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

Transcript of 28/06/2010


Interview with James Carleton and Alison Carabine

Radio National Breakfast

28 June 2010

SUBJECTS: Sustainable Population; Cabinet Speculation


Prime Minister Julia Gillard has moved quickly to ease community concerns about one issue in particular - that is, Australia's growing population. She's rejected Kevin Rudd's vision for a big Australia, saying she's against setting arbitrary targets such as the Treasurer's recent projection of 36 million people by 2050.

The Prime Minister is directing her comments to marginal voters in outer suburban electorates by saying the people of Western Sydney, for example, would be asking where will all these new Australians be settled.

Tony Abbott says that shift towards more sustainable population growth is in direct line with Coalition policy.


When the Coalition said a few months ago that the population had to be sustainable, we were pilloried up hill and down dale by Julia Gillard. And I think what we're also going to see from Julia Gillard is an attempt on all the controversial issues, where the Opposition is making the running, to adopt a kind of me too strategy.


Well Tony Burke was until yesterday the Minister for Population, now the Minister for Sustainable Population.

To speak with him, our political editor, Alison Carabine.


Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.


Good to be here, Alison.


Well first to the Newspoll, do the results reassure you that you made the right decision last week to dump Rudd and go with Gillard?


The focus for me and I think the focus for the Labor Party has to be, to make a change like that, will it make us a better government? Our focus needs to remain there. What you see today is only sustainable if we can continue to show that we are presenting the best possible government for Australia.


But to borrow from Tony Abbott, does it now place Labor in reach of a famous victory?


I'm unlikely to borrow from him. What matters is that we are the best government that we possibly can be. I believed we would be a better government with Julia Gillard. We're putting that to the Australian people now. I think we have the best possible person as Prime Minister heading the team now.


Well we'll get to population in a moment, but before then the Prime Minister will be unveiling her new ministerial line up, possibly as early as today. Now it doesn't look like Kevin Rudd will be included in the Gillard team.

Do you think that's the right call by the Prime Minister? Do you think it's for the good of both Kevin Rudd and indeed the rest of the Government that he take a break at least until after the election?


I know from the newspapers that Kevin and Julia spoke yesterday but I don't know the inside beyond what's in the papers there. Certainly these issues have always been the call of the Prime Minister. I see from the papers that we're likely to hear an announcement today. For my own part I certainly haven't asked for a change.


Well okay, what about for Kevin Rudd? What role would you like to see him play in the Government?


These issues are, as you know, very appropriately dealt with by the Prime Minister. I'm pleased that Julia Gillard said that she was going to make sure that she had a conversation with Kevin. Apparently that's occurred, but I'm not privy to what was said there.


So stay tuned. Well onto population, the Prime Minister's comments on population. Tony Abbott says Julia Gillard has ripped off Coalition policy. But hasn't she really just ripped off Kevin Rudd's policy? The former Prime Minister never embraced a 36 million population target.


What matters is that Julia Gillard is putting forward views that she has held for a long period of time.

Now, we were at the very beginnings of the consultative process on the population strategy.

In that consultation there was a view within the community that the Government had a fixed opinion in terms of big Australia. Now, what Julia Gillard did yesterday puts a very different context for the community as that consultation goes forward.

Because we're in a consultative phase, it means there's no work that has to be undone or anything like that. But it is true that population needs to be sustainable. It is true that endless urban sprawl carries an environmental footprint with it.

It is true that if you're in an area where you can't get a seat on a bus, can't get a seat on the train, you're locked in gridlock in traffic, that you would ask the question that Julia posed yesterday - where on earth would you put extra people? That needs to be balanced against those parts of Australia that are crying out for extra workers.


Yeah, well that's what I was going to ask you. Is that mood across the country or are you just finding it in overcrowded parts of the nation such as out at Western Sydney?


The population pressures are completely different in different parts of the nation. We had the mayors from around Australia here in Canberra only a couple of weeks ago.

I met with some of the mayors from parts of Western Australia that are crying out for extra people, that are wanting to shift from fly-in, fly-out to actually building real communities.

So there are very different pressures in different parts of Australia. That's why it was always a bit unhelpful when the debate was entirely focusing on national figures.

The more we get down to a regional basis and are able to tailor strategies to deal with different regions in Australia, then I think the more accurately we'll be able to have a genuine population strategy.


So do you see your role changing much with Julia Gillard as Prime Minister? She has re-badged your position from Population Minister to Sustainable Population Minister. What's different apart from having to change your letterhead?


Well in terms of the consultation that we're engaging with the community, it does change the framework for that. And the engagement with the public I believe will take a different perspective as a result.

It puts a high priority on us making sure that we can develop forms of measurement as to what's the environmental footprin; and to look at some of these environmental questions, as well as the transport infrastructure questions, probably with a higher degree of focus because the Prime Minister now has said that these are very strong views that she holds.


And she has said that she doesn't want to see the country hurtle down the track towards a big population. But can you help me define exactly what is, what's she's talking about?

What is a big population? You've received feedback through your consultative process. What are people telling you? What population size do they want in this country and what does the Prime Minister want?


Essentially I think you can bring it all down to a couple of key concepts. One, people want to make sure that you can get the workers that you need.

Secondly, people want to make sure that you don't have massive youth unemployment. They want to make sure that you can get access to housing and that you don't have problems with congestion.

So they want that balance. I don't think the concept of the big or small national figure actually takes you that far. We could be a population of only 10 million people. If they all lived here in Canberra, we would have a problem.


So does that mean your strategy will not include a specific population target when you release that strategy next year?


I've had an open mind on that. I'm not sure that a total figure is particularly helpful in public policy terms, because what matters is the regional basis of it. That's what matters.

To make sure that you're able to target populations goes well beyond issues of immigration. To make sure that you're able to target your population issues to the different needs of different parts of the country.

If you can come up with a strategy that does that then you're actually in some very good policy terrain and planning for things in a way we never have in the past.


But immigration does play a very important role...


It's part of it, yeah.

CARABINE: determining a nation's population. If you are spurning a big Australia, does that inevitably mean that you will cut immigration numbers?


Well let's not forget yesterday Julia Gillard referred specifically to the importance of skilled migration. She referred to getting the right people in the right parts of Australia.

Now, for example, if you have a shortage of nurses, it's not a whole lot of help if the people you're bringing in are trained hairdressers. And so that issue of...


So you have to re-jig the skilled migration numbers?




Is that an assurance that you can give to the business community that skilled migration will continue?


That assurance was given by the Prime Minister yesterday. The importance of skilled migration remains but we want to make sure that these things can be targeted as effectively as possible.

The targeting now certainly is better than it was three years ago, and some of those net overseas migration numbers are a little bit tighter than they used to be. But can we continue to sharpen the edges and improve the targeting? I certainly hope so.


Tony Burke, I'm sure we'll talk again. Thanks very much for joining RN Breakfast.


Pleasure to be here.


And that is the Minister for Sustainable Population, Tony Burke, speaking with our political editor, Alison Carabine. I mentioned Tony was my local member.

When was my garbage going to get picked up? You can - I was actually joking. You know you can stop ringing. I am aware local garbage collection is a local government issue. Quarter past eight.