Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Launch of the sustainable population strategy
Launch of the sustainable population strategy
13 May 2011
TONY BURKE: Thank you very much, Shane, and good afternoon to each and every one of you.
It's a great privilege to be here with you today and also a great privilege to be asked to deliver this lecture. I think it's fitting that an opportunity like this is also marked by some significant announcements. That's why I felt it was important today to use this opportunity as the launch of Australia's first sustainable population strategy.
Up until April of last year, the concept of having a population strategy was not something that was part of Australian public policy. As of today, it is. And in the twelve months that have intervened in the development of the strategy we launch today, there's been an extraordinary level of consultation dealing with one problem that lies at the core of everything we've decided to do.
The problem is this: all the people who are violently agreeing are telling the truth. All the people who are violently disagreeing are telling the truth. They're just all talking about different parts of Australia.
The people who talk about areas that are facing serious congestion where you would ask the question, why would you want to increase the density here when there's also significant unemployment problems, are telling a true story for that part of Australia.
But so too is the employer who is seeing a business opportunity to be able to get ahead and simply cannot advance it because the supply of labour is not available here in Australia or available in their part of Australia. That means this is not the normal situation where the task of public policy is to somehow find where should we land, where's the average position?
This is not a policy area that's about getting the balance right. It's a policy area that's about getting the targeting right and that's why at the heart of delivering a sustainable population strategy, at the heart of having a sustainable Australia, is to get down to the community level and make sure that we have policies in place that deliver sustainable communities.
The work we did to scope out the policy took into account the massive differences that exist across our nation. We took the unusual step of, instead of putting out a discussion paper with a single position, we divided the debate into three quite different sections.
We had one panel, led by Bob Carr, of people largely concerned with issues such as carrying capacity, concerned as to whether or not the environmental limits of our continent were properly being taken into account in our population debate.
We then had a group led by Heather Ridout that was looking very much at the needs of business, dealing with the challenges of an ageing Australia and also making sure that we had that sort of targeting to make sure that our business opportunities were not being held back, leading to all the inflationary pressures that come with labour shortage.
The final group was headed up by Graeme Hugo, a significant demographer and a group of people very much concerned with issues on planning, who didn't necessarily have strong views as to what size Australia's population ought to be, but had very strong views about how you properly plan for the diversity that makes for a strong local community.
This concept of regional difference has very much become the Australian story of today. The differences are stark and you can pick any single indicator and you will find massive differences from one part of the country to another. Just as in economic terms we talk about a two speed economy or a patchwork economy, the population debate provides a mirror image of examples.
Take something like the number of people over the age of sixty-five in an area. You can go to inner Brisbane, the figure runs at 11.5 per cent. You go to the Wide Bay or the Burnett region, you're at 26.2 per cent.
Median house price - go to Kingaroy, you'll find a median house price at 275 thousand dollars. Go to Karratha and you're talking about 762 thousand dollars as your median house price.
Unemployment levels, while across the nation are - our employment growth is extraordinarily strong and well reflected in the figures brought down on Tuesday night in the Budget. But in North Adelaide, the unemployment figure is running at 8.3 per cent, whereas in central Perth, it's running at 3.3 per cent. A gap between the two that is greater than the national unemployment figure.
Net interstate migration '08 to '09 tells a story in Queensland of net growth of eighteen thousand people in a year, whereas in New South Wales, a net loss of nineteen thousand people in a year. And this concept of regional difference is against a backdrop of extraordinary - just extraordinary - employment opportunity coming down the pipeline right now.
A number of these projects still have different approvals to go through. Some of them come before me and for the projects I refer to, there's always arguments back and forth about whether these numbers are precisely where you land, whether it ends up high or whether it ends up a little bit lower.
But just as an indicator of what's in the pipeline right now, the Wandoan coal mine, 1375 jobs during the construction phase. Gladstone LNG, 4000 during the construction phase. Not yet approved, but South of Embley, 630 jobs; Olympic Dam in the news today, if the approvals all end up getting over the line, 10,000 new jobs; INPEX, 2000; Gorgon, 10,000.
Against the backdrop of these employment opportunities sits a myriad of small and medium sized businesses ready to provide a whole lot of ancillary back up for what comes into the growth of the economy. All of that shows there are areas of Australia where there is a demand for more people and the multiplier effect that then produces local economies that grow.
But we have to make sure that we get away from what last year became a simple metric of total numbers in Australia. Because the total numbers argument doesn't answer the question, will the workforce be available where we need it? Will the workforce have the skills that we need to have? Will the communities that are formed be communities that people want to live in? Will they be good, liveable communities and what will be the impact on our cities and our major centres, which will have some people living there in fly-in fly-out, will have other areas that are growing because of the growth of the economy and how do we make sure that on the way through, we end up with a better place to live in Australia, rather than anything less?
The easy thing at a Federal level to do, at this point of the discussion, is to say, well, those issues are a state and local government responsibility and walk away.
That very often has been the approach of the Commonwealth.
But whether it's the employer, desperate to find more workers, or whether it's the person stuck in congestion wondering why it is that their work finishes at the same time that it used to, but now by the time they get home, the kids are asleep, how can we reconcile those two situations and how can we have a strategy at a national level that acknowledges the opening of the strategy?
We're not going to immediately be able to fix all of these problems, but there are areas where we can help and it's time to begin giving that assistance.
There's a few approaches to population policy that in the strategy I launch today we reject. We reject the concept of a population target.
We reject the concept of a population target. We reject the concept of a population cap. All of these questions always get down to an argument about carrying capacity that ebbs and flows depending on what the resources and opportunities and infrastructure is at any point in time.
The one thing you can be sure of if you were today to set a population target in an area or a population cap is in ten years' time you would find in one direction or the other you had got it wrong. People, when I first got this portfolio, wanted to know my view on forty-year projections of population.
Once we get to the core of the economic drivers and making sure that we've got issues of infrastructure being able to be taken into account and acknowledging that so much of the environmental footprint isn't about our total number, but it's about where we live and how we live, then you can see very quickly how easily a cap or target would be able to be disregarded.
Go back five years. You only have to go back that far; no one was predicting the Global Financial Crisis. No one was predicting resources boom mark II. A number of the major resource projects were very much in their early idea stages at that point. The terms of trade were nothing like they've become now, nor was the dollar putting pressure on businesses the way it is now.
So therefore, the concept of a population target or cap is not contained in the strategy today. Similarly, we're not backing population growth as an end in itself. Population growth is good when it serves the needs of local communities and when it serves the needs of an economy. But we don't want to get into some argument of some Ponzi scheme where the only industries that are been created are being created to provide the workforce that's there and is bringing new areas of demand.
You just get this circular argument going around that just makes the environmental footprint worse and worse and actually doesn't add to local wealth. It doesn't actually add to a better quality of life or way of life for Australians.
Finally, we reject the 1970s, old style, government controlled, decentralisation model and there's a really good reason why we can reject that. You don't need government to control decentralisation now to be able to grow the regions.
For the first time in living memory in the Australian economy, the market is actually pushing the growth of regional Australia. The combination of the resources boom together with the choice increasingly being made by retirees to move to retirement outside the major cities, together with the opportunities that are being offered through broadband - where jobs which previously could only be located in a CBD now can be located in the regions or in the outer suburbs of our cities - changes the decentralisation model completely.
It is not a case now for the Government to pick winners on regional development now for us to get behind the market and unlock the opportunities that are there. Some people will say, well, with a whole lot of the areas with the resources boom people will always choose fly-in fly-out and a lot will. No doubt about that. But you don't get the figures that I quoted on median house price in Karratha without there being demand.
You don't get areas now where you can get a pretty modest rental property at more than two thousand dollars a week without there being a demand for more housing supply in these areas. In many cases, it won't actually be the people employed by the major mining operations. It may well be for ancillary services to get up and running. Either way, there are limits that the market wants to break through and there's a role for the Commonwealth in finding ways of doing that.
So the approach strategy is really simple. Through the consultation period, we've been able to go community by community and in doing so we've been able to work out, what are the common examples of the breaks in the market; what are the common examples of the limitations which we face and what are the policies that we can put in place to unlock those opportunities?
Whether it is the opportunity of a regional area that wants to grow or whether it is the opportunity of a suburban area or a city where people want to be able to reduce the congestion, where people want there to be a higher level of strategy and planning into the future than there's been in the past.
If I can take some of the examples of these sorts of constraints and point to the measures which we have now announced this week which go to dealing with them: the movement of retirees, which has been an increased phenomenon in significant numbers as people have shifted out of the cities and moved not only to coastal areas but also to inland areas for a more relaxed retirement, very often find a significant break on how long they're able to enjoy that retirement in the area where they've chosen.
The reason's simple. One of the significant breaks on those communities is, as you have an increased number of people of retirement age, you have an increased demand on health services. For a couple of years now, the Government's had very strong packages, picking up on the need to grow health services in the regions.
In this Budget we've gone one step further in providing, through the telehealth initiatives, opportunities now for Medicare funding and for increased incentives to be able to allow video link to be used for the specialist visit, allowing technology to bring the lifestyle and the choice where people want to live together with the medical services that they need.
Something not possible without the new forms of broadband technology that are coming online, something which the new Medicare payment system announced in the Budget allows to be unlocked for those communities. But one of the greatest examples in the regions of the break is communities where they are desperate to find more workers.
Now let's not forget when we talk about the population challenges that people have, movement within Australia is as significant as immigration in determining the spread of population across the nation. That means when we talk about skills shortage it is not good enough to simply use a fall back on immigration alone.
There is an obligation to increase the training that is done locally and that's been met through massive training initiatives contained in the Budget. 130 thousand new training places, 40 thousand apprentices who'll be encouraged to be able to complete their apprenticeship through the use of mentoring programs, 30 thousand extra places available for work skills giving people the literacy, language and numeracy skills required to be able to be eligible for the employment opportunities that are there.
But backed up against that, 16 thousand places in regional migration, a 60 per cent increase in the regional migration program, allowing us to actually target the skills that the nation needs with the employers who need them. It is of very limited assistance to Australia if someone comes with a skill set that the nation desperately needs and once here simply locates themselves in a different area in a different profession for a whole set of other reasons.
We want to make sure that the migration system works for the economy. That's why there's a significant growth in the regional migration places. We also, though, have to unlock the housing supply in the regions. Building better regional cities which appeared in the Budget papers for the first time, starts on 1 July, allows us to use the work that had previously been done through the Housing Affordability Fund and apply it to the regions.
Throughout the regions we will have local government eligible to apply for the same sort of work that was done through the Housing Affordability Fund, providing the necessary underlying infrastructure that allows new areas to open up. The drainage, the sewage, helping with that underlying infrastructure and as the Housing Affordability Fund it also dealt with planning issues in different ways to unlock housing supply so that fly-in fly-out is no longer the only option in communities where we are seeing massive levels of growth.
Promoting regional living gets right down to the local areas for people in the cities who actually would like to be able to move, who want city living but outside of the major capitals and are interested in those sorts of opportunities. In New South Wales over the last few years, backed by the Commonwealth Government, there's been a campaign known as Evocities. It's been extraordinarily successful in helping some communities that want to grow to be able to grow, to make sure that they can target the employees that they need and target the local business opportunities that they have.
That money now, the 11 million dollars contained in promoting regional living, will allow the opportunity for the Evocities program to start to expand out in a similar way nationally. Many of you will be aware of the great frustration, which from time to time is levelled at whoever holds the environment portfolio - which at the moment is me - and the frustration with the delays that can happen in being able to get your environmental approvals.
There will be costs to business that come with environmental approval conditions. That's unavoidable and it's right and proper that if there needs to be a higher cost project as a way of getting a decent environmental outcome and making sure we don't wreck the Australian landscape on the way through, that we have a process that's able to do that.
But no-one benefits at all from the environmental legislation, simply adding delay and uncertainty to the investment pipeline. If I can give a couple of Queensland examples as to what this means. Since 2005 there have been 22 separate developments in Mackay which have been referred to my department for formal assessments. Three of them are still within my department; still awaiting approval.
Since 2005 and the period since then for Gladstone there have been 57 applications; nine of those still within my department. When we have the system where for every development we have to start from scratch when we get the referral, we find a whole lot of duplication of environmental study; we find a lack of planning of how you actually can deal with accumulative impact and get a better, more strategic environmental outcome and in terms of business, we add to the bill and we add to the bill massively. That's how it currently works.
We've had a system available under the Act that has rarely been used in strategic assessments, where you actually get out in front of the individual environmental application and by getting out in front you do, together in a cooperative way with state and local government, the environmental assessment before you have the applications in front of you and effectively establish an environmental docking station that business opportunities can then plug directly into without having to separately go through the Federal environmental approvals' process.
In doing that we provide a level of certainty for investors and we massively reduce the time lines.
The 29 million dollars which has been set aside for sustainable regional development will allow us to be involved in up to seven different strategic assessments, where for areas where we're getting significant numbers of applications, together with state governments, we can target them and say, instead of waiting application by application for business to come forward, let's do the environmental plan.
Let's work out what needs to be protected and where development can sensibly go ahead; let's give certainty for the environmental outcome and certainty for business that they can plug straight into.
Many of you have seen this process work in our major capital cities. Many of you have been frustrated in some of our major cities where it's not yet in place.
I know anyone here involved in some of the expansive developments that are being sought through housing demand in Perth are very much aware of the frustration in not knowing precisely what your offsets will be, in not knowing precisely what the timeline will be on various approvals.
Where possible, we want to do what's previously been done in some of the major capital cities and use this money to provide the environmental planning for these regional areas where massive growth is happening, but at the moment being assessed one application at a time.
We then have, in the suburbs, a significant ongoing problem with congestion. Last night many of you may have seen a news report which referred to somebody living where he lived ten years ago, working where he worked ten years ago and the travel time having changed from twenty minutes to more than an hour. This is not an unusual story in our major cities. The demand is always there for the infrastructure dollars. There are a few ways of being able to handle this.
In the Budget we have the measure for managed motorways. There are different things that can be done with technology that make a massive difference to how our motorways function. Better technology in variable speed limits, better technology at the entrance of motorways to regulate the pace at which traffic joins the motorways can make up to a twenty-six per cent improvement in travel speed on the motorways.
The Commonwealth is now, through that measure, willing to be involved in providing that assistance and have identified in the Budget a number of the motorways where this sort of technology would be able to be trialled with that measure. Similarly to that we have the Urban Renewal Fund. I know there's been discussion about building better cities and people remembering some of the good work that was done when Labor was last in office in looking at cities as a whole.
The Urban Renewal Fund provides an opportunity for us to be back onto that turf and squarely on that turf. But it's not only about the infrastructure; it's also about the planning. We don't have to always rely on the fact that the outer suburbs will effectively be dormitory suburbs and all the jobs will be located closer to a CBD.
The suburban jobs initiative is about finding ways where the Commonwealth can, in the first instance, help with planning and look at the different ways in which we've helped through the Housing Affordability Fund and see how that can work through in building job opportunities in the outer suburbs.
Every extra local job is a car off the road. Every extra local job is a massive difference in the time lost to congestion. It is a productivity improvement and for many people, quite aside from the economic costs, it's half-an-hour of extra daylight at home, which for people finishing at a reasonable hour should not be too much to ask.
Suburban jobs allows us for the first time to be saying, it's not only about the infrastructure of getting people to work; it's also the planning decisions that lead to where those hubs of employment might be located.
Now all of these measures have come out of a significant process that we've gone through over the last twelve months of consultation. But in the long term, the maxim remains true; you can only manage what you can measure. We had set up - and the work's already underway in establishing environmental accounts. We will now also be establishing ways of measuring sustainability.
They may well be issues like average travel times. There'll be a range of different issues. They may well look at land use. We'll work through, over the next twelve months, the process on precisely what we choose as the measures of sustainability. But that will allow there to be a level of science, a level of rigour that gets right down to the regional level and provides a sort of quality information base for whether or not our communities are growing in a sustainable way; the information which currently is not provided.
But I want to see - and I don't see why we can't as a nation - see us heading towards the situation where in the future people wait and are as interested in the sustainability data as we are on the key economic data. Where we sit around waiting for what key economic data will be announced in any particular week, we should in the same way have high quality data on the sustainability of our communities that can help drive public policy.
The document being launched today, which I understand is up on my Department's webpage now, is called, appropriately, Sustainable Australia - Sustainable Communities. The right way to deal with population policy is not through an arbitrary and ultimately senseless debate about total numbers. The right way to deal with this is to look at the needs and the massively different needs of our different communities.
To look at the communities that are dealing with serious issues of congestion where infrastructure has not kept pace with growth; to look at the communities where there are great opportunities for businesses to get in front if only they could get the people they need; communities where there is a workforce available but the skills of that workforce don't match the employment opportunities that are in front of them.
To get down to that community level and not find which different level of government we can blame instead, but say here's an opportunity for the first time for us to engage and start to help. It's a pleasure to be with you.
TONY BURKE: I'm not sure that you necessarily find different ways of dealing it to what I've been able to detail today. We need to look beyond the concept of, do we simply accept that people will live as far away from their jobs as they currently do. Or, as the strategy's recommending, can we actually start to engage in planning and start to get the hubs of employment in the outer suburbs, to be able to provide opportunities for people to work closer to home?
REPORTER: But is there room for the Federal Government to offer more money for public transport projects?
TONY BURKE: Look, Anthony Albanese has had a different program through Infrastructure Australia at looking at some of those issues and that's certainly been an engagement. It's happened through a different portfolio, but we have been active in that area.
REPORTER: Minister, how do you sell a regional lifestyle to somebody whose family and relatives all live in a capital city?
TONY BURKE: Well I've got to say, I live in a capital city and I would not want to move. I have lived in the same part of the city all my life and love it and I don't want to move. But a large number of the people I grew up with have and you only have to look at the Evocities model.
It's interesting when you go to one of their events because it's not just an advertising campaign. You go to their events, they've been held in Sydney and now to be able to be rolled out nationally and the place is packed. And packed with people who either go to a board where they see employment opportunities or a board where they see small business opportunities. They can then go directly to a store for the region where it is. They've got real estate prices there, they get information about the local schools, they can get a sense straightaway as to whether they'd like to live there and it's been extraordinarily successful.
The opportunities, when the market drives them, do speak for themselves if you provide a pathway for that information to get out and don't forget backed-up by what has been the biggest investment in regional Australia in the Federal Budget.
REPORTER: You've never released - you said there's around eighty million dollars to be spent on reducing traffic congestion, how on earth do you do that?
TONY BURKE: The direct parts of the traffic congestion, there was a sixty million dollar program there under Anthony Albanese's portfolio about managing motorways. What that goes to is looking at different ways you can improve the technology of our motorways. For example, you get very different rates of traffic flow if you have set speed limits, to if you have variable speed limits.
If you have variable speed limits, when you get an accident right up the front, instead of just allowing everyone to pack in behind and until it's in gridlock, you can slow down the traffic on its way in. You get much better flowthrough and, as I said in the speech, the data that we have says that travel times can improve by up to twenty-six per cent through better management of those motorways.
REPORTER: So much of Australia's population [inaudible] bigger cities, [inaudible] to rely on [inaudible] relying on city living, some people would go there [inaudible].
TONY BURKE: That model is something that's being used in different ways. Certainly Victoria is using the model that you describe there. In places like Sydney you've got a large number of people who do commute either from the Illawarra or from the central coast and in Brisbane you've got the satellite cities of people in large numbers who travel back and forth to Brisbane each day.
So there, both issues are relevant, the issues of how do we manage the traffic flow and improve that and it's something that we've engaged in and something that's part of the Budget.
But also, engaging in better planning is a way of providing local employment in those satellite cities, so that not everyone who lives there is reliant on the main CBD for work and you don't end up with the problem of creating dormitory suburbs.
A really good example of this is one of the Queensland examples through the development of Springfield, where to make sure, as well as the public transport hub that's been put in place and the improvements to road, to also make sure you've got local employment; you've got local education opportunities; local health services in a master planned area to live.
When you get good planning, when you get good committee work done in that way then you've got a sustainable community.
REPORTER: Can you see a time when the Gillard Government would put a cap on the population?
TONY BURKE: I think there are natural caps that can come in from infrastructure limits. For example, there are some areas, particularly in regional Australia, where the urban water supply effectively limits the level of growth and those infrastructure issues do provide different levels of limit.
Environmental legislation can put limits on the extent to which we have endless urban sprawl because we don't want to simply be taking continued risk with our endangered species, with our endangered wetlands and the different areas that often seem like a real estate opportunity but where you just say, now hang on; let's just take a breath.
So there are natural limits to growth in Australia. It will never be a case of free-for-all, but we certainly shouldn't ever be just hurtling towards arbitrary numbers or arbitrary targets. As I said, if you were to set targets five years ago, it would have been done without knowing anything that we're about to have a global financial crisis, nor understanding the implications of mining boom mark II, where the dollar would end up, where our terms of trade would go.
REPORTER: How important is the NBN in all of this?
TONY BURKE: The NBN is the key to unlocking many of these opportunities, because let's remember there is one critical thing that broadband does and it eliminates the tyranny of distance.
It means no matter how far away you are physically you can be brought together in communications terms and technological terms. That creates opportunities for you to live away from your education services, but get them; away from your health specialist services, but still be able to reach them; away from your employer, but able to be constantly in contact.
You've seen the growth of home businesses that have started to come from the levels of technology that are already there. Broadband adds a massive new layer to that.
The other thing to remember with broadband, it's just a platform. If you think of when you buy an iPhone, the day you get it from the shop it actually doesn't do much. It dials numbers and it's got an Internet surf engine, but that's about it. It's the applications that you build off it that actually create the functionality and once we've got access in Australia across the nation to high speed broadband, the imagination becomes the only limit on what can be done in eliminating the tyranny of distance.
REPORTER: So how do you feel about criticism, such as comes from the Opposition, about it's just about faster movie downloads and so on?
TONY BURKE: Yeah I'm very conscious of the arguments the Opposition put forward and I know that they often use the argument that Malcolm Turnbull, you know, ran an Internet business and therefore understands it.
I was one of his customer's, I was a customer of OzEmail, it was a very good dial-up service, but it wasn't the high speed broadband that we're now talking about.
Their arguments make sense if you ignore the capacity of the technology, but I think there's no end of Australians who have already begun the work that's going to be proving them wrong.
REPORTER: How are you going to make sure that migrants who come out under this regional migration program, actually stay in the regions and then just don't just head off back to the cities?
TONY BURKE: Oh look, there's a number of ways that this happens, but certainly when you involve your temporary migration systems you can have location or employer as a condition of the visa and so therefore, if someone breaches conditions of the visa there are consequences that follow from that.
The other thing that has had less attention in the Budget is, if you live in regional areas there is a faster track to being able to apply for permanent migration. So the targeting issues which are there mean that the same numbers tell a completely different story because we're targeting them, because we've not just saying once you're in Australia then the market will automatic sort it out. It hasn't and we need to target these issues better.
REPORTER: So in the Budget money was put aside for getting the unemployed back into the workforce, is it hoped those people once they're trained up will move to the areas that need to be targeted?
TONY BURKE: Well, they'll move to a series of opportunities, some of them may well be in those areas. It may well be that other people in their local area move to those opportunities and they slot into those jobs. The important thing is we're not just relying on immigration as a lazy method to cover for skills, instead we're saying no, no, we want people who are not yet participating in the workplace, we want them back in; we want them contributing in work to the economy.
Then, for the people who are already contributing we want to say, can we help up-skill you with an extraordinary skills' package as part of the Budget. Then for the gaps that still can't be filled, we do rely on the immigration program, but in a far more targeted way than we have in the past. Okay?
REPORTER: Thank you.
TONY BURKE: A real pleasure, thank you.