Sky News Live, Credlin, Interview with Peta Credlin

Peta Credlin: Well, the issue of immigration has been front of mind for many Australians in recent years as congestion in our city builds up, housing becomes harder to afford, and population pressures create challenges for the integration of migrants into our local communities, particularly in states like Victoria.

We've seen the rise of African gangs and violent behaviour in places like Melbourne that have sparked calls for a national debate on the issue of integration, but it's been an issue that most politicians—left and right—have wanted to shut down.

Now, at the start of this year, Tony Abbott took immigration head on in a speech in February. You will remember at the time he was heavily criticised by the then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, but he picked up considerable support in the community from people who feel politicians are not listening to them and who want to see a sober and thoughtful debate on the size of Australia's population—how we manage the intake, the services we need, where people will live, what sort of jobs are available; the sort of policy work, to be honest, that governments should be doing, but they're not.

Following Abbott's comments, New South Wales Opposition Leader Luke Foley argued for a cut in migrants to Sydney until their infrastructure can catch up. Former New South Wales premier Bob Carr backed this too, and in recent weeks New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has come down in support of a slow down to migrants to Sydney.

Now, at a federal level, which is where these sorts of policies about migrant intake are actually decided, well, both sides of politics seem reluctant to deal with the issue head on.

In August, Australia's population hit 25 million—22 years earlier than previous forecasts said it would—and it shows, as a nation, we're under population pressure. We are taking some of the largest migrants into Australia in our history and some of these intake, the level of these intakes are world records.

So where to now? Well, a lot's been said by the new Minister for Cities and Population Alan Tudge, with an announcement last week about working to ensure new migrants relocate to regional and rural areas rather than our overpopulated capital cities. It all sounds absolutely fantastic—great speech by the Minister—but I'm interested now in the detail and he joins me now from Canberra, Alan Tudge.

Thanks for your time—great to have you back from that division; glad you got there on time.

Alan Tudge: Thanks, Peta.

Peta Credlin: Good that you're fit.

Alan Tudge: I got there on time; it wasn't an important division, it was one moved I think by the Greens or the independents, so it was quick in and out and back here.

Peta Credlin: Oh, you never know. You don't want to be the bloke that misses it and it's something, you know, that's absolutely essential.

Alan Tudge: That's exactly right. And the Parliament's pretty tight at the moment, as you know. So, you want to be down there.

Peta Credlin: Great to have you. As I said, you gave a terrific speech last week and some of the statistics that really leapt out at me: you pointed out that Melbourne was expected to grow over the last 15 years at half a million, it grew at 1.2; Australia was expected to grow by about 2.5 million, it grew at 5 million—again, over the last 15 years.

You say that most of this population increase—60 per cent of it—comes from immigration, not locally-born population increases. We're adding a Canberra to Australia every year and an Adelaide—you know, population size of Adelaide—every three and a half years. So, we're bursting at the seams; we're doing, I think, more migration heavy lifting than almost any country in the world.

This is a very good analysis of the problem—what are you going to do about it?

Alan Tudge: Well, I also outlined some solutions in that speech as well, Peta, if you keep reading.

Peta Credlin: Oh, I read it—you take us through them.

Alan Tudge: So, in essence I outlined a number of points which we want to implement to, in essence, take the pressure off the big cities, but also support the growth aspirations of some other parts of Australia, because while that is true that we've been growing very fast, we've actually had nearly all the growth in the three big capitals of Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, and anaemic growth elsewhere, including in the regions, when often they're actually crying out for more people.

I mean, the South Australian Premier said that he wants an additional 10–20,000 people more each year in South Australia.

So, one of the plans that we have is to see if we can settle more people into South Australia and into the regions which need more people and want more people, which would support them as well as take pressure off the big cities.

Of course, we also have to continue to invest in the infrastructure, which we're doing at record levels. And finally—and this is also, I think, the most important—is we do need a better planning framework which integrates more closely our overall population measures and our immigration measures with the state-based infrastructure and service support, because the problem with our federation is we're largely in control of the population levers; it's largely the states that are in control of the services and the infrastructure being built on the ground and we need a better planning framework to merge those two.

Peta Credlin: I want to pull apart two things there you talk about: a population plan and the issues in relation to regional communities. I put the regional communities and smaller-population states like South Australia to one side. Let's talk about your population plan. Australia doesn't have, it hasn't had a population plan.

It's happenstance that we arrive at those numbers because they're built into the underlying Budget forecasts. I regard immigration numbers as a Ponzi scheme in the federal Budget because a lot of the cost with migrant intakes at record levels is borne by the states, but the benefit sits there in the Commonwealth's growth forecast.

Do you propose an actual plan that people will be able to read as a policy before the election? Is that what you mean by a population plan?

Alan Tudge: Yeah, we will have a population strategy before the election, which we will have a document out there for the Australian people. But you were outlining earlier, Peta, talking about the fact that we grew well in excess of expectations, and in part that occurred because in 2007 when Kevin Rudd came in, he almost overnight, without telling anybody, doubled the immigration intake and that turbo-charged our population growth.

At the same time, or at least a few years earlier, you had Bob Carr in New South Wales, at least, saying that Sydney was full. And so this is where you had the disconnect between the state and the federal governments, a very clear one: a state premier's saying that we're full, not building for the future; a few years later you have the prime minister turbo-charging the population growth.

So, what I'm saying is that you have to better align those. We have to have a planning framework which takes into account different states' ambitions for population growth, different regional ambitions for population growth, and then blend our- and then plan accordingly the infrastructure and the services to sit alongside that.

Peta Credlin: So, Minister, are you going to actually have a number, though, in your plan? And are you going to- I know recently Peter Dutton had some drop in the numbers, but that was focused on permanent migration numbers.

Of course, net overseas migration picks up the permanent and the temporary—anyone here on a visa at any given time. So people at home understand, it doesn't matter whether they're here permanently or temporarily—if they're sitting in the traffic or on the tram or trying to get into the public hospital, an extra person is an extra person regardless of the visa category.

Are you going to address the net overseas migration and will your population plan actually have a number in it?

Alan Tudge: To the first question, which largely you're talking about the immigration levels. As you point out, last year we did bring down the permanent migration levels to the lowest level actually in a decade, and they're basically the same rate as in the last year of the Howard Government and as a percentage of the population, actually lower than the final year of the Howard Government.

In terms of the temporary migration, which is the other half, we're expected to see a slowdown of that this year for a variety of different reasons. So, we are seeing a slowdown of permanent migration and of temporary migration as well.

In terms of putting an absolute-

Peta Credlin: [Interrupts] Let me interrupt, sorry.

Alan Tudge: Sure.

Peta Credlin: But the last lot of ABS numbers that came out on your watch, your Government's watch, were the third highest in Australia's history. Yes, Kevin Rudd—I hear your point. He had two years where he had number one and number two in terms of Australian record immigration numbers, but you had record number three. So, will they come down and will you have a number in your population policy?

Alan Tudge: Yeah, the growth rate will come down this year and it will do so for a few reasons. Certainly in terms of, for example, the 457s, which are a short-term working visa, we've basically halved those numbers since we first came to office.

It's likely that the Kiwi numbers are also coming off slightly, and some of the other numbers are slightly coming off. Now, a considerable part of the growth in the last few years has also been just tourist numbers.

Now, we want tourists, we're trying to encourage them to come here because they bring money into the country; same with international students. That's been a large part of the growth in the temporary migration as well. And again, we welcome international tourists. So, we've got to get that balance right. But net overall, the growth…

Peta Credlin: [Talks over] Will we have a number, Alan Tudge?

Alan Tudge:   But net—I'm just sort of explaining—the net, the growth rate is coming off. Now, will we have an absolute number overall? There are forecasts in the budgets in terms of the net overseas migration. And over the forward estimates, Peta, they do come down with that- which is the combination of permanent and temporary.

I'm asked, quite often: do we need an overall aggregate number for, say, 30 years' time? And in part, I'm not sure about that. I actually think that we need to manage the population growth, constantly have projections, and track ourselves against those projections. But the key thing is to manage the growth and have the infrastructure to support it, rather than necessarily having a target number in 30 years' time, which we're aiming to hit or not hit.

Peta Credlin: Okay, the quick thing I have to deal with before we go to a break—and I'm sorry we have run out of time—but how will you get migrants to country areas if there are no jobs, or there are pressures on education and health services? And how will you keep them there, because I don't think that we're going to have spot audits of people to say that they're living in the country town they said they would move to?

Alan Tudge:   Yeah, a couple of things. Firstly, it's a misnomer to say that there's no jobs in the smaller cities such as Adelaide or Hobart or Perth or the regional centres. Indeed, there was a report put out today by the Regional Migration Institute (Regional Australia institute) which said there's 46,000 vacancies in the region today. There are jobs going begging today.

Now, in relation to how you actually keep people into the regions—we already do that, Peta. We do that through the 489 visa, which already has conditions upon that visa to stay in the regional area, if indeed you choose to accept that visa and go and work in that regional area. And that's policed quite well, the people will have to stay there for two years. And the breaching of that visa is tiny, about 0.2 per cent of all the visas overall given.

So, we've got a methodology for doing that. So, it's not a radical idea, this. But what we do know is there are smaller states, there are regions that want more people. Meanwhile, we want to take the pressure of Melbourne, Sydney, Southeast Queensland; we can actually solve both problems at once through this decentralisation plan.

Peta Credlin: Okay, I'm going to have to leave it there. I'm sorry we've run out of time. Will you commit to me to please come back when you've got a little bit more flesh on the bones, when you've got some policies there, hopefully legislation this side of an election, fingers crossed, and go through it in detail. Because I tell you, it's one of these issues I am deluged about from ordinary people who are concerned about where Australia is headed.

Alan Tudge:   Yeah, absolutely Peta. Now, I've been talking about some of these all year. We have got good plans coming up and they will be announced well before the election.

Peta Credlin: Excellent. Thank you, Minister. You're one of the bright ones down there in Canberra, so I'm glad you're in that portfolio and not wasted somewhere else.

Alan Tudge: [Talks over] Thanks, Peta.

Peta Credlin: Thanks for your time, Alan Tudge.

Alan Tudge: Thank you.