Introduction Population is a key policy issue for rural and regional Australia. Since the time of European settlement, where and how people should live has been a frequent and often controversial topic. Government policies across a range of sectors have contributed directly and indirectly to settlement patterns in rural and regional Australia. Some were specifically-targeted population policies whereas others were more broadly concerned with nation-building and infrastructure. Whether specific or implied, deliberations on many aspects of population have long been embedded in the political and policy context. These include population numbers, for example the ‘Populate or Perish’ slogan used by the Australian Government after World War II (Barr 2009); the population profile and immigration, for example the post-Federation White Australia policy; and matters of equity and quality of life between different sections of the population, such as between rural and urban Australia (Brett 2011). And yet, even as a nation of immigrants, Australians are considered to be ill-informed about many aspects of population – such as immigration and its impact on the nation – and have been described as ‘. . . confused, bemused or misled on what is a key public policy issue’ (Productivity Commission 2010, p. iii). In the last few years the population issue has moved higher on the political agenda. This complex topic is discussed widely by politicians, activists, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), academics and the media. The humanitarian and refugee aspect of immigration became a focus of debate after the number of refugees and asylum-seekers arriving by boat increased sharply in the late 1990s and early 2000s (Phillips and Spinks 2011). Another controversial issue is the hiring of temporary migrant workers as a response to perceived shortages of labour in some areas. Many publications seek to clarify the facts about different aspects of population, and answer questions such as whether Australia needs more immigrants to support the ageing population (Hugo 1999; McDonald and Kippen 1999; Productivity Commission 2010). There is no shortage of opinion or academic literature on population in relation to growth, economics, sustainability or the well-being of the nation as a whole. As McDonald argues in a March 2011 Productivity Commission Roundtable proceedings:
The scope, strength and dimensions of the debate about population growth, and its potentially divisive character, justify an explicit statement of population strategy by the Australian government.