Minister for Population
3 April 2010 - 14 September 2010
Built Environment Meets Parliament Conference
16 June 2010
Thank you very much Michael for the introduction. It reminds of why one of the first cartoons that was portrayed after the portfolio was announced was of me as a character in the film 'The Hurt Locker' being involved in bomb disposal.
I think the important thing with the portfolio being created though is that finally we're catching up. Finally here in this building we're catching up to the conversations Australians have been having themselves for many many years. That's the conversation that says, why aren't these things coordinated?
And the challenge in being able to deliver on that level of coordination which the Australian people have always demanded and always questioned why government hasn't been involved. The challenge there is to work out just how big the coordination task is that people are seeking and how much broader is it than the hysterical parts of the debate that can so easily get out of hand.
If you were to see the political debate which has taken place through the media with the Opposition over recent months you could be excused for believing that population policy was entirely about immigration policy. That, of course, is wrong.
First can I just unpack some of the myths about the immigration parts of the debate that have fused their way into population policy.
The first problem has been the use in the political debate of the net overseas migration figure instead of the permanent migration figure. The net overseas migration figure for 08-09 went up to 300,000 and this has resulted in some wild extrapolation of where immigration figures would end up and where our population figures would end up if these figures were to continue.
Let's just start with why that particular figure was as high as it was because permanent migration has remained pretty much constant at the same levels under this Government that they had under the previous Government.
Why was net overseas migration particularly high at that point in time? A few reasons. First of all, overseas students - our universities were making more money from overseas students than they had previously and so we had an increased number of overseas students coming in. Temporary workers, we had a large number of temporary workers coming in to fill a range of skills shortages which were available. Those figures, on each of those areas, are uncapped areas of visa classes; uncapped and made widely available because of changes that were put in place by the previous Government.
The next reason was that we were in the midst of a global recession and fewer Australians went overseas than normally would and expats who had jobs in the northern hemisphere returned home. So we still had a net impact of more Australians leaving than arriving but a variation in the extent to which that was happening which caused a significant shift in the net overseas migration figure. We also had the continued practice, which we have had since the 1970s, of significant numbers of New Zealanders moving here.
But the biggest shift in net overseas migration has been that since 2006 we changed the way we calculate it. So for those people who say well that figure is so much bigger than it was under the previous government. Well yes, in 2006 there was an agreement that the calculation method would change.
The change for the calculation method was really simple. Up until then, in order to be counted in the net overseas migration figures you had to be in Australia for 12 months straight. This knocked out most overseas students. Most overseas students, or a very large number of them, when it comes to summer each year, their summer not ours, make the decision to spend a few months or a few weeks to spend time with their families. They often make similar decisions around Christmas and New Year as well. In 2006 the calculation methods changed so to qualify as being here you only had to be here for 12 out of 16 months. So all those students who weren't counted started to be counted and you saw a very significant spike in the net overseas migration figure.
That, though, has not resulted in a significant increase on an ongoing basis to the Australian population because the permanent migration figures haven't changed much. Similarly, work that is being done in the immigration area under Chris Evans (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) in changing some of the eligibility criteria to make sure that the 457 visa category is being used for labour shortage and not as a way of getting cheap labour. Similarly, in making sure the integrity of the overseas student program is preserved and strengthened has seen some easing in the net overseas migration figure in recent months.
But, to extrapolate that figure and say this is where the Australian population will be in 2050 is engaging in the politics of myth.
Similarly, the Intergenerational Report has resulted in there being an argument that this Government has a target of 36 million people by 2050.
That is not true.
The 36 million figure which appeared in the Intergenerational Report was one of a number of projections. They are projections and nothing more.
They are not a target, not an ambition, not a policy.
So I open with that just to deal with the fact that even in the area where the debate has engaged it has very much been wide of the mark in terms of having a calm, sober and factual debate.
The fascinating thing about this area of policy is how much broader it goes. Population policy and a population strategy reaches beyond immigration and in to almost every area of policy.
There are implications in urban planning, there are implications in infrastructure whether it be hard economic infrastructure or health and education infrastructure. There are implications in the environment area in terms of what happens for future urban sprawl.
There are also significant implications, in what has brought this debate to a head in many ways, since we started to work out if there were parts of Australia with what my farming stakeholders would refer to as carrying capacity. Are there some areas of Australia where availability of water is a constraint that we never really factored in?
Those concepts have all had a big impact on the way the debate has started to evolve and an acknowledgement of the need for there to be someone, in this case me, to have been charged with the responsibility of starting to bring these portfolio areas together. The fact that we wanted to do that in a coordinated way is the reason that the portfolio has been based in the Treasury to allow that sort of coordination in bringing together different work and different principles.
How do you do it?
You need to work out - and Penny Wong referred to it a minute ago with the old maxim that you can't manage it if you can't measure it - we need to work out what are the different things in population policy that we need to measure and what are the policy levers at each level of government that are involved in managing those outcomes.
We need to be able to do that on a regional basis.
One of the great problems of the debate so far is that a lot of it has been about national figures. Now there are some areas where national figures actually are the right figures to look at. When you're looking at the burden on future taxpayers of an ageing population; national figures are the correct economic way of measuring that.
But if you're looking at issues such as overcrowding, such as better urban planning, the availability of different forms of infrastructure and the impact on the environment then a regional focus is actually all that matters. If you take the overcrowding concept. Australia could be a nation of 10 million people but if they all lived here in Canberra we would be massively overcrowded.
So the regional concept is absolutely critical to being able to have some sensible policy planning. That doesn't mean that we need to be engaged in a simplistic, old style, 1970s decentralisation debate. It is more complex than that. There are some areas in regional Australia where the water shortage has been chronic and to say that we would put incentives in place to encourage more people to live there may not be good public policy.
But the person who is in gridlock in a major city who is saying I don't see how you can put more people here with the infrastructure that you have is making as valid a contribution to the population debate as the people I met yesterday from the Pilbara who were saying how can we get some help to get more people to where we live. Both arguments are right. That's why the debate needs to come up with the areas of measurement and policy levers that are capable of dealing with a population policy and a population strategy on a regional basis.
Some of the measures provide us with information that explains why we're dealing with more than an immigration debate. The ABS, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, tells us that over the next 25 years there will be an increase in the number of people living alone by 91%.
Now that means regardless of what is happening with birth rate or immigration rate we are seeing a significant shift in the make up of how Australians live and the requirement both of urban housing and of local amenity.
The biggest driver of natural growth of population has not been the increase of the birth rate that we have seen in recent years; it is actually the ageing of the population.
So there are significant issues in population policy where the demographic nature of the population is shifting massively in a way where government policy would not be involved in trying to stop the shift. I'd hate to think that there are some people who want us to do something about the ageing population. I think we'd land in some dodgy policy areas pretty quickly. But the importance of planning for it is critical and these issues have not, in recent years, be dealt with in a coordinated way.
So there are issues that we need to be able to measure; some of them we are already doing more effectively than we used to and one of the only measurements that has been done to some extent in population policy in Australia has actually been skilled migration where there has been some attempt in recent years to measure where the skilled shortages are and there is some attempt to link that to our immigration program.
It's now being done with a lot more intellectual rigour because of the involvement of Skills Australia. So we have an objective policy framework to deal with that rather than the old practice of individual industries lobbying to get their profession on the list.
But secondly, we also have areas of housing policy where measurement is now being done where it hadn't previously. The National Housing Supply Council has assessed, in June of last year, that the housing shortfall was 178,400 homes. They projected in 2010 that it gets worse by 24,100 and that by 2014 we will have a cumulative shortfall of 304,000 in terms of housing demand.
Making sure that not only are the houses available but also strategically working out what the parts of Australia are where the need is greatest means that measurement, of itself, even before you connect it to a policy lever starts to provide the information that industry needs and other levels of government need to be able to plan more effectively for the future.
We also have the work of Infrastructure Australia, now prioritising projects in a far more objective way than the pork-barrelling exercises of years gone by. If you look at the nine projects assessed by Infrastructure Australia as ready to go and link that to the policy lever that the Government took up funding options for seven of them we start to see there are areas where there are better connecting the measurement to the levers.
But we need to do that on a far more effectively, in a far more integrated way on a regional basis than we ever have in the past.
Now I have said before, and I do believe that Australia is capable of having a calm and mature debate on population strategy.
The challenge though, before we go into a full blown public consultation is to ask the question, what are the issues we're talking about? Because when you get inside any population strategy you very quickly move from simple arguments about immigration to substantial issues of infrastructure and environmental degradation and urban planning. To make that transition to make sure that we're not missing the broad range of issues means we need to first engage in an exercise of scoping the range of issues that a population strategy will need to consider and then use that issues paper as the basis for full public consultation.
In developing the issues paper I formed the view fairly quickly that to get the key opinion makers in one room and say work out what the issues are wasn't necessarily going to be the most constructive way of starting the process of developing the issues paper. We have groups who, for their part of Australia, are telling the absolutely true story but are poles apart from what they might believe are the critical issues that need to be part of a population strategy.
For that reason the consultation will beginning with an issues paper being developed by three separate panels.
One panel involving those who believe that our population is becoming dangerously high and those who believe that a focus on sustainability necessarily demands much lower growth.
The second group will be those involved in business who have a strong view that Australia's future prosperity needs to be driven by high growth.
The third group will be those who don't necessarily have any opinion about whether it should be big numbers or small numbers but have a strong opinion that whatever the numbers happen to be that planning has to be more of a focus than it has been in the past.
I can announce today the chairs of those three panels to develop an issues paper for a sustainable population strategy.
The first group, focusing on sustainable development, will be chaired by former Premier of NSW Bob Carr.
The second group, on productivity and prosperity, will be chaired by Heather Ridout from the Australian Industry Group.
The third group, on demographic change and liveability, will be chaired by Professor Graeme Hugo.
Their job, on each of those panels, will be to work on the same issues paper which I will then release. I am determined to make sure the issues paper reaches all the different and contradictory issues that people want dealt with in a population strategy. The contradictions might be apparent when you're dealing with total national figures but once you get down to a regional level we need to have the policy flexibility to connect the measures to the levers on a regional basis and then provide the planning which we haven't been able to provide as a nation in years gone past.
I don't want to get to the point of public consultation or the finality of coming through with a population strategy and have the argument, well you missed this point. I want to make sure that we engage in a calm and mature debate on this recognising the full scope of the issues that need to be involved in a population strategy.
As these panels go forward with their work and scope out the issues to be engaged in full consultation I do believe that it is possible for the debate to be far more calm, and far more mature than it might have been at various moments that we have seen through the media from some of my opposite numbers in the Parliament in recent months.
Certainly the Australian people need and will benefit from the debate happening in a calm and mature manner and certainly the panels and the development of the issues paper will provide us with a way of saying to people that yes immigration levels are relevant but we need to be more strategic at every level of public policy.
Once we do that and find a way of connecting those forms of measurement with the policy levers, not only at this level of government but at every level of government we'll then be in a position of saying to the Australian public that yes we have heard you and public policy has finally caught up.