Big Australia vision goes down like a lead balloon
By Jennie Curtin
The Sydney Morning Herald, August 3, 2010
Nearly three-quarters of Australians do not want a bigger population, a recent survey shows.
The result appears to back up the decision by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to switch from Kevin Rudd's ''Big Australia'' argument to her own ''sustainable Australia'' rhetoric.
The Australian survey of social attitudes, which canvassed the views of 3200 people, found those in rural and regional areas were more strongly opposed to a larger population, with up to 86 per cent of those in country Queensland rejecting the notion.
NSW inner-city residents held more moderate views than the population as a whole, with 58 per cent saying ''no'' and 42 per cent ''yes'' to more people, compared with a 72 per cent rejection rate overall.
Adjunct Associate Professor Katharine Betts, recently retired from Swinburne University of Technology, who analysed the results, said the inner-city result was surprising ''given the distress that growing traffic congestion and overloaded infrastructure are causing in the major cities'' but could be explained by the preponderance of university graduates or first-generation migrants in such areas.
Those two groups provided the most enthusiastic support for more people, she said. The most supportive were affluent migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds (63 per cent in favour).
Professor Betts said the survey was conducted late last year, not long after the Treasury released its prediction of a 36 million population by 2050, a prospect the then prime minister, Mr Rudd, welcomed. He said at the time: ''I make no apology for that. I actually think it is a good thing that our population is growing.''
But Ms Gillard abandoned her predecessor's policy shortly after she took over and renamed the Population portfolio held by Tony Burke ''Sustainable Population''.
She and the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, have since argued about immigration levels, with both parties setting up committees to advise them of optimal growth and sustainability rates.
But any plan to direct new migrants into non-metropolitan areas was unlikely to receive support, Professor Betts said.
''In some cases individual country towns may welcome this, but many are already feeling their own population pressures. They may resist being used still further as a means of relieving stresses on the larger cities.''
The survey showed little difference in attitudes based on voting intention for the main parties although Liberal voters (72 per cent) were slightly more inclined to maintain stable levels than Labor (67) or the Greens (68). National Party voters (87 per cent) and Family First supporters (84 per cent) were strongly against increases.
Labourers (81 per cent) and technicians, trade workers and community workers (79 per cent) were the employment groups most against a higher population while so-called ''social professionals'' (arts and media, education, and legal, social and welfare professionals) were the least resistant to the idea at 57 per cent.
Those who preferred an increase thought it would help economic growth, counteract ageing of the population and address the need for skilled migrants for the workforce.
The survey results are published in People and Place.