Minister for Population
3 April 2010 - 14 September 2010
Interview with Kerry O'Brien
6 April 2010
SUBJECTS: New Ministry for Population
Last year, the Treasury predicted that based on past population growth, Australia would have 36 million people by 2050, and at the time the Prime Minister said he welcomed the idea of a big Australia.
Last week the Treasurer Wayne Swan said if we capped the population below that level of growth, our economic growth would be significantly cut and we'd be a less prosperous society. On Saturday, Mr Rudd announced that his Agriculture Minister Tony Burke would also be Australia's first ever Population Minister, charged with the task of producing a population policy within a year.
Now, Tony Burke says the Government doesn't have such a target. I spoke with the new Population Minister earlier tonight. He was in our Canberra studio.
This is in the context of a Treasury projection that would see Brisbane's population double to 4 million by 2050, Sydney and Melbourne Sydney's by 60 and 70% to 7 million, so will you for instance seek to determine how many people our major population centres will be able to carry into the future?
ABC had problems with editing and the first question was lost
…Kerry, to deal with what would happen if we changed nothing, what would happen if over the next 40 years immigration and natural growth were identical to what they've been over the previous 40 years. What this doesn't take into account is exactly the issue that you raise, which is, what is the carrying capacity of the country in different parts of the nation? I think part of the reason that we've got to this part of the debate has really been because of water. I think with water shortages as they have started to appear for the first time, people started to say it's not only a situation of how many workers do we want, how many jobs can we fill, there's also a question about sustainability, and so that's one of the elements that I want to be able to drive back into the debate.
Can we just stay with that, South East Queensland has been the great growth centre of the past decade in Australia, with more of the same over the next 20 years or more. They've had a serious water crisis from the last, from that 9-year drought. There's already one desalination plant for the Gold Coast. The Government's most recent attempt to build a new dam in Queensland was thwarted on environmental grounds. So will you for instance look at how much water South East Queensland would need if that State, that region's population were to double. How many desalination plants, how many new dams, how much recycled water?
With the sustainability arguments. The first is to say, what's the capacity of current infrastructure, and then, to what extent can that be further advanced? It doesn't just go to water infrastructure, it goes to transport infrastructure and service delivery, including health. So those sorts of questions are the questions that we need to get across and South East Queensland is a very good example of just how complex the challenge we face is. The growth there isn't only driven by immigration figures, it's also driven by an increasing birth rate and it's significantly driven by people moving there from other parts of Australia. I want to find out just how creative we can be in terms of the policy levers that we have available to us.
It's not simply a blanket immigration issue, we need to do modelling to test the limits to the growth capacity of our capital cities and project the kind of city Sydney would be with 7 million people. Where they'd be housed, where they'd work, how they'd get there, how their education and health needs would be met, what kind of tax base they'd have to provide? Issues that I think, are exactly why the portfolio has been based in Treasury.
One of the really important things here is because I've been given a portfolio that effectively reaches almost every other portfolio, to have it housed in a central agency means that as I'm working through the data, as we're going through the consultation process, we've got the best opportunity to do whatever sorts of modelling we think are going to be necessary to build a strategy. I don't want to in the first week wed myself to, "here's the precise modelling we'll be looking at and here is what I'll be doing", but certainly to answer those questions of sustainability, of capacity constraints and also of employment demand, that's the sort of work that can be done because it's being housed in Treasury.
Australia is currently falling further and further behind in the race to build new homes, to meet the demands of a growing population. We're falling short by more than 40,000 dwellings a year, so will your population policy answer questions on Australia's capacity to build enough homes for a significantly bigger Australia - something it can't do now?
It's not only a concept of how many homes in Australia, it's where is the demand? This is where some of the capacity constraints that we've referred to, for example in South East Queensland, Sydney and Melbourne, are very different to the problems being faced in growth areas like Western Australia where you'll have employers say in the first place they can't find the workers that they need, and in the second place, it's so hard to find them that instead of being housed there, people may be housed many hundreds of kilometres away flying in and out, which is hardly the most efficient way for the economy to be operating.
Let's take Western Australia, even if the resources boom goes on for decades in Western Australia, that is still only going to end up as a very small portion of Australia's total population. Your biggest challenges are going to be in the major population centres in Australia now when you talk about people going to different places, you know as well as I do that it's been impossible for governments to dictate where new migrants go to live, most of them want to go and live in the major population centres on the East Coast, don't they?
The levers we have available in the immigration program is one of the issues that I want to be able to look at. There are things that are already done in the points system. There's some further targeting that Chris Evans has already been involved with, but I don't want to rule out the extent to which we might be able to better target some of those programs than we have previously. I want to talk about the positive aspect of being able to use Treasury modelling.
You've said this week that the Government doesn't have a target figure for Australia's future population, but everything else that the Government is saying or has been saying since late last year suggests that you do have a target. Treasury has projected a 60% increase by 2050, Kevin Rudd says he wants a big Australia and the Treasurer Wayne Swan said last week that if Australia capped its growth at a lower rate than the one that Treasury is projecting it would exacerbate the problems of an ageing population and significantly reduce our economic growth, and therefore, our prosperity. Will you genuinely test those assumptions? That is, the Treasury assumptions, over the next year rather than simply dance to Treasury's tune?
The 36 million figure that you refer to takes what's happened in the last 40 years and says, 'if that happens again in the next 40 years, this is where we'll be'. That's all that figure is. It's a projection. Wayne Swan's comment last week that if you don't follow that level of growth, our prosperity will be cut, our economic growth will be cut by 17% if we dropped it from 1.2% annual growth in population to 0.8%? we do want to test, we do want to work through, but can I be absolutely clear Kerry, we do not have a target of 36 million. It is not a Government objective to get there, it is not a target, it's simply a Treasury projection.
There are challenges which are very real in terms of the ageing population, which are drivers for further population. There are also sustainability questions, particularly in some of those major cities that we need to bear in mind.
Is this ministry just a in any event way to shift some of the political heat out of a potentially tricky issue until after the next election, particularly since the Opposition is now saying that you simply can't sustain a population of that size and that they will reduce immigration intakes?
They're saying that three months after Tony Abbott quite specifically on 3AW endorsed the 36 million figure and said he didn't have a problem with that, so I don't know why Tony Abbott today has his party arguing something so different to what he was arguing in January. Beyond that, this is real policy work. This is what we need to coordinate here is something which has always been thrown into the too-hard basket. Now I think, the Australian people have always thought, why on earth doesn't Government coordinate these issues better? It's hard enough doing it across Government at one level, much harder trying to get the cooperation right through State and local government, but there are so many inefficiencies and challenges and capacity constraints that Australians deal with every day because we haven't coordinated this before. It's time that we did.
You won't be producing this policy blueprint until after the next election?
For a policy that hasn't been dealt with at all for 110 years since Federation, I think trying to complete this within 12 months is an ambitious enough timeline for me, I've got to say.
Thanks for talking with us.