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Wednesday, 23 June 1999
Page: 6240

Senator COONAN (7:30 PM) —Few would argue that Australia's long-term social, cultural and economic development are all inextricably linked to the size and make-up of the nation's population. This is a topic which I think deserves greater attention than it gets. As an example, critical mass in the national population is an important although often underresearched issue in identifying a pool of people capable of developing technological skills. Without a critical mass, a talent pool is something that other nations will claim at Australia's expense. The United States has recognised this and has aggressive recruitment programs to encourage young and talented people from other countries to take up opportunities in the United States and even to settle there permanently to build the country's knowledge base. I think it rings alarm bells for us.

The forces that change our population are natural increase and migration. A fertility rate of 2.2 children per female would be required for the population to replace itself. The current Australian fertility rate is 1.85 children per female. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has based its population projections on assumed fertility rates, ranging from 1.6 to 1.75 births per woman by 2005-06 and then remaining constant. According to the ABS projections, the rate of population growth in 2051 would be between 0.0 per cent and 0.3 per cent, compared with around 1.2 per cent in 1997. A fertility rate of between 1.65 and 1.8 and net migration of between 60,000 and 100,000 per year would result in a stationary population of between 24 million and 26 million by around 2037.

There have been many expert and, indeed, other opinions, and they are divided on what might be an ideal population target. The reality is that Australia has a below replacement fertility rate and has had for more than 20 years, and there are no signs that this trend will change. The infusion of youth into our population structure has therefore been declining for some time, and I think this is a serious issue for our future economy. The capacity for natural increase to sustain population increase is really collapsing. Moreover, as we have heard so often, our population is ageing. Under current trends, the population aged 65 and over will increase by 100,000 a year in the decades to 2031, and the population aged 65 and over will rise from 12 per cent in 1997 to 22 per cent by the year 2031.

The prospects through to the middle of the next century are for a major escalation in aged dependency for Australia. That is hardly news, but Australia, by default, is drifting towards a position of negligible population growth. By doing that, we risk closing the doors to advances such as those enjoyed in earlier times of spectacular growth in this country.

Any discussion on population inevitably raises the matter of immigration, a topic on which opinions legitimately differ. Some environmental groups, for example, have taken the view that Australia should adopt a policy of zero net overseas migration. Business and industry bodies, on the other hand, have argued the case very strongly for a very substantial increase in the immigration intake in order to increase growth and reduce the impact of the ageing population. Some have talked about population targets of 50 million in 50 years time. I am not arguing for that target, but I think it would be unrealistic not to acknowledge that many Australians have deeply held concerns on a number of migration issues, and we need to address them. Equally, it is difficult, in my view, to find any sustainable arguments against a well-researched and properly thought out population policy that will meet our needs, aspirations and national goals for the next couple of decades. This will mean maintaining the community's confidence in our migration program.

I think it is worth looking back a little bit. It is undeniable that the modern history of Australian society has been built on successive waves of immigration, first from England, then from Europe and more recently from Asia. Each wave has brought with it new and profound social, political and cultural influences. The tide of postwar immigration has transformed Australia into a nation with an open and vibrant economy, a strong services sector and greatly improved health and education facilities. But where do we stand now on the immigration front? There has been a lot of water under the bridge, but immigration rates have been falling since the 1980s. Before that, immigration typically contributed more than one per cent to Australia's population each year—now it is less than half that. This trend is taking place at the same time as birth rates of the non-immigrant population are declining.

The rather stark reality of our declining population base is ample reason for us to rethink our attitude to migration as being both positive and necessary to maximise Australia's potential. The critical questions are what sort of migration will not only swell our numbers but also make a positive contribution to Australia's productive base, and what policies will encourage migrant settlement outside crowded metropolitan areas where environmental pressures already threaten the fabric of our major cities.

If we are to encourage increased migration to Australia—and I am certainly in that camp of persons who think we should—we need to give very careful thought to policies that will assist regional development by encouraging a much more balanced distribution of the migrant intake. Until recently—and, indeed, to a large extent, this still obtains—the settlement patterns of migrants, including skilled and business migrants, has been heavily skewed towards settlement in and around Australia's largest metropolitan centres. The patterns tend to exacerbate Australia's population concentration, particularly in Sydney, which receives about 40 per cent of the migrant intake each year.

The contrast with other cities is very interesting. South Australia, which has some 8.3 per cent of Australia's population, attracts between four and five per cent of Australia's new settlers. Tasmania has some 2.7 per cent of Australia's population but attracts around one per cent of its immigrants. The Northern Territory attracts one per cent. Western Australia, with 9.4 per cent of the population, attracts about 12 per cent, but of course with an overwhelming majority settling in Perth. A similar situation obtains in Queensland, where the great majority settle in the south-east corner of the state.

This raises some very interesting issues for us to think about in relation to the migration program. The government's regional migration initiatives aim to assist regional development by encouraging a more balanced dispersal of Australia's migrant intake. We have introduced a number of initiatives to facilitate this. They cover migration to not only rural and regional areas but also other major urban centres, including Cairns, Townsville, Canberra, Adelaide and Hobart.

Research into patterns of population distribution and the reasons why migrants decide to settle in certain areas of Australia have shown findings which are really not surprising. They show that there are two factors which are of primary importance in making that decision. Of course, the location of family, where applicable, is very important, and the other factor is the availability of employment. The initiatives already in place are designed to be consistent with these findings, and they focus very strongly on the settlement potential of applicants, the skill profile of applicants and, in the case of business skills, an applicant's capacity to both invest in business and create employment.

There have been a number of initiatives that I will not have time to outline to the Senate tonight, such as skill matching, linking up people to available jobs and sponsoring migration to regional areas. There are some very important initiatives. As Australia faces its, no doubt, global future, I think it makes abundant sense to construct a population policy that serves the nation well for the emerging challenges ahead, and the role of rural and regional Australia in this process must receive paramount consideration.