It looks like Prime Minister Gillard’s idea is to keep the immigrants coming but send them to small towns rather than the major cities. Just how she is going to enforce that is unknown. Her Labor Party predecessor, Gough Whitlam, tried that in the ’70s with his policy of decentralization but the big cities just kept on growing regardless. Quite laughable really: Just more ill-considered “policy on the run”. It’s exactly what got Kevin Rudd tossed out of the top job

PRIME Minister Julia Gillard is risking a backlash from Labor voters, ditching Kevin Rudd’s “big Australia” concept and promising to “take a breath” to get immigration right.

Vowing to “always put our quality of life first”, she linked rapid population growth with Australians’ declining quality of life. “Let’s not make our national goal a `big Australia’,” Ms Gillard said.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott seized on her population sustainability focus, immediately linking it to the other election wildcard, asylum seekers.

Ms Gillard’s focus on sustainability is also a reversal of the stance of the former prime minister, Mr Rudd. “There is no easy way to simply go on absorbing large-scale population increases without something giving way,” Ms Gillard said. “We need to think carefully about our future population – and where and how growth can be accommodated in the years to come.”

Mr Abbott said he thought Australians “want to feel like they are in charge of their destiny.” “That’s the problem with the boat-people issue. We feel that we’ve become a soft touch,” he said. “We feel that people are in a sense taking advantage of us; that the people smugglers and not the Australian Government, and ultimately the Australian people, are in charge of the immigration program.”

But refugee advocates remain concerned that the immigration debate is a cipher for a more inflammatory debate below the surface about border protection and asylum seekers in the wake of continuing unlawful arrivals and the Government’s attempts to neutralise the problem.

Ms Gillard’s “sustainable Australia” comments overturn decades of support for high immigration intakes and echo Pauline Hanson’s One Nation message to Australians worried excessive immigration would disadvantage them. “Australia cannot and should not hurtle down the track towards a big population,” Ms Gillard said.

The new objective of a sustainable Australia “that preserves our quality of life and respects our environment”, reveals her main campaign theme in the August 21 election and is likely to be the guiding principle of her yet-to-be-revealed climate-change policy.

Three “expert panels” will inquire into issues like liveability, sustainable development, and productivity, with the objective of drafting Australia’s first population strategy.

The move is designed to woo outer-suburban voters once referred to as “Howard’s battlers”. It aims to quell their concerns over traffic congestion, competition for GP appointments, and housing.

Research by both parties shows these voters hold the election in their hands because they occupy many marginal seats.

In her first official dip into the national wallet, Ms Gillard committed a future Labor government to providing $200 million to give 15 regional towns up to $15 million each to help them cope with population growth. The money, from existing programs, would help build up to 15,000 new homes over three years as well as roads and other infrastructure.

But only one SA town, Mt Gambier, will be eligible for the new assistance, in what could emerge as a recurring problem for SA because the main election contest is on the eastern seaboard.

In NSW, 19 towns will get assistance, 10 in Queensland and eight in Victoria.

Whyalla Mayor Jim Pollock was unimpressed, but remained hopeful a prime ministerial visit to the upper Spencer Gulf later in the campaign would yield a better result.

“I’m personally very disappointed that Whyalla and the upper Spencer Gulf and Eyre Peninsula have not been considered, given the concerns we had with the super mining tax, which really was very concerning to Whyalla and OneSteel,” he said. “We could quite easily do with more population growth here in Whyalla and hopefully the PM has us and the region in mind.”

Previous attempts by state governments to encourage people to move to smaller population centres have usually failed. But Ms Gillard hopes improvements in infrastructure can entice some to consider the shift. “I say to regional Australia, let us use common sense and hard work as our compass and partnership as our way ahead,” she said.

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