Abbott opens up in the kitchen
Tony Abbott tells Annabel Crabb on the ABC's Kitchen Cabinet program, that he'll step aside as Opposition Leader if he loses the election.PT1M52S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2t5ry 620 349 September 4, 2013
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There is a bizarre disconnect in the asylum seeker debate seldom publicly discussed. A section of the voting public seems to suspect the reason they are stuck in traffic, the reason they can no longer get a seat on the train, the reason hospital emergency departments are stretched, is because we have been flooded by asylum seekers on boats.
Fiona Scott, the Liberal candidate for the western Sydney seat of Lindsay, acted as an unofficial spokeswoman for this misguided perception when she suggested to ABC's Four Corners program that the influx was to blame for choking roads in her area. "[Asylum seekers are] a hot topic here because our traffic is overcrowded," Scott said.
Fiona Scott suggested asylum seekers were making traffic worse and also exacerbating traffic queues. Photo: Screen grab, 4 Corners
At least Scott was honest enough to admit what she and no doubt many of her constituents think. The unrelated issues of boat arrivals, infrastructure and cost of living pressures have somehow become blurred in public debate.
As opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison mischievously put it: ''The way that people are just frankly being dumped into the community by this government because the detention centres are full in a very unplanned way … I don't think that's the way to run a program.''
There may be reason to be concerned about asylum seeker arrivals by boat. But the link between boats and congestion is bunkum. Last financial year 25,173 people arrived by boat. The year before that, there were 7983 (excluding crew) and the year before that 4940. Compared to the number of people moving here annually through our mainstream migration program, Australia is hardly being inundated. In 2012-13, 190,000 people were given a permanent place in Australia.
Roughly two-thirds of this number arrived through the skilled migration stream and one-third came in through the family program. Just under a quarter settled in Victoria. Less than one-third settled in NSW.
There is no doubt that parts of the country are under enormous pressure. But the real culprit is not boats. It is a combination of population growth and insufficient infrastructure planning.
Such pressures are particularly acute in Melbourne. As pointed out in The Age this week, Melbourne is home to the four postcodes with the fastest population growth in the nation.
South Morang, for example, has had to accommodate an average of 500 new residents a month over the five years to 2012. Local councils are calling for an independent body to help manage the boom and plan for future growth.
A rational and sensible debate is needed. There are two related questions: are the current rates of population growth in our cities sustainable; and are we investing sufficiently in infrastructure to maintain our quality of life?
In Australia's quick-fix political environment, governments have a vested interest to stick their heads in the sand on both issues. Population growth translates into stronger economic growth, which is in turn regarded as a key benchmark of political success.
But at what point do the costs outweigh the benefits? How do we intend to pay for the infrastructure we will inevitably need? And at what point do we accept that, although the economic pie may be growing, it is being shared by a growing number of people, meaning we cannot assume each person's slice is getting larger?
The state government argues it is for this very reason the 5.2 kilometre east-west link, expected to cost up to $8 billion, is needed. Trouble is, the government has imposed financial and political constraints limiting its ability to build other much-needed projects, particularly the metro rail tunnel, which is seen as a necessary investment ahead of a raft of other big transport projects.
As Infrastructure Australia chairman Sir Rod Eddington pointed out this week, there has also been a tendency by governments to pursue ''icon'' projects at the expense of smaller, potentially more beneficial projects.
It would be good to have a sensible debate about these issues, rather than some of the idiocy dished up by this election campaign. But in the current environment, I won't be holding my breath.
Josh Gordon is state political editor of The Age.