TONY Abbott’s Coalition will cut net migration levels if it wins government, in a bid to stop Australia’s population reaching its predicted size of almost 36 million in 2050.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison yesterday told The Australian the Rudd government had allowed immigration to rise too high and the population figure that Treasury’s Intergenerational Report predicted last September for 2050 was unsustainable.

Mr Morrison said the Coalition would not allow the average net overseas migration of more than 300,000 a year that had occurred since the Rudd government took power to continue. “We want to return to the levels we pursued in government,” he said. “A net overseas migration intake of 300,000 (as occurred under the Rudd government) would not be a feature of future Coalition policy.”

Mr Morrison said the current population growth rate of 2.1 per cent put Australia ahead of Canada, Britain and the US. “It even puts us ahead of China and India,” he said. “It’s principally fuelled by net overseas migration. A natural increase in the fertility rate has (increased it) but what has been driving the numbers . . . has been spiralling rates of net overseas migration.”

Mr Morrison said the Coalition would support skilled migrants coming, but was likely to cut other elements of the program, including family reunion. “It’s about getting your immigration policy under control,” he said. “The migration program should be tight and focused on skills and productivity.”

The Opposition Leader last night backed Mr Morrison’s comment that the prediction of a population of 35.9 million was not sustainable, saying the roads of Sydney and Melbourne were already choked.

But Mr Abbott stopped short of committing the Coalition to a cut in migration, saying decisions on the intake should be taken on a “year by year basis”. “Immigration has to be in Australia’s national interest,” he said on the ABC’s Q&A program last night.

Mr Morrison said the 35.9 million forecast, which Kevin Rudd has endorsed as appropriate, was being driven by net overseas migration well above what it was under the Howard government. He said average net overseas immigration under the Coalition had been 126,000 a year, but under Labor it had risen to more than 300,000.

Mr Morrison said that according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australia’s population was growing in net terms at the rate of one person every minute and 10 seconds, and immigration accounted for more than 60 per cent of the increase.

The new immigration spokesman toughened the Coalition’s rhetoric on asylum-seekers, challenging the government to take control of Australian borders in the wake of 103 boats carrying 4575 passengers reaching our shores since Labor was elected.

Mr Abbott last night backed the return of the temporary protection visa system and said a Coalition government would return asylum-seekers to their homelands if they no longer had a fear of persecution.

Columnist Glenn Milne yesterday wrote in The Australian that the Opposition Leader and Mr Morrison had determined that if Australians were concerned about boatpeople, they were going to have similar concerns about Mr Rudd’s declaration that a “big Australia” of 35.9 million people by 2050 was a good thing.

Mr Morrison denied the Coalition was pushing a racist agenda by endeavouring to cut migration numbers. “It has nothing to do with issues of race,” he said. “We did not want to create an unpleasant debate. We were quite serious about having a debate that didn’t degenerate into political name-calling on issues of race. “At the end of the day, we will obviously take a more conservative view about intake in the current climate.”

The business community’s reaction to Mr Morrison’s comments is likely to be tempered by the immigration spokesman’s support for the skilled migration program, which business leaders strongly back because of the nation’s skills shortage.

Former NSW [Labor] premier Bob Carr, who has been outspoken on the issue of population, said the government must cut skilled migration. “The argument is about the level of immigration, the rate of immigration . . . we’ve ramped it up to levels the Australian people aren’t comfortable with,” Mr Carr said.

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