one. I’ve gotta finish up now but I can tell you one very important thing, and that is that just about every problem we have in the world today is harder to fix with more people. That’s why you need to start living in balance like the rest of nature. There’s nothing in nature that has perpetual growth, other than perhaps cancer cells, and they often kill their host.
I’m going to ask you two more quick questions. The Beast is an Eastern Suburbs magazine, do you spend much time in the Eastern Suburbs? Do you have any favourite haunts around this neck of the woods? No, but I love the Eastern Suburbs. My rover scout master who loaned me the money to start my business and was best man at my wedding, Tony Balthasar – he lived in Buckhurst, which is at Point Piper – I used to go and see him all the time. He was on the fourth floor of the building and we used to abseil on ropes outside the building at night and jump from floor to floor as scouts going down the building. One day I missed and I swung in through a bedroom window of some poor lady, and as I swung in she gave scream – she was laying in bed – and then I swung out again and quickly got to the bottom into the garden of Buckhurst in Point Piper, and I quickly pulled the rope down and we ran up and turned all the lights off in Tony Balthasar’s unit. He was a top anaesthetist. Within about ten minutes the police arrived and I could hear the woman saying that this person swung through their bedroom window on a rope, and they just simply didn’t believe her! Then, at different times when I had a boat I always moored at Watson’s Bay and places like that. I mean, Sydney Harbour’s beautiful and the Eastern Suburbs are beautiful. It’s interesting how there it’s the wealthy people in the Eastern Suburbs who have prevented a lot of the buildings being knocked down to go to high-rise, but they are then investing in high-rise in the poorer suburbs. It’s better if we can try and keep people with the backyard and a place for the kids to play cricket in their own little private place where they can have a barbecue. It’s better if we can keep that in the whole of Sydney, not just in the Eastern Suburbs.
Well that’s just NIMBYism isn’t it, and it’s rife around here. No one wants a train to Bondi Beach… What was the last question? Because I’ve got to go.
The last question, the same question I ask everyone: In an ideal world, what does the future hold for Dick Smith? I’m very interested in finalising my aviation reforms because we could become the world leader in flight training. At the moment most of our pilots are going to have to come from Asia because we don’t have enough pilots being trained. The general aviation industry is normally being destroyed by a reckless bureaucracy that has just increased costs and red tape, so most of these smaller businesses go broke.
Is that to protect the incumbents? No, it’s not to do that at all. It’s just that there’s a bureaucracy that has become dysfunctional. They don’t admit that cost has to be looked at, which is just fact of life. Then, I’d like to see us have a population plan so we stabilise our population increase and then work on improving the wealth of typical working Australians, instead of just having more and more people, I think that’s impossible.
Thanks so much Dick… Thank you.
I only asked about three of the sixty-odd questions I’d planned to ask but maybe we can do a follow-up down the track… Rightio, thank you very much, bye bye.