Gillard first to pull population lever
Paul Kelly, Editor-at-large
From: The Australian
July 21, 2010 12:00AM
JULIA Gillard's comments yesterday put the issue beyond doubt — she is the first Prime Minister to seek election on the platform of a smaller growing Australia and rejects the current growth model as “irresponsible”.
It seems Gillard's over-arching election strategy is to slow Australia's population growth, a populist pitch long available to Australia's leaders and long resisted.
In the 60-plus years of postwar immigration, infrastructure investment has lagged people arrivals. It always does and it always will. This argument could have been deployed at any time in history to slow population growth but Gillard is the first Prime Minister to pull this lever.
Labor has decided on a poll-driven approach to probably Australia's most important public policy achievement in its first century.
The issue is not that Australia needs better infrastructure and superior urban co-ordination and environmental planning. It does, undoubtedly.
But Gillard chooses to convert this into a political campaign for lower population growth.
It is a sure winner and a beautiful pitch to Greens, Hansonites and marginal seat voters in the suburbs with its nostalgic invocation of preserving “clean beaches and precious open spaces” that define “our Australian sanctuary”.
Can you imagine the outcry if John Howard had talked like this?
Gillard is explicit about the turning point she envisages.
“In 222 years of European settlement, Australia has never had a sustainable population strategy,” she said yesterday.
“That is something that has to change — and it will change, if the government is returned on August 21.”
This sounds like a decisive break from the past.
But what does it mean?
Ms Gillard is deliberately vague to maximise her freedom of action yet her signals are a pollster's dream.
To be fair, Ms Gillard has not committed the Coalition's folly of wanting a population cap.
So far, she has resisted the absurd notion of defining a population “carrying capacity”.
She has, however, pre-judged the issue of sustainability.
Her entire pitch is to achieve better services and better quality of life by taking “a breath” from population growth.
She says the election should be a referendum on this issue.
Ms Gillard does not say that the 36 million population assumed by the Treasury at 2050 is based upon a slower population growth anyway.
Since its inception the immigration intake has been determined by economic need.
Labor now seeks to change this principle to “sustainability”.
It is bound to be popular but Prime Minister Gillard has a responsibility to spell out what her idea of “sustainability” actually means.
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