Coalition rules out further cut to migration numbers amid decentralisation push

Sarah Martin Chief political correspondent
Photograph: David Gray/Reuters

The Coalition says it will not consider a further cut to migration numbers as a new committee prepares to examine how to encourage people to move to the regions.

The chair of the committee, Liberal MP Julian Leeser, told Guardian Australia that the quality of life of the nation depended on solving the policy challenge of how to better redistribute Australia’s population, which will increase 25% in the next 15 years to 31.4 million.

Most of that growth is forecast to take place in Australia’s four biggest cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.

Leeser said the inquiry would not look at changing the current levels of migration after the government announced it would cap the number of permanent visa places offered each year at 160,000.

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“It is not about the total number. I think we have had a long debate about how many people we should have in this country, what we haven’t had enough discussion on is where they should go.”

He said the committee wanted to come up with new policy ideas to try to encourage new arrivals to move to regional areas, which would dovetail with the government’s new regional visa push.

“This is a great national goal, many governments have talked about the idea of people moving to regional Australia to address skills shortages in those areas,” he said.

“I think hopefully we will break some new ground and hopefully come up with some new policy ideas that we can help put in place [and] will, in combination with the new visa arrangements that the government has announced, help encourage people to choose to live in regional Australia and to stay.”

The new regional visa push, announced by the Coalition before the election, has been criticised as being unworkable, while attempts at decentralisation have been pursued for the past century without success.

The announcement of the new committee comes after 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, warning that cities were not coping with the current rate of population growth.

Leeser, who represents the seat of Berowra in Sydney, said he often heard concerns among constituents about population growth in the city.

“People in my electorate often say to me that we have too many people in Sydney and that they supported very strongly the government’s cap on migration, but when you say to people the economy needs people, they say ‘well we should have more people move to regional Australia’, and that is borne out by the fact that we have got all these jobs that aren’t filled in regional Australia.”

He said that regions offered a “very high quality of life” and he hoped the inquiry would hear from people who had chosen to “move and stay” in regional areas.

“It is one of the added advantages of people going to regional Australia – cost of living is cheaper getting around is easier, and there are many opportunities there.

“But we won’t maintain that quality of life, and that is not just the quality of life in regional Australia, that is the quality of life nationally, if business can’t fill jobs that they need people to do in order for the business to keep growing.”