Minister for Population
3 April 2010 - 14 September 2010
Interview with Joe O'Brien
6 April 2010
SUBJECTS: New Ministry for Population
The new Federal Population Minister, Tony Burke, says some Australians feel uneasy about the growing population.
For more, Population Minister Tony Burke joins us now from Canberra. Tony Burke, good morning.
Now, you've only been in the portfolio a couple of days but already the Opposition is turning up the heat. We've got - we had Scott Morrison on the program this morning saying 35 mill... 36 million people by 2050 is just unsustainable. Is that the case?
I was really surprised to hear the Opposition arguing that. It was only about three months ago that Tony Abbott was on the Derryn Hinch program, saying he didn't have a problem with that level of population at all. So I'm not sure why the flip-flop is happening from the Opposition. My view and the Government's view has always been that our immigration program needs to be tailored to the needs of the nation. It's one of the drivers of population. It's not the only driver and the needs of the nation are going to be very different in different parts of Australia. If you go to some parts of Western Australia, you'll find employers who are crying out for more workers. They just can't find the labour that they need. On the other hand you'll go to other parts, say, on the east coast to some of the capital cities, and you'll find people who have been gridlocked in traffic for more than half an hour, who say, 'why on earth would we add to the congestion?' In both of those stories, the people are telling the truth, and what we need to be able to do and on a far more regional level, is be able to tailor our population policies to the needs of the nation.
So there's no way a Labor government is going to cut the current immigration levels?
When the global recession hit, we reduced the immigration levels, because there were concerns about there being an increase in unemployment. The immigration levels came down and when there has been demand, they go up. There are some extra issues though that have never been taken into account when immigration levels or population policy generally are set. And that's the concept of infrastructure. Whether it be transport or water or the issues around urban planning. There's a whole range of issues that previously haven't been taken into account, and this is why my new job, when I get my first briefing in about an hour's time - will have me doing over the next 12 months, for the first time, bringing together all those different policy levers available to government to ask the question, 'how can we coordinate this in a way that we never have previously?'
So is 35 million - a population of 35 - 36 million by 2050, inevitably, what Australia is headed for, we've just got to accept that?
Not at all. The figure that you refer to was simply looking at what the average had been over the last 40 years and saying, 'if that happens in the next 40 years, where would we land?' It's not a government target. It's not a government policy to get there. The strongest comments that I've seen endorsing that particular figure were given by Tony Abbott on the Derryn Hinch program a few months ago. Our view is that the population policy and strategy needs to be tailored to the needs of the nation and those needs will be different in different parts of the country.
So, Australia is not inevitably headed for that. The strongest comments I heard in relation to that were Kevin Rudd saying he embraced a big Australia. But you're now saying Australia is not inevitably headed for that and we could bring that down if we really wanted to?
The thing Australia is headed for is bigger population even if there is no immigration. Natural growth alone means our population is growing. We need to work out how we coordinate the different infrastructure needs and urban planning needs to be able to make sure that we have as good a way of life as possible in Australia. Quite separate from any immigration policy, the nation is growing, Australia is getting bigger.
Now, Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world. What can be done to encourage more people to settle in the regions, as you were pointing out in your response to my first question?
There's a number of levers available to government. The consultation that I will undertake in the coming months is real. There are some regional areas, where unemployment is high, where water resources are very low and they actually couldn't carry any more people than they currently have. There are also other areas where there's significant room for growth. I want to get across those differences in different parts of the country. I don't want to lock in at the moment, what sort of drivers or incentives we may end up using to be able to help make sure the population of Australia is spread to areas where it's really needed.
And, just finally, why do you need 12 months for this? There are some people complaining that the Government should have a clear policy on this before we go to the election.
I saw some of those comments, Joe and I was surprised. What we have is a portfolio that has never existed in the history of the nation and people are saying it is really important to establish, but at the same time people think you can get all the work done in a couple of months. I want to do this job properly. I want to be in a situation where we can actually look at it in the national interest. I reckon getting that done in 12 months, I'll be flat out meeting that deadline.
Okay Tony Burke in Canberra, thanks for talking to us this morning.
Good to talk to you, Joe.