Minister for Population
3 April 2010 - 14 September 2010
Interview with Adam Spencer
28 June 2010
SUBJECTS: Sustainable Population; Cabinet Speculation
Right now in Australia there is a birth every one minute and 47 seconds. And when that's balanced against deaths, it means an overall total population increase of one person every one minute and 13 seconds. We are growing. But what population should we be thinking is achievable and, more importantly, sustainable?
Well, Tony Burke, the Minister for Population, has had his portfolio renamed the Minister for Sustainable Population, and he will open the inaugural Population Australia 2050 Summit today in Sydney.
The former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said he'd like Australia to grow to around 35 million, but new Prime Minister Julia Gillard is moving away from the push to become a big Australia.
Well, Minister Tony Burke joins us this morning.
Minister, good morning.
Is the new Prime Minister's position on population significantly different to that of the previous Prime Minister?
Yeah, it is. The starting point on what you see as being important for Australia's population into the future is very different. Kevin's view was very much a belief in a big Australia and Julia's starting point is much more about it being sustainable.
Now, given that we're in the beginnings of putting together the population strategy to be released next year, how you engage with the community, the starting point, really does matter.
So does that undo some of the work you've already done?
No, because I've been formalising the consultation process and we'd already made some announcements on that. That all continues.
But one of the challenges that we've had in talking to the community on this issue and engaging with some of the opinion leaders as well, is there was a view that the Government believed in hurtling towards high levels of population regardless of what the different needs were in different parts of the country. I think Julia's very clearly drawn a line in the sand yesterday on this.
And it sounded to me as though you almost started saying the word immigration there for a second, too. The I word is a big one in this. What's the new Prime Minister's feeling on immigration? Is it a total number and the percentage and the effect it can have on our population growth?
Well, it's one of the issues in population policy. It's not the only issue. It's one of the issues. Now, she's confirmed the importance of the skilled migration program. It's important to make sure we get the people with the right skills in the right parts of the country. But it's not the only issue in population.
Some of the areas of urban sprawl that we've had up the coast, for example, have been people moving at time of retirement from one part of the country to another part. Many of these coastal communities have concerns as to at what point does a beautiful place that they've moved to end up with so much urban sprawl that it's changed forever.
So it's not just immigration. You can't deny it's part of population policy and will be part of the strategy, but it goes far broader than that. It goes to environmental issues. It goes to issues of transport, urban transport, and urban planning.
One thing that's challenging for people here is to work out, in the individual words and statements of the Prime Minister, what's real policy direction here, what is - I don't mean this in a disrespectful way - a bit of sort of flim-flam to float the issue with people. For - you know, Western Sydney was spoken about over the weekend by the Prime Minister.
Some people have seized on that as there will be a cap on population growth in Western Sydney. Others are saying it was just looking at the sort of area that, you know, any sort of decision about population's going to look at.
Have you specifically examined Western Sydney? There are some very strong opinions from people in that area.
Yeah, and when you look at the grid-lock each morning and each afternoon that you can get in different parts out here, you look at some of the challenges trying to get a seat on a train. But you can understand why there is a view in many areas out there of well, hang on, if you're putting more people, exactly where would you do that? And...
But the geographic space is there. The square kilometres where there aren't currently people living is there in Western Sydney. The problem is the roads and the sewerage and the paths and the other community structures, isn't it?
Depends. There's a few issues going on out here, Adam. The issues you refer to is part of it. There's also issues out there for where would further urban sprawl go?
And there's some particular concerns from communities if we were to lose a whole lot of the fresh fruit and veggie markets where we've got food being grown in that final belt before you get to the Blue Mountains.
So the issues that you raised, yes, they are absolutely relevant but I do think there's more to it than that.
Kelvin Thomson, the Federal Labor MP, last year floated a plan to cap the population at 26 million. Now I know it would be fruitless trying to drag a figure out of you this morning, Minister Burke, but is there any chance that a stabilisation of population in the low to mid 20 millions could be an option for Australia?
I think as long as we've got a mining boom going on, there's going to be a particular demand for skilled migration and skill shortages needing to be filled. It's also the case that whenever people talk about a cap - we had a natural growth of population in Australia. There's natural growth going on as well.
So I do think when you start setting artificial caps, inventing a number and say that will be it and there will be no more, that you're on policy ground that when you start saying how would you actually deliver that, it's pretty difficult terrain.
Dick Smith, for example - his thoughts on this are quite strong and well-communicated. He said if the population grows beyond 26 million people, the nation could struggle to feed itself.
Yeah, I don't believe that's true. I don't believe that's true. As you know, in my other job, I'm responsible for agriculture policy in the country and we export 60 per cent of what we grow.
So, you know, issues of wanting to have fresh food supply and things like that, in terms of your urban planning, all of that's relevant. But to start claiming we'd run out of food, I don't think you can find figures to justify that.
I'm talking with the new Minister for Sustainable Population, Tony Burke. And Mr. Burke, one of your other unofficial jobs is also Labor Party power broker. Your name was mentioned...
...as quite a significant player. But when the machinations were being performed last week, some people said that your calling Julia Gillard and urging her to move was a significant factor in those discussions.
Did you call the then Deputy Prime Minister and urge her to go forward?
Well, first of all, the description you've applied to me, I certainly don't think that one stacks up.
Sustainable power broker.
With Julia, I won't go through private conversations, but I had formed a view that we would be a better government if Julia was Prime Minister of Australia. I think that's true and I'm very glad that I told her that.
Okay, thank you very much for your time this morning.
Good to talk to you, Adam.
Tony Burke there, the Minister for Sustainable Population. Our number's 1300 222 702 if you have thoughts on the subject.