Monday, June 28, 2010
We all remember the headlines last October when Kevin Rudd endorsed Treasury's projection that Australia would have 35 million people by 2050. "I actually believe in a big Australia," the then prime minister said. "I make no apology for that."
But as polls showed the vast majority of Australians disagreed with him, Rudd retreated.
In April, he appointed Tony Burke as Minister for Population, to produce a population strategy to "balance" the need for more people with their impact on infrastructure and communities.
"Many Australians have legitimate concerns about the sustainability of population levels," the old prime minister said, citing the impact of growth on urban congestion, infrastructure, housing, government services, water and agriculture.
Yesterday the new Prime Minister said much the same, with a different emphasis. She rejected a "big Australia", said sustainability was the prime goal and added a concern that skilled migration should not substitute for skilling young Australians.
But population policy here is largely immigration policy. And whatever the rhetoric, Immigration Minister Chris Evans has been busy making policy shifts to slow immigration.
Evans has cut the official migration intake by 21,500. He has reduced the number of people here on section 457 temporary work visas by 12,500.
He has halved the number of skilled occupations that qualify for entry, toughened a range of rules, and closed the back door by which foreign students in lower-level courses could claim permanent residency.
The bottom line, he reported last month, was that net overseas migration this financial year is set to fall to about 240,000, down 20 per cent from a peak 306,000 in the year to March 2009.
If the door was not closing under the old government, the doorway was narrowing. 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.
But let's not lose sight of the real issue. As Committee for Melbourne chief executive officer Andrew MacLeod points out, Australia's population will keep growing. We need to plan for that, and build the infrastructure it will need.
Cities far bigger than Melbourne work very well if they build a good metro system, and go up as well as out. Good infrastructure and good planning make big cities work.