SYDNEY — New Prime Minister Julia Gillard signalled a change in the government's approach to population growth on Sunday, saying she did not believe in a "big Australia".
Gillard, a former lawyer who wrested leadership of the Labor Party and the government from Kevin Rudd on Thursday, said population policy needed to strike the right balance between growth and sustainability.
"I don't believe in a big Australia," Welsh-born Gillard said.
"Kevin Rudd indicated that he had a view about a big Australia, I'm indicating a different approach. I think we want an Australia that is sustainable," she told the Nine Network.
With 22 million residents, Rudd had expressed optimism about a "big Australia" with a population of more than 36 million people by 2050, achieved through rising birth rates and immigration.
But Gillard said such population growth could be problematic given Australia's water shortages, the difficulty in providing services across the vast landscape and transport infrastructure.
"I don't believe in simply hurtling down a track to a 36 million or 40 million population, and I think if you talk to the people of western Sydney or western Melbourne, or the Gold Coast growth corridor in Queensland, people would look at you and say, 'Where will all these people go?'," she said.
"I think we want an Australia that is sustainable. This place is our sanctuary, our home."
Gillard, who came to Australia with her parents as a four-year-old, said immigration for skilled labour was still needed, adding that Canberra would continue to accept refugees.
"I don't want business to be held back because they couldn't find the right workers," she said.
"That's why skilled migration is so important. But also I don't want areas of Australia with 25 percent youth unemployment because there are no jobs."
Immigration is a sensitive issue in Australia, where boatloads of asylum seekers arrive most weeks after perilous voyages from Asia, often in rickety fishing vessels, as they escape countries such as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Under Rudd, Australia suspended claims for asylum from Sri Lankans for three months and Afghans for six as a way of tackling the problem.
But concerns about the steady stream of boatpeople, along with the shelving of a carbon emissions trading scheme designed to tackle climate change and a new tax on mining profits are believed to have been behind the poor polling which led Gillard to contest Rudd's leadership of the party.
The conservative opposition accused Gillard of not having the policies needed for a sustainable population, but those who believe Australia lacks the resources to support a larger population said the new approach was necessary.
"It shows the Prime Minister is on the wavelength of ordinary Australians," Labor politician Kelvin Thomson said.
"Australians have expressed their concern about the impact of rising population on food and water supplies, on rising housing affordability, on traffic congestion, on the quality of life in our cities, on carbon emissions and on our endangered wildlife."
The Australian Conservation Foundation said the nation's rate of population growth was already among the highest in the industrialised world.
"Bigger isn't always better," said the ACF's Chuck Berger.
"More people means more roads, more urban sprawl, more dams, more power lines, more energy and water use, more pollution in our air and natural environment, and more pressure on our animals, plants, rivers, reefs and bush."