Bernard Salt: The sum of us

Bernard Salt describes himself as "obsessively, fiercely, dangerously competitive."

Australia's best-known demographer understands what makes Australia tick. So what makes him tick?

Demographer Bernard Salt first showed a fascination with history before he turned 10. Rather than curiously quiz his parents for information about their past and how he came to be, Salt says, he cross-examined them with the most forensic of questions.

He left his isolated, working class upbringing in rural Victoria to become one of the most popular and provocative social commentators and advisers to government and business in Australia and, increasingly, around the world.

Salt has taken demography from the hallowed halls of academia and made it sexy. His third book, Man Drought, identifies, among other things, the “bachelor hotspots” in Australia. He can tell you all you need to know about sea-changers, tree-changers, what happened 50 years ago and hypothesise about the next 50 years.

While all that is interesting and feeds popular opinion, Salt has a defiant streak that may make many of Australia’s leaders uneasy. He says they don’t have the guts to speak up and do what’s right for the nation, which has become anti-growth, anti-development and anti-business as a result.

This worries him deeply, as Alex Malley learned when they met in Sydney recently.

Malley: Was the young Bernard Salt a storyteller?

Salt: The young Bernard Salt was very inquisitive, asked a lot of questions – forensically so – with obsessive interests and an obsessive interest in history, in what came before. I would almost interrogate or cross-examine my parents about the war, war rationing and the Depression. I had a good understanding early on of why I came to be in that place at that time.

Malley: Do you think your interest in history stemmed from a desire to find a formula for the future?

Salt: I had this compelling desire to understand why I was where I was. Mum and Dad had me when they were 30. Dad fought in the war [World War II] and they had been through the Depression. Interestingly, my parents met during the war and they saw each other six times between meeting and engagement. Nobody would do that today. Nobody would make a commitment to life after having met someone six times. It was a different era, different values and that’s the sort of thing that just fascinates me.

Malley: Describe the Salt family.

Salt: The Salt family, for me, was growing up in the 1960s. I was number five of six children, a big Catholic family. I remember asking Dad once what class we were because I’d seen something on television and he said: “We’re working class, of course we’re working class.” A year later I asked Dad if he went to university and he said, “No, only rich people go to university”. At that moment I thought, “I’m going to university”.

I was the only sibling to get a university degree. I was fortunate in that I went through what was known as “Whitlam’s window”; I turned 18 two years after Whitlam came in and tertiary education was fee-free. Although I still say, regardless, I would have done whatever was required to get there.

It’s interesting, it wasn’t until I was in my early 20s – I grew up in a small country town in western Victoria in a housing commission house – and I remember being completely dumbstruck by the fact there were people from that town, my age, who went away to school. Why would you go away to school? There was a perfectly good high school there. And they went to schools like Scotch and Grammar [in Melbourne]. I had no idea these places existed, so insular and isolated was I. When I realised that, it was almost like a parallel universe. Initially I was angry about the injustice of it, and I thought, “I’ll bloody well beat those guys from Scotch and Grammar”.

"I want people with real vision, real strength and real ability to run my country. At the moment they're running corporations. I want them in the political process." -Bernard Salt

Malley: So there was a competitive soul in the midst of all this.

Salt: Obsessively, fiercely, dangerously competitive from an early age in sport and in business and determined to get ahead.

Malley: How did you fall into the wonderful world of demography?

Salt: Schoolteachers were the only people I had exposure to in my small country town. So I went to university to become a history and geography teacher. I also did some courses in earth sciences, climatology and geology, so there’s a science background as well. My background in geography led me to demography.

I never taught, I went straight on and did a masters in the history and geography of Melbourne in the 1880s – which, believe it or not, I still draw on. It has given me extraordinary depth in understanding urban growth, urban development, social change over the course of a century.

In my early consulting career in the late 1980s I remember CEOs who were obviously used to hearing advice from an accountant, a lawyer or an MBA who would talk about this quarter or next quarter. I’d turn up and talk about “50 years ago we were doing this and now we’re doing that and in 50 years we’ll probably be doing this”. No one had spoken to them in terms of big picture trends and being able to cite evidence five, 10, 15, 20 years ago.

I also learnt very quickly that CEOs are like sharks. You need to be right on the ball and get straight to the point and hold their attention. If you wander off topic, if you’re irrelevant, if you ramble, if you are self-absorbed, if you don’t commercialise what you have to say, then what the hell are you doing there? Get out!

Alex Malley and Bernard Salt discuss the current state and the future of the Australian economy.

Alex Malley and Bernard Salt discuss the current

state and the future of the Australian economy.

Malley: What are the trends you see now that worry you about Australia?

Salt: There are a couple of things. It’s almost like there’s a national psychosis or psyche that we’ve evolved over the past 10 years or so.

One is the glorification of victimhood. Everyone’s a victim. In the office, out of the office, at home. I’m a working class kid from a country town with bugger-all opportunity, I don’t see myself as a victim and it’s only because I don’t see myself as a victim that I’ve been successful in what I do. Any time anyone applies any pressure or sense of authority, then people put up their hand and say, “I’m being bullied. I’m a victim here”. What crap! Grow up, get out there, make it happen, be responsible for yourself and get ahead.

The second thing is anti-growth, anti-development, anti-business to the point that business has been psyched out of speaking up. Where are the people speaking up for prosperity, for jobs, for growth, for development, for growing the pie? I’ll have one-on-ones with CEOs and they will say behind closed doors, “I can’t speak out because people target the group, or it upsets the board”.

By CEOs remaining silent, you’re actually feeding this anti-growth, anti-development, anti-prosperity psychology. The problem is that you can do it for a while, but eventually, it erodes our competitive position. Other countries don’t have this problem.

Malley: Why do you think leaders today have lost the confidence their predecessors had?

Salt: Because middle Australia has a voice now through social media and, if I’m brutally honest, I think the anti-growth Green campaign over the past 30 years has taken its toll with the mums and dads, people in middle Australia. They are scared, they react negatively to growth and development then complain about lack of affordable housing, congestion and so forth.

We haven’t had enough champions of growth and prosperity speaking up over the past 20 years. I think it’s the responsibility of the business councils and CEOs of the top 100 and 200 [companies] to actually speak out for growth, for development, for prosperity, for appropriately managed expansion of the Australian economy.

Malley: Will that change organically?

Salt: The way this will play out is our cities will stultify, grind to a halt. You look at Melbourne. Melbourne needs another Westgate Bridge. Can you imagine? It’s like the second airport for Sydney. Where is it going to be built? What are the approach roads? Will there be tunnels? How much does it cost? Should it go to rail? No politician has the guts to make that happen. The city will grind to a halt as a consequence. Sydney will lose its status as a global city because it has one piddling airport, when any other decent global city has two, three or four. London has four. In 2030 or 2040, Sydney will be a backwater in terms of doing business or tourism and trade.

Malley: Australia’s proximity to Asia and its need for knowledge in the past 20 years means Australia has been fertile ground. What demographically are we missing in relation to our positioning for the future?

Salt: The great disadvantage we have in relation to our emerging middle-class Asian neighbours is that they are not hamstrung by anti-growth, anti-development sentiment. They’re able to get on with it, they’re able to envision and deliver projects. We are not able to do that. It’s almost like we’re rich people who have become so self-obsessed, so sensitive, that we are unable to make the real decisions and our neighbours, who were once poor, are becoming richer and more enabled, will pass us by.
We will get by for the next 20 to 30 years on our resources, energy, commodities and food. But beyond that, in the middle of the century, we are simply a resource, simply something to be tapped, because the real intellectual power of this hemisphere is actually based in Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong. Not in Sydney and not in Melbourne.

Malley: When is the political career going to start?

Salt: I’m interested in shaping the political process. I see myself more as an adviser, influencer, rather than being out there and copping the flak. In terms of our politicians, they are paid a pittance. In private discussions with CEOs, we all agree politicians are paid poorly for the crap they have to put up with. If we keep doing that, we’ll breed not second tier, but third tier people actually running the country on a populist agenda, too scared to do anything that upsets the electoral cycle.

I’m sorry, I want people with real vision, real strength and real ability to run my country. At the moment they’re running corporations. I want them out of the corporations and I want them in the political process.

Malley: How are you viewed within your profession and where do you see it going?
Salt: Initially, I think I was viewed with amusement, because the only demographers are academic demographers. Then they were angry that I was taking all this attention and dumbing down and popularising the noble science of demography. And then they started to embrace it, because I made it interesting and even sexy. So they’re at the fourth stage, where I’m being embraced.

Bernard Salt on:

The Digital Age

The smartphone has changed management and business totally and irrevocably – forever. My father worked five days, Monday to Friday, nine to five. I work 24/7. If I’m in a hotel and I wake up at 2am, I’ll check [my phone] and I’ll check it on my way out today. So smartphones mean you’re always working. But are you working 100 per cent or just checking things?

The other way the internet has changed life is through social media and social media campaigns. You can’t ignore the power of social media at a board level anymore. It has a profound impact on the way we behave.


Barack Obama has to be one of this generation’s greatest orators, without question. I admire [former Victorian premier] Jeff Kennett, I admire [former Australian treasurer and prime minister] Paul Keating, he revolutionised this country in the 1980s and 1990s. Kennett did the same thing for Melbourne and Victoria – made it competitive.

I don’t think that leadership qualities are really brought to the fore in a hung parliament [such as Australia has].

There are some brilliant long-term thinking minds in Australia. People such as Phil Ruthven from IBIS, Geoffrey Blainey, who came up with The Tyranny of Distance at the age of 27, Michael Chaney and Don Argus in business. The classic people who have run big companies successfully over a long time.

I just wish we had that ability to get that sort of talent into the political process. Even if we start now, it’s a generation away.

This article is from the February 2013 issue of INTHEBLACK.

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