The Crest of the Commonwealth of Australia Treasury Portfolio Ministers
Picture of Tony Burke

Tony Burke

Minister for Population

3 April 2010 - 14 September 2010

Transcript of 06/04/2010

NO.004

Interview with Fran Kelly

ABC Radio National

6 April 2010

SUBJECTS: New Ministry for Population

FRAN KELLY:

Over the weekend the Federal Government finally moved to address voter concerns that it has no population policy. The Prime Minister appointed the country's first ever Population Minister, Tony Burke to have a look at these issues. He joins us this morning, Minister, good morning.

TONY BURKE:

G'day Fran.

KELLY:

The Prime Minister said late last year that the he believed in a big Australia, do you?

BURKE:

There is no doubt that Australia continues to grow and will continue to grow. What we need to make sure of, is that we have a nation that is able to deal with the issue. Natural growth alone means our population grows even before we get to any sort of immigration program. So, growth itself is a given. The question that you then have to ask is, 'how does that play differently in different parts of the nation and how do we use the levers of government, that we had probably never used previously, to target that.'

KELLY:

Sure, but we have to have an idea of where we are heading, of what we are dealing with in the future. I mean, what is a big Australia?

BURKE:

The projections that have been talked about were part of the Intergenerational Report that looked at what had happened over the last 40 years and said, 'if you presume those raw numbers with a slightly increased rate of growth into the future, those are the figures you land with' and that's very much what sparked the debate…

KELLY:

… Well if you presume those raw numbers, which is what government policy has basically done over the last few decades and is still doing, is just presuming that that rate of population growth will increase.

BURKE:

One of the concerns that I have and one of the issues that I am going to pursue very early, is to work through how the needs are different in different parts of the country. We have continued to talk about population growth across the country as though it is just one national figure, and that's all that matters. The problem with that, is you will find an employer in Western Australia complaining they simply can't find enough workers to run their business the way it is meant to. You will also find someone in a capital city on the east coast, grid-locked in traffic, saying, 'I don't see how this infrastructure can cope with any more people'. They are both telling the truth. So, how can we use the different levers of government to better target how our population moves around. Those are the sorts of questions we have never really tried to coordinate at a national level. It is also one of the very early principles that I want to be able to get across.

KELLY:

And what about the lever of immigration because immigration will be a major percentage of an increased population, there is no doubt about that. Today, the Opposition is promising to cut net migration levels if it is elected, is that a promise the government is implied to match?

BURKE:

One of the concerns that I have with what the Opposition and Tony Abbott have come out with today, is that they have used a net figure which includes temporary migration. The cuts that they are talking about and the figures they have decided to present today also include overseas students and temporary workers. I don't know whether they have advised the business community or not that this is their plan, but essentially what they are saying to all the people who are relying on jobs in those sorts of sectors, is that they are willing to put caps against those temporary migration figures. Normally, we have always spoken about permanent migration when we have dealt with these sorts of capacity issues. The Opposition have ventured into some very new territory, and territory completely different to the support of very high growth figures that Tony Abbott was endorsing only a few months ago.

KELLY:

So that is the figure of 300,000 the Opposition is quoting today but immigration levels under the Rudd Government are higher than they have ever been, they Government did increase the skilled migration levels didn't they?

BURKE:

The figures went up when there was very high demand and significant labour shortage and when the global recession came the figures were reduced again. These figures need to be tailored to the needs of the nation at different points in time. There is certainly room for a much higher degree of coordination in all of this and looking at the different regional needs we have, is one of the reasons that my job has been created.

KELLY:

And one of the reasons is we look at the Intergenerational Report it is all about the ageing community, how we need a younger population to help support that ageing population, what about the growth rate, the birth rate. You know, Peter Costello famously urged the nation, urged parents to have one kid for mum, one for dad and one for the nation – is that still your pitch and will economic policy be geared towards that?

BURKE:

I have got to say, I don't think I should be pretending to be in charge of people having children. I think that there is some significant limits on that and certainly before Peter Costello embarked on the policies that were associated with the line you referred to, the natural birth rate had already started to increase significantly.

KELLY:

The Opposition is arguing that, the talk about immigration, that the government wont be trusted on immigration policy until it gets control of the borders and the influx of asylum seekers, this seems to be the Opposition's reasoning – is that reasonable, is that true, are you mindful of that?

BURKE:

I think it is really important that we can have a clam and rational debate on this issue. The refugee figures or the humanitarian figures under this government are 13,000. Under the previous government they were 13,000. The discussions need to be about total population, they are using an example where they know full well the total figures have not changed.

KELLY:

Ok, so more broadly you are going to be looking at population policy in general, which will take into account a range of things, including; environment policy I mean we are the driest continent on the planet, it calls for more people to support it and you are talking about more people in different places. Isn't the problem that there are certain areas of this continent that can't support more people and we shouldn't be trying to attract them there.

BURKE:

I think that is one of the principles that the population strategy is going to have to take into account. I actually think one of the key drivers of this issue is starting to come to the front of peoples thinking in terms public policy and it is because of what has happened with water. Up until now, the demand for jobs was very much the only key driver that people would think about when people were talking about immigration or population policy generally. Water has started to create a new concept in peoples minds which is, on a hot and dry continent what is the carrying capacity of Australia?

KELLY:

Ok, Tony Burke we must leave it there because the news is upon us, but thank you for very much for joining us and I am sure we will have further discussions on the program about population.

BURKE:

I look forward to it