Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Disclaimer: The Parliamentary Library does not warrant or accept liability for the accuracy or usefulness of the transcripts. These are copied directly from the broadcaster's website.
Sustainability minister discusses population -

View in ParlViewView other Segments

The new Minister for Sustainable Population Tony Burke joins Lateline to explain the modified
portfolio.

Transcript

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: One of the speakers at a population summit tomorrow will be the new
Minister for Sustainable Population Tony Burke, who's with me here tonight in our Sydney studio.

Good to have you with us.

TONY BURKE, MINISTER FOR SUSTAINABLE POPULATION: G'day Leigh.

LEIGH SALES: Why did your portfolio need a name change?

TONY BURKE: Well, certainly there is a significantly different view that Julia Gillard has to what
Kevin Rudd's view was on the concept of big Australia, and we're at the moment in the beginnings of
a new portfolio which has never existed before in going through the community consultation. Now,
one of the parts of consultation is people want to know what your starting point is. Julia
Gillard's starting point on these issues is very different to what had been said previously by
Kevin Rudd.

And it was important to make that difference absolutely clear, and I think the change in title does
part of that.

LEIGH SALES: I'll come to the question of the difference shortly, but you're the Minister; did the
idea for the change come from you?

TONY BURKE: It's something that I had spoken about, but I'm not gonna go through each private
conversation.

LEIGH SALES: And when did it dawn upon you that perhaps a different approach was needed? Because as
you said, you've been consulting. When did it become clear to you that perhaps the approach Labor
was taking wasn't resonating out there?

TONY BURKE: Well, it is true to say that in - whether it be - in part you can see examples in media
interviews, but you'll find an identical situation in direct conversations. Whether they be opinion
leaders or whether it be general community views, there was a view that the Government had a target
of 36 million.

There was a view that the Government didn't understand that there are many parts of our cities in
particular that are absolutely stretched in terms of current infrastructure and where people have
been concerned about whether or not urban sprawl has any sort of limits.

LEIGH SALES: And when you were hearing that view when you've been out and about, how pervasive is
it?

TONY BURKE: Oh, it's a very - it has been a very strong view, a very strong view. And I know, and
it's been quoted back to me in interviews in the course of today, the number of times I've said,
"No, no, no; we don't have that target." The truth was community believed we did, and it's also
true that Julia Gillard's view is very different to Kevin's and it's important to have a very clear
change.

LEIGH SALES: So perhaps when people were hearing "Minister for Population", what they were actually
hearing was "Minister for Population Growth"?

TONY BURKE: That line was specifically put to me in a number of meetings.

LEIGH SALES: So you've said a few times that you're actually changing policy, that this isn't just
a rebranding, but Kevin Rudd was talking about sustainable population growth as well. In fact let
me quote him from 15th April: "The key thing is to develop Australia's first ever sustainable
population policy." How is that any different to what Julia Rudd - Julia Gillard is suggesting,
sorry?

TONY BURKE: The strategy itself is something that I was given a 12-month timeframe to put together,
and that 12-month timeframe remains unchanged. Now the community consultation, we'd set up the
start of the process of the three panels to deal with that. A pro-growth group headed by Heather
Ridout, a group focused on the sustainability issues headed by Bob Carr and Graham Hugo heading a
group that deals with urban design.

Now, that consultation and that process was underway, but they're certainly in a direction from
Julia now is the work on sustainability is something that she doesn't want in any way sidelined and
she wants a very strong focus on those issues.

LEIGH SALES: So does that mean with those panels, are you putting aside the ones then that say,
headed by the business community that wants to see growth?

TONY BURKE: And you would have found Julia on the weekend made specific reference to the importance
of skilled migration.

LEIGH SALES: But are you disbanding that panel then?

TONY BURKE: Well, no, as I just said, Julia Gillard referred to the specific importance of skilled
migration and the need for those areas where employers are crying out for workers, that we need to
be able to do that. Now that's the work of that panel.

LEIGH SALES: But Kevin Rudd said that too.

TONY BURKE: That's the work of that panel. But the starting point for the community engagement in
terms of big Australia vs. rejecting the concept of big Australia and having sustainability as a
core focus is a different emphasis, and there's certainly some extra work that no doubt we are
going to have to do in working through some of those issues of what urban sprawl means in
environmental terms.

There's some interesting work, for example, that they're doing in south-east Queensland where, as
new housing estates are put in, work's being done to not only limit impact on native habitat, but
also to have to do some rehabilitation work. So there's different jobs that are happening in a
patchwork way around the country. We want to be able to bring some of that together.

LEIGH SALES: Well this different emphasis, as you put it, as I mentioned a second ago, the peak
business groups want growth because they see it as a driver towards prosperity. You've already had
one bruising battle with business over the super-profits tax; are you ready to have another one
over population growth?

TONY BURKE: Well I think you've mischaracterised certainly what Julia's said. The focus on skilled
migration is a very specific acknowledgement of the fact that for a number of reasons, some because
of rapid growth in some sectors of the economy; also because of some under-investment for a long
time in training and education, we have some chronic skills shortages.

That requires a skilled migration program to be able to meet those needs of business. But we have
to also take into account: do some sections of Australia have what - with my agriculture hat on -
gets referred to as a carrying capacity? And I think people started to deal with this for the first
time when we hit some serious water shortages during the course of this drought, that not every
part of Australia is going to be able to have some sort of unlimited, unconstrained growth and
certainly, that concept of where do we have carrying capacity? Where do you have to draw lines on
endless urban sprawl? These are very big priorities for Julia Gillard.

LEIGH SALES: Well, the Whitlam Government embraced decentralisation famously through its
Albury-Wodonga project. Is that the sort of thing that you're thinking of doing when you're talking
about trying to look at places that can carry capacity? Could we see the Gillard Government look at
a policy like that?

TONY BURKE: I'm wary of it being seen as a simple city/country divide. For example, you've had
places like Goulburn that have had to look at trucking in water at different times and you've also
had very serious skills shortages in places like Perth. So it's not a simple city/country divide.
But certainly there are many regional areas that are desperate for growth.

Now, some of this might be possible - and this is some of the work we wanna be able to model. To
date we've always worked on the basis that you have to live near where you work. As broadband goes
out throughout the nation, for some occupations, that's going to change, and exactly what that
means in terms of when you only have to attend the central workplace once a fortnight or something
like that for some jobs, what that means for urban design, what that means for where people live
and how they preserve a new style of a way of life is something that we want to be able to work
through in the strategy.

LEIGH SALES: When you're looking at those questions of urban design and associated issues, water
and infrastructure transport, all the rest of it, don't you need some sort of target that you think
is a sustainable population for Australia? Don't you need an actual number?

TONY BURKE: That might be the case, but the answer will differ for different parts of Australia.
One of ...

LEIGH SALES: But you still add them all up together and get an overall population for the country.

TONY BURKE: Look, that may well be the case. There may well be some areas where there's a need for
more people, but the infrastructure needs to be fixed before you'd look at it. There's some
sensitive calls there.

LEIGH SALES: But is that what you're working towards with your policy?

TONY BURKE: With the strategy, we wanna be able to work through what we can measure and what policy
levers we can use to be able to affect those outcomes. Now, the one thing that I really want ...

LEIGH SALES: Sorry to cut you off. I just want to say before you move on: but doesn't all of that
depend on what you say the number actually is? Because how do you know what levers to pull and what
levers to even use if you don't have a rough idea of how many people you're talking about?

TONY BURKE: Yeah, but this is exactly what I was about to go to. What matters is the numbers on a
regional basis. The starting point for debate. whether it was the intergenerational report or how
these issues are being spoken about in Australia by politicians - not by local communities, but by
politicians for years, has always been, "Let's look at the big national number."

Now that has massively different implications for people in the Pilbara to what it has for people
in Penrith. And the starting point for all of this has to be: how can we get this down to a
regional level? Now if that ends up with a situation where you can add it up for a national number,
you know, I'm not saying, oh, we'd - you know, you'd never do the addition.

But the important thing is that it's actually targeted for the needs of local communities. We had a
whole group of mayors in Canberra a couple of weeks ago and I met with 40 to 50 of them and the
fascinating thing was just how different the views on population policy and strategy were in those
different parts of the country.

LEIGH SALES: Won't you - that 36 million figure is a Treasury projection - it's not a target, it's
a projection, as you've said many times before. If under Julia Gillard you don't wanna be hurtling
towards fulfilling that projection, aren't you going to have to take some steps such as pruning
immigration? I know you've said you'd protect skilled migration, but there's other areas in there
that you could trim. Isn't that something you're going to have to look at?

TONY BURKE: These are issues that'll end up being worked through, so I'm not - there's no way - I
mean, people talk about natural growth and we have to remember as the intro story referred to,
we've got natural growth in Australia no matter what and it's largely driven by ageing population.
So, you know, that's there.

LEIGH SALES: That's fixed.

TONY BURKE: Yeah. So, certainly immigration is going to be one of the issues dealt with in the
strategy, but we're also talking about environmental footprint, we're also talking about urban
design, about infrastructure. It's a much broader pallet in front of us.

LEIGH SALES: Let's turn to the events about last week. What were you hearing in your electorate
about Kevin Rudd?

TONY BURKE: It was ... two things that were coming through very strongly. One was people were
questioning where we were at and what we were doing. And secondly, we were - I was increasingly
receiving comments saying, "But, we think the deputy might be better." And the question that I
think you have to ask, and I notice - I saw it batting away on Q & A when I was outside. I think
the question that you really need to ask at these moments is: would we be a better government? And
I took the view, very confidently, that the best government we could be would involve Julia Gillard
as Prime Minister.

LEIGH SALES: Was that purely - you said people weren't sure what you were doing. Do you mean the
substance of what you were doing? Because that presumably won't change that much, because you've
got basically the same frontbench. Or was it simply a problem of messaging, I suppose, under Kevin
Rudd?

TONY BURKE: Look, when people tell you they don't know, they don't necessarily analyse, you know,
why it is that they don't know. But I - the most important thing for me was that simple question
of: would we be a better government? And I believed we were a good government. I believed that we
would be a better government. And in those situations the responsible thing to do is to put the
best possible government to the Australian people.

LEIGH SALES: Prime ministers often - former prime ministers often play pretty big roles in election
campaigns, particularly at campaign launches. How is Labor going to use Kevin Rudd in its election
campaign?

TONY BURKE: I've got to say I think the media release that Kevin put out today made clear that
Kevin is obviously disappointed about how things have transpired, but is absolutely wanting to help
in whatever way (inaudible) he's able to.

LEIGH SALES: Should he be front and centre at your campaign launch?

TONY BURKE: Oh, I don't think I should be making calls on his behalf, but I do think he deserves a
situation where people like myself do pay credit to the way he's been handling it.

LEIGH SALES: Would you be happy to have him come down to your seat with you and do a bit of
doorknocking and a bit of campaigning alongside you?

TONY BURKE: One of the problems with my seat at the moment is mixing an urban seat with being the
frontbencher for agriculture. And, sadly, you know, before I can start inviting other people to be
in my seat with me during the course of the campaign, I'll be struggling to get there as much as
I'd want to myself.

LEIGH SALES: But would you be happy to have Kevin Rudd there alongside you?

TONY BURKE: Oh, look, there's no objection to it, but I don't want to start to create an
anticipation where I'm trying to work out how often I'll be able to be there for those few weeks.

LEIGH SALES: Tony Burke, well thank you for making time to come in with us tonight. Another evening
out of your own seat. But thank you very much.

TONY BURKE: Good to be here.