29 June 2010

The Inaugural Population Australia 2050 Summit, Sydney

Thanks very much Andrew and can I thank the organisers as well for being so understanding as time constraints have changed and a cabinet meeting was called for today. I'm very grateful for the change in time that people have been willing to accommodate.

First of all, can I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we're meeting today and their elders past and present.

May I also just refer to - I put out my standard tweet, a comment out on twitter, before I made this speech to say that addressing this summit and someone put back a response straight away saying 'population Australia 2050 that will be a very small Australia' in terms of the numbers.

So I'm working on the basis that 2050 is a reference to the year and not the population size that people are aspiring to.

What I want to do first of all is give a bit of a sense of how I view the population strategy moving forward as we develop it toward a target date of around April next year.

The second thing I want to do is focus on some of the sustainability issues and some of the concepts of regional difference.

Then, thirdly, I want to talk specifically about how we'll be dealing with the consultative process. And I'm going to try to do all that quickly enough so we've still got time at the questions that you want.

First of all, how do you design a population strategy? For years Australians have looked at the many issues relating to population and have said, why aren't these things better coordinated?

There's one area where the coordination has been reasonable effective, reasonably, it has continued to improve and there were some changes over the last year that have improved it further still. But there has been some coordination between skills shortage and skilled migration programs and that level of coordination has been there to some extent.

But beyond that, as a nation, we have not been great at coordinating the issues that relate to population. Part of our challenge has been that we've tended to look at most of these issues in terms of what the national number will be as though that provides the answer to how population will then work within the country.

We're meeting today in Sydney. Australia could have a population of 10 million people and if they all lived in Sydney we would have a problem.

The spread of population throughout the nation is the critical part of these discussions and that is not only an immigration issue. It's also related to what happens when you get internal movement within Australia, whether that internal movement is something that is driven by people wanting to work or people wanting to retire.

Much of the story of population on beautiful, pristine, coastline areas from the South Coast of New South Wales going all the way through up to the Sunshine Coast of Queensland. A lot of that movement has been a story of people moving for the purposes of retirement and moving within Australia. So we are not only talking about an immigration issue.

Then as population does move we have related aspects of what does that mean in terms of infrastructure, what does that mean for your roads, for your transport corridors, what does that mean for urban planning. And also importantly, and often not understood well enough, what does that mean for environmental sustainability?

One of the reasons that people retire to those beautiful coastal areas has been because it's a beautiful area. They want to move to a pristine part of the coast. They don't necessarily want to move to a CBD that looks like Surfers Paradise.

So, understandably, people want to make sure that what makes their part of Australia special gets to stay. A lot of that goes to making sure our planning is better and making sure that environment is part of the total equation.

For a long time, realistically, it hasn't been.

What we've had as a general process of how we've populated has been continued urban sprawl and unquestioned urban sprawl.

That's started to give rise to a whole lot of different sorts of questions. What sort of environmental dividend, or what sort of environmental hit, are we causing as we continue to move to suburbs further and further out? What's happening to areas of food production? In Sydney for example, and I'll put my agriculture hat on for a second. In Sydney you take lettuce and cabbage consumed here in Australia's biggest city and 90% of it is grown within the Sydney basin.

But the process throughout Australia of development of urban sprawl has always been this – people move in the first process to where the soils are the most fertile, then when more people move to where the soils are most fertile we put buildings on top of it. That's essentially been how we've governed some of our best soils that we have here in Australia.

It doesn't mean that we're going to be faced with a situation of running out of food. We export 60% of what we grow. It doesn't meant that there is a massive food security problem. But what it does mean is that in the past we haven't bothered to plan to make sure that our land use is as smart as it's possible been.

These are the sorts of issues that I want to find ways of measuring.

These are the sorts of issues that I want to find ways of having some robust forms of measurement then linking those measures to the different policy levers that might be available.

Some of those policy levers will exist at a federal level, some will be at a state level, and many of them will be at the level of local government. But to make it work we need some robust forms of measurement that we're attaching to those different policy levers.

In a similar way, with urban sprawl and its impact on biodiversity there's some good work being done in South East Queensland where not only are they taking account of preserving biodiversity as new housing developments come online but also that work has to be done for rehabilitation of habitat and improving habitat.

Now with these sorts of issues people say, is this some sort of fringe environmental issue? No. It actually goes to the heart of why people move to different parts of Australia in the first place. It actually goes to the heart of the amenity in terms of why you'd want to live there and what makes it special as your corner of Australia.

Now these are massively different issues in different parts of Australia. The food production issues that I just referred to, you find people talking about those in Penrith at the moment but if you go to the opposite side of the country, from Penrith to the Pilbara, you'll find very different concerns about employers not being able to find the workers they need.

That's why Prime Minister Julia Gillard when she announced the addition of the word sustainable to my portfolio she acknowledged in the same breath the importance of the skilled migration program. She acknowledged straight away the importance of making sure that we do continue to have a targeted program which, of itself, helps boost employment and fills skills shortages for a nation that has been under-training people for many years.

We have taken a hit from some of the cuts in training that happened over the last decade.

The forms of measurement that I refer to are being done in a whole lot of different areas and some of these are now being developed. The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) is now forming what they're calling the National Plan for Environmental Information. So instead of going and looking and adding a vague sense of what the public generally might have, well biodiversity is better here than there. Actually getting some rigid forms of measurement. Treasury is helping them with the development of that.

What I then want to do is see how far we can go in having some robust forms of measurement so that we have a way of working out what is the environmental cost if extra housing developments go in a particular area. Not judging it by the strength of the local community campaign but being able to have some robust forms of measurement as part of that.

You also want to be able to have measurement of that form to be able to look at issues such as congestion, to be able to look at the extent to which you have strains on your highways, on your trains, on your buses, and on the different transport systems.

All of this has to be thought through in terms of the context of how work will look different in one decades time to how it looks now. To date, all urban planning has worked on one principle for people who are of employment age and that is you can't live too far from where you work.

As broadband gets rolled out across the nation for many jobs and occupations that is going to look different. It will be more common, not for every job of course, but it will be more common for people to visit their workplace once a week or once a fortnight. For the rest of the work to be done from home in a way that they are still completely engaged and interacting with the other people who work for the same employer.

Exactly what that means for urban planning is something that we need to be forecast and we need to be able to work through but it does change the relationship between where you work and where you live. The extent to which it occurs we don't know but we do know that broadband is going to drive that and drive that in a very significant way.

So how do you bring together this range of different issues which is both an economic discussion, an employment discussion but also, importantly, a sustainability discussion. To make sure that as the nation moves forward with a population where the growth has always been driven, both by natural growth and by a targeted immigration program. How do you make sure that as we move forward you are still imagining the sort of Australia where people can envisage as the reason they moved to the part of Australia that they call their own home?

I took a decision fairly early on when I started to meet with stakeholders one at a time and realised just how poles apart many of the opinions were that to put everyone in the same room at the same time probably wasn't going to be that constructive. That's why I set up the three panels. That's why we have the panel, chaired by Bob Carr, looking at sustainability issues. That's why we have the panel chaired by Heather Ridout looking at the employment, the growth and business opportunities. To have the panel chaired by Graeme Hugo which will be comprised of people who don't necessarily have a view of whether population should be big or small but do believe that wherever it lands it can be much better planned.

Today I am able to announce that, to each of those panels, we are guaranteeing a direct involvement for local government.

It has concerned me that many of the planning controls don't exist at a federal, or even a state level, but at the local government level. If we are going to make our population strategies work for the future the relationship with local government needs to be strong. Also, local government provides possibly the best way into gaining a window into regional difference.

One of the interesting things when people are so apart of these issues is when they try to talk about their local situation then extrapolate it out to national figures.

At the local level, pretty much everyone is telling a story that for their part of the country is true.

There are areas where you would not, at the moment, suggest that you should have any more people living.

There are other parts of Australia that are desperate for extra workers.

So the panels allow those arguments to be separated. We've chosen people from local government to have a role on each of those three panels.

For the group chaired by Graeme Hugo - Ruth Spielman is the chair of the National Growth Areas Alliance, formerly of Whittlesea Council - she'll be taking membership of that panel. She is also directly engaged already with those areas, particularly in regional Australia, where there is massive growth going on and where those council areas and communities are trying to find a way of making a plan to cope with it.

Nicole Lockwood is the Mayor at the Shire of Roebourne in Western Australia, it includes Karratha and Port Headland. These communities do want growth. These communities have seen some of the impact that you have from fly in, fly out where you have people living in an area but not actually forming part of the community. There's a particular insight that I think will be able to provide Heather Ridout's panel by Nicole Lockwood's membership of that.

Finally, someone who has been very public in the discussions that I referred to before where people move to a particular pristine area, a beautiful part of the country, and they don't want growth to cause an area to lose its natural beauty. That's Bob Abbott, the Mayor of the Sunshine Coast and many of you would be aware of the different campaigns and concerns that have been run out of Noosa over recent years. He will be joining Bob Carr's panel.

Those three people, I think, all tell the story that is critical to any population strategy for Australia. That is one of regional difference.

In their role in their local communities and their role in local government they will understand those regional differences better than any people giving me advice in Canberra is going to be able to provide.

We're dealing with an issue that people in barbecues and boardrooms have been saying for ages – why on earth doesn't government coordinate this?

To take on population strategy is a big task. It has been based in Treasury for the simple reason that it affects every portfolio and needs to reach each level of government.

But if we can get it right and if we can start moving forward on this then we will have a vision of a sustainable Australia and we will have a vision where, finally, government starts to catch up with what the Australian community has been asking for, for a very long time.