Anthony Albanese calls for ‘mature debate’ on population growth

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Labor leader says the government just seems to be drifting along without a plan as our big cities feel the strain

The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, says Australia needs to have a “mature debate” about population growth, saying a damning infrastructure audit has highlighted the strain being felt in our biggest cities.

Following the release of an Infrastructure Australia report that found $40bn in annual infrastructure spending was needed to cope with a forecast population of 31.4 million by 2034, Albanese said the findings were a “wake-up call” for the government to fast track spending on major road and rail projects.

But in comments that may rekindle the debate over a “big Australia” – a concept endorsed by the former prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2009 then denounced by his successor Julia Gillard in 2010 – Albanese said there needed to be discussion about whether the current rate of population growth was appropriate, while warning that parts of Sydney were facing a “crisis” of a lack of open space.

“It’s a matter of appropriate population growth,” Albanese told Guardian Australia.

“One of the problems for the government is it not only has seen significant permanent population growth but even more significant than that is the temporary employment growth that we are seeing of people being brought in for employment reasons on 457 or other visas that are being added, which is an extraordinarily high number of people that continues to rise.

“My concern is that there is, without any real debate, a much higher increase in population than the permanent migration figures show because of the temporary migration that is there, which is a direct product of the failure to plan properly.”

While declining to put a target number on Australia’s population – which is projected to increase to between 37.4 and 49.2 million people by 2066 – Albanese accused the government of “drifting” on the issue without a strategy to deal with growth.

Australia’s population is growing by about 450,000 people each year, with about 270,000 coming from overseas migration.

“I don’t have a target number, (but) we need to have an assessment about an appropriate number as we develop,” he said.

“Migration levels should go up and down according to what lever is necessary to produce the best economic outcome while fulfilling social objectives as well, issues like family reunion.

“From opposition, frankly, we don’t have the tools to do the modelling that is required. What I know is that the government just seems to be drifting along on these issues without having a conscious strategy about what the implications are for these issues, including, one of those is urban congestion.”

Albanese, who represents the inner-Sydney seat of Grayndler, said he also wanted to see a greater government focus on decentralisation, with the IA report warning that most of the country’s population growth would occur in Sydney and Melbourne. Both cities are on track to become megacities with populations of more than 10 million by the middle of the century.

“It’s a matter of sustainability, it needs to be about location as well as macro numbers, and the government doesn’t have a strategy of decentralisation,” Albanese said.

“What we can’t have is what has historically happened of just opening up land release, growth in outer suburbs, people not located near jobs without working out where they will work, where they will access health and education services, where their kids will play.”

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Albanese said that while the issue of population growth had become a pet issue of minor parties who railed against immigration, including Pauline Hanson, there was a need for a “mature debate”.

“I think we can have a mature debate about these issues and we can do it through proper analysis as well.

“The problem with some of the approaches of the far right is that they seek to blame people for consequences of what is public policy.”

The IA report said that most of the population growth forecast over coming years was expected to be urban in-fill development, which would put strain on social infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and parks.

The lack of green space was also turning some heavily developed areas into concrete “urban heat islands” with temperatures 6C higher than elsewhere.

Albanese said that there were parts of Sydney struggling with rapid urban development without proper planning, pointing to the boom of apartment dwelling in the inner south-west as an example.

“Some of the infill around Green Square and Wolli Creek in Sydney, you are seeing significant growth in population without a single new park for kids to play in and without consideration of liveability in those communities,” he said.

“I am particularly concerned about the impact on young people just not having space to play. I know in parts of inner Sydney, literally there is a crisis when it comes to sporting fields and that is an important part of health as well as education.

“There is a role for government in just not allowing the market to let rip and having significant development occurring without looking at the social infrastructure that is required in order to improve liveability and sustainability.”

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