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New South Wales: Premier discusses annual migrant intake and comments made by John Button about the ALP.

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VIVIAN SCHENKER: The recent decision by the federal government to increase Australia’s annual migrant intake by more than 10,000 didn’t exactly please the New South Wales Premier. Bob Carr’s been arguing for years that the rate of population growth must be slowed down because it’s not environmentally sustainable. Macquarie Street believes Sydney is being forced to absorb more than its fair share of migrants without any compensation from the Commonwealth or the other states. The federal government has defended the higher intake, arguing it is working on a program to encourage settlement in other areas.


Yesterday Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, met with Bob Carr to thrash out some of these issues. The result is a working party which will examine alternative ways to attract migrants to regional areas. The New South Wales Premier joins us now from his car in Sydney. Bob Carr, good morning.


BOB CARR: Good morning, Vivian.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Is a working party what you were actually looking for?


BOB CARR: No. My basic position is opposition to the policy of constantly increasing the immigration intake. I happen to believe that Australia’s interests reside in having lower rather than higher immigration. But Sydney has a special interest in this, and the interests of New South Wales are important. The economic dynamism of this place attracts a disproportionate share of the migrant intake, even when they’re set up with free housing in Queensland or Western Australia.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: But isn’t at least part of that economic dynamism due to the fact that we do have such a large number of immigrants into this country, and specifically into New South Wales?


BOB CARR: It’s a matter of degree, Vivian, it’s a matter of degree. I believe we can have the economic benefits that come with migration without the excessive costs of funding infrastructure with a somewhat lower level. I was disappointed when the federal government lifted the annual intake from 93,000 to 110,000 and the burden of that will fall disproportionately on New South Wales.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: What do you think a more sustainable figure would be in terms of annual migrant intake?


BOB CARR: I would have liked it held at 93,000. I would have seen that as the upper limit, even seen it drop to 80,000. We just have to steer away from some of excessive hope invested in higher and higher levels of immigration. You have people in business organisations arguing, for example, that we ought to aim to have a population of 50 million. That is totally unsustainable, and anyone who knows the vulnerability of the Australian landscape, Australia’s land, appreciates that. But even less ambitious targets would place huge pressure on Australia in general—I might say on the Sydney Basin in particular. And there’s no recognition from the Grants Commission that New South Wales bears the bulk of the cost.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: It appears to me that we’re talking two issues here. Are we talking about what New South Wales and Sydney in particular can actually bear in terms of numbers, or are we talking about money? Is it simply a question of increased funding? If the federal government gave you the cash, would the increased numbers be more acceptable?


BOB CARR: It would be more acceptable. We could manage better if the Grants Commission built that in to the formulae that determine how the tax intake is distributed among the states. But that would [inaudible]. me with my fundamental objection to Australia going on a high immigration intake route. And I want that to resonate as the fundamental point I’m making, that it is wrong for Australian governments to go for ambitious intake targets. Meanwhile Sydney, New South Wales, has a special perspective on this, but the fundamental starting point is my objection to the policies of population growth for Australia.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: How do you keep economic growth at even current levels if you don’t accept more migrants?


BOB CARR: Running immigration at 80,000 per annum would have no effect on economic levels at all. In fact there’s probably, according to a lot of models, going to be an economic benefit from that. Some sectors of the economy are sustained by policies of ambitious population growth, but there are also economic costs with such a policy. You will never, for example, bear down on the level of taxation which falls very strongly on medium income earners, low and medium income earners in Australia, if you’re struggling all the time to fund infrastructure to keep pace with ambitious goals of population growth.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: The alternative, though, is an ageing population that is increasingly relying on the public purse rather than contributing to it.


BOB CARR: Vivian, wrong, wrong. The economic models that have emerged as this debate has gone on rebut completely the idea that we need high immigration to counter the ageing of the population. We’ve gone beyond that in this debate. We know simply that that is not the case. In fact the latest work done confirms that Australia’s gradual incremental movement to an older demographic is not going to be the economic problem that some people are saying it was going to be.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: I would think that that was still largely in dispute. I think there would be an awful lot of people that didn’t actually agree with you there. But can we look at some .....


BOB CARR: The economic data is very strong on that now. It suggests that higher immigration levels do not have an effect, do not have an effect on the problem of the ageing of the population. The studies have been precise and there are a number of them out there in the public domain now. The debate has shifted, Vivian.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Okay. Well, let’s have a look at some of the measures, briefly, that could be used to encourage people to move not into cities like Sydney but out into regional areas. Are they measures you are happy to look at with the federal government, things like increasing the number of visas for people who are prepared to regions, looking at tax incentives?


BOB CARR: Yes. I want to see weighed more heavily, when the federal government allocates points, a desire to settle outside metropolitan Sydney, metropolitan New South Wales. But I don’t invest huge hope. I don’t invest illusory hope in them, Vivian. I don’t think they’re going to work magic, and that’s why I return to my starting point: lower rather than higher immigration. I say that as someone who supports cultural diversity. I support a measure of immigration. About 80,000 per annum would seem right to me. I think the federal government is being too ambitious and some of its critics in the business sector more ambitious still, and they’re wrong.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Premier, can I ask you briefly while I have you with us, about the comments from John Button over the last couple of days about the federal Labor Party being in crisis? Do you agree with him on that?


BOB CARR: I don’t resort to the word ‘crisis’. I think that sheds little light on it. I think federal Labor is the victim of the political cycle more than an underlying, inherent, fundamental crisis. But, nonetheless, there are very serious points he made in his eloquent essay. I think focusing, for example, on the meaningless factional jousting that has gone on, factional jousting when there have been no issues at stake, no issues of principle to determine. I think he’s right to say that that is a failure of the culture.


But it’s not the reason Labor lost the last election. Labor lost the last election—and we have to face I—because John Howard presented an image of security and conservatism that appealed to voters who might otherwise have crossed over to Labor.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: One of the points John Button was making was that Labor offers nothing that will appeal to those voters. He says basically unless the government falls down, the Labor Party is offering nothing that is attractive to those people.


BOB CARR: There’s an element of truth in that. You see, when Gough Whitlam was leader of the Labor Party he was able to campaign for six years as opposition leader on the need for a universal, compulsory national health scheme: ambitious and expensive, but it was a modernisation of Australia’s health insurance. He could say that if he were elected prime minister he would introduce it. He could say as well that he would introduce Commonwealth funding for schools. These were bold propositions at the time.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: What’s the bold vision for the Labor Party now? What should it be?


BOB CARR: That is the difficulty for federal Labor, because you have an economically educated electorate that observed that economic crisis of 1974-75 and is very concerned about interest rates and is going to be repelled by a program of massive public sector expansion. That’s the challenge for Labor, that is the difficulty for Labor. There is no easy way out of this.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: What about the relationship with the unions? He was also extraordinarily critical about that. Has there been too much emphasis on that, too much energy involved in the stoush with the unions and Simon Crean at the moment over representation, or is that something that really does need fixing?


BOB CARR: I find it hard to see the disadvantage for Labor in having an organic association with the trade union movement. In New South Wales, where industrial relations are pretty good overall, we have a generally cooperative relationship with the trade union movement, and I see it [inaudible] in me as Premier being able to go to a conference of the hospital employees and having a cordial relationship with other unions. It keeps us in touch with workplace realities.


That wasn’t the reason we lost the last election. It’s difficult for those of us who are on the democratic left of politics to appreciate this. We lost the last election because Prime Minister Howard responded to the boat arrivals in a way that appealed to people in suburban and rural Australia. It’s difficult to fit that into our Labor paradigms but that is the fundamental truth of it, and also there was a very high level of prosperity in the economy, as it continues to be, that makes it difficult for any opposition party. We’re a victim of the political cycle. The political cycle did not favour us and Howard’s management of a very sensitive issue did Labor in. I’ve seen the polling. I know that 70 or 80 per cent of the public supported Howard’s stand.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: But is sitting there waiting for that cycle to go round going to be enough? Are you confident, for example, that the Hawke-Wran report will do anything to address some of those fundamental problems?


BOB CARR: I think there will be very, very good ideas in it, yes, very, very good ideas in it. But in the meantime, what John Button said about the sterility of factional jousting that is not over principle, that is not over ideas, that rings true, and we ought to be easing ourselves away from that sort of culture. I thought he put that part of his argument very well.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Mr Carr, thank you very much for your time this morning.


BOB CARR: Thank you, Vivian.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: New South Wales Premier, Bob Carr, speaking with us from Sydney.