In what seems like déjà-vu from the 2007 election campaign, the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, has accused Julia Gillard of playing me-too politics, saying she's lifted her population approach straight from the Coalition.
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.
Joining me now from Canberra is the Minister for Sustainable Population, Tony Burke.
Good morning to you, Minister. You have a new title. One word is different. But wasn't your job always to ensure that any population growth in Australia is sustainable? What has really changed here?
Well, fortunately, Ashleigh, we're only at the beginnings of the consultation process with the community so it's not like there's work that needs to be undone because we're in the consultative process.
But that consultation now I think will take quite a different form. One of the things that was clearly coming back to us all the time was people saying, because of the big Australia comments, it doesn't sound like you're even open to listening to the issues about the environment, to the issues of urban congestion, and urban planning.
What Julia Gillard did yesterday was draw a very clear line in the sand and articulate a view that she has held for a long time where she doesn't believe in a big Australia, where her focus is on sustainability.
I do think that that will make a difference to how the consultation goes through as we put together the population strategy.
But again, sustainable population growth, it was part of your brief before, wasn't it? Do you believe in a big Australia? You used to go to great lengths to say to us that 36 million was never a target of the Rudd Government, it was a prediction.
This is where the focus on the different needs of different parts of the country does have to come into view. Julia Gillard has made statements that are quite different to what had been said previously when Kevin was Prime Minister, and Julia has given her view and her priority there.
What we now need to do is go ahead with that consultation and work out how those different needs in the different parts of the country fit together.
When I meet with mayors from the Pilbara and from those parts of Western Australia where they are desperate for extra people, they do want to have a growth agenda. For them it's important that they note the comments that Julia Gillard made yesterday where she spoke about the importance of the skilled migration program. So that does continue on.
But we need to be open to the arguments about if you have endless urban sprawl in some of our major cities it does carry an environmental dividend in terms of the hit that happens there to the environment. It does carry an emphasis for where we already have housing supply shortages. It does carry implications for the strains that our public transport and roads can be put under.
So the consultation as we go forward, I think will take a different form, and I do think that the public will engage in a different way simply because we have a Prime Minister who has a different view.
Kevin Rudd, the night before he was dumped, warned the party against moving to the right on asylum seekers. Is that what you think Julia Gillard is starting to do with this shift starting on the population policy? Some have even accused you of moving towards dog whistling because of those comments Julia Gillard made over the weekend.
Yeah, I've got to say, Ashleigh, I think it's pretty hard to say that when you start talking about environmental sustainability that that's a lurch to the right. I think that's a pretty big call.
The comments that Julia made about making sure that we do get the right people in the right parts of the country are important. You have a situation at the moment, for example, where we have parts of Australia where there's serious shortages of nurses. Well, you need to make sure that your skilled migration program's getting nurses to those areas.
Before some changes made recently by Chris Evans, we were finding extraordinary numbers of hairdressers coming in under some of these programs. So matching it up, the right people, right places, that is an important thing to do. But I certainly find it a pretty big stretch for some of the commentators to try to claim that talking about environmental sustainability is a push to the right.
Well, Minister, you are in Canberra today. Are you expecting the Prime Minister will today unveil her new cabinet and ministry line-up, and would you like to see Kevin Rudd included in that?
My understanding is that Julia and Kevin had a conversation yesterday. I know that from what I've seen in the papers, and I think, quite appropriately, it'll be for Julia Gillard as Prime Minister to make that…
You're a senior figure in the party though. What are your thoughts? Don't you think Kevin Rudd deserves to have a pick of jobs considering all he has contributed to the party and the country in recent years?
Well, Ashleigh, I don't know what was said in the conversation yesterday. I have no doubt that Julia as Prime Minister will be very respectful of the role of a former leader. But exactly what that means in terms of today's announcements is something that I'm not privy to.
We are going to be looking closely at today's Newspoll results soon with Martin O'Shannessy. But do you believe that these polls are a vindication that you did the right thing in changing leaders, or do you think that Labor would have won the upcoming election anyway under Kevin Rudd's leadership?
The focus has to be on are we going to be the best possible government that we can be. That means the numbers that we have to focus on at this end are making sure we've got the numbers of nurses right, making sure that the numbers of unemployment are remaining low, making sure that the numbers in terms of the deficit, that the deficit is being paid off and that we're moving into surplus in three years' time, three years ahead of schedule.
Those sorts of numbers have to be the ones that we focus on and I think there's a reasonable expectation from the public that we do exactly that.
But it doesn't sound like those were the numbers that you were so focused on last week when the party did decide to dump Kevin Rudd. Some voters are extremely angry at the ruthless way that the caucus did that, refusing to give him a chance to face voters.
Your colleagues keep telling us this was a difficult decision to make, but brutal would be the more apt word, wouldn't it? Do you think voters will forgive you?
I think voters would expect that we make decisions based on what we believe gives us the best possible government to present to the Australian people. I believe that's what we're now presenting.
The glowing poll results might make it tempting for Julia Gillard to go to an election sooner rather than later, do you think?
Everybody knows that an election is due soon, and Julia's made some comments already about the general sense of timing on that. She said that long before any of the numbers you're referring to had been published.
So an election is due soon, but these issues remain, and appropriately, entirely within the call of the Prime Minister.
Tony Burke, thanks for your time.
Pleasure to be here.