This week Prime Minister Scott Morrison set out some important markers on his approach to managing population growth.
In his speech the PM delivered both a spirited defence of the economic benefits of population growth and a message that he had heard public concerns about the fast pace of change in our cities. The resulting headlines were all about immigration cuts and a slow-down in population growth, but it is important to unpick the detail of what he actually said.
Fundamentally, the PM has now made three announcements.
First, there will be a new process for setting immigration levels, the biggest driver of population growth. This will be a ‘bottom up’ process involving the states and territories, that will consider the infrastructure base of various cities, their ‘carrying capacity’ and those leaders' views about population growth. COAG will meet on 12 December to begin this process.
Second, this process will be used to set an annual ‘cap’ for Australia’s migration program, a decision that will still be made by the Federal Government. While the current cap is 190,000 people, for the last two years the migration program has been running at around 160,000. When asked whether the cap might be brought down to current actual levels, the PM said that “it wouldn’t surprise me if any process we went through arrived at that sort of territory”.
Third, the Government had previously announced a targeted measure to encourage new independent migrant visa holders to locate outside of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
So for all the headlines, this could amount to minimal change to our immigration numbers. Certainly it's unlikely to amount to imminent big cuts which would undoubtedly hit employment and the economy hard.
The Property Council has urged the PM not to let the states off the hook when it comes to planning and infrastructure. It’s not the size of a city that is so important, it’s how well they’ve planned for the future. And, as a recent Fairfax-Ipsos poll found, 52 per cent of those surveyed were in favour of keeping or increasing the current level of immigration.
Population growth will remain an Australian reality and one that is most keenly felt in our larger cities. Planning for growth in all our cities – big and small – remains a core task of governments.
After all, immigration doesn’t create bad planning. Bad planning creates bad planning.