More than six decades ago Arthur Calwell, immigration minister in the Chifley Labor government, called on Australians to populate or perish. This reflected concern about Australia’s small population at the time of the Pacific War. The high immigration embraced by Ben Chifley after 1945 was shared by the Liberal Party leader Robert Menzies. When Menzies became prime minister in December 1949 he continued the policy.

As James Jupp notes in his contribution to Australia’s Immigration Revolution (Allen & Unwin, 2009), the only criticism of postwar immigration policy came from Bert Evatt, who led Labor in the 1950s. Evatt believed not enough British were being brought out to balance the increasing intake of Catholics from Europe. During the Menzies years, the Coalition and Labor agreed Australia needed a larger population for economic and national security reasons.

The title Australia’s Immigration Revolution suffers from the tendency to use the word revolution to describe change. In fact there has been little disagreement over immigration since 1945. The intake has been reduced during times of economic downturn most notably during the recessions of the early 1970s, the early ’80s and the early ’90s. But it has been increased to coincide with and contribute to economic recovery.

As the late Heinz Arndt pointed out, Australia’s most prosperous years were invariably accompanied by high immigration. This was so during the Coalition governments of the ’50s and ’60s and the governments led by Bob Hawke and John Howard from 1983 to 1991 and 1996 to 2007 respectively. The only exception was in the second half of the ’70s high immigration under Malcolm Fraser was accompanied by modest economic performance.

Essential bipartisan support for high immigration since 1945 is the prime reason why the policy has not been controversial. There has been some reaction to immigration during times of recession led by the far right and sections of the left usually reflecting economic protectionism. But for the most part, governments have not dwelt on immigration and oppositions have not contested it.

In reporting the outcome of the 2007 election for BBC listeners, the ABC reporter Rafael Epstein described John Howard as opposed to immigration. This was a serious error. The Howard government took a tough stance on asylum seekers, but the Coalition during the Howard years ran a high non-discriminatory immigration program. It was just that Howard and his immigration ministers did not make much of this.

It is here that Kevin Rudd’s approach and that of his Immigration Minister, Chris Evans is dramatically different. The Rudd Government reduced immigration in response to the global financial crisis but only marginally. Immigration levels remain high. Rudd has also proclaimed the need for a larger population and is the first prime minister to do so in the modern era.

On ABC TV’s The 7.30 Report on October 22 Rudd declared his belief in a big Australia. He also spelt out his position in an address to the Business Council of Australia last week. A big Australia, he said, is good for our national security, good for our long-term prosperity [and] good for enhancing our role in the region and the world. Rudd made these comments after acknowledging one of the conclusions of the forthcoming update of the Intergenerational Report (initiated by former treasurer Peter Costello). It predicts Australia’s population will rise 60 per cent to reach 35 million by 2049.

In an address in September the Treasury secretary, Ken Henry, said the projections of Australia’s population had increased due primarily to the greater number of women of childbearing age, higher fertility rates and increased net overseas migration. While acknowledging the population increase imposed many policy challenges, Henry said that when we get it right, population growth can be an important contributor to the overall economic well-being of Australia.

There is no doubt that high levels of immigration helped to sustain the economy during the global financial crisis. This along with almost three decades of economic reform helps explain why Australia has one of the strongest economies in the West. It also explains why predictions of the academic economist Steve Keen have proved so false so soon after they were made. Keen’s forecast of just over a year ago that housing assets would fall by 40 per cent or so in the next few years failed to take into account the shortage of land and housing supply in Australia along with the requirements of immigrants.

There is reason to be concerned about the affordability of housing in certain regions, particularly Sydney. This can best be resolved by opening up more land for development, easing development restrictions and reducing the power of public sector unions over transport. Greater competition in transport should increase supply.

There are quite a few Australians who have benefited from immigration but now want to see the population stabilise or decline. Support for this position is concentrated on but is not exclusive to the Greens. Rudd’s decision to support a large population is likely to increase the intensity of the anti-immigration lobby. But the benefits of his approach turn on the fact that it makes policy transparent.

The overwhelming majority of migrants are bright, hard working and make a positive contribution to society and the economy. Ethnic crime is relatively low and ethnic intermarriage relatively high.

Clearly immigration has worked for Australia. There is no reason why it cannot sustain 35 million people by 2049, especially in view of the likelihood of further technological development. Rudd’s decision to declare himself in favour of a big Australia is a political risk, but it’s a belief worth proclaiming.