Selling the benefits of greater housing density is no easy task whether you are a planner, developer or a state government.

Yet never has the need been greater in the face of Australia’s rising population, the infrastructure backlog and the impact of climate change. Planning for burgeoning population is at the front of our federal politicians’ minds ahead of the release of the fifth Intergenerational Report in the next few weeks.

One of the greatest challenges facing the advocates of more housing and greater density is the need to link it the broader population debate and create a social licence to act. The public is told we need greater housing density to cater for the population projections and that every area must accommodate its share of higher density housing such as apartments and townhouses.

Not surprisingly an increasingly cynical public are unmoved by arguments about the need for greater housing intensity, without having first being consulted about what the right level of growth is for Victoria and Australia’s future.

For all the thousands of words written about population growth very little time has been dedicated to having an honest national conversation about the best population rate for our country, and how to manage the opportunities and inevitable impacts.

The fact that the Commonwealth sets the immigration rate but the states have to accommodate the newcomers is one of the many quirks of federation, but also blurs the issue in the public’s mind. The levers for accommodating and managing the growth are largely held at the state government level – planning and housing policy, the bulk of funding for public transport, services and other infrastructure.

Federal MP Andrew Giles argues that the Commonwealth needs to play more of a role in shaping the debate around growth in our cities,  writing: “We cannot afford to hide behind the complexities of our federal system, or the limited direct policy levers at the disposal of the Commonwealth when the stakes are so high.”

Most people are alarmed by road congestion, lack of access to public transport, rising house prices and the long waiting lists for child care, schools and local doctor appointments. The last thing they want is to add to that pressure. Cue the rise of the NIMBY culture and knee-jerk reactions to growth and development.

Fuelling these emotions are the oft-overstated potential benefits and costs of population growth. In a speech to the Lowy Institute last year, federal MP Andrew Leigh detailed the matching scare campaigns, saying a serious conversation about population growth, “risks being derailed by those who caricature their opponents to score a cheap point.”

A bigger population will create greater economic growth and act as a buffer to our ageing population. It will provide access to a larger and more skilled workforce, and a greater pool of consumers and taxpayers. There are benefits related to cultural diversity, international exchanges and a greater understanding of those in our region. The rise of entrepreneurship, greater vibrancy and the influx of skilled migrants are also huge bonuses.

If we want Victorians and Australians to support greater population growth, we need to make the case for it.

To begin a national conversation about density and population there are three key steps we must take.

First, we need to analyse population data on growth trends for all regions in Australia. A sober assessment of the likely growth trends would inject facts and hard data into the debate and dispel some myths along the way – for instance it is not asylum seekers clogging up the roads given they are a small percentage of our overall intake.

Only when we have the best available figures then can we have a reasoned debate about the right level of population and where to distribute that population. We also need to be realistic about the notion we can send all migrants to regions with a declining population or labour shortages. History tells us that migrants gravitate towards cities and large regional centres – quite simply where the jobs are, not where they used to be.

Second, we must not ignore the key constraints and public perceptions about the negative side of growth and density – from congestion and infrastructure deficiencies to environmental constraints such as water supply to potential racial unrest.

We know an increase in population will put strain on our infrastructure:  our schools, hospitals and transport system.  We know that our cities and their suburbs are creaking at the edges and that many people are rightly concerned that an increased population will only exacerbate it.

Land use and infrastructure planning must be comprehensively linked and the infrastructure shortfalls faced head on. Bipartisanship and political leadership will be required to look at new and creative funding options to extend or build new infrastructure. There needs to be more discussion like the Property Council’s investigation of new ways to fund and finance infrastructure.

Third, whilst the population increases are largely driven by the immigration rate there is also a role for supporting family-friendly policies to encourage an increase in the birth rate through high-quality and affordable child care, and support for part-time work.

A national debate will also mean squarely facing the undercurrent of racism that exists in some quarters, in addition to public mistrust of government and business motivations that undermine support for growth and density.

In 2015 we can only arrive at a population or density target after a comprehensive public engagement process has been undertaken that is led by government – and supported by business and community organisations. Only a broad coalition advocating for population growth, density and matching services and infrastructure will be able to carry such a controversial debate.

Consolidating our population, meeting our infrastructure needs, and protecting our much-envied lifestyle do not have to be incompatible goals. What we need is the leadership from all parts of our community to create the social licence to act. Without strong leadership, attempts to grow the population and consolidate its location will continue to be met by growing public fear and protest.