Migration overhaul: Regional needs to guide population policy
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Migration overhaul: Regional needs to guide population policy

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has cleared the ground for a migration overhaul that confronts surging growth in Sydney and Melbourne, using regional rules to set a different approach for each part of the country.

Mr Morrison said there "could be a case" for tougher rules that slowed the intake of some temporary migrants into congested cities, but he warned against simplistic changes that would hurt areas that needed more workers.

In an exclusive interview with Fairfax Media, the Prime Minister likened his new approach to dealing with the huge variations in weather conditions across Australia.

The federal government is looking at measures that could curb population in some cities and boost numbers in others.

The federal government is looking at measures that could curb population in some cities and boost numbers in others.Credit:AAP

"I’m happy to have a fair dinkum conversation about population, but we’re not going to do it in a vanilla sort of way, assuming that there is average population growth," he said.

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"There isn’t, any more than there is average rainfall. It was raining in Albury today, but it wasn’t raining in Quilpie."

The government is working on a region-by-region approach to migration that puts a premium on migrants who go to parts of the country that need growth, including some capital cities as well as regional areas.

The shift began under former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull but is being accelerated by a new team including Immigration Minister David Coleman and Cities Minister Alan Tudge, who has been given the job of "busting congestion" and planning for population growth.

Mr Morrison said there were "many levers" to be used to get the right outcome and that the composition of the intake was more important than the total number nationwide, the usual focus of media attention when Australia's population reached 25 million last month.

"You can have very low levels of immigration and the effect can be very positive. You can have high levels of immigration and the composition actually means it is not good for the economy," he said.

"The real question is about the composition and how it’s implemented. That’s how you have a fair dinkum conversation about these things."

The population of Greater Sydney grew by 102,000 in the year to June 2017, with migration making up 85,000 of the total. Melbourne grew by 125,000, with net migration accounting for 80,000.

With more than half the nation’s population growth occurring in these two cities, the government is working on ways to encourage migrants to go to areas that need the growth.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, and Immigration Minister David Coleman.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, and Immigration Minister David Coleman.Credit:AAP

Asked if there was a case for slowing the number of overseas students coming to Australia, Mr Morrison said there might be in some areas.

"There is no case for it in Adelaide, there’s no case for it in Perth, there’s no case for it in Hobart or James Cook University [in Queensland]," he said.

"But there could be a case for it in Melbourne or the University of New South Wales or UTS," he said, referring to the University of Technology, Sydney.

Mr Tudge has already aired the idea of encouraging migrants to settle in regional areas, but the government is yet to show how this can be done in a world where all permanent migrants are free to move where they wish.

The government is also avoiding reforms that would punish key parts of the economy like education, a drawcard for international students.

One idea raised in the debate is to use a points system to fast-track temporary workers who go to smaller cities or regional areas, while slowing the intake in congested areas like the bigger cities.

The Prime Minister said "of course" it was feasible to take a region-by-region approach to the national question of population.

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"I’m not interested in a superficial debate about population," he said in the interview, conducted after he made a major speech in Albury on Thursday.

"We’ll have a serious conversation about it. Population growth has many different components. If it’s represented as 10 extra people getting on the bus, just over four are on temporary visas, about four are born here and about two are on permanent visas.

"The population question in Cairns is different to the population question in Penrith which is different to Adelaide."

Mr Morrison comes to the debate with a background as immigration minister under former prime minister Tony Abbott and several years as opposition spokesman on issues including population and productivity.

"There’s not one conversation about population in Australia, there are many different ones," he said.

"Smaller capitals like Adelaide and Hobart and so on and even Perth – they want more people. But in Sydney and Melbourne they don’t. I get that."

David Crowe is the chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.