“The roads are clogged, the buses and trains are full. The schools are taking no more enrolments. I hear what you are saying. I hear you loud and clear.”
The Prime Minister – who as treasurer under Malcolm Turnbull strongly pushed back against calls from Tony Abbott and other MPs to slash new arrivals – on Monday night noted “community sentiment” towards migration must be considered in addition to the economic impacts.
Mr Morrison will ask state premiers to create their own population plans and will discuss the issue with them at the next Council of Australian Governments meeting on December 12.
“The old model of a single, national number determined by Canberra is no longer fit for purpose,” Mr Morrison said.
“My approach will be to move away from top-down discussions about population to set our migration intake caps. I anticipate that this will lead to a reduction in our current migration settings.”
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian wants to halve the state’s migration intake, while new figures show Melbourne is one of the fastest growing cities in the world.
“It is the states who build hospitals, approve housing developments, plan roads and know how many kids will be going into their schools in the future,” Mr Morrison told the annual Bradfield Lecture.
“The states and territories know better than any what the population carrying capacity is for their existing and planned infrastructure and services. So I plan to ask them, before we set our annual caps.”
There were 162,000 permanent visas approved in the 12 months ending June 30, well short of the 190,000 target.
The Coalition believes it can revamp the current migration settings to better disperse new arrivals in regional areas. While the annual intake will be lowered, the changes may see the government increase the proportion of skilled migrants coming to Australia at the expense of others.
“Far too often, planners have treated population as one amorphous blob,” the Prime Minister said.
“But that doesn’t work for Australia. We’re too big and diverse.
“A responsible population discussion cannot be arbitrarily about one number: the cap on annual permanent migration. It is certainly relevant, but you have to look at what sits behinds those numbers.”
Mr Morrison ruled out calls to force permanent migrants to resettle in regional areas – an idea floated by some MPs that would almost certainly face a constitutional challenge.
Citing the mining boom, he said the ability for migrants to move to areas where they had a good chance of finding a job was essential.
“That is a natural part of a national economy and government has no control, nor any desire for control, over that aspect of population,” he said.
While using the speech to reassert the economic benefits of migration to Australia, Mr Morrison conceded population growth also had costs and Sydney and Melbourne had become “a victim of our success”.
“Here in Sydney migrants accounted for around 70 per cent of population growth last year,” he said.
“This has created its own pressure points – and pressure points in population always manifest themselves in housing and infrastructure.”
A Fairfax-Ipsos poll in October found 45 per cent of voters supported a reduction in the annual intake as the population climbs past 25 million. Some 52 per cent backed the idea of keeping or increasing the number of immigrants coming to Australia.
The survey showed a narrow majority of Coalition supporters wanted fewer migrants, with 54 per cent saying they wanted “a little or a lot” cut from the annual intake compared with only 44 per cent of Labor voters who said the same.
Bevan Shields is the federal editor and Canberra bureau chief for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra
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