THE population debate is emerging as a key election issue with the newly appointed minister, Tony Burke, resisting demands to slash migration before his first consultations in the job.Mr Burke added Population to his Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry portfolios on Saturday and faced immediate pressure to cut skilled migration as part of a new population strategy. Yesterday, Mr Burke refused to jump the gun on policy announcements ahead of his first meeting with Treasury, scheduled today.The population debate extended beyond immigration to water scarcity, labour shortages, urban planning and infrastructure pressures, he said. ”This reaches almost every corner of public policy in Australia. I don’t want to be, from day one, ruling policies in or out.”But the caution fed criticism the government was purposely delaying action until after the next election. Mr Burke’s population strategy is due in 12 months.The Greens leader, Senator Bob Brown, who proposed a Senate inquiry into population, said the government had to increase Australia’s refugee intake and pare back the far larger skilled migration program.Not only would such a move help the nation reduce its growth rate, it would keep skilled migrants in countries where their expertise was needed, he said.”Some of these come from poorer countries where they are very much needed to raise the standard of living at home,” he said. ”We also should be increasing overseas aid.”The Opposition immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, dubbed Mr Burke the minister for overpopulation. ”How can Australians trust Kevin Rudd on future population growth when he can’t even keep his promises to maintain the integrity of our borders?” he said.”On his watch net overseas migration last year hit 285,000, that’s 105,000 more than the average forecast required for us to hit 36 million by 2050.”But Mr Burke said total immigration levels under Labor were similar to those maintained by the Howard government. He also said that births counted towards a third of growth and population would continue to increase even without immigration.”Australia is capable of having a calm and mature discussion on this,” he said.The Premier, Kristina Keneally, refused to say whether she supported the current high levels of migration, which she said was a federal matter.She also would not say if she wanted Mr Burke to investigate the ”carrying capacity” of Australia, or the number of people the country could sustain in the long term. But she rejected the views of a former Labor premier, Bob Carr, who a decade ago argued against more migrants on the grounds that ”Sydney is full up”.”I believe Sydney can grow and can grow sustainably, economically and environmentally,” Ms Keneally said. ”Cities can either grow or they can shrink. Shrinking is not an option for Sydney.”The NSW Opposition planning spokesman, Brad Hazzard, also ducked the sensitive issue of migration levels although he said it was being discussed in the community as Sydney became more crowded.”Instinctively the populace is concerned we may be taking on more than we can adequately look after, particularly when substantial numbers head to Sydney and Melbourne and when there’s such pressure on our infrastructure,” he said.Peter Verwer, chief executive of the Property Council of Australia, said the critical issue was not the number of people in Australia but the infrastructure.