I spoke with The World Today host Eleanor Hall about population and migration. A podcast of the interview is available here, and the transcript is below.
THE WORLD TODAY
THURSDAY 13 MARCH 2014
SUBJECT/S: Population; immigration; asylum seekers; taxation; budget sustainability
ELEANOR HALL: The Labor Party's Assistant Treasurer is calling for a new debate on what has long been a contentious issue in Australia: the size of our population, which is now around 23.5 million. In a speech at the Lowy Institute today, Dr Andrew Leigh is calling for a more respectful and fact-based debate about the population and about immigration. He joined me earlier in the studio. Andrew Leigh, in your Lowy Institute talk today you argue that Australia should have a bigger population. How much bigger?
ANDREW LEIGH: Eleanor, I think picking absolute numbers is a mug's game but I certainly think that we ought to be comfortable with current levels of population growth.
ELEANOR HALL: You say current levels of growth, so not a bigger population?
ANDREW LEIGH: The current levels of growth are a bit above the trend levels that we've had in the previous few decades, but principally I think we have the potential to be much more productive if we expand the number of innovative people coming to Australia.
ELEANOR HALL: Do you have the backing of your leader Bill shorten on this because the argument for a larger population is one that's divided the Labor Party previously, particularly under Gillard and Rudd?
ANDREW LEIGH: It's certainly been a perennial issue in the Australian public debate and I think what's important is that we have a sensible conversation in which we look at the evidence on both sides. The Labor Party's not pinning its colours to the mast on a particular number but we're keen to have intelligent conversations with the Australian people.
ELEANOR HALL: You say that the population debate is essentially one about immigration. Is Australia capable of having a rational debate about immigration?
ANDREW LEIGH: I think we are, and we're a nation which is as open to migrants as any in the world. We're a nation where a quarter of us were born overseas and other quarter have a parent who was born overseas. I, myself, am married to an immigrant and I think the skilled immigration system has in particular been good for Australia. It's ensured that we get that big boost to demand that comes from migration but that all of the pain isn't felt by those at the bottom of the distribution, as you see in the United States for example, where migration has put a lot of downward pressure on those who are earning the least.
ELEANOR HALL: You also say you want the asylum seeker issue to become less partisan. What are you and your colleagues then doing to try to diffuse the asylum seeker debate?
ANDREW LEIGH: I think it's really striking when you look at the debate over Indigenous policy and over refugees. If we look back 20 years in Indigenous policy, there were people making some outlandish claims and very nasty language around Indigenous Australians looking to take land through the Native Title system. That's transformed. Both sides of politics have a degree of respect for Indigenous Australians which is really heartening, but we don't see that on refugees. This language of 'illegals' and 'peaceful invasions' I think is deeply corrosive to having a sensible debate over asylum seeker policy.
ELEANOR HALL: Your proposal that the debate should become less partisan hasn't stopped your colleagues trying to make political mileage out of the recent Manus Island violence, for example? I mean, accusing the minister of having blood on his hands?
ANDREW LEIGH: I think it's important that we behave as respectfully as we can in politics and that we also hold the Government to account.
ELEANOR HALL: Are you comfortable though with the approach that the Labor Party has taken on asylum seekers? Do you really think that what the Labor Party has been doing in government and in opposition has helped to make the asylum seeker issue less partisan?
ANDREW LEIGH: What I've argued in this speech is that we ought to be aiming to save as many lives as possible by preventing drownings at sea. At the same time I think we can be more generous, and I was deeply disappointed to see the Government cut back the refugee intake.
ELEANOR HALL: You point out that Australia's asylum seeker intake has dropped from 20,000 to 13,500. Are you calling for an increase beyond 20,000?
ANDREW LEIGH: I think we ought to aspire to that yes. I certainly think that if you're able to prevent drownings at sea then that's appropriate. But we ought to too be working with other developed countries to try and take more people out of those UN refugee camps.
ELEANOR HALL: You say that you want this debate about Australia's population to be on the facts and on the numbers. Even 20,000 in a refugee population around the world of 11 million is absolutely minuscule, and you point out in your speech that in fact the refugee proportion of our immigration intake is around 10 per cent. Why doesn't the Labor Party put those numbers out there?
ANDREW LEIGH: Well, that's exactly what I'm doing in today's speech and I think one of the real challenges with population is facts and respect. I think both of those have been shamefully missing in the debate. The asylum seeker debate has so coloured the broader population debate [that] it's important to have a conversation about that relatively small share of our immigration intake, while also recognising that the largest benefit that migrants bring to Australia is through the skills and innovation that come through our skilled migration program, which is a majority of our permanent migrants.
ELEANOR HALL: Now as assistant treasurer for the Labor Party, what do you make of Ken Henry's warning that government spending is 'unsustainable', and that Australia's Federal Government needs to either increase taxes or cut government spending or both, and that an increase in the GST must be part of this?
ANDREW LEIGH: We've been pretty firm that Labor doesn't support an increase in the GST but I do think that it's important that the budget remain in a sustainable footing.
ELEANOR HALL: You just said the Labor Party won't support an increase in the GST; yesterday Bill Shorten wouldn't commit to keeping the mining tax. If the Labor Party's not prepared to increase taxes, then if you're going to balance the budget, you must be saying you're going to cut spending?
ANDREW LEIGH: Well we have in Parliament voted in favour of keeping both the carbon price and the mining tax. Profits-based minerals taxation is something which is supported by economists in general.
ELEANOR HALL: Andrew Leigh, thanks very much for joining us.
ANDREW LEIGH: Thank you Eleanor.
ELEANOR HALL: That's Labor's assistant treasurer. Andrew Leigh.