Australia’s big immigration myth
PRIME Minister Scott Morrison has taken aim at Australia's obsession with population growth, saying it is a "fairly irrelevant statistic" and immigration policy is far more nuanced than many of us realise.
Population growth surged to the top of the political agenda in August as the number of people living in Australia passed 25 million, with prominent figures such as entrepreneur Dick Smith warning our "way of life" would be under threat unless immigration was drastically reduced.
In an exclusive interview with news.com.au, Mr Morrison struck a very different tone.
He identified a pervasive myth at the heart of the immigration debate - that permanent migrants from overseas are the biggest strain on Australia's infrastructure.
He said temporary migration and natural population growth, caused by the people who already live here having children, were far more significant factors.
"I've never bought this idea that the permanent immigration intake is the thing fuelling population growth. Because it's not borne out in the actual maths," Mr Morrison said.
"When it comes to population growth at the moment, there are 10 extra people that have got on the bus. Just over four of them are temporary migrants. Just under four of them were born here, a natural increase. And only two of them are permanent migrants."
The numbers back him up. According to the Bureau of Statistics, Australia's population grew by 1.6 per cent, or 388,000 people, in 2017.
A huge chunk of that - 38 per cent - came from the natural increase category. Among the rest, temporary migrants easily outnumbered permanent migrants.
Importantly, growth varied wildly in different parts of the country - a point Mr Morrison felt had often been lost in the national population debate.
"You have got to understand what the population impacts are, not just in terms of how much the national population is growing by. That's a fairly irrelevant statistic," Mr Morrison said.
"What matters is what is it growing at in Melbourne; in the western suburbs; in the eastern suburbs. What is it doing in southeast Queensland? What is it doing in Townsville? What is it doing in Perth?"
In some areas, he said, the combination of natural population growth and interstate migration "eclipses international migration a couple of times over".
"I mean, what are they going to do - stop the Victorians, or stop the New South Welshmen?"
Meanwhile, smaller cities such as Adelaide were simply "crying out" for more immigration, not less.
"The idea of average population growth is about as helpful as average rainfall. It has the same practical meaning," he said.
"You can have very low levels of population growth that are actually being quite unhelpful in terms of what's happening in the economy, or social cohesion.
"You can have high levels of it, which if it's all pretty much skills based and everybody's in a job and it's focused on regional areas, it can be quite suitably absorbed."
The fundamental problem for the government is that most immigrants want to live in our biggest cities, particularly Sydney and Melbourne, and far fewer are interested in staying in regional areas.
The ABS statistics we cited earlier showed 165,000 migrants, or about two-thirds of last year's net migration figure, went to those two cities.
There is only so much the government can do about it, beyond placing conditions on some temporary visas, or rewarding temporary migrants who move to regional areas. Mr Morrison signalled he was open to expanding on those initiatives.
But he certainly can't dictate where permanent migrants get to live.
Some, such as One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, have a simple solution - a big reduction in the immigration rate.
Mr Morrison told news.com.au the real key to the issue was better planning - getting local, state and federal governments to work together to ensure Australia's cities can cope with the increased numbers.
"I had the city mayors around this table last week and we were talking about this, on everything from homelessness services to affordable housing projects," he said.
"We (the federal government) hold levers around tax and infrastructure spending, but even the infrastructure has got to be done with them, because we're doing it in partnership.
"There's a plan. It is not: 'Here's some money, good luck with that, I hope it works out.'
"It's about the shaping of our cities into the future."
The Prime Minister said his government's biggest focus was on "congestion busting", facilitated by the $1 billion urban congestion fund he announced in this year's budget.
"In New South Wales there has been progress because of the partnership between the state and Commonwealth governments. They are putting significant investment into breaking up these congestion bottlenecks," he said.
"We're putting money into the Monash Freeway. We're putting money into rail. We're putting money into projects all around the country.
"The Tulla Tunnel rail project in Melbourne is a great example of that. Where that rail line is going to determine, I think, the urban design of that city for the next 50 years."
The stakes are indisputably high. As Australia's population rises ever more rapidly, can our cities really keep up?