The conservative opposition is tying itself in knots over immigration. It first sought to indulge in scaremongering, but realizing backlash from industry, is now toning down its rhetoric.
Debate has raged this week over whether Australia can cope with a predicted population of 36 million by 2050, with a survey released today by the Lowy Institute showing that almost 70 per cent of Australians think the figure is too high.
AdvertisementOn Tuesday opposition spokesman Scott Morrison said migration levels were "out of control" and needed to be "brought back into perspective".
But he has told ABC's NewsRadio this morning that his comments are not Coalition policy.
"If there is an interpretation out there that this is a wholesale policy, it's not a wholesale policy," he said.
"The way the debate has gone over the last few days, I think there is some misunderstandings about the points that are being made."
Mr Morrison says the net migration rate is about 300,000 a year, including international students and those on working visas.
He says that rate will push the population much higher than 36 million by 2050.
"The fact is that 300,000 net overseas migration will produce a population in excess of 50 million people. Is that a policy this Government is going to adopt?" he said.
Treasury figures show the population will reach 36 million by 2050 with a permanent net migration intake of 180,000 a year.
When asked yesterday if the Coalition would rein in migration levels, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott did not respond.
Mr Abbott said he supported a "strong Australia" but questioned whether the Federal Government was addressing the country's infrastructure needs for such a large population.
Reports say that some opposition figures are angry that Mr Morrison's call to reduce migration was made before any discussion within the party.
The business community has made its unhappiness plain, arguing that temporary migrant workers are vital for economic growth.
Business Council of Australia spokesman Graham Bradley has told Radio National the skilled migration program should not be cut.
"Australia needs a growing population to develop our economy and to of course offset the issues that will arise as outlined in the intergenerational report about an ageing population," he said.
"We need a vibrant immigration policy."
The industry is concerned over Mr Abbott's paid parental leave scheme, which would be funded by a levy on the nation's biggest businesses.
Australian Industry Group chief executive Heather Ridout agreed that there was a need for a national discussion on population.
"We do need to have a national conversation about how we're going to manage a higher population, not just per se but in certain regions and how we're going to manage the demand for skills in certain regions," she told Sky News.
But Ms Ridout warned against taking a "narrow" approach to the problem by toughening up student programs or the family reunion program.
Population Minister Tony Burke said this morning that the government could do more to encourage new arrivals to Australia to take up work in areas that needed it most.
"I do believe there is probably more we can do than we've done in the past in the immigration program in saying if you're coming to Australia there are parts of Australia where we need you to get your first job." he told the Macquarie Radio Network.
"We can set the rules by which people come to the country," he said.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced over the weekend Australia's first ministry for population growth, appointing Tony Burke as the nation's first Minister for Population.
Mr Burke will been assigned the task of developing Australia's first comprehensive Population Strategy, while retaining his current portfolio of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.
The Population Strategy will consider the social and economic infrastructure required to support a growing population, including the roads, housing and service delivery network.
"These issues have never previously been coordinated at a Government level and they require a high level of cooperation with every level of government," Mr Rudd said.
Mr Rudd said the strategy will also consider, as an early priority, the impact of population growth on the economy and the further development of Australia's regional towns and communities.
It will also address impacts of population growth on the environment, water and urban congestion, he added.
"Many Australians have legitimate concerns about the sustainability of the population levels in different parts of the country," Mr Rudd said.
"Particularly its impact on urban congestion, its impact on the adequacy of infrastructure, its impact on the adequacy of housing supply, its impact on government services, its impact also on water and agriculture and on our regions."