A new survey has shed more light on how Australian voters would respond if population growth became a big election issue.

The survey by the Australian National University is the largest recent study of social attitudes to population growth and shows that nearly 70 per cent of respondents do not believe Australia needs more people.

The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes was restricted to voters, and 3,124 people completed the mail-out questionnaire.

They were asked “Do you think Australia needs more people?” and 69 per cent said no.

Dr Katharine Betts, Adjunct Associate Professor of Sociology at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, has written a report on the findings. She says those who voted ‘no’ were worried about local jobs, urban congestion and the environment.

“I think it’s clear from this data that the growth train steaming ahead has a lot of unhappy passengers, and I think it’s pretty clear that there’s a large swathe of voters out here who would really like the train driver to put on the brakes,” she said.

“We were rather surprised that the top pick there was the reason ‘We should train our own skilled people not take them from other countries’. Twenty-four per cent of people chose that as either their first or second reason.”

The 31 per cent of respondents happy with population growth were asked what sort of growth they would prefer, and 23 per cent chose immigration.

“With the people who favoured growth, they tended to pick economic reasons, having more babies and more migrants could counteract the ageing of the population, we need skilled migrants for the workforce – that accounted for nearly three-quarters of the responses amongst the pro-growth people,” Dr Betts said.

The survey was completed in the three months to February. Its findings are in contrast to the much smaller Lowy Poll released last week which found most people want a bigger Australia but do not want the population to reach the predicted 36 million by 2050.

Dr Betts says in this latest study, the state most unhappy about population growth was Queensland.

“Seventy-three per cent of Queenslanders thought Australia didn’t need more people but the ACT was quite unlike the other states, and 50 per cent of people in the ACT wanted more people,” she said.

Dr Betts says she thinks the results show there is widespread opposition to the idea of a “big Australia”, but that opposition does not yet have a political focus.

“There is this new party being formed, the Stable Population Party of Australia; we don’t know what the Opposition is going to do, they’ve been talking about a rather smaller migrant intake and perhaps they’ll pursue that line,” she said.

“But I think it does show that [Prime Minister Kevin] Rudd and the Labor political elite are very much out of touch with Australian voters on this particular question.”

The survey results will be published in the quarterly journal People and Place.

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