The task is to formulate a population policy within 12 months, though of course the government must face an election before that. Critics say that, given Kevin Rudd's view, the government has no intention of seriously consulting on what Australia's population should ideally be. But given Australia's infrastructure and environmental constraints, and its growing immigration intake, there is considerable political steam in the population issue.
Presenter: Linda Mottram
Wayne Swan, Australia's Treasurer; Tony Burke, Australia's Population minister; Trevor Budge, Adjunt Professor, Planning, Latrobe University; Bob Carr, former New South Wales Labor Premier.
MOTTRAM: Australia, slimly populated around the fringe of it's vast geography, has long puzzled over what it's ideal population could or should be. It has certainly increased enormously since early settlement. For example, in the twenty years from 1918, the population grew by almost forty per cent to seven million. Today it stands at just under 22-Million, 300-thousand and growing faster than any country except Saudi Arabia. It was the post-war Prime Minister Ben Chifley who understood Australian industry could only achieve economies of scale with a bigger population. Similarly, the Rudd government believes more people is the only way to provide what's needed to sustain Australia, especially with its aging profile. Australia's Treasurer Wayne Swan speaking at a recent conference.
SWAN: I simply can't bring myself to agree with those who think we can solve all of our problems by putting a freeze on national population growth, it will not solve any of them in fact it may make them worse. It's all too easy to speak of the costs of an increased population and forget to mention the benefits.
MOTTRAM: Many Australian governments have reported on population issues but nothing has ever been enacted. Few ventured to name an optimum population number. Now, Kevin Rudd has appointed a population minister to shape a population policy in 12 months. That minister is Tony Burke.
BURKE: Its an area of policy we've never tried to co-ordinate and bring all the different strands together before. It reaches into almost every policy area. It is not only an immigration debate. It goes to discussions about infrastructure, about government services, about water, about jobs.
MOTTRAM: So it's complex. And Australians calling local ABC radio on the issue agree.
CALLER 1: You can't manage what you can't measure. We have to have a rough number as to how many people this place can hold before we can decide what we're going to do with it.
CALLER 2: We need to look at a sustainable population.
CALLER 3: We've already exceeded our actual carrying capacity. We're having to make artifical water.
CALLER 4: I think it's a cynical exercise by Mr Rudd putting a 12 month time period on this report because it therefore means he doesn't have to make a statement on it prior to the next election.
MOTTRAM: Apart from the claim of political cynisim by the Prime Minister, there is also the reality that at current population growth rates as estimated recently by the Australian Treasury, Australia is on course to have a population of almost 36-Million by the year 2050. The pressures are real. Among the callers to ABC local radio was Trevor Budge, a planning expert from Melbourne's Latrobe university.
BUDGE: Well I want to see a debate that doesn't just focus on congestion and housing affordability issues in metropolitan centres and secondly I think we need to look at how we can encourage people to actually relocate to cities that have already got existing infrastructure.
MOTTRAM: But what's an ideal number? No-one is yet saying. But former premier of the state of New South Wales Bob Carr rejects the Prime Minister's big Australia.
CARR: I think we've got to recognise that our cities don't get better economically or in terms of liveability if we force feed population growth into them with this surging level of immigration. I think we've got to recognise as the House of Lords committee into the economics of Britain's high immigration policy recognised recently that the economic arguments for high immigration don't stand up, that when it comes to skills shortages for example, any new trades person brought into this country to fill a skills shortage also brings dependants. Nor does high immigration solve the problem of an aging population We've got to look at nurturing workers to stay in the workforce longer.
MOTTRAM: Serious contributors to the debate reject any suggestion the new population agenda will see earlier manifestations of racism revisited. But there's no doubt immigration policy -- a key lever in determining population -- will be a sensitive part of the debate.