The Crest of the Commonwealth of Australia Treasury Portfolio Ministers
Picture of Tony Burke

Tony Burke

Minister for Population

3 April 2010 - 14 September 2010

Speech of 22/06/2010


Tourism and Transport Conference


22 June 2010

Thanks very much Brett. I'll also acknowledge Bruce Baird and Chris Brown. I've known all of them for a lot of years now.

It's a real privilege to be here today and I'm glad that we're running a little bit late because I've now got people making sure that we get hold of the transcript from Joe Hockey as soon as its released having heard the questions at the end there. Although from the answer I suspect it may not be quite as good as we've anticipated.

What I'd like to do today is go through in three different sections. First of all to give a bit of an explanation that Brett referred to in the introduction about what exactly is the population portfolio. Secondly, to explain how we will be conducting the public consultation on that. Thirdly, to explain why, in my view there is a higher level of interests from this sector in engaging in that process than there probably ever has been before.

Also to encourage you to engage very practically.

I will explain that in terms of my sense of where these things are at.

On the first point, how does population policy work? If you asked most people on the street at the moment what's it about you would probably get an answer which is exactly where Brett said its not – that the policy is entirely about immigration.

That's not my job. Although it is relevant to my job.

When I was appointed by the PM around Easter this year I was given 12 months to put together a population strategy for Australia.

The idea of the population policy was to coordinate and bring together areas of policy that had never been coordinated and brought together before. That's why we didn't establish a new department. We actually based the portfolio within Treasury. It's a central agency job to be able to help coordinate across almost every aspect of department and every level of government. It's a big task and we need to establish the full breadth of it before we narrow down and decide which issues we'll take on in the strategy.

What sort of issues do you think?

Well you can't talk about population issues without immigration being relevant, obviously. Similar to the relevance of natural growth. But it also hits issues of infrastructure and urban planning. Most importantly the debate needs to shift from where it's been, in the national debate, from total national numbers to, for the first time, start looking at the regional implications.

One of the problems with the population debate in Australia is the diametrically opposed views are all making a valid case and telling a true story for part of this nation.

The person who lives in western Sydney and is in traffic gridlock and says, why on earth would you want more people to live here, is telling as much a true story as the person in a regional area where the mines have taken all the workers and you can't get anyone to work in your establishment and says why can't we get anyone to work here. Both are completely valid complaints.

Yet the national debate has only ever looked at the total national number as though that will somehow provide a policy fix. It won't.

Australia could have a population of 10 million people. But if they all lived here in Canberra we would have a massive population problem.

So the spread and how people live throughout the regions has to be central to any population strategy. That can't be on an old fashioned, 1970s, decentralisation agenda where you just work on the basis that says anyone living in the city, that's a problem and everyone living in a country area, that's helpful.

One of the things that I think we've all learnt during the current drought is that there are some parts of Australia where carrying capacity - which farmers will often refer to as how much produce can be run off any particular paddock - where carrying capacity is something that we can actually apply to some country towns.

There were areas during the drought that looked at trucking in water at different times and with the current infrastructure it is reasonable to say that they have come close or up against their carrying capacity.

These regional questions have never been looked at properly before. But similarly, the urban/country divide needs to take account of the fact that the experience of the person stuck in the gridlock in western Sydney is not matched by the experience of people in every part of every other capital city.

If you're running an operation in Perth, probably of all capital cities, labour shortage is chronic and I know many farmers facing labour shortages and I'm sure its not all that different for people in the tourism industry who, facing labour shortage, have shaken their heads at the argument that everything about the mining boom has been a net benefit for them.

There has been some real pressures in the two speed economy that have hit other areas of the economy. That's one of the reasons that we want to provide a tax cut in the company tax rate. That's one of the reasons why we're wanting to improve infrastructure where infrastructure is being stretched.

These issues are real. A two speed economy doesn't mean those going in the second speed are necessarily getting every benefit all the way through.

So these challenges need to be brought together in strategy and the way I wanted to do it was to have a concept of measures and levers. What can you measure on a regional basis? What policy levers can you connect this to?

We have done this best, and still imperfectly, but probably best we've done to some extent is the skilled migration program. Where the measure has been areas of skill shortage, the lever has been skilled migration.

But to the extent that we've been able to anticipate the future strains on infrastructure, to the extent that we've been able to anticipate future needs for better urban design, for future urban planning, and the better construction of our cities as a nation we haven't done that well.

What we want to find out is what can we measure, which we used to not measure, and which policy levers can we connect that to.

Similarly, part of the debate needs to take into account the ongoing challenge of where people are moving from one part of Australia to another, not because of employment opportunities which I've referred to so far but for the purposes of retirement. The ongoing urban sprawl which effectively runs from the south coast of New South Wales all the way up to the mid coast, about halfway up Queensland has been people moving for retirement largely. A large part of that movement has been because of the natural beauty of the area and as population starts to increase the urban sprawl creates some pressures in terms of environmental degradation.

Now I don't want these pressures to end up being resolved by where the political campaign hits at any one point in time. I want to be able to do it by working with measures and levers.

Sometimes the lever, particularly with urban planning issues, will be with a different tier of government. That's why we had the representatives from local governments from around the nation here in Canberra last week. We spent a lot of time working through these issues with the mayors from around Australia. Because unless we can do this in a cooperative way, unless we can find ways for us to be involved in the regional measurement and then to get the relevant policy levers working no matter which level of government they rest at, unless we can do that, we will end up without a coherent strategy for population.

So the measures and levers; it's essentially the approach that we're wanting to adopt.

In order to scope the full breadth of the debate, what we then need to be able to do is to engage in a very serious level of public consultation.

When I was conducting my initial meetings and one on ones with the different people that had been outspoken in the media on either side of the debate I came to a conclusion pretty clearly and pretty quickly that to put them all in the same room right now might not be that helpful. That's why we're conducting the public consultation in two stages. The first stage is to scope out an issues paper, the full breadth of the debate. If we did public consultation now it would effectively be a total numbers debate which would get back a misreading of figures which were projected in the intergenerational report.

Some people, when that figure of 35 million figure came out, believed and argued that it was a government target. It was not. It was merely a Treasury projection of, if the next 40 years look like the last 40 years, that's where we would end up. That's all it was.

It was not a target, not an ambition, not a policy ambition.

It was simply, looking forward, if we change nothing that's where we'd be, nor did it take into account at all the original implications in different parts of the country of that.

I think that's where we'd be if we went to public consultation right now.

The issues paper will make sure that we've got a way of broadening the discussion over the environmental issues, sustainability issues, transport infrastructure issues, employment issues, and retirement issues. Some of these issues are going to need to be thought through in a new way because of what will happen now with broadband. Broadband will fundamentally change the nexus for many people in their working lives in terms of where their place of employment is and where their residence is.

To date, most urban planning has worked on the basis that wherever your employer is, you're going to be visiting that place every day. Broadband will change that, not for every employer but for many, and that means some of the issues of congestion and planning are going to take on a different character in the years ahead and we need to be able to scope that out too.

To develop the issues paper and to separate the people into different rooms at the moment; what we're doing is to divide people into different panels.

One panel involves the people who have focused their arguments on sustainability and who do, themselves, believe that there are major risks in a growing population. That panel is being chaired by Bob Carr.

The second panel is for those people who believe at the heart of successful business and a successful Australian economy is growth both in population terms and a corollary of that, delivering economic growth. That panel is to be chaired by Heather Ridout.

The third panel are people who really don't have a view and don't care so much about whether the nation's population is getting bigger or smaller but reckon we could plan for it a whole lot better. And that's being chaired by South Australia's Graeme Hugo.

The full membership of those panels is being worked through and it's something that I do want to be talking to TTF about some of the names of the composition of some of those panels to be able to work that through.

I want to be able to have a strong engagement there and the one thing I want to make sure of is that having put out the issues paper and having created the population strategy we don't get someone in the debate saying, well this is my view of the biggest issue of the debate and you haven't touched that at all. We want to scope out the debate to make sure that all of the issues faced on the ground are being reflected in the government discussion.

So, why engage?

My first interview when I became Shadow Minister for Immigration was on Insiders with Barrie Cassidy. In that first interview I remember being asked immediately about total immigration numbers for Australia. I gave the same answer which every shadow minister prior to me, from either side of politics, had given. Which was to provide bipartisan support.

That is no longer the state of play in Australia. Not only are we in a situation now where the total numbers have become something on which the Opposition is willing to have a debate but they have also chosen not to have the argument over the permanent migration figures but over net overseas migration figures.

That is a massive issue for your sector.

Permanent migration - which has always been what's announced in the Budget each year and what has always been what people have said, that's the bit we'll try to control, has been a legitimate policy issue and part of the public debate even though it had been bipartisan until earlier this year.

But shifting to the net overseas migration figures the Opposition, with the argument being led by Scott Morrison, has taken the debate into an area that squarely hits the sectors in this room. Because by going to the net overseas migration figure it means the demand driven temporary visa program is now part of the argument.

Now, there has never been a case to date, until earlier this year, where anyone argued that we needed to in some way regulate and bring down temporary migration or demand driven migration. That is the debate Australia is now in.

What are the temporary visas that are now part of that debate and make up the increase from the permanent migration figures to the net overseas migration figures? It means instead of just your skilled migration and humanitarian migration and family migration being within that public discussion the Opposition have now said that they are wanting to regulate the whole lot.

That takes in your 457 visa programs which up until now have been bipartisan, that they were unlimited, that they were demand driven. It takes into account your overseas students and it takes into account your backpacker visas which make up about 10% of the net overseas migration figures.

It is a very significant change in the public debate.

Now the Government has continued to work on the basis of what matters in those visa categories is the integrity of them and Chris Evans has taken significant action in ensuring that 457 visas are being used as a mechanism to fill a shortage not as a mechanism to find cheap labour. It's taken significant action to make sure that overseas students are here for genuine educational purposes. Some of that has resulted in net overseas migration figures of the latest quarter being down a bit from what they were previously.

While industry had no interest, understandably, in saying too much on any of these issues while there was a bipartisan consensus we should not pretend that the ground is the same as it once was as of April this year. It is a different debate.

If your businesses are relying on filling labour shortage through temporary visas then you do need to work through the significance of the policy position that the Opposition is wanting to get into. That's why I would encourage the sector to very strongly engage with the consultative mechanism to make sure that we get the population strategy right.

The population strategy allows planning that you would have shaken your heads at and say why on earth has this not been coordinated. Planning, or lack of planning, that has been a problem for years to say how can we have some objective methods of measurement of where we need people and see what policy levers are available to us.

Now I've been reluctant to start specifying at this point what policy levers we should use and what measurements we should use. I don't want to limit the debate and I don't want to get into a situation where people feel particular concerns or issues are off the table.

If we can develop a population strategy that coordinates these areas of policy for the first time then not only will we have a very calm, mature and decent debate within Australia that allows the people in gridlock and the people experiencing labour shortages to know their concerns are being heard and acted on but we will be able to position industry to be on a much stronger footing in the years ahead.

I look forward to being able to work collectively with you on that.