Thursday, May 19, 2011

Bernard Salt is not a demographer.

How do we know? Because he has stated so himself, and in the strongest terms. And has implied that careless journalists are to blame for so describing him.
I was present when Bernard  Salt made a strong statement on this at the DAVOS Future Summit in Melbourne last year. I later mentioned it on the Australian population forum.
Since then, I’ve had emails from several people complaining that some journalists and some interviewers are still describing Salt as a “demographer”, and that they could not convince them this was wrong. I have been asked to post some factual information on the topic.
The following article has three parts:
1.    How we know that Bernard Salt is not a demographer
2.    Does it matter?  If so, why?
3.    How then can  Salt  best be safely or accurately described by those discussing his views or interviewing him?

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1.    How we know that Bernard Salt is not a demographer

Here are his own words from the DAVOS Future Summit  conference in Melbourne on 25 May 2010. 

 I’m not a demographer at all and I’m sure real demographers . . .  er . . .   I’m sure real demographers er  . . .   are ... are amused by that tag in the media. I’m actually a historian. I have a master’s degree in urban history, specialising in Australian urban history, so a very good sense of where we’ve come from and where we're going to.
Bernard Salt agreed to have the proceedings of his session at the Futures Summit recorded. I have transcribed his words (including the um’s and ahh’s) from the official recording of the proceedings.  His words were uttered in front of about 100 other persons, including Hugh Morgan and various other business identities. The Chair of the session was Jane-Frances Kelly, the Program Director of the Grattan Institute.

It’s worth hearing the MP3 audio of Bernard Salt saying these words --. Click on the blue video box below.


Salt’s words are clearly a non-retractable statement. If its author were to later turn around and say – Note I am not suggesting that he ever has or would do this – that he is a demographer after all, or that anyone is free to call themselves a demographer if they take a strong interest in Australia’s population statistics, then his reputation for integrity would be in tatters. 
The DAVOS statement makes it clear that Bernard Salt understands “demographer” (as most of us do) to mean a person who (a) has been trained in specialised mathematical and other academic skills that allow them to navigate (and to pilot us through) the complex world of population statistics, and who (b) is currently working in this area at a university or other genuinely independent and academic institute.

Salt clearly recognises that he cannot claim to be such a person, and says that real demographers must smile when they see him so described. (I understand he made similar remarks on another occasion, when speaking to demographers at ANU.)
In short, Bernard Salt is “not a demographer at all”. He could not have made it more plain.
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A  An alternative proof, at least for those who know a little demography, that Salt is not a demographer --- and indeed that he struggles with the mathematics of demography and seemingly with some of its basic concepts --- can be found here.  This alternative proof has the bonus of also making clear why it is important that such a person should not be presented as a demographer.

So just how much “careless journalism” have we been subjected to about Bernard Salt being a demographer?
I googled the phrase “demographer Bernard Salt” on 18 April 2011 and got “About 55,000 results”.
 The phrase  “Australia’s leading demographer Bernard Salt” got 79 results. (You may not be surprised that Google found the Property Council of Australia so describing him.)  And "leading Australian demographer Bernard Salt" got a further 62 hits. The vaguer "leading demographer Bernard Salt" got “About 2,260 results”.
That seems an awful lot of careless marketing (by organisations advertising talks by Bernard) and/or  careless journalism (mainly by editors and interviewers hosting Bernard Salt or his articles).
Yet a study of Salt's own Media Releases shows that they mostly do not include the claim to be a demographer. Many end simply with the statement “Bernard Salt is a KPMG partner”. How is it that so many radio and TV interviewers and newspaper sub-editors have got this wrong?  There might be an investigative story in this!
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P.S.:  A little more about that session at last year’s Future Summit where Bernard Salt stated “I am not a demographer at all”.
I was his debating partner in that session. It was structured as a 2-person debate on whether Australia should stabilise or (as he argued) should go on increasing its population.
Though well aware that he was not a demographer, I was very gentle with him. At 4 minutes into the debate I did put a little pressure on him by remarking: "Neither Bernard nor I are trained demographers, but we’re both good amateur demographers I think, and pick up on the statistics." 
That seeming compliment may have set his brain stewing, because, at 22.5 minutes in, without further prompting, he said, rather nervously for such a polished performer, In fact Mark is right. I’m not a demographer at all and I’m sure real demographers . . .   er . . .  I’m sure real demographers er  . . .  are amused by that tag in the media. I’m actually a historian. [etc., as quoted above]
 I made no comment. Considering that he had repudiated the image of himself as demographer, I thought it unkind to question the alternative claim that he was a historian or ask questions about how many articles he had published in peer-reviewed historical journals. (I understand he works for KPMG on identifying social and demographic trends, especially ones that may create business opportunities or influence property values — an area that is at least adjacent to historical research.)

2. Does it matter that  Bernard Salt is not a demographer?  If so, why?
I suggest it matters (a) because of what Salt is arguing, and (b) because he is not simply an expert or a researcher on the Big Australia debate but a close to full-time advocate.

Salt is a fluent producer of articles and talks arguing that Australia needs a bigger population.  As he reminds readers at the start of  an article in The Australian on 1 July 2010  titled A Small Australia means Big Taxes, “I should first re-declare my position as an unabashed supporter of a bigger Australia.” He also calls himself a “proponent” of Big Australia.   Salt's output of pro-growth articles is a remarkable feat, and makes him a major, perhaps even Australia’s major, advocate/public-lobbyist for rapid population growth. 

A very high percentage of all his published pieces are on this subject, and he has used a great variety of arguments for population growth. He has threatened us with high taxes, moral condemnation from (or even an invasion by) overpopulated foreign nations, social problems, crumbling of the pension system, resurgence of "White Australia", “a tsunami of ageing and demanding baby boomers”  and much more, if we do not accept “Big Australia”. (For detailed refutation of such claims, see the report of Population Minister Tony Burke’s Sustainable Development Panel  especially  pp. 24-27 and 37-40.)

 Salt’s many articles on this theme are very similar, but skillfully penned in such a way that each is sufficiently different to get published as a new and topical piece.

However a feature of his articles is that they offer few reasons for their conclusions. It often seems that (at least once sub-editors have added a description of him as “demographer Bernard Salt”) readers are expected to take his assertions on trust, because they are the assertions of a demographer or of a “leading demographer”.  This is why media descriptions of him as “demographer” get up the noses of those who disagree with his claims.

Take for instance the article mentioned above: A Small Australia means Big Taxes. Despite this title, Salt offers no compelling reason to think that a smaller Australia means larger taxes; and such reasoning as he does produce is entirely circular.

Here is as near as he comes to offering proof for his main contention, in all his 878 words:
Shouldn't [Population Minister Tony] Burke's brief be to examine what changes are needed in order to support the population (and tax) base we need to maintain our standard of living?

Naysayers never seem to apply their minds to finding solutions to congestion, water, power, housing affordability and infrastructure issues. Do you really think these issues will disappear with a significantly reduced rate of population growth?

I would also point out that those who oppose strong growth never fully explain the options: managed growth and moderate taxation; or low (or no) growth and raised taxation.

Contrast Dr Jane O’Sullivan’s article The Downward Spiral of hasty Population Growth (On Line Opinion, 8 March 2010), where there is careful weighing up and  laying out of evidence, plus rigorous economic argument of a sort not found in Salt’s articles. It leads her to a detailed and credible conclusion that recent levels of population growth in fact impoverish Australia and necessitate much higher taxes.

However there is one argument that Salt repeatedly uses (albeit not in the last-mentioned article). It is a demographic argument about the baby boomers, and if valid, would go far to make his case.

Salt claims the big bulge of the baby boomers is now reaching retirement age. Their old-age pensions will overload the smaller generations that follow them into the workplace, producing a shortage of workers and a need to increase taxes.  Hence, he claims, for much of the next 20 years we will need to continue with high immigration.

To save overloading this article, I have moved discussion of this claim to a new posting. See : Baby boomers retiring: Is there really a crisis? [Later note (23 June 2011): Salt has since been forced to withdraw the claim.]

There I argue that it's a myth, and based on bad demography. Yes, the Baby Boom was a bulge (followed by a notable constriction) in the fertility rate --that is, in the number of children per woman. But there was no such notable constriction in the size of the succeeding generations. "Generation X" and "Generation Y" are much the same size as the baby boomers. And with Australian women currently averaging 1.9 children, we seem headed for a continuation of roughly even-sized generations. Salt's Big Argument about the baby boomers seems bunkum.

Conclusion: Salt’s arguments for Big Australia are often based on dubious demography. Many, like this one, scarcely deserve discussion until some real demographer can be found to endorse them, rather than to dismiss them as one of the world’s most senior demographers appears to have done.

Complainants to the Australian Broadcasting Commission and other media have a real grievance, inasmuch as it is unlikely Salt’s claims would get such prominent coverage but for the misapprehension that he is a demographer, or a ”distinguished Australian demographer”.
  (For the prevalence of this misapprehension see “Henry Thornton’s blog”  16 March 2011)

3   How then can Salt best be safely or accurately described by those who are discussing his views or interviewing him.
Well, Bernard Salt works for KPMG. He can be described quite neutrally as “KPMG partner” or more informatively as “KPMG partner and Big Australia advocate”.
On his own webpage he cautiously avoids calling himself a demographer, and describes himself as “Business  Advisor, Author, Speaker, Columnist”. Also as a “trend forecaster” for business and government.  And as a KPMG partner based in Melbourne.
Elsewhere on his site he makes it clear that KPMG’s main interest in “demographics” is in the effects of population growth on property values. As he puts it:
KPMG’s Property Advisory Services practice is a ‘Centre of Excellence’ in demographics as it relates to the business sector. It is comprised of a team of seven specialists and is headed by Partner Bernard Salt. The practice sits within the Audit & Risk Advisory Services division of KPMG Australia.

KPGM , if you’re not in the business world, is a very big accounting firm. 
Doing the books for big developers can be very lucrative, and KPMG naturally enquired, some years back, if there were any other similar services its clients needed. The answer was predictable: most of them could use help with making the case (or doing research to make the case) for their all-important applications to get approval for projects.
Similarly, they could also use help with booklets and brochures for media campaigns to make their projects seem beneficial or inevitable, or both.
Bernard thrived as a researcher who could marshal arguments for growth, and who often gave these arguments body by including selected demographic statistics.  Many of these statistics, such as those that are available on the Australian Bureau of Statistics website, were quite sound. He would present the demographic facts in a way that supported development projects.
Take a look at Bernard Salt’s website, where he describes his and/or KPMG’s advisory services.  At, in words that require no comment, he writes of himself <quotation last checked 21 May 2011>
“Bernard Salt also writes on commission brief ‘article-like’ overviews of development projects. This work is often published by the client as a brochure or booklet. These one-off publications written by Bernard Salt often receive wider media coverage. To view these overviews please visit the Reports page.”

[STOP-PRESS:  Bernard Salt has responded swiftly to my drawing attention to this paragraph of his. My comments went up online  on 19 May 2011. On Saturday 28th I discovered that Salt had removed this paragraph from his "Advisory" page. It had been there for months if not years. However if you google phrases from it, you can still find it online in slighter older versions of the same website as cached by the various search engines. For instance, as of 2 June 2011, it could still be found here.  For more see my later posting  Bernard Salt in Damage Control.]

Among the samples anthologised on Salt's Reports page, you can find for instance the arguments he produced to justify what some would see as the destructive development of Merimbula, a pleasant seaside town on the South Coast of NSW.
This piece, paid for by the Carrington group, is titled  “Marvellous Merimbula”. It contains some demographic and financial research, though with a strong brochure-ish feel, including praise of a proposed development’s leading-edge architectural design and a finding that it will provide the town with desirable “beach chic”. The main point of the research is clear from the final paragraph:
 Merimbula is a pretty Cinderella town that has to date been overlooked by the property industry. Merimbula is a town whose time has finally come.
[STOP-PRESS:  Also by 28 May 2011, the "Marvellous Merimbula" report had vanished from the Reports page. However you can still (as of 29 May) find it online from the link 2 paragraphs below.  [Later note: By 2 June, Bernard had removed even this page. There's not much doubt he's reading my blog.] For more on this, see again my later posting  Bernard Salt in Damage Control.]

Bernard Salt does I think believe, in general, in the pro-growth propaganda he creates; but it is also the side his bread is buttered. A feature of his debating style is that quite far-fetched arguments are pressed into service, so long as they support either specific developments or the general principle that we need ever more people and projects to keep our economy humming.

Many in the property “industry” and other trades that thrive on growth find Salt’s vision “inspirational”.  However he is a champion and a polemicist rather than an academic expert, and (as suggested above)  his arguments may not stand up to objective examination.  Hence it is wrong to describe him as a demographer, which implies an independent academic expert.

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An important question remains. How did the myth of Bernard Salt being a demographer take root? I suggest a possible answer can be found in Bernard Salt’s Media Release of 9 December 2009, which contains the flat statement “Bernard Salt is Australia’s best-known demographer.”
It seems likely the poor fellow is being sabotaged by some careless personal assistant at KPMG who calls him a demographer.  Perhaps the same person is also responsible for carelessly calling him a demographer here.
Interestingly, a google search for the phrase “Australia’s best known demographer Bernard Salt” gets only one hit (from Stephen Mayne in the Mayne Report).  It seems that careless journalism is not always easily triggered.
Anyway, let us all hope that Bernard can get on top of this terrible problem, and present himself to the world as what he is: a KPMG business consultant, or more specifically a business opportunities researcher who also “writes on commission brief ‘article-like’ overviews of development projects”, and an unashamed member of Australia’s growth lobby.



For those who would like to hear some or all of the 1 hour debate between Bernard Salt and myself at the Futures Summit (where he made the admission about not being a demographer) you can click on these URL's

Debate: Bernard Salt - Mark O'Connor Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:


  1. Bernard Salt certainly isn't shy about calling himself a demographer on his facebook page


  2. I find this quite interesting, but then, I am not a demographer either.