Gillard, Abbott ‘failing to tackle population issue’

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott are attending the funeral of Private Nathan Bewes in Murwillumbah, NSW, on Thursday.

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Sustainable Population Minister Tony Burke seized a chance to stoke the population debate, saying the issue has been rumbling in the community “for decades” but governments have neglected to steer policy.

“I’ve got to say governments from both sides of politics have been pretty slow to take up the issue,” Mr Burke told Radio 2SM on Thursday.

He said the 1970s decentralisation plan of the Labor government had not worked because there were no jobs in regional areas, but with the booming mining sector and the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN), the situation was now different.

“The mining boom means that in the regions there are jobs, and broadband being rolled out around the country takes away the tyranny of distance for a whole lot of other industries as well.”

Former Labor leader Mark Latham on Wednesday labelled Ms Gillard’s stance on population growth “a fraud”, saying the government would have to cut immigration if it was serious about the issue.

His comments follow statements by Ms Gillard on Sunday that she did not want to specify a population target but did not support the idea of “a big Australia”.

One believer in a big population, ousted Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, is reportedly being considered by the United Nations for a top-level job as a climate change adviser after visiting UN officials last week.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is considering creating a dedicated role for him as a top-level adviser, according to a “diplomatic source with knowledge of the plan”, News Ltd newspapers reported.

Mr Rudd’s office has refused to comment, but Labor’s election campaign spokesman Chris Bowen hosed down the talk.

“I’m aware that Kevin Rudd has said he is recontesting the seat of Griffith and wants to remain a member of the house of representatives,” Mr Bowen told ABC Radio.

Nauru’s president Marcus Stephen has weighed into another hot campaign topic, asylum seekers, expressing disappointment at being overlooked for political reasons in Labor’s quest to establish an offshore processing destination.

The island nation is keen for the detention facility built by the Howard government to be used again for the same purpose, but Ms Gillard is intent on negotiations with East Timor, ruling out Nauru because it is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention.

Although Nauru is willing to sign up, Mr Stephen said Ms Gillard may have overlooked Nauru for political reasons.

“That would be a worry,” Mr Stephen told the ABC

. Two boats were intercepted in Australian waters on Wednesday, the first since the election was called. “Clearly the people smugglers are not taking her (Gillard) seriously,” Opposition border protection spokesman Michael Keenan said.

The opposition also attacked the government for shifting the goal posts on student numbers which caused a blowout in the costing of its education tax rebate policy.

Mr Abbott on Wednesday announced that a coalition government would refund $760 million in tax to Australian parents for an expanded education rebate program, but Labor says it is more like $1.4 billion.

Opposition finance spokesman Andrew Robb said the coalition had costed the policy based on 2.7 million eligible students, the same figures Labor counted on until Wednesday.

“Yet yesterday in trying to discredit our costings, they said there were 2.1 million eligible students,” Mr Robb said. He said Treasurer Wayne Swan was either “incompetent or deceitful or both”. AAP cb/jl/de 22-07-10 1153