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Labours Population Policy - Sustainable Development: An Intergrated Approach to Population

Martin Ferguson Martin Ferguson AM MP - Shadow Misiter for Regional Development, Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Services, and Population

My friends, I've chosen today to speak on the topic of sustainable development and an integrated approach to population.

In doing so, can I say that I think of forums such as these as important opportunities to discuss a range of issues that are critical to our future. I pay attention to that when I read the names of issues to be covered by the forum here today: from urban affairs and planning to the experience of urban consolidation to save our cities in the face of the information revolution and globalisation. It is clearly a comprehensive and a complex issue.In doing so, I think we need to say at the outset that Labor has argued for some time that we need a population policy and that we need an informed debate to frame that policy.
In this context it is important that we all appreciate that any future approach to population policy should be a broad one, and a flexible one. We need to do a better job than we have previously to understand the interdependence of various policy decisions, and what it all means for our population profile. A population policy for our future requires us to consider a variety of measures. We need to find the right combination of immigration and family friendlypolicies. And in doing so, we want to make sure that we make the right decisions. That's all about what it means for our population profile.

Therefore I suggest that what a population policy for our future requires us to consider a range of issues.

We have to deal with our aging population on a number of fronts: through our health and aged care system; policies that encourage the workforce participation of older Australians; and a sustainable retirement incomes policy.

We have to see where people live as a central part of the population debate. In saying this, I would argue that we need to include the way we develop our cities and our regions.

We have to care for out built and our natural environment. And the way that can contribute to our quality of life in a way that ensures that all development is sustainable development.

Finally, we have to recognise that the most fundamental force underpinning our economy, that is to invest in our people in our region.

My friends, I will come back to these themes.

But I would like to reiterate our integrated approach is necessary. And that is why Labor leader Kim Beazley has a vision for Australia as a 'Knowledge Nation'. That is, a nation that sees the skills, capacities and ideas of our people as the driver of our progress as a nation. It's also a vision that sees renewed emphasis in engaging the broad range of Australians. It gives all Australians a say in decisions that affect their lives.

What about the issue of population scale in the Asian profile? Kim and I have argued previously for a modest increase in our population, including for a higher immigration over the last couple of years. I might also acknowledge in passing, there has been largely an agreement between the Government and the Opposition in the changing nature of the immigration system in more recent times. This actually reflected a change in the labour force in Australia.

Based on the evidence that we have seen and the views of experts in the debate that it would be both environmentally sustainable and to our economic benefit. We have not fixed a figure on a population target, as that fails to appreciate the uncertainties involved. And it also distracts attention from the real challenges at hand to develop an integrated agenda for the sustainable development of our economy and our community. Having said that we do not specify a figure.

I have consistently opposed suggestions by some in the business community that Australia's population should be up near 50 million by the middle of the century. I don't believe anywhere near that number is sustainable. Then go to the issue of the population debate. The population debate has gained momentum over the past few years. And I'm pleased to say that Labor has consistently been leading that debate The issue of an aging population has come to the fore.

Some have noted that our aging population is not as acute as many other countries, and it should be therefore be given less importance. I reject it! I reject very strongly that view. The policies that address the aging of our population are good public policies in themselves. And they are priorities for this nation. They are policies that will ensure that we can pay our way in the world, and that the expenditure we choose to make for non-economic reasons can be afforded.

Policies that reward work, falicitate lifestyle choices of our people, and encourage an active and healthy society; they are policies that help address our aging population. They are policies that relate to retirement, such as superannuation (a requirement that we all make a contribution for our retirement), pensions and aged care. They are policies that help to sustain a decent and egalitarian society.

That in turn takes me to the complex issue of immigration. Our immigration policies are also relevant in this context, athough I would note that it is fertility, rather than immigration that has the greatest impact on our aging profile. Our immigration program must therefore balance competing objectives - if we only take the economic context, we should be favouring young, highly skilled migrants. But we must also fulfill our responsibility as a decent society, and that means recognising the family circumstances of people who choose to make Australia home - through family reunion. But in no way must we return to the previous leaning to an over-emphasis on family reunion sometimes, rather than an emphasis on the economic benefits of immigration.

It also means recognising our international responsibilities to our fellow human beings. Who are fleeing persecution or oppression or simply no longer have anywhere they can call home.

Then we go to the issue of regional development. To those who argue that we need a higher population, I would suggest that part of this approach must be to say: where? The answer is not easy. But if you believe in regional development - one of my responsibilities - then you have to prepare an option to attract and retain these people and keep the young people in our regions. I'm just not talking about people from overseas. I'm also talking about the young Australians of this day and age. The answer to that is about creating real opportunities for people in regional Australia. Real opportunities to work, to study, to access services or bring up families, and to participate in a variety of lifestyle related activities. That's why for example, Labor is looking at strengthening regional universities and TAFEs, and why we believe in more opportunities for regionally based industries.

The real story for Australia, as for our cities, is a mixed one. Some regions and some communities are charging ahead - Sydney's CBD is an example of that. Many are not - White Bay is an example of that. Labor's approach to regional development is one that promotes both excellence and equity. All cities and regions need to improve the way we meet the challenges. Some areas, both in regional Australia, and our cities - and I remind you that while Sydney is surging ahead, some suburbs, such as the suburb I grew up in western Sydney - are falling further and further behind. That is why in those suburbs we need to give them additional support in that process of change.

In the context of immigration we have already stated that we will be promoting migration to our regions partly in recognition of the environmental challenges facing our cities, and partly because we believe in regional development. Labor has a strong history in the area of regional development, dating back to the decentralisation era in the nineteen forties, Whitlam's regional centres growth strategy, and more recently "Working Nation" centres development programs. However, it's fair to say that the history of regional development is one of mixed success.

When the Howard government came to office one of its first acts was to declare that there was no role for our national government in regional development. They proceeded to demolish the Office of Regional Development, abandon all of Labor's programs supporting regional infrastructure, delivering regional services, and fostering regional leadership. When people write about Australian history in the late Twentieth Century, I believe that the Prime Minister's decision to abandon regional development will be seen as one example of a great error of judgment. Maybe he'll do a backflip on that in another six months... Who would know?

My friends, I go to the issue of sustainable development. One of my priorities in the context of my portfolios - regional development, regional services, transport, infrastructure and population - will be to work to ensure that any development that we have will be sustainable. Sustainability needs to be at the heart of our regional agenda. In that context we have to move forward on hard issues about resource management, and the environmental performance of our industry. That will require change in the way our landholders and businesses do things, and we all know that that is not easy. But, just as with debates about globalisation and trade, change is something that we cannot choose to reject.

Perhaps the most important role of government today is to manage change, include people in the process of change, and to ensure that the costs and benefits of change are shared equitably. I would urge people to look at Labor's population policy in this context - of sustainable development that aims to enhance the quality of life of the people across the whole of the nation. Not some sections - not some suburbs, not some cities, and not some regions - but all of Australia.

Then go to the question of a lower population. Those who argue for a lower population, I suggest that you examine that approach in the context of a few global realities. First the size of our population does affect our economic opportunities in the global economy, hence the interest of the business community in arguing for a higher population. The challenge, I suggest, is not to reject development, but to ensure that it is sustainable. Secondly, we face the possibility in coming decades of a global refugee problem that could present us with some tough challenges. And for that reason I also note in passing, the agreement on both sides of the parliament to maintain the integrity of immigration into Australia including support for detention centres.The debate is not about whether those detention centres should exist, it is a debate about how you manage those centres.

Ladies and gentlemen, we also face challenges in relation to the dislocation that results from conflicts that take place that leave people without a safe homeland - and we have seen that in both Kosovo and, closer to our shores in recent time, in East Timor. In these cases we cannot simply ignore our international responsibilities. I raise the issues today to highlight the uncertainties that confront all of us in the next decade. This uncertainty is one reason I hesitate to place to much emphasis on a figure.

To argue for a higher Australian population is not to deny the global population pressure we are facing. There are some in this debate who look at the global population crisis and argue that because we have a devastating impact on our global environment that we should aim to stem world population growth. I agree with that. But it does not then follow that every nation should be looking at a lower population. That is not a logical extension of the global argument.

This all leads me to regional diversity. Consider the parallel argument within Australia. Different states, different regions and different communities have different views on development. I'll give you one example that I've encountered in the last fortnight. I've been having a discussion with Melbourne's interface councils discussing the recent allocations to them under the Howard Government's Roads to Recovery package. Unlike most local councils there was one Council that had a different approach to development. They wanted to retain lifestyle advantages and wanted to change the criteria to better reflect the local preference for public and community transport over road works. As a result of that, they argued to me, that within the criteria of councils to spend a proportion of their local roads allocation, that it should be permissible to spend it on sustainable transport options, suited to their local lifestyle preference.

I raise this example to point out that not all communities have the same view. Having travelled up and down this country, especially in the last eighteen months, working on my regional responsibilities, I can assure you that the call for policy makers to listen to regional differences is very, very strong.

Here in Sydney, many people feel that local development pressures are placing too much pressure on infrastructure, lifestyles and environment. But there are other areas - and you have only to talk to the people in Tasmania, for example - who want a larger population. My point is simple: we have to develop more flexible means by which we accommodate a range of views - at a State, regional and a local level. At the Commonwealth level, our responsibility is to ensure that the overall picture meets our national aim of sustainable development, in the context of changing global reality. I'm not pretending that it's easy, because it clearly is not. Today's forum is an example of the complexities of that debate.

That takes me to the issue of the Office of Population. Labor will establish, as a matter of priority, a new Office of Population to research and advise on a range of population options and ways of getting there. I also acknowledge that the Government has now actively moved to participate in that debate. The first step will be to undertake a wide-ranging inquiry to ascertain the levels of population that can be sustained in the long term in order to pursue more favourable economic, social and environmental outcomes. The Office will play a leadership role in encouraging a wider public understanding of population issues in an open and honest debate.

We need an open debate, underpinned by strong leadership, to maintain public confidence on immigration, which I believe is exceptionally important, and population issues. Labor - I clearly also say - does not pretend to know what the future holds, but we refuse to face that future blindly. We need to look ahead as a nation. In the context of planning for our future population challenges, we also accept that the course of events will challenge even our best-laid plans. We have to embed in our long-term planning the flexibility to be able to respond to the changing reality. Planning is therefore exceptionally important, and there are clearly divergent views in this debate.

Labor's commitment - I simply say in conclusion - is to be honest about our own views and recognise that none of us know all of the answers. We expect others to do the same. Various players in this debate agree on one thing: that is the sense that we are not planning what lies ahead of us as a nation. Maybe I am exposed to that even more than most - through my portfolio work in areas such as infrastructure, regional development and population. I must say in infrastructure, the lack of a transport plan for Sydney is a fine example of that.

My friends in conclusion I'd say that the feeling in the community that we are not planning for our future is very widespread. And when you look at the mechanisms that we have in place for planning, you just can't be satisfied. The sustainable development of our economies and communities, right across Australia, demands that we progress the population debate in a sensible way. That, I suggest, is what Labor's Office of population will seek to do. Thank you for the opportunity to address you today.
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