ABC News interview with Virginia Trioli

Michael Rowland: The federal government is moving closer to imposing strict visa conditions on some new migrants, requiring them to live in regional areas for five years to help address the population boom that is choking Australia's major capitals.

Population growth has outstripped forecasts by almost 100 per cent over the past decade in Australia's biggest cities, leaving transport and infrastructure sadly lagging.

Virginia Trioli: In Sydney and Melbourne, peak hour travel times are now more than 50 per cent longer than the off peak. The Minister for Population and Urban Infrastructure Alan Tudge will outline his plans to tackle the problem, in a speech he'll make in Melbourne today. And the minister joins us now.

Alan Tudge, good morning and thanks for joining News Breakfast.

Alan Tudge: Good morning, Virginia.

Virginia Trioli: What's your plan?

Alan Tudge: Well, it's a four-part plan. I mean, the first two parts involve heavy investment in infrastructure. The third part involves a decentralisation agenda, taking a bit of pressure off the very rapidly growing population centres of Melbourne, Sydney and South East Queensland, and growing some of the smaller states and the regional areas.

And the fourth element of the plan is actually having a more coordinated population planning process where we integrate our infrastructure investment with our forecast population growth rates.

Virginia Trioli: And so tell us about the move of some—I understand some not all—migrants to regional areas. Is that correct?

Alan Tudge: Yeah, that's exactly right. I mean, Virginia, the essential issue we have at the moment is that nearly all of the growth in Australia is into the three big population centres of Melbourne Sydney, and South East Queensland, and that's putting enormous pressure on Melbourne and Sydney particularly, and we see that in the congestion on the roads every single day.

If we had a better distribution of the growth across the country it would take the pressure off those big cities and help the development of the regional areas and the smaller states. Now, the biggest lever there is the migration lever because most of the growth has been from migration, about 60 per cent of it.

So, even if we get a little bit more of the immigration intake going to some of those smaller states such as South Australia, it helps them and it helps Melbourne and Sydney.

Virginia Trioli: Well, the expert consensus on this, to the contrary, Alan Tudge, on the issue of what's putting this pressure on our cities is not actually the population but the expert consensus from across the Grattan Institute, across to the Crawford School of Public Policy, is that the failure to upgrade infrastructure and also the inactivity of state governments to increase supply is the reason why you have that big infrastructure pressure. That's true, isn't it?

Alan Tudge: Oh well, there's a couple of things which occurred. One we had a very significant increase in the population growth back in 2007 when we had a step change increase in the migration rate put forward by Kevin Rudd.

And the second thing though, Virginia, was that the infrastructure in the past wasn't built to cater even for the planned population growth let alone the supercharged population growth that we subsequently saw. So, we're now in a bit of a catch up phase…

Virginia Trioli: [Interrupts] Sure, but just to jump in there, that actually goes to the point doesn't it about the failure to maintain?

Alan Tudge: In some respects, that's right. So, in some respects we're in a bit of a catch up phase. Now, if you look at Sydney, for example, right now there is infrastructure going on around the city, in a couple of years time that whole city will move much more smoothly.

But one of the key points of my plan as I was outlining before, Virginia, is that we actually need to have a more coordinated concerted population planning process which involves the state governments and more directly determines where a population will grow and having the infrastructure to match it and ideally put in place in advance of that growth rather than behind it.

Virginia Trioli: So, are you going to cut immigration, is that part of it as well?

Alan Tudge: We already slowed down the immigration rate just slightly last year. And we look at the immigration rate every single year. But the key issue here is the distribution of the growth, more than the actual growth number. If we had a better distribution of the growth [audio skip] Sydney and South East Queensland.

Virginia Trioli: How are you going to guarantee that there are jobs for these migrants that you'll force out to the regional areas?

Alan Tudge: Well, we're not- we're talking about some of the smaller states and some of the regional areas. And some of those areas today, Virginia, as you probably know are crying out for more workers, they simply can't get a warm body to do the job. Now, I'm here in Melbourne, a few hours down the road in the beautiful seaside town in Warrnambool, they're looking for a thousand workers today to fill empty jobs. The mayor has spoken to me about that.

I've spoken to the South Australian Premier and he says he wants to grow the state of South Australia by an extra 20,000 people each year, and he'll have to work there to do it. So, the work is there. There are regional areas and smaller states that want to grow more quickly, and if we can support them in their objectives it also takes pressure off our bigger population [indistinct].

Virginia Trioli: Look, I get that but you can't compel people to take a job that they don't want to do.

Alan Tudge: Oh no, but we already have some visas which require new migrants to go to some of the smaller states or [audio skip]…

Virginia Trioli: ..Is what you're describing today just a continuation of that same program where it's targeted visas, it's particular skill shortages that are missing in Australia and employers then apply to actually bring those people in—457s and the like—is this just an extension of that, is it anything substantially different?

Alan Tudge: [Audio skip] is actually only about 25 per cent of the overall migration program. You have a family reunion scheme, which is another 30 per cent. Now, each of those in some respects is geographically located by definition but the rest is not.

And so, there are opportunities for- to be able to encourage people to go to some of the smaller states and the regions and then place conditions upon their visas or at least for a few years for them to stay there. Now, in that time you hope that they settle and they make it their home.

Virginia Trioli: Sure, but how will you compel them to stay there?

Alan Tudge: Oh it's- when somebody's on a visa then we can easily place conditions upon it. Now, we haven't announced all the details exactly how we're going to do that yet but it's reasonably straightforward to do that, Virginia…

Virginia Trioli: [Talks over] How?

Alan Tudge: …Obviously once a person has got full citizenship, then they're able to live wherever they like. That's one of the benefits of citizenship, before that time a person is on a visa and you can place conditions upon that visa.

Virginia Trioli: But let's say, using the Warrnambool example, this person is compelled, required to go to Warrnambool and they don't get one of those jobs and can't find one of those jobs, do you compel them to stay there?

Alan Tudge: Well, Virginia, we haven't outlined all the exact details yet but the overall…

Virginia Trioli: [Interrupts] You're welcome to do that now.

Alan Tudge: Well, [laughs] thank you. Many people do come into the country already on the points based system, for example. And when they do so, sometimes they already get bonus points if they go to the regional areas or they go to some of the smaller states.

But the evidence shows they might use the bonus points to go to some of the smaller states but not necessarily stay there for very long. So, we want to provide that (a) the encouragement and (b) put some conditions upon a person who might want to go to the smaller states, help the growth rate of those smaller states or indeed the regions, and in doing so it takes the pressure off the bigger cities of Melbourne, Sydney and South East Queensland.

Virginia Trioli: Alright and just finally this morning on one of the biggest stories really of the week and really of the decade. As Minister for Population and Cities, I imagine the IPCC's warnings about dangerous global warning must be ones that you're taking very seriously.

It seems a very strongly compelling argument to phase out entirely any coal-fired power plants. Is that your view?

Alan Tudge: I haven't read the full IPCC report yet. And I know the Minister for the Environment will be commenting on it. But we've met our Kyoto targets, we met our- will meet easily our 2020 targets and we'll also meet our 2030 [audio skip] national citizen in this area and we hope that other countries do also.

Virginia Trioli: Alan Tudge, we'll let you go now. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Alan Tudge: Thanks very much, Virginia.

Virginia Trioli: Interesting topic of conversation there. Good morning, Michael. Not much detail there about how people might be compelled, required to go to these areas and stay there. No government can guarantee you an absolute job unless you are part of that point system where there's some sponsoring by an employer to get a particular credentialed person over to fill that job, so many gaps to be filled in yet.