Prime Minister Julia Gillard is breaking free from one of her predecessor’s main policy stances by announcing she is not interested in a “big Australia”.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd was in favour of population growth, with his government predicting it to hit around 36 million by 2050, largely through immigration. But Ms Gillard has indicated she will be putting the brakes on immigration in order to develop a more sustainable nation.

“Australia should not hurtle down the track towards a big population,” she told Fairfax. “I don’t support the idea of a big Australia with arbitrary targets of, say, a 40 million-strong Australia or a 36 million-strong Australia. We need to stop, take a breath and develop policies for a sustainable Australia. “I support a population that our environment, our water, our soil, our roads and freeways, our busses, our trains and our services can sustain.”

But Ms Gillard says that does not mean putting a stop to immigration all together. “I don’t want business to be held back because they couldn’t find the right workers,” she said. “That’s why skilled migration is so important. But also I don’t want areas of Australia with 25 per cent youth unemployment because there are no jobs,” she said.

Mr Rudd installed Tony Burke as the Minister for Population, but in one of her first moves as Prime Minister, Ms Gillard has changed his job description to Minister for Sustainable Population. Mr Burke will continue to develop a national population strategy which is due to be released next year. Ms Gillard says the change sends a clear message about the new direction the Government is taking.

But an urban planning group is trying to convince Ms Gillard of the benefits of a big population. Urban Taskforce Australia chief executive Aaron Gadiel says a large population increases the tax base to fund improvements to infrastructure and welfare services. “We shouldn’t be trying to fight it, what we should be trying to do is ensuring that we’ve got the investment and infrastructure that makes that process easier to manage,” he said. “I think people should be focussing on how much state, federal and local governments have been investing in urban infrastructure to help absorb population growth.”

A survey earlier in the year by the Lowy Institute found that almost three-quarters of Australians want to see the country’s population grow, but not by too much. The Lowy Institute surveyed more than 1,000 people and found that while there was support for increased immigration, Australians were not quite prepared to embrace the Government’s predicted 36 million. The poll showed 72 per cent of people supported a rise in Australia’s population, but 69 per cent wanted it to remain below 30 million people.

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