Gillard rejects 'big Australia'
June 27, 2010
PRIME Minister Julia Gillard has declared she does not believe in a ''big Australia'', signalling a major shift in policy on the nation's burgeoning population growth.
In her first significant policy break from the Rudd-era, Ms Gillard said the nation should not ''hurtle down the track towards a big population''.
''I don't support the idea of a big Australia with arbitrary targets of, say, a 40 million-strong Australia or a 36 million-strong Australia. We need to stop, take a breath and develop policies for a sustainable Australia.
''I support a population that our environment, our water, our soil, our roads and freeways, our busses, our trains and our services can sustain.''
Australia's growing population has become a politically sensitive issue, and Ms Gillard pointedly targeted her comments to marginal voters in outer suburban seats.
''If you spoke to the people of Western Sydney, for example, about a big Australia,'' she said, ''they would laugh at you and ask you a very simple question: where will these 40 million people go?''
Treasury's Intergenerational Report earlier this year predicted Australia's population would rise from about 22 million to 35.9 million in 2050 if current trends in overseas migration and fertility continued, with immigration by far the biggest contributor. Melbourne was predicted to hit 7 million people, and Sydney would grow to more than 7.5 million.
The report caused widespread unease about whether big cities, now straining under inadequate infrastructure, could cope.
Then prime minister Kevin Rudd backed away from his earlier comment that he favoured a ''big Australia'' by appointing Tony Burke as Population Minister to develop a strategy.
Ms Gillard said Mr Burke's job description would now change to ''send a very clear message about this new direction''. He would now be known as the Minister for Sustainable Population.
Although Ms Gillard stressed her belief that population growth should be limited was ''not about bringing down the shutters in immigration'', any move to lower current rates would involve taking in significantly fewer immigrants.
Last year, overseas migration added almost 300,000 people – about double the rate of natural increase accounted for by births and deaths.
Australia's population has been growing faster than some developing countries, including the Philippines, Malaysia, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.
''It is a debate about planning affected by many factors, water supply, open space, infrastructure, ensuring the appropriate tax base to support our ageing population the need for skills and the need to preserve a good quality of life,'' the new PM said.
The opposition has no clear policy on immigration levels, but immigration spokesman Scott Morrison has suggested 300,000 a year is too high. It has also tried to link the population debate to a rise in the number of boats carrying asylum seekers. Ms Gillard will face new scrutiny over the government's policies after another boatload was intercepted near Christmas Island last night. Ninety-six asylum seekers and three crew were aboard.
Earlier, Ms Gillard suggested the government could pursue different immigration policies for different parts of the country.
''Australia has this very difficult problem – parts of Australia are desperate for workers, but other parts are desperate for jobs.
''Having a smart and sustainable population, coupled with the right skills strategy, will help improve this imbalance.''
Any move to cut significantly Australia's migration intake would anger business groups, which support strong population growth to keep the economy growing and fix skills shortages.