Ms Gillard announced Labor would produce what is in effect a two-speed immigration policy to match Australia’s two-speed economy, but admitted it was “a very difficult problem”.
“Australia should not hurtle down the track towards a big population,” she said.
As the new Prime Minister got down to the serious work ahead, she yesterday reached out to the people of western Sydney, whose number-one concern is asylum-seekers, according to internal Labor Party polling.
The polling found Labor was in serious trouble in western Sydney, with its primary vote dropping as low as 30 per cent and the asylum-seeker issue overriding all others.
“If you spoke to the people of western Sydney, for example, about a ‘big Australia’ they would laugh at you and ask you a very simple question: where will these 40 million people go?” Ms Gillard said.
She said the new policy was not intended to open an immigration debate. “This is not about bringing down the shutters in immigration,” she said.
“It is a debate about planning affected by many factors – water supply, open space, infrastructure, ensuring the appropriate tax base to support our ageing population, the need for skills and the need to preserve a good quality life.
“Parts of Australia are desperate for workers, but other parts are desperate for jobs; having a smart and sustainable population strategy coupled with the right skills strategy will help improve this balance.”
She has consequently renamed Tony Burke’s portfolio the Ministry of “Sustainable” Population, and announced he will produce a comprehensive policy in answer to the population problem later this year.
Labor insiders believe an election could come at any time, given the new leader’s bounce in early polling.
Ms Gillard, herself a “10-pound Pom”, who came to Australia in 1966 from Wales, said she understood how important immigration was, but said arbitrary targets were not the answer.
“I do not support the idea of setting arbitrary (population) targets of, say, ‘a 40-million-strong Australia’.
“I don’t want business to be held back because they couldn’t find the right workers. That’s why skilled migration is so important.
“But I also don’t want areas of Australia with 25 per cent youth unemployment because there are no jobs.”
Ms Gillard began work at 9am yesterday with a classified briefing with defence chiefs and her Defence Minister John Faulkner.
She joked with the Chief of the Defence Force Angus Houston about forcing him to miss his morning bicycle ride.
“Saturday morning and down to business. There are long hours ahead,” she said.