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Population Expected to Surge as Australia Debates Record Levels of Immigration

Australia has appointed its first minister for population to cope with record levels of immigration. Business leaders say the country needs more skilled foreign workers, while the conservative opposition vows to cut immigration levels because of infrastructure and environmental concerns.

A recent government report says that Australia could reach 36 million people by 2050, from the current 22 million.

Australia's population is expanding faster than any other country in Asia and at double the world average.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd welcomes what he calls a "big Australia" and equates population growth with economic opportunity.

Mr. Rudd has appointed the country's first minister for population. Tony Burke will have the job of shaping the country's response to its rising population.

The Rudd government has presided over a period of unprecedented immigration. Last year more than 300,000 new people arrived in Australia, although many were temporary workers and foreign students.

Business leaders say a shortage of skilled migrant workers could derail economic growth as the booming Australian mining sector struggles to keep up with demand from China and India.

With a federal election due later this year, immigration is likely to dominate the political landscape in the months ahead.

The right-wing opposition says it will cut immigration levels if it wins power because of concerns over how the country can provide housing, water, health care and education to so many newcomers.

Spokesman Scott Morrison accuses the government of opening the door to too many foreigners.

"Our net overseas migration figure is the one that is, is really running out of control. I mean it's averaging more than 300,000 per year at the moment and when you compare that to the average under the Coalition that was just over a 125,000 per year. So, this is out of control," said Morrison.

The opposition also says Mr. Rudd's government is losing the battle on border protection. Earlier this week another boatload of suspected would-be immigrants - the 36th this year - was found in Australia's northern waters.

A recent survey indicates that 65 percent of voters think Mr. Rudd has been too soft on those seeking asylum here, an accusation he rejects.