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The most commonly flung items during an election campaign - apart from mud and the nasty stuff that bulls excrete - are numbers. Just ask Anthony Albanese. But as the major parties hurled an eye-glazing array of numerals and statistics at us yesterday, one figure underpinning so many promises and projections went unsaid.
How many people can Australia support?
The population question touches on every key campaign issue from the cost of living, jobs and tax to housing affordability, health and infrastructure. After a two-year pandemic hiatus that saw population growth stall to its slowest rate in almost a century, forecasters expect there to be more than 31 million of us within less than a generation - and up to 80 million by the end of the century.
It's an issue that has enormous ramifications not just for our cities but rural and regional Australia as well. And for those longing for policy issues of substance rather than "gotcha!" moments like Albanese's inability on Monday to remember the unemployment rate (incredibly, he was still apologising for it yesterday), it doesn't get more inspirational than a visionary strategy outlining Australia's future growth.
But long-term planning has never been the specialty of those with short attention spans focused solely on the numbers they need for polling day.
Few people dispute that a rapidly ageing Australia needs more workers, particularly skilled employees like nurses and tradespeople. Both major parties support increased migration levels. Yet neither party, astonishingly, has a comprehensive plan for the demands a much larger Australia will place on the economy and the nation's social fabric in coming decades.
It's a debate the major parties try to avoid because population often becomes a moral and politically fraught topic bogged down by the shadow of racism. Labor under Kevin Rudd tried it in 2010 and quickly gave it away. Yet it's an issue, according to countless polls, that Australians want to debate. Will we continue herding large numbers of people into major cities to live in towering apartment blocks? How do you keep people in regional areas when there are not enough jobs for them? Do we have the infrastructure - the hospitals, roads and railways - to cope with a rapid rise in our population?
Scott Morrison yesterday repeated a pledge to create 1.3 million new jobs in the next five years, a figure that should be comfortably met anyway according to current population growth forecasts. Asked if he would lift skilled migration rates to help fill those jobs he replied: "Our migration program is set out in the budget - the cap is there at 160,000. There's no change to that."
Labor has flagged it will soon announce a plan to overhaul the migration system and reduce the reliance on short-term visa holders. No doubt they will shower us with a range of figures and statistics, just as the Liberals did yesterday.
But how big should a Big Australia be? That's a number Albanese and Morrison will happily continue avoiding.
HAVE YOUR SAY: Do you support a bigger Australia? Should we allow more highly skilled workers? Are there enough jobs in regional and rural Australia to support them? Send us your views: firstname.lastname@example.org
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IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: Labor said it would spend more than $30 million to reinstate Medicare support for telehealth mental health consultations for people in rural and regional areas ... the Nationals said a $1.5 billion investment would lead to a world-leading port and gas hub in Darwin ... The PM and senior figures continued to dodge questions over a $500,000 taxpayer-funded payout to a former staffer of stood-down education minister Alan Tudge ... Labor senator Kristina Keneally tested positive to COVID-19 and will isolate for the next week ... The Australian Electoral Commission announced that more than half a million unregistered voters have until next Monday at 8pm to enrol for the May 21 federal election.
THEY SAID IT: "It's not a popularity test. You go to the dentist. It doesn't matter if you like him or not. You want to know they're good at their job." - Scott Morrison.
"I am usually very good with numbers." - Anthony Albanese.
"Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed, and are right." - H. L. Mencken, American satirist.
YOU SAID IT: "Asking Anthony Albanese the current unemployment figure is about as relevant as asking the chairman of Qantas for the tyre pressure of a 747. It's another media exaggeration of a very trivial point." - David.
"Albert Einstein is attributed as saying 'I don't need to know everything. I just need to know where to find it when I need it'. What [Albanese] did is surround himself with experts that do know these things. His finance [spokesperson] was ready to provide the figures required. I don't want a PM who thinks he knows everything; I want one who is part of a team and gives credit to the skills and knowledge of others." - Karen.
"Albo should have been able to answer those questions. I could have. Obviously he doesn't watch the ABC news." - Jo-Anne.
"We are currently at the bottom of the well with federal leadership in Australia. The incumbent has no moral compass and rides the fake news road train. Let's just get this six-week train wreck over with and hopefully a new start going forward." - Ian.
"I say what he [Albanese] did after was the true character of the man and what we actually expect of someone putting their hand up for public office. He apologised and took responsibility. Wow, who knew this was something a grown man was capable of?" - Jane.
"A prime minister needs to know the broad situation; the exact numbers can be handled by the relevant minister and public servants." - Felix.
"Let's face it, the superficial is all some people get, yet many of us crave a politician or two with some vision about where we are going and what the future can be. This means they must spell out what they are going to do in relation to the overarching issue, climate change." - Chris.
"These 'gotcha' questions strike me as lazy journalism and to suggest that they may be a response to politicians' scripted replies is not a nice reflection on the professionalism of journalists. Two wrongs do not a right make." - Alan.
"Albanese was caught sleeping at the wheel. No excuse for the blatant lack of economic knowledge this time!" - Anne.
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