SENIOR Opposition frontbencher Kevin Andrews has called for a debate on slashing Australia’s immigration from 180,000 people a year to a “starting point” of just 35,000. In his first interview since returning to the shadow cabinet as spokesman on families and community affairs, the former immigration minister questioned the “blithe” acceptance of projections that the population will hit 35 million by 2050. “You look at the figures – 60 per cent of our population growth is in immigration. It’s not as if we don’t have any say over it,” he told The Age. “Now, that obviously has to be balanced up in terms of the economic needs of the nation and what workers you need, but it’s not as if this is just something that is inevitably going to happen.”

Arguing that Australians were deeply concerned about problems such as urban sprawl, overcrowding, traffic snarls and dwindling water supplies, Mr Andrews challenged Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s advocacy of “a big Australia”.

Risking stepping on the toes of his party’s new immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, he called for a debate on cutting the permanent immigration program as one way to curb population growth, saying the levels were “pretty much” plucked out of thin air. “If you look at the 2008 data, you would need about 35,000 immigrants on top of births to replace the population (for that year). So I say the starting point should be replacement levels of population, then ask what additional population we need so the country can be economically and otherwise sustainable and growing,” he said.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans branded it hypocritical for Mr Andrews to be complaining about the migration intake when the Howard government had welcomed more than 1 million migrants during its tenure. “In 1995-96, the Labor government set a migration program of 83,000. In their last year in government, Mr Howard and Mr Andrews set a migration program of 158,800 for 2007-08,” he said. “It is hypocritical to now complain about the size of migration.”

Senator Evans also rejected criticism of the setting of migration levels without adequate scrutiny, saying the Rudd Government had begun to construct a long-term planning framework to help set the size of intakes.

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Andrews also objected to means-testing payments such as family tax benefits and the baby bonus. “The baby bonus is about two things – one is supporting people who have children, and seeking to raise the birthrate back to replacement levels. “If that is the purpose, then it’s not a matter of something that ought to be means-tested.”

He signalled plans to partly offset the $3 billion cost of axing Labor’s means test – and restoring payments to wealthier families – by creating “one-stop shops” for government services such as Medicare, Centrelink and the Child Support Agency.

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