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Philip Howell's Brilliant New System to decide how many people Australians want: "We will decide"

A New South Wales lawyer, Philip Howell, has written a brilliant new democratic strategy to decide from the local level upwards, how big we the people want Australia's population to be. As a population sociologist who compares international systems on this matter, I am really impressed and can only encourage everyone to support this man's remarkable contribution to our democracy and wellbeing. Look at his site for more detail on reforming our constitution.

The original site, along with the reasons for the proposal is to be found here: The We Will Decide Proposal

This section describes how the proposal will operate in practice. Further details are provided in the Explanatory Notes.

The Purpose

1. The aims of the We Will Decide proposal are:
- To give people control over the population density in their residential area, by preventing development in that area which would allow the population to grow by more than the people want. People have a legitimate self-interest in controlling the scale of development in their local area.
- To provide a connection between the number of migrants and the preference of the people for more or fewer people in their area. The number of migrants permitted to enter the country in Australia’s self-interest will be restricted by reference to the total of the local decisions made by people about the population in their area.
- To continue to allow the Commonwealth Government to determine the number of migrants permitted to enter the country pursuant to our international obligations.

The Process

2. In the online census form for 2016, any respondent whose answers confirm that he or she:
- Is over 18; and
- Has a usual residence;
will be asked a new question, namely:
‘Would you like to comment on how many people should live in your area?’
Where an online form is submitted for more than one respondent - for example all members of a household - each person submitting the form who is above the age of 18 will be asked the new question. A negative answer to the question would be recorded, and the respondent would continue on with the census form. An affirmative answer to the question would generate a unique code linking each individual respondent with the Statistical Area Level 1 (“SA1") in which his or her usual place of residence is situated.

3. Each respondent would have 14 days to log in to the ABS’s We Will Decide website using the unique code. On logging in, the respondent would be presented in sequence with 3 screens:

Screen 1 will describe what the respondent will be asked to do. View the text of the screen here: Screen 1.

Screen 2 will display a map of the area about which the respondent will be asked to make a decision. It will be based on the Statistical Area Level 1 (SA1) in which the respondent’s usual residence is located. The size of the area will depend on whether the respondent’s SA1 is classed as urban or rural by the Bureau of Statistics. In summary:
- Those living in residential areas classed as urban, or in commercial areas, will decide in relation to an area comprising their own SA1 and each adjoining SA1 which is in the same Statistical Area Level 2 (SA2).
- Those living in areas classed as rural will decide only in relation to their own SA1.
The reason these areas have been selected is explained here: Determining the Area. The text of the screen may be viewed here: Screen 2.

Screen 3 will allow the respondent’s decision to be recorded. It will show the area’s present population and ask the respondent to select a percentage change between negative 2.0% and positive 2.0% which represents the respondent’s preference for the rate of increase or decrease in that area’s population over the next five years. The selection will be made by from radio buttons or check boxes on a number line, divided at intervals of at least 0.2. (Intervals of 0.1 would be better, but may not fit easily across smaller screens.) The text of the screen is here: Screen 3. Note that the respondent is shown rates of change per year and asked to decide on an annual rate of increase or decrease.

The Results

4. Locally: Results of the people’s decision as to the level of any increase or decrease will be calculated separately for each SA1 across the country. The calculation will be made as follows:
- The response from each respondent who makes a decision about an SA1 will be recorded as a decimal number; for example, an increase of 0.2% will be recorded as plus 0.2, and a decrease of 1.5% will be recorded as minus 1.5.
- All responses will then be added.
- The total will then be divided by the number of responses.
- The result will be a decimal number between minus 2.0 and plus 2.0.
This number will express the rate of population change per year which people living in that area wish to occur throughout the next five years. This will be the People’s Decision at a Local Level.

5. Nationally: The percentage change decided for each area at the Local Level will be applied to the current population of that area to determine the numerical increase or decrease preferred in that area. The country-wide total of those local numerical increases or decreases will be the Peoples’ Decision as to the extent to which Australia’s population should increase, decrease or stay the same.

Using the Results

6. Locally: The impact of the Peoples’ Decision at Local Level will vary depending on the area under consideration. In general, the intention is that development which would permit the population of residential areas to change contrary to the wishes of the people in that area would be prohibited. To ensure some flexibility, this would be implemented as follows:
- In areas classed as residential, more intense residential development would be prevented if its effect would be to increase the population by more than permitted by the people’s decision. Extensions to existing dwellings, or their replacement with larger dwellings would not be classed as ‘more intense’, but any development of dual occupancies, villas or flats in place of a lower density dwelling form would generally be prevented, unless the development did not increase the overall population in the area. Proposals for less intense development could use the people’s decision as a reason why the development should be approved.
This prohibition could be subject to a proviso. If fewer than 10% of the people in an area participated in the We Will Decide process, the prohibition would not take effect. The decision of those who responded could be treated in the same way as for non-residential areas.
- Some people live in areas classed as commercial, industrial or rural. In such non-residential areas, the people’s decision would not be binding on Government. It would merely be another factor which could be taken into account when development applications are considered.
This would permit Governments to change commercial, industrial and rural areas to residential, or to increase the number of residences in those areas if necessary. So it would still be possible, for example, for Governments to permit residential flats in commercial areas near to major transport routes, up until the point at which the area became mainly residential, after which the people would decide.
There will be no other local impacts. No-one will be forced to move if the people vote to have a lower population. There will be no restrictions on the movement of people at all. The only restrictions will be on development which would permit a change in population density which the local people do not want.

7. Nationally: The People’s Decision for Australia will become the prime (but not exclusive) determinant of the number of people permitted to migrate into Australia.

The migration intake which the Government announces each year deals with people who will be permitted to stay for 12 months or more. In future, existing visa categories which permit entry for more than 12 months would be divided into two groups.
- A National Interest category, comprising all those who are brought in to serve Australia’s self interest. This would include skilled, business and student migrants, family re-union entrants, working holiday makers and so on.
- An International Obligations category, comprising those we permit to enter for selfless reasons, or because of existing treaties and arrangements with other countries. Mainly this group would include refugees and those admitted for humanitarian reasons, plus New Zealand citizens, who have for decades been granted free access (with reciprocal rights for Australians who move to New Zealand).

Each year a National Interest calculation would be made. From the number representing the People’s Decision for Australia (see point 5 above), the following would be subtracted:
- The expected natural increase (i.e. births minus deaths), assuming current fertility and mortality rates are equal to the average for the previous five years; and
- The expected number of migrant departures, assuming that the rate of departure remains the same as the average over the last five years.
The figure remaining would indicate the number of new visas which could be issued to new migrants each year. An adjustment would then be made to take account of the propensity of some potential migrants to obtain a visa but then not travel to Australia.

In summary, in mathematical terms:

People’s Decision minus expected natural increase minus expected migrant departures equals new National Interest visas which can be issued (propensity adjusted).

If the result of the calculation is zero or negative, the Government would be prevented from issuing visas in National Interest category for that year, because the people would have decided that it was not in their interests to admit more people that year. If the result of the calculation is positive, the Government would be able to issue visas in any of the National Interest categories up to the number permitted by the Peoples’ Decision, taking account of the propensity of some migrants not to take up the offer of a visa.

We Will Decide would have no effect on the International Obligations category. The Government would still decide the refugee and humanitarian intake, and New Zealanders would come and go as they please, as Australians do in relation to New Zealand.


8. From the time a decision is made to introduce the We Will Decide proposal, migration levels should be reduced dramatically, pending a trial of the proposal. Assuming in-principle adoption in 2013, it should be possible to run a voluntary trial of the proposal in 2015 which can be used to guide the migration intake from then. The next census will occur in August 2016. The We Will Decide process will formally take effect when the census results become available in early 2017.

9. We Will Decide can be introduced without amending the Census and Statistics Act. A new regulation under s.8(3) of the Act would however need to be made and placed before each House of Parliament.

10. The People’s Decision for Australia could be implemented by the Commonwealth Government voluntarily following it when formulating the migration intake each year, but it would be far better for the changes to be implemented by amendments to the Migration Act.

11. The Commonwealth Parliament could impose the People’s Decision at a Local Level on the Territories, but has no power over planning and development within the States. The most it could do there would be to authorise planning authorities at all levels to take the People’s Decision into account, using the incidental power in s.51(xxxix) of the Constitution.

Implementation at a State level would require the co-operation of State Parliaments, which would need to amend their planning laws.

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We will Decide

We Will Decide will give individuals some control over development in the area in which they reside. Whether a residential area should house more or fewer people should be decided by those who presently live there.

Secondly, it will establish a connection between the people’s preference for a higher or lower population in their area and the number of migrants brought into the country in Australia’s self-interest. Some people are allowed to enter the country in fulfilment of our international obligations; for example, refugees and those admitted for humanitarian reasons. These people form only a small proportion of our migrants. The majority of migrants are brought here because the Commonwealth Government considers it is in our national interest for them to be here.

Instead of the Government deciding what is in our self-interest, We Will Decide allows the people to decide for themselves whether having more people in their area is actually in their interests. Decisions concerning our international obligations will continue to be made by the Commonwealth Government.

There is an application to review a covenant. In the current undemocratic climate where development takes precedence over civil rights, what are the chances of the covenant's intention being honoured?

Here is an example of why we need democratic representation on building permits at local government level. The resolution of the problem below is going to rely on a one-off interpretation of some old Norman English with respect to the mispelling of the old French for 'household' (messuage). Several blocks of houses have relied on the same covenant to preserve relatively low density living and green and open space. The potential overturning of a covenant or its reinterpretation into an opposite meaning is a serious problem:

certificate of Title Vo.07575 Fol. 099
THIS NOTICE is given by order of the Supreme Court of Victoria

TAKE NOTICE that Mr. Peter Stoops ("the Plaintiff") has applied to The Supreme Court of Victoria in proceeding No.S Cl 2013 2893 for a declaration as to the proper constrution of a restrictive covenant contained in Instrument of Transfer 1770776 ("restrictive covenant"), burdening part of the land. Two of the four constraints in the restrictive covenant allow the errection [sic] of 'one messuage' on the land, wihc can only be used for 'residential purposes only'. The Plaintiff interprets the words of the restrictive covenant to allow the erection of one building, with 'internal communication', containing one or more, self contained residential units.

TAKE FURTHER NOTICE that any person who is entitled to the benefit of the covenant and who intends to oppose the Application should

1. Give written notice to the Plaintiff, Mr. Peter Stoops, 2 Fenton Crescent, Frankston Sout, Victoria 3199, by the 18th August 2013; and
2. Appear in Associate Judges' court No.2. Ground Floor, Supreme Court, 436 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne on 9 September 2013, at 10.30am.

If no person appears the Associate Judge may make a declaration as to the proper construction of the "restrictive covenant" burdening "the land".

Copies of all documents relating to this application are in the possession of the Plaintiff, who will, on request in writing, provide any further information sought. Only one set of costs may be allowed in respect of objectors to the Application.