SYDNEY (Reuters) - New Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said population growth must be sustainable, not simply aimed at creating a “big Australia”.
Her comments are likely aimed at easing voter concerns over immigration, refugee and environmental policies ahead of elections expected around October, 2010.
Gillard’s predecessor Kevin Rudd came up with the “big Australia” label when he announced the country’s 22 million population was projected to reach 36 million population by 2050.
Following are some questions about Gillard’s latest comments and what they might mean for her government’s policies.
No. The projected rise was never official policy, but a forecast in a government-commissioned population report that Rudd used to talk about nation-building and infrastructure needs.
“I don’t believe in a big Australia. I don’t believe in simply hurtling down a track to a 36 million or 40 million population,” Gillard said on Sunday.
“I‘m indicating a different approach. I think we want an Australia that is sustainable. This place is our sanctuary, our home. We should pause, we should take a breath, we should reflect and we should get this right.”
Gillard did not say what Australia’s population should be, but merely called for a rethink on how Australia should grow, taking into account infrastructure and the environment.
She rebadged the government’s population minister, Tony Burke, the minister for sustainable population.
Gillard, herself a child migrant from Wales, supports immigration but wants a balance between immigration and natural population growth to ensure adequate employment for Australians.
Gillard said the outer mortgage belts of Sydney and Melbourne, and fast growing regional centres like the Gold Coast in Queensland, were already groaning under the pressure of population growth and high unemployment.
In contrast, mining towns in resource rich states of Western Australia and Queensland, which are feeding Australia’s minerals export boom to China, are desperate for skilled workers.
“We’ve got communities around the country crying out for more workers, for more people, more arms and legs to get vital work done. We’ve got to get the balance right,” Gillard said.
Some warn against limiting growth.
“Any reduction to our nation’s rate of population growth puts at risk the very things that have made Australia what it is today,” said Urban Taskforce chief executive Aaron Gadiel.
Australia’s net overseas migration level is predicted to drop 20 percent by the middle of 2010, to between 230,000 and 250,000 people. The Australian Bureau of Statistics says net overseas migration peaked at 302,900 in the year to March 2009.
The fall is a result of tougher migration rules, particularly for foreign students being allowed to claim permanent residency, and more focus on skilled occupations to qualify for entry.
“If the door was not closing under the old (Rudd) government, the doorway was narrowing,” said The Age newspaper.
“Gillard’s words do not set a new policy direction, but aim to reassure Australians worried by high immigration that she understands and shares their views.”
Australia has experienced a baby boom in recent years. In 2008, a record 296,600 births were registered.
Gillard has linked Australia’s infrastucture and environment to any future population growth.
Various population reports in the past year have highlighted the need for better infrastructure in Australian cities already struggling to cope with a growing populations and warned of the damaging environmental footprint of a bigger population.
“I think the change of direction is to put front and centre the sustainability issues,” said Gillard.
“There are environmental issues about water and about soil, but there are also sustainability issues about planning, about services, about the buses and the trains, the freeways and the roads that actually carry our population.”
Her call for sustainable population growth was welcomed by green groups, suggesting she is trying to woo back crucial green voters lost after her predecessor postponed his climate policy, a carbon trading scheme.
Gillard’s population comments were also seen by some media as an attempt to ease voter concerns over asylum seekers and border protection, issues expected to resonate with suburban homeowners concerned over high unemloyment.
“Our new prime minister is dog-whistling to the outer suburbs on asylum-seekers with her coded messages about asserting control over the numbers coming to this country,” The Australian newspaper said in an editorial on Monday.
Opinion polls show the Labor government is bleeding voter support on the issue of how to stop boatpeople arrivals, yet it is wedged between voters wanting a tougher border policy and those demanding a more humanitarian asylum policy which ends the detention of people on an offshore island and outback camp.
The Age newspaper said Gillard’s decision to “take stock” on population policy was an effort to address transport, water, housing, health, education and employment issues, but also a political admission that Labor needs to reposition itself on asylum-seekers.
Reporting by Michael Perry; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher