Radio National Breakfast interview with Fran Kelly

Fran Kelly: At the moment, every year, Australia's population grows by about the size of the city of Canberra. Three-quarters of the new arrivals settle in either Melbourne, Sydney or Southeast Queensland.

This rapid population growth brings economic benefits to the state but it also poses big challenges. One of the most obvious to commuters is congestion, with the peak hour crush on our freeways and public transport now getting worse. Australia doesn't have a population policy but the federal government is promising it will tackle the problem through new visa conditions.

The Minister for Cities, Urban Infrastructure and Population is Alan Tudge and he'll outline his plan for busting the congestion in a speech today. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

Alan Tudge: Good morning, Fran.

Fran Kelly: You're again proposing making visas for new migrants conditional on them settling in smaller cities and regional areas. Can you tell us more about this? Will there be incentives? How are you going to compel new arrivals to live outside Sydney, Melbourne, and Southeast Queensland?

Alan Tudge: Yes. Thanks, Fran. The essential problem which we've got, which you touched on, is that we've got very fast growth in Melbourne, Sydney, and Southeast Queensland but quite slow growth elsewhere in the country, and what we're trying to do is get a better distribution of that growth so it can help those smaller states and some of the regional areas, which are crying out for more people, and take a bit of that congestion pressure off Melbourne, Sydney and Southeast Queensland.

Now, one of the tools there is through migration because nearly all the growth is due to migration. So if we can get even a few more percentage points of the migrants going to some of those smaller states or into the regions rather than coming to Melbourne or Sydney, then that obviously achieves our objectives.

Fran Kelly: And how would you do that? What new visa conditions are you proposing?

Alan Tudge: Yeah. So how we can do that? We can do that through a combination of incentives and some conditions. Now, we haven't outlined the exact details here yet but it's a relatively straightforward thing to be able to provide incentives for people to go to some of the regional areas or some other smaller states and as soon as-

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] What kind of incentives?

Alan Tudge: …and as soon as- well, there already are some incentives in place. For example, you get additional points through the points-based system at the moment to go to some of the smaller states or to regional areas for example.

So, we'll be looking at things like that. Now, then you can also put conditions upon people's visas as well to stay in a particular area for at least a few years and in that time, you hope that they make it their home; that they settle; that their kids go [indistinct].

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] And you're going propose that? Putting conditions on it like that?

Alan Tudge: Well, that's exactly what we're looking at is the combination of some encouragement as well as some conditions. With the overall…

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] Under the conditions, what would happen if someone then left the place that they'd been settled in? Is there a penalty for that? Is their visa revoked? And how do you keep track of people?

Alan Tudge: Yeah. Again, we haven't outlined all of the precise details just yet, Fran, but I mean, we…

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] Would you like to?

Alan Tudge: [Laughs] …but we've put conditions on all sorts of visas. I mean, even today, if you've got- if you're coming here on a work visa, then you obviously have a condition about being sponsored by that particular employer.

Nearly every visa has conditions attached to it, so it wouldn't be unusual to have a geographic attachment to a particular visa.

Fran Kelly: Speaking of being sponsored, exactly who will this apply to? Because I think I'm right—in your speech you say: 25 per cent of migration is sponsored by employers so those people have to go where the employers are; 30 per cent are family reunions so they need to live where their families are.

So, what migrants will this apply to? And will it be enough people to make a difference to the congestion in our bigger cities?

Alan Tudge: Yeah. Well, as I mentioned, if you look at the growth of Melbourne, which grew very fast last year, about 65 per cent of the growth here in Melbourne where I'm from was due to migration growth. So you only need to take a relatively small proportion of that growth and place it into one of the smaller centres or one of the smaller states and you can make a real difference to Melbourne.

So, that's what we're looking at. Now, you point out quite correctly that we don't want to interfere with the employer-sponsored migration because when a business can't find an Australian to do the job, then we want to enable them to sponsor a person into the country, but about 45 per cent of our visas aren't attached to a geographical location as such and therefore there are opportunities to provide those incentives and encouragements to reside elsewhere.

Fran Kelly: Would that apply to people arriving on humanitarian visas? Refugees, obviously, would need support networks and largely, not exclusively, these are in the major capitals. Would you have to bring in support services if you're going to make people in humanitarian visas move to regional centres, for instance?

Alan Tudge: Yeah. We already have some of the humanitarian intake go to the regional areas and sometimes they do phenomenally well, as you probably know, Fran. I think you might have covered some of those stories.

At the moment, nearly all the humanitarian intake comes into Melbourne and Sydney, and meanwhile though, we actually have places right around Australia including in rural areas which are crying out for workers; and so there may well be opportunities to have further numbers of the humanitarian intake go to those regional areas, where there is local community support for that to occur—and that's the important thing and obviously, you do have to have the services in place to support that to occur as well.

Fran Kelly: We're talking about congestion—are you implicitly blaming new migrants for the congestion in our cities when critics say the real blame should be shifted back to the politicians for poor planning of infrastructure to cope?

Alan Tudge: I'll outline this in a bit of detail in my speech today, Fran. And in essence, I think two things happened, which explain why we've got more congestion at least than what we necessarily should have today, and that is back in 2007, there was an unexpected step change increase in the migration intake by Kevin Rudd, and that means that our population growth has been well above what the projections are.

And second, you had a period, a decade, a while ago, when we didn't have the level of investment in the infrastructure required even for the expected growth, let alone, the supercharged population growth; and so we're in a bit of a catch up phase today.

Now, I think we are rapidly catching up, particularly in a place like Sydney, where as you probably know, Fran, there's infrastructure being built right across the city right now supported by the federal government and in a couple years' time, that city will flow much, much better. But what we need, importantly in the future, is a better planning mechanism which does combine that population planning with the infrastructure and the services planning together and that's also what I'm outlining today as well.

Fran Kelly: I'll come to population planning but one of our listeners—it's Neil—has written in to say: it's business that need to move out of cities, the rest will follow. And that's true to some extent—people go to Sydney and Melbourne because of their jobs, aren't they?

Alan Tudge: [Talks over] Absolutely. Yeah. Well, yes and no. I mean, that's part of it as well that we do want to encourage those regional centres to grow, and in many cases, they're putting their hands up to say: help us to grow.

I've flagged, for example, that we're investigating some fast rail at the moment so we've got some business cases in three fast rail areas including Melbourne, including Sydney to Newcastle and Melbourne to Shepparton.

Now, if those were enacted, of course, that would support the economic growth of those regional areas and take a bit of pressure off Melbourne and Sydney respectively too.

Fran Kelly: Well, if fast trains would make a difference, why doesn't the federal government just bite the bullet and build a fast train?

Alan Tudge: Well, we are doing some investigations into fast trains at the moment and-

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] You've been doing investigations for 30 years.

Alan Tudge: Well, we've got three good business cases going on at the moment and we'll get those back early next year.

I should say, here in Victoria, the State Opposition Leader Matthew Guy has put a very bold plan here on the agenda with four fast rail corridors to be built should he be elected and that would slash the time to get to places like Bendigo and Ballarat, to Shepparton and to Traralgon, so that you could actually reasonably reside in those places and commute each day to Melbourne.

I think that would be a game-changer.

Fran Kelly: You're listening to RN Breakfast. It's 7.45. Our guest is Alan Tudge, he's the Population, Urban Infrastructure Minister or the Minister for congestion busting.

You are talking about population planning and working more closely with the states, but cooperation on a bipartisan level would also be crucial, wouldn't it, for long term planning? And over the weekend, Bill Shorten wrote to Scott Morrison with a joint party plan to tackle population growth, suggesting an independent and expert population task force to make recommendations to governments.

Now, the Prime Minister dismissed that offer, why?

Alan Tudge: I think the Prime Minister in part dismissed it because if the Leader of the Opposition was serious about this, he actually would've sat down with the Prime Minister rather than write him a letter and putting the letter in the newspaper before even speaking to the Prime Minister.

Now, I'm laying out a plan today as to how we're thinking about congestion; how we're thinking about getting a better distribution of population across the country. We would welcome the Leader of the Opposition's support for this plan.

Fran Kelly: Well, you need it. I mean, the country needs it. If population policy changes every time the federal government changes, we're in trouble, aren't we?

Alan Tudge: [Talks over] Well, yeah. Well, and I hope the Leader of the Opposition will come out today and back in the plan which I outline.

Fran Kelly: And does the plan- would the Government be working toward some kind of population target? Because without that, how can you plan?

Alan Tudge: Listen, I'm not convinced that you need an exact number that we're aiming for into the future.

I think what we do need is controlled population growth; and we do need to set out the forward projections of what that might look like and where that might be and have the infrastructure to match it; and ideally, the infrastructure built in front of that population growth rather than behind it, which is what we've unfortunately seen in the past.

Fran Kelly: Alan Tudge, thank you very much for joining us.

Alan Tudge: Thanks very much, Fran.

Fran Kelly: Alan Tudge is the Minister for Cities, Urban Infrastructure and Population. He'll give the speech today.