ABC Radio Sydney interview with Wendy Harmer and Robbie Buck

Robbie Buck: Well, if you're driving around this morning, it's school holidays, and the traffic's not as bad as it could be. But of course, on a regular morning, around about this time, let's face it, Sydney inner congestion can be pretty tough to get around.

Wendy Harmer: Right, and you think about how many new apartments are being built in this town. Some people say Sydney is full.

Robbie Buck: Well, when the debate is had, quite often the numbers of immigration and people coming to Australia, and particularly coming to places like Sydney, is always brought up.

Well, later on today, the federal Minister for Cities, Urban Infrastructure, and Population, Alan Tudge, will deliver a speech in Melbourne, looking at all of those issues including a plan which would make new- well, including a plan which would compel new visa recipients, new migrants, to live in regional Australia for a number of years.

The idea of forcing, or at least, encouraging new migrants to regional Australia isn't new, but the key of course is how to monitor the movement of people. How would it work? Alan Tudge joins us now on ABC Radio Sydney. Good morning.

Alan Tudge: Good morning Robbie. Good morning Wendy.

Wendy Harmer: I guess what we need to know here, Minister, what are the incentives? What are the carrots, and what are the sticks here? How are you going to encourage or compel people to move?

Alan Tudge: Yeah, if I could just step back one second, the essential problem which we've got which you've touched on is that we've got very fast population growth in a city like Sydney, and also here in Melbourne where I'm from, and yet very slow growth in the rest of Australia, when often they're crying out for more people.

So our overall objective is to try to get a better distribution of that growth. Now, a big part of the growth, certainly in Sydney and Melbourne, is driven by migration. Most migrants want to go to those two big cities.

And so, one of the elements of our plan is to look at providing encouragements and indeed some conditions for new arrivals in the future to go to some of those smaller states or a regional area, which supports those areas and takes pressure off the big cities.

Robbie Buck: Can we talk just about the numbers, because the Bureau of Statistics has put out a lot of the figures when it comes to immigration into Australia since- I mean, I noticed the article today goes back to 1982. Take us through the ebb and flow when it comes to raw numbers coming into Australia.

Alan Tudge: Yeah, so we've had very significant increase in the population growth since about 2007 when Kevin Rudd ratcheted up the migration intake. The migration intake has come off slightly over the subsequent ten years, but we still have very rapid population growth of about 1.6 per cent per annum across the country.

In a city like Sydney it's actually about 1.9 per cent per annum, which is very rapid growth by international standards, it's even faster in Melbourne.

So, as I said, the ambition is if we can just slightly ease the pressure on Melbourne and Sydney, and encourage people to go to those smaller states such as South Australia where the Premier has said to me he wants more people, then I think we support South Australia as well as ease the congestion in Sydney.

Robbie Buck: Okay.

Wendy Harmer: Well, that is quite true Minister. On a recent trip to country South Australia there were so many towns that seemed to be on their last legs, and not enough population to go around.

But let's get to the nitty gritty of this, how can we encourage—using your word there—folk to go to live in those towns.

Alan Tudge: Yeah, let me just address that point though first Wendy. There are places around Australia which are absolutely crying out for more people right now. South Australia is one of them, and in places like Dubbo in New South Wales is another where you've got 2.7 per cent unemployment, they cannot find workers right now.

And yet you've got Sydney going gangbusters. Now, how can you encourage people to go to those regional areas or a smaller state? You can do that through a number of mechanisms through the migration program. For example, we already do provide additional points if you apply through the points-based system, to go to particular states or a regional area. We can look at that.

You can then place conditions upon people's visas, if you like, and we place conditions upon a lot of visas, for a person to stay in a smaller state or a regional area for a few years, and in that time, the evidence would suggest that they'll make it their home, because their kids will start going to school and they'll get established jobs, et cetera.

Robbie Buck: Okay, that's the carrot, what about the stick? I mean, can you compel people to go and move to regional areas, or to other areas, if they come to Australia- I mean, you're looking at five years I thought. Can you compel them to stay in that place for five years?

Alan Tudge: Well you can place conditions upon people's visas, and there's all sorts of conditions placed upon visas generally. I mean, if somebody comes in and they're sponsored by an employer, the condition of that visa will be they maintain that job. And if they haven't got that job, then they'll have to leave the country.

So, it's not unusual to place conditions upon visas, and indeed you can place geographic conditions. Of course, once you're a citizen, I mean, you could live wherever you like, but until that time, you are able to place some reasonable conditions, and that's what we're looking at there.

I should say that this is just one element of the plan, by the way. I know that we're focused on this, but the overall aim is to try to ease the pressure on a city like Sydney, which is growing very fast. Migration is one element. Fast rail is another.

Supporting the economic development of some of the regions is a third element, and perhaps most importantly, which I'm outlining today as well, is just an overall better planning framework, so that we are better matching our population growth and distribution of that growth with our infrastructure expenditure and services expenditure. And that's perhaps the most critical part.

Wendy Harmer: Are you confident that you have the mechanisms to be able to track these people?

Alan Tudge: Yeah, I am confident about that, there's all sorts of things already today where in essence you have to provide your address. I mean, even for things like voting for example, I mean, it's connected to your residential address, so it's not too difficult.

Robbie Buck: Okay, and what kind of percentage of new immigrants are we looking at would have to fulfil those requirements? What sort of figures?

Alan Tudge: I haven't specified that just yet, and there's more detail to come in relation to this. But at the moment, about 88 per cent of all skilled migrants come to Melbourne and Sydney. And a city like Sydney, nearly all of the growth is due to migrant growth.

And so even if you get a small percentage of that migration growth in the future, going into a smaller state like South Australia, it will make a difference just to ease that pressure on the city.

Wendy Harmer: Minister, of course the reason why people do gravitate to the cities and they gravitate to their cultural group is to have some support while they get settled in. How will you provide that support for people who are being sent to, what sounds like, quite remote areas?

Alan Tudge: Well look, it is still what we're talking about in the future is people's choice. Now, at the moment for example Wendy, you can already get additional points as I mentioned for going into a regional area, people exercise their choice in doing that. And that would be the case in the future as well. So, can you have support there?

Well, even if- even a city like Adelaide is becoming more multicultural. Of course, when they're employer sponsored migrations, that's geographically bound, that obviously has to be where the employer is.

With family reunion, it's typically when you're marrying a spouse, and obviously you have to be in the same place as that person you might be sponsoring in to be your spouse, but for 45 per cent of our migration intake, it's not really geographically connected, and so there are opportunities to provide further encouragements to reside in the smaller states.

Robbie Buck: Alright, well we might see how it floats with our listeners this morning. The number here, 1300 222 702. I'd love to hear from you and particularly if you are a recent migrant to Australia too and what your thoughts are about this plan. Of course, Alan Tudge will be delivering the plan later on today at the Menzies Research Centre.

Wendy Harmer: Some people will say, Minister, that you're- well, I guess you're using new migrants as a bit of a scapegoat here, or pawns in what others, what could be said, is a failure of the government to adequately plan for decentralisation, including things like fast rail.

Alan Tudge: Yeah, well I'm certainly not blaming migrants. I'm suggesting that in fact in the speech I outline why we've got the congestion problems today that we have, and that they're greater than what they should be.

And it's in part because in 2007, Kevin Rudd ratcheted up the population growth unexpectedly. And then also, we didn't have the infrastructure being built for the planned population growth, let alone the turbocharged population growth. And that means we're in a bit of a catch-up phase. Now, in a place like Sydney, you can see infrastructure being built right across the city, in large part supported by federal Government.

Now that means in a couple of years' time, the city's going to flow much, much more smoothly. But in the future, we have to have a better planning framework to your point, Wendy, and that's exactly what we're planning on doing.

Wendy Harmer: And will you be working with social services here, because I know our listeners are going to ask, are they going to be having English lessons and support for education and so forth. I mean, it's not just a numbers game, of just moving people from here to there, obviously.

Alan Tudge: No, and again, just let me be clear too. We're talking about people arriving into the country in the future.

Wendy Harmer: Okay.

Alan Tudge: So, you're coming from another destination, and you're choosing to reside in South Australia rather than in Sydney. Second, a place like Adelaide is a pretty big city today, Wendy. There's all sorts of services there, you can get your English language training should you need it.

Robbie Buck: Alright, Alan Tudge, thanks so much for your time this morning.

Alan Tudge: Thanks very much Wendy, thank you.

Wendy Harmer: Thank you, bye-bye.

Robbie Buck: The Minister for Cities, Urban Infrastructure, and Population, Alan Tudge.