Transcript 3AW interview with Tom Elliott

Tom Elliott: All right, well, our next guest actually has carriage of this in the Federal Parliament. He is the Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure. Alan Tudge, good afternoon.

Alan Tudge: G’day Tom.

Tom Elliott: So why don’t we have a population policy? Why don't we have a target of, say, 35 or 40 million people by 2050 and work backwards from that?

Alan Tudge: Well, Tom, we do have a Population Plan and we announced this just a few months ago and in essence, first up we set our objectives. One, we want a population which supports economic growth. Two, we want to support the liveability of our cities and the regions that want to grow more quickly. And thirdly, we want to maintain social cohesion.

Tom Elliott: Right.

Alan Tudge: So we’ve put in place some initiatives to support those ends.

Tom Elliott: So what's the number then? If you have all these policies and you look at economic growth and liveability and social cohesion, all good aims but at the end of the day, you have to come down with a number. What's the number? Where are we headed under this policy?

Alan Tudge: Well at the moment, we are growing at about 1.6 per cent per annum, which has been the long-term average since federation.

Tom Elliott: Yeah, but what's the policy? What's the number? Do you want 50 million people or 40?

Alan Tudge: Well, I think Australia can be bigger. The question is the pace of growth, how well we manage that growth and critically importantly the distribution of that growth, because Dick Smith I think only thinks about it from an inner Sydney perspective, where absolutely it has heavy congestion there. However, you go out to the regions or you go to Adelaide, you go toward Darwin or you go toward Perth, many of those places want more people and do want to grow more quickly. The real challenge that we've got in Australia is that nearly all of our population growth, three quarters of it is in Melbourne, Sydney and South-East Queensland.

Tom Elliott: Sure. But why is it so hard to have a number? I mean, recently you actually did, I think to your credit, cut the total immigration number down to what, 170,000 a year.

Alan Tudge: 160,000. It has been ticking over 190,000, now down to 160,000.

Tom Elliott: So you have no problem with saying, okay, annual number of visas goes from 190,000 a very precise number down to 170,000 or 160,000. And that will define and it can be calculated, you know, you know the birth rate and the average life expectancy and all those sorts of things. Why can't you also have a population target in 20 or 30 years’ time? I just don't understand why it's so difficult.

Alan Tudge: Yeah, so we've actually established a new Centre for Population inside the Federal Treasury and that is going to do some of that analysis in terms of better forecasting and how we need to do to sustain that.

Tom Elliott: But it’s not forecasting. I mean, you can set the target. Set the target and then work backwards from that.

Alan Tudge: Well, yes and no, you can do that. Well in part what we do want to do is have better forecasting across the country, working with the states and territories to understand what is their carrying capacity, how many people do we want to get to in a certain amount of time, and try to gear our policies towards that end.

Tom Elliott: When you work that out, though, will you have a target? A hard target?

Alan Tudge: We won’t necessarily have a precise number for 2100 that Australia will get to and then we’ll stop dead, which I think is what you’ve suggested and what Dick Smith has suggested.

Tom Elliott: Why not?

Alan Tudge: Well you sort of said I think yesterday that we should get to 35 million people and then stop.

Tom Elliott: Stop, shut the gate.

Alan Tudge: Shut the gate, no more babies, no more getting older, no more immigration.

Tom Elliott: No, no, no, you can have you can have a baby or two.

Alan Tudge: Oh, you are allowed to have a baby? Okay.

Tom Elliott: Or two.

Alan Tudge: Or a couple. But whereas what we're saying is that Australia can continue to grow. The question is how well we manage that growth and what the distribution of that growth is. The real challenge and this is important, particularly for Melburnians and Sydneysiders. We've had enormous growth in Melbourne and enormous growth into Sydney and the infrastructure hasn't kept up with that, frankly.

Tom Elliott: No, I know but I mean the infrastructure doesn't keep up because you don't know what the answer is. If you started with the first answer, we will have 50 million people by 2060 and work backwards, that would define the annual immigration target, it would define the infrastructure needs in our cities, you might even define some laws about forcing certainly immigrants, telling them where they have to live. But unless you have it's like setting out on we're going to go for a drive but where are we going to go? I don't know. I'll tell you when we get there, you know. Why not start with the destination and work backwards?

Alan Tudge: Well, we already do have projections of course and different states and territories have different forecasts as well.

Tom Elliott: I know, but the annual immigration rate is the defining thing that as a Government you can change. Now, you can’t tell people how many children they’re to have, unless you’re the People’s Republic of China. But you know that Australians on average have 1.8 to 1.9 children per woman, and so you can put that in your calculations, you can put in life expectancies and so forth. You can predict, and the only variable is overseas immigration. You issue those permits, they’re called visas. You can decide, is it 100,000 or 70 or 200 or 350 or whatever. But they all come up with different populations at the end of them. Why not start with the population you want and work backwards?

Alan Tudge: Well we are actually more starting from the point of view of what we can sustain on a yearly basis, and forecasting forward in terms of what that is likely to mean knowing where the infrastructure is going as well.

Tom Elliott: Okay, right now Australia’s about 26 point something million.

Alan Tudge: It’s about 25 million people at the moment.

Tom Elliott: Okay. So if you say 50 million’s the target, most people are going to say: righto, well right now I'm surrounded by X number of people. In the future, I'll be surrounded by twice as many, all right? And people can grasp that. Whereas when you define immigration of 100,000 here and 50,000 there, it doesn't mean anything.

Alan Tudge: Yeah, sure. Well, in part, we've done that through the Australian Bureau of Statistics which do do projections if you like, of cities and of our country.

Tom Elliott: So what’s the number?

Alan Tudge: The last time they did a very long-term projection, they were projecting that Australia would get to about 50 million by 2100.

Tom Elliott: And is that what you want it to be? Because Dick Smith’s saying 100 million by 2100.

Alan Tudge: Well Dick Smith, I don’t know where he’s got his figure from, because that’s the last time the ABS did one and they don’t do such long-term projections now because it’s so far out there, so many variables going on.

Tom Elliott: But instead of treating it as a forecast, why not treat it as a target? We want to get to no more than 50 million. How many immigrants will be let in?

Alan Tudge: It’s a little bit horse and cart here.

Tom Elliott: No it’s not.

Alan Tudge: Because in part, you've got infrastructure which is being built, you’ve got places which want to grow more quickly, and so we do once we actually forecast, based on our policy settings, what the population is likely to be based on our settings in a certain amount of time, and then ensure that the infrastructure is keeping up with that. Now we've said at the moment, that a place like Melbourne which has been growing very, very quickly over the last decade and I'm from Melbourne, I live in the outer suburbs, grew up in the outer suburbs. I know the congestion pressure which people are facing, and that is precisely why we've reduced the immigration rate, as I was talking about before. Inside of that 160,000 new cap down from 190,000, we’ve also allocated 25,000 positions for people to go to the regions or the smaller cities.

Tom Elliott: I know, but sorry, Minister, you’re talking about all the little numbers. Why not tell us about the big number? Why not just have a big picture issue: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. You have the ability to define those populations via immigration, you do. Why not just start with where you want to end up and work backwards? Like if you're running a business, you say this is where we want to be. We want to be a company that has, I don’t know, $2 million in sales in five years’ time. How do we get there, right? You’re sort of saying oh, these people keep coming in and we don't quite know what to do. 

Alan Tudge: No, that is not actually true, Tom. I mean, it's precisely what I was saying, that we've set up a new Centre for Population. This is the first time that we’ve had it, the population portfolio to actually then put out more considered forecasts as to where our population is going on the basis of what we think the carrying capacity of the country is. Now we've been asking the states and territories who have the primary responsibility for things like water resources and housing approvals and the infrastructure, what is your carrying capacity of your jurisdictions? And then we will try to match the population to fit that, if you like. And that’s why I’m saying it’s a little bit horse and cart. Now Australia does very well out of having quite a rapid population growth. We've always grown rapidly as a country, and we've done well generally. It's made us wealthier overall as a country and it's made us wealthier per capita as well. And in fact, Treasury estimates that about a fifth of our increasing wealth per capita over the last few decades is purely related to population factors.

Tom Elliott: Okay. But again, you’re talking about lots and lots of little things. Is there a hard date for when you will assess the carrying capacity of the country based on the Population Centre and the various estimates?

Alan Tudge: Yes. We’ve said that we’ll put out a more detailed Population Policy in the middle of next year. And following that, there’s going to be an annual population statement. So in essence, we're going to have more detailed forecasts into the future, and then we're going to have an annual statement which will be able to track those forecasts and see whether or not we're on track or not.

Tom Elliott: But where’s the policy though? Let’s say you come up with the carrying capacity of Australia is, let's just say for argument’s sake, of 60 million people max. 

Alan Tudge: We’ll make that on the basis of the medium term forecasts as to where we’re going. But I don't think you can say in 2050, we will cap out in Australia at 40 million people, we cannot accommodate any more people.

Tom Elliott: Course you can, absolutely you can.

Alan Tudge: You are saying that we can't have more innovation? You are saying that we can't have many more people in the north of Australia? You are saying that Adelaide can't grow much more quickly?

Tom Elliott: I’m saying that the average Australian would like a target.

Alan Tudge: You’re saying that regional Australia can’t grow more quickly?

Tom Elliott: The average Australian would like a target.

Alan Tudge: I think that the average Australian who might live in Melbourne is absolutely feeling the congestion pressure at the moment and they want a bit of pressure taken off Melbourne. We get that. That's what we're doing, by the way, in terms of reducing the migration rate, encouraging more to go to those smaller cities in the regions and massively ramping up infrastructure in cities like Melbourne to address that. And then finally putting in place better plans so we don’t get population running in front of infrastructure.

Tom Elliott: I know, but the best thing to have with the plan is to have your end point at the start.

Alan Tudge: I know you’re stuck on this, I know you’re stuck on this, Tom, but I just don’t agree that you can say in 2050, that we will max out a particular number and that’s it, no more innovation. No more people, full stop, which is your point of view.

Tom Elliott: Alan Tudge well, what I’m just saying there will be a certain number of people living here. All right, Mr Tudge, I know you’ve got to go. I really appreciate your time. And Dick Smith will be pleased that at least someone in Canberra is listening, because he’s spent, would you believe, $60,000 on these advertisements out of his own pocket.

Alan Tudge: And well he’s got a very binary view of life as well to say.

Tom Elliott: So do I.

Alan Tudge: And as do you, to say that if your population grows, you can’t have liveable cities. Whereas our view is you can still grow your population, but you’ve got manage that growth, and you’ve got to get a better distribution of that growth across the country.

Tom Elliott: Just out of interest though, if you just had to pluck a number out of the air, is there a number or just in Melbourne. I mean, you grew up in Melbourne, how big do you want Melbourne to be?

Alan Tudge: Oh, Tom, stop. I grew up right on the outskirts of Melbourne, in Pakenham, and I live in Knox now, which is my electorate. And I think Melbourne can continue to grow, but I think we've really been feeling the pressure recently because the infrastructure, frankly, is probably a decade, if not two decades behind.

Tom Elliott: No one doubts that. Alan Tudge, Minister for Population, Cities, and Urban Infrastructure, thank you so much for your time.

Alan Tudge: Thanks, Tom.