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VIRGINIA TRIOLI, PRESENTER: Remember when Kevin Rudd came out in favour of a big Australia? That was back in 2009 and it provoked a storm of protest and furious debate over the pros and cons of population growth. Since then, there’s been little discussion of the subject, and meanwhile, Australia’s population has grown by almost five million in 15 years and continues to grow at one of the fastest rates in the developed world. Sometime this year we’re expected to hit 24 million citizens. And while we’re having more babies, the numbers are mostly made up of new immigrants. Spending on health, housing, transport and education is not keeping up and one of Australia’s leading think tanks says it’s time for a new national debate on the population question. Karen Percy has the story.

WILLIAM ‘BILLY’ HUGHES, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER (1915-’23): Australia needs population. Numbers are good. Numbers are necessary.

ARTHUR CALWELL, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER (1960-’67): Without immigration, the future of the Australia we know will be both uneasy and brief.

BOY ACTOR (advertisement, archive footage): Dad’s taking me to Australia! He says that’s the best place for me to get on in life.

MALE VOICEOVER (advertisement, archive footage): You too can go to Australia for £10.

MALE VOICEOVER II (advertisement, archive footage): Australia: a great place for families.

JOHN HOWARD, THEN PRIME MINISTER: We will decide who comes to this country.

KEVIN RUDD, THEN PRIME MINISTER: I actually believe in a big Australia.

TONY ABBOTT, PRIME MINISTER: Everyone has got to be on Team Australia. You don’t migrate to this country unless you want to join our team.

KAREN PERCY, REPORTER: For a nation built on immigrants, Australia hasn’t always been comfortable with newcomers. Yet in 2015, Australia ranks third in population growth amongst rich nations and it’s outsiders who are driving that growth.

BERNARD SALT, KPMG DEMOGRAPHER: I have been quite shocked at our rate of growth relative to others in the OECD. I’d always thought that our rate of growth was pretty similar to, say, the US or Canada, for that matter. But since the Global Financial Crisis, migration levels have slowed down to those countries.

KAREN PERCY: In the 15 years since 2000, migration numbers to Australia have outstripped those seen in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s combined.

RICHARD DENNISS, EXEC. DIR., THE AUSTRALIA INSTITUTE: Population is growing far faster than people realise. Around 400,000 people per year means we’re building a city the size of Canberra, effectively, every year. Four million people per decade.

KAREN PERCY: And the make-up of these new Australians is changing too. Chinese and Indians are set to catch up with Britons in dominating our migrant pool.

As of the close of business today, March 25th, Australia’s population is 23,788,061 And it’s growing by one person every one minute and 18 seconds. In the next 46 years, that’s expected to rise to at least 40 million.

Dr Richard Denniss from the progressive think tank The Australia Institute is challenging leaders to take a clear position on population growth in Australia.

RICHARD DENNISS: Every new citizen is a new taxpayer. That’s good for the budget on the revenue side. But every new citizen is someone who deserves the same quality services that we have, or indeed, we don’t want more people using the same number of hospitals or the same number of trains. So, I think politicians are just taking the easy way out.

KAREN PERCY: Melbourne is the fastest-growing capital city. Between 2003 and 2013, more than 700,000 people moved here.

The suburb of Melton, 35 kilometres from Melbourne’s CBD, is one of the country’s new migrant hot spots.

The population here has doubled in the past decade. About a quarter of the 130,000 residents were born overseas.

TASNEEM CHOPRA, CROSS CULTURAL CONSULTANT: The reaction has always been to have a hostile view of, “These migrants are taking our jobs, these foreigners are coming into our land. We’ve got less because they have more.” And I think what needs to be – in order to unravel that, we need to have a conversation from our leadership and from planners that articulates back. This is not a racial issue; this is a structural issue.

KAREN PERCY: Newlyweds Lokesh Shahma and Vidhu Paul moved to Melton four months ago. They’re expecting their first child in September. Lakesh drives to his job as a forklift operator, but in their part of Melton, the lack of local public transport is a problem for Vidhu.

VIDHU PAUL, MELTON RESIDENT: I’m not driving. I don’t have the licence here. So I’m dependent on my husband or any other person to – to shop – for shopping or anything outside my house, I am dependent on others right now.

LOKESH SHAHMA, MELTON RESIDENT: Over here we haven’t got any public transport, but in future, as I have spoken to the council and our developers as well, so in future there will be – definitely there will be some public transport.

KAREN PERCY: The Melton City Council is dealing with more than 130 new families a month.

And that’s why Maryanne Ward has decided to set up her cafe here, to offer something for the mums and dads of the 42 new babies delivered here each week.

MARYANNE WARD, OWNER, BREATHE CAFE PLAY RESTAURANT: It’s affordable living, you can buy your beautiful brand new home, we’ve got a brand new library. There’s a lot to offer in Melton. And everyone can have the best of all worlds, basically.

KAREN PERCY: Melton’s infrastructure is coping with its new residents, so far.

TASNEEM CHOPRA: We are a large country. We have the capacity to move outward, but infrastructure has to be resourced adequately so that when families and communities start to live on the outer areas of Melbourne, they’re not isolated due to lack of access to resources, to internet, to access to technology, to good schools, to hospitals.

RICHARD DENNISS: Our concern is that Government spending on health and education isn’t keeping up with the very rapid population growth that those governments are striving for.

TASNEEM CHOPRA: In New South Wales, for example, budget papers show per capita spending will fall over the next four years from $9,000 to $8,700 per person.

KAREN PERCY: Across the country, governments are engaged in a budget tug-of-war, balancing need and political priorities. Experts like Bernard Salt say it’s time to rethink urban planning, in particular how and where services are provided.

BERNARD SALT: I think that discussion would lead to: well, we need more infrastructure, public transport, we need more freeways, but we also need to think about how to make our cities more liveable. And this is my idea of creating what I call multinucleated cities. So you don’t just have one CBD, you have six or seven CBDs and people live, work, play, recreate all within the local area.

KAREN PERCY: As a nation, Australia has big global aspirations, but a small population can only achieve so much.

RICHARD DENNISS: I don’t think where people come from is the main thing. I think it’s how we treat them and whether our governments are investing in a plan to house them, to educate them and to fully integrate everybody into what I think is a great country.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Karen Percy reporting.