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Population & sustainable development connection

Hon Steve Maharey
3 July 2003 Speech Notes

The population and sustainable development connection

Opening speech and launch of the Population and Sustainable Development 2003 report at the Population and Society Population Association of New Zealand 2003 conference. Ilam Function Centre, Student Union Building, University of Canterbury.


Tena koutou, it gives me great pleasure to join you here today.

I thank the Population Association of New Zealand for extending the invitation for me to open your conference today, and also launch a new report on population and sustainable development.

Your conference over the next two days – Population and Society – recognises the vital importance of population in the discussion of this country’s social, economic, environmental and cultural future. I very much value the opportunity to explore with you this morning the information that depicts what that future might be.

Will it be one of prosperity for the masses, or for the few?

What will we look like as a population?

What will be the opportunities, what will be the threats?

And, what will the role of government be?

These are burning questions for anyone involved in any aspect of planning for the future.

This future focus presents us all with an invaluable opportunity to examine where we are today and to determine the implications for our journey into the future. For to continue that journey without some common understanding of the destination, an agreed method of travel, is folly.

In the context of what I’m speaking on today, that folly is to continue forging ahead without regard for the impact of what we undertake today on the generations of tomorrow.

A continually developing nation

At the beginning of the 20th century New Zealand had a population of 800,000. Those aged under 15 years outnumbered those 64-years-and-above by eight-to-one. And more people lived in rural communities than in towns and cities.

Early in the 21st century our population reached four million. Those aged under 25 years outnumbered those 64-years-and-above by just two-to-one. And today finds us to be a nation of predominantly urban dwellers.

These population changes represent a considerable societal shift, especially given the relatively short period over which they’ve occurred. And the momentum of change is ongoing.

In taking office this government has accepted a commitment of responsibility, not only to today’s generation of New Zealanders, but also to those generations to come.

That commitment is to be realised through the adoption of the sustainable development approach.

Our starting point is the internationally recognised definition of sustainable development:

“… development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In creating a vision of what that means in New Zealand, this government wishes to build a land where diversity is valued and reflected in our national identity.

It wants New Zealand to be a great place to live, learn, work and do business; to be the birthplace of world-changing people and ideas.

And it wants this country to be a place where people invest in the future.

Divining a way to realise this vision requires us to take a long-term perspective. It requires us to address the potential consequences of our actions; taking account of the social, economic, environmental and cultural effects of our decisions.

It further requires us to look after people and to encourage participation and partnerships.

These are to be the immovable, overarching considerations in the decisions this government takes in navigating our country’s journey through the 21st century.

It is with these considerations in mind that Ministers asked for a report into the interaction of population issues and sustainable development in New Zealand.

That report is Population and Sustainable Development - the publication I’m launching here today. In doing so, I’d like to acknowledge my fellow Ministers of Economic Development, Labour, Immigration, and Environment and Urban Affairs, who have all supported the development of this report.

I’m particularly pleased to launch the report at this forum. Who better understands the implications of the critical issues that form the dialogue of this report?

For dialogue is what the Population and Sustainable Development report is about. What it is not, is a promulgation of specific policy solutions. Nor does it attempt to determine a desirable size for this country’s population.

Instead, it explores the challenges and issues that we as a nation of people will face.

Its purpose is to inform policy makers on population issues and to stimulate wide public discussion. We want to hear your views, your ideas, on these issues. Because we need your input to further shape the government’s sustainable development strategy.

Population trends

Population trends will significantly affect our ability to achieve sustainable development. Our ability to adjust to a growing or shrinking population, where we live, what we consume and what we produce, and the impact of human activities on the environment, all affect sustainability.

So what do we know of our likely future shape?

I’ll briefly cover some key population trends.

The significant population cohorts born in the 30-year period between 1943 and 1973 will heavily influence the trends that will become evident in our society in the decades ahead.

Of course, this cohort includes that well known ‘it’ generation - the baby boomers. And certainly this pin-up age group are the early pioneers of the changing landscape to come.

Without question, fertility is a key driver of the size and composition of a population. New Zealand has a relatively high birth rate compared with OECD countries. We’re currently still replacing ourselves. However, the fertility rate is in decline and is expected to fall to below replacement level.

The significant impact of this means that our population will continue to be small. It’s unlikely that we’ll hit the five million mark in the next 50 years. I see there are some debates to come at this conference about that. But even 10 million is still just a “city” in many places.

In our early history, the main focus of efforts to improve life expectancy concerned infant mortality. Today the greatest impacts on New Zealanders’ life expectancy will come from increasing longevity at older ages.

Currently, births still exceed deaths - by about 28,000 per year. But by about 2035 we’ll start to see this reverse.

A smaller population has positive features, for example it constrains the demands on our environment. A good thing, for sure. But it will also mean a continued struggle with domestic economies of scale and the ability to capitalise on the opportunities of the global knowledge economy.

Our ability to build prosperity within the framework of a small population will very much depend on how we use our human, physical, natural and social capital.

Some specific population issues

Looking ahead, then, we can see a shift from a population with a relatively high birth rate and shorter life expectancy to one of fewer births and longer life expectancy. This focuses the issues we are to face.

But let me first address the population issue that is getting the most attention.

A richer ethnic mix

New Zealand’s population is becoming more ethnically diverse.

Accurately capturing a picture of this country's ethnic mix is, by its very complexity, a difficult task. However, there are broad trends that we can draw from available statistics.

With an average younger age and higher fertility rates, Maori and Pacific populations are growing more rapidly than the non-Maori and non-Pacific populations.

Already a growing number of New Zealanders identify with more than one ethnic group. European and Maori is the most common mix, followed next by European and Pacific, and then Maori and Pacific. A high rate of childbearing from these relationships will increase the incidence of New Zealanders with mixed ethnicity.

However, the ethnicity of the New Zealand population is also becoming more diverse. As migrant patterns change we are seeing more immigrants from a broader range of countries than in the past.

The broader ethnic mix encourages exposure to a wider range of views, new products and services, a greater appreciation of the world in which we live.

The challenge for this country in the face of such change is to build connectedness both between and within ethnic groups.

Recent newspaper articles about attitudes to migrants were informed by focus groups. Fifty percent of those interviewed felt positive about migrants, saying they add to our culture and are good for our economy.

That, of course, leaves fifty percent who are less than comfortable with this.

There is a challenge for us in this.

An ageing population

New Zealand's population is ageing. Hardly news, I know. We've been talking about this for what seems like decades. However, despite a blip that saw an increase in births in the early 1990s, the sharper end of the wedge is now rapidly coming into view. In fact, the early 2010s will be a watershed for New Zealand. From then on is when we see the large cohort of baby boomers reaching their sixth decade and contemplating retirement.

We are not alone in facing this phenomenon. Over the next 25 years some 70 million people in OECD countries will retire from the workforce.

Just five million workers will replace them.

No PhD is required to see the problem here.

The implications are also quite clear. Worldwide, immigration polices will open up. It will become more difficult to attract and retain in-demand skills.

Just as vital are the quality of skills that our young people, that baby blip and beyond, attain, if they are to fully participate in society and the economy and support an older population.

Changing migration patterns

For the past two decades New Zealand citizens have become more mobile.

More New Zealanders have been leaving than returning every year since the early 1960s. The new phenomenon that emerged in the 1990s has been the substantial influx of other nationalities.

As the mobility of our population increases, we’re seeing a high population turnover.

Such a high population ‘churn’ is most significant amongst our working-age population. As a result, an increasing number of our working age population has been born overseas. In 2001, one-in-five was born elsewhere, a figure similar to Australia and Canada. In Auckland this was one-in-three. In the US and UK, it’s more like one-in-twenty.

Not only are New Zealanders keen international travellers, we’re also very mobile here within New Zealand. More than half the population moves address over a five-year period.

Many factors influence the impact of internal migration. One significant one is the different demographic characteristics of those arriving from those leaving. Any great differences create challenges across the board, from infrastructure and amenities to social and cultural interactions.

Regional development

While people leave New Zealand from all over the country, those arriving tend to settle in major urban areas, in particular Auckland.

A trend of our time, the popularity of Auckland as a region is not a completely new phenomena. In our history we have seen the rise of prosperous areas and their decline. From gold rush to viticulture, it has happened before.

It is the prospect of economic development that creates growing areas such as Auckland. Where the opportunities are, people soon follow.

Internal migration has significantly fuelled the burgeoning of our largest city in the past. This has now slowed, the most recent accelerant of growth being the settling of international migrants.

With infrastructure already under considerable pressure this continued growth raises concerns that such constraints will create barriers to further economic growth.

A challenge presented

It’s one thing to build a picture of how the New Zealand population will evolve, it’s another to understand what the changes mean.

A richer ethnic mix requires new thinking and new ways of doing if we are to take advantage of the opportunities that come with our increasing diversity.

The work of Professor Robert Putnam and others presents a challenge for us in this regard. In his recent visit to New Zealand, Professor Putnam stressed that the growing ethnic diversity occurring within countries will be a key social policy issue for the future.

His research shows that there is some evidence that communities with a greater degree of diversity have less social capital.

If this is true, the current challenge for New Zealand is to build social capital – the networks and norms of fairness and trust – as a bridge across ethnic communities, allowing participation of all in society and a flourishing economy.

The “us and them” dichotomy that is currently presented by some politicians and others is disturbing and only increases feelings of separatism - particularly in relation to immigration.

We want to live in a society where different ethnic groups do not suffer discrimination. To achieve this tolerance and acceptance is needed on all sides.

We also need agreement on the degree of diversity society desires. Our traditional attitudes, values and cultural practices will be challenged by this.

And we need agreement on the issues of debate. Any uneven impacts of change need to be balanced through education, and access to various institutions and networks.

We also need to focus much greater effort on building social connectedness. The issues that arise from a more diverse ethnic mix in New Zealand relate strongly to social and cultural capital.

Our relationships, at home, at work, at sports clubs and in the community, build relationships and forge links that unite people. The interactions between us are important for maintaining high levels of quality social capital, which means a thriving economy and society.

Our efforts in all these areas will need to be put into the context of the special place of Maori in New Zealand's population, as enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi.

Keeping language and culture alive will be a growing issue for Maori and other ethnic groups also, as they address the tension between integrating into New Zealand society and maintaining a connection with their heritage.

This is a collective challenge. For our part, government is responding with initiatives including a public information campaign on the Treaty of Waitangi and we are improving settlement policies for immigrants in an attempt to build social capital in our communities.

An ageing workforce will demand new ways of working. As the average age of the work force rises, organisational structures will need to change to accommodate new, more flexible modes of working.

Lifelong learning will be important as people remaining in the workforce for longer need to keep pace with technological and other advances.

Workplaces will have to be even more family-friendly as the number of working women with children increases to fill the demand.

We’ll need to compete globally to retain our working age population. Future generations of New Zealanders are likely to be even more mobile. They will spend some of their working life abroad.

We need policies that attract, retain, regain and use the skilled people we need for economic development.

We won’t be able to compete on income. Instead we’ll need to promote our competitive advantage such as education, the natural environment and lifestyle.

With greater numbers of our working age population born overseas we will need to address the challenge of their integration into society. We need to ensure migrants are able to put their skills and knowledge to use here, to achieve the potential they bring.

We need to address the ‘boom and bust’ of regional development. We especially need to address the infrastructure problems created by the disproportionate growth of some regions.

Such clumping of population creates significant challenge for development that is sustainable. Large influxes can occur rapidly but the development of infrastructure and amenities can not.

And we must address the problems of the regions that are shrinking as they lose their youngest and brightest, and struggle to raise the rates revenue to maintain their infrastructure.

We need to be mindful that policies intended to rebalance departures from a region can have unforeseen negative impacts. They can create disparities between existing and incoming residents.

We need to explore further the role of social development as the basis for solving problems. Where we seek to address the underlying causes of problems rather than throwing money at the symptoms.

We need to recognise there are very few one-size-fits all solutions; that all parts of a community need to be involved in building well being.

Government - providing the lead

Population trends in this country are ultimately the results of decisions made by individual New Zealanders. But these decisions are in turn influenced by this country’s economic, social and environmental conditions.

This government is interested in New Zealand’s changing population for several reasons.

Firstly, we care about outcomes. This means we need to take into account what population changes mean for quality of life, regional development and environmental enhancement.

Secondly, we are interested in the effectiveness of government interventions for particular population groups.

Finally, we care about social cohesion. Not just between different ethnic populations, but between young and old populations.

How can central government help?

Developing solutions to significant and complex social problems is not easy. At the very least it requires a long-term approach.

Ministers need to lead by improving their awareness of population change and its impacts.

That government agencies start with a clear and accurate understanding of population issues is vital. High quality public policy can only result from an understanding of relevant population issues and their causes and consequences.

Our understanding needs to extend the likely trends overtime and across generations. We need to know how these issues will affect policy and planning choices and what initiatives are needed to offset the undesirable effects that accompany change.

The risks associated with not recognising population issues or sufficiently taking them into account are high. And they carry financial implications, costs that will be borne by New Zealand citizens.

To assist us to provide high quality policy advice we are going to produce a practical resource for guidance on these issues.

The population issues guide is being developed as an information tool for policy and operational planners to support the use of up to date analysis of population issues. It will help government agencies identify where population issues are relevant and identify when to seek help from other agencies such as Statistics New Zealand. It will also point to useful resources.

The Ministries of Social Development and Economic Development, along with the Department of Labour, are currently working on the development of the guide.

The proposed guide and the Population and Sustainable Development report help us map the New Zealand experience, which is vital for us in the development of solutions for our unique situation.

I acknowledged the range and expertise of the New Zealand speakers at this conference. These include Professor Ian Poole who will speak on the very topical subject of “Does New Zealand need a population policy, and, if so, how would we meet that need?”

We can also learn much from the work of other countries facing similar challenges.

Over the next couple of days you’ll be hearing from colleagues about the changes they are experiencing in their countries including the United Kingdom and Australia. Professor Heather Joshi from the University of London will be addressing the issues surrounding the tension between family and work. Something of growing currency in this country. As with the other speakers I’m sure this will provide much needed food for thought and discussion.

An opportunity defined

Declining fertility, an ageing population, increasing global competition for working age people.

It sounds a bit bleak. It certainly makes you think hard about your own retirement planning.

In reality, it’s not so bleak. Provided we take heed of the future picture and identify now the actions we need to take while we still have a window of opportunity.

And in New Zealand we do have that window. The blip of 1990s babies offers us the potential to address the future problems we’ve identified in the Population and Sustainable Development report.

These children will be the labour market entrants of the 2010s and 2020s. We need to ensure our efforts are focused on their education – and on addressing their health and social barriers – so that they are well prepared to meet the challenges of the future.

And we need to do exactly the same for the generations of children beyond them. The future of our children and their children will depend on whether they have the capacity to meet these challenges. Foundation skills will determine the extent to which people will be able to fully participate in work and society.

Essentially, with an older population, less people in the workforce, with greater competition for skilled workers…every worker becomes more valuable.

To help meet the challenges of maintaining a skilled workforce, and address the other population issues raised in the Population and Sustainable Development report, we must adopt a more collaborative approach.

After this speech I'll being visiting a Work and Income Service Centre to talk about their Canterbury regional strategy to assist mature workers into the workforce.

Canterbury Work and Income are collaborating with employers to ensure mature jobseekers are seriously considered for the skills they have to offer, and are encouraging employers to retain their mature workers in the light of demographic information of the declining birth rates both in New Zealand and internationally.

This is a good model for a practical approach to the issues we're looking at today.

We also need to have a vision for the future that transcends the three-year political cycle.

We need to have a consensus on both the short and long term goals – a map that effectively directs the work of researches and policy analysts.

Policies must be grounded in quality information as we seek to realise our vision.

I would like to finish with a reflection on the apparent negative attitudes in society to our increasing ethnic diversity.

A successful nation will be one that has shared common norms across different ethnic groups, such as tolerance of diversity and acceptance of fundamental democratic values.

If New Zealand is to take advantage of opportunities arising from diversity, we need to change many of our traditional attitudes. This will require leadership from many sectors of society.

As the Prime Minister recently said, we are in a transitional phase. Given time, the chance to learn from each other, build understanding and relationships, I am sure we will make cohesive communities. Values and experiences will be shared and diversity valued.

On a government level, we are willing to debate immigration issues in a respectful way. We want the debate to be informed, balanced and free from prejudice, enabling everyone to be included. This is not a call for political correctness rather it is a call for honesty and better communication leading to successful settlement for new migrants.

Contributing to this open dialogue is the Human Rights Commission’s “We are all New Zealanders” campaign. Government has also invested $6.5 million in a public education campaign on the Treaty of Waitangi.


This conference is a positive and progressive step in our journey towards the future. The ideas and thinking you will share in, the opportunity to network with colleagues, all build the discussion that must take place if we are to meet the challenges ahead.

But for me, I don’t just want to meet those challenges. My wish, and that of my fellow Ministers, is that this country well and truly exceeds the bounds of them.

Finally, I recommend the Population and Sustainable Development report to you. I know you’ll find it a good read.

Thank you.


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