Subjects: Government performance; Cost of Living; Proposed citizenship changes; English language testing; Population growth
PETA CREDLIN: Australia's immigration and citizenship programs have been called into question over the past few weeks, with calls for the Government to look at reforms, and they are getting louder.
Joining me tonight in the studio is the Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, Mr Alan Tudge, a Victorian, proud Victorian. Nice to see you in Sydney.
ALAN TUDGE: G'day, Peta.
PETA CREDLIN: I want to get into the detail, because people are hungry for a debate on these issues that you now have in your portfolio, and I think also, with your background in Human Services, you have got a lot of experience with the coal-face issues of integration that we are seeing in a lot of our communities, particularly in Victoria.
But you are going to cop a general political question. I know you from your time at Melbourne Uni as the president of the student union. You are a student politician, now a Minister…
ALAN TUDGE: A long time ago now, Peta.
PETA CREDLIN: The Government is starting to get runs on the board, you started to get those runs on the board going into Christmas.
There are policy wins; of course, the jobs argument is one of the strongest you have got; this trade win over the weekend; I think the economy broadly speaking, the numbers there, the growth is certainly still there.
Why, if all of that is put together into a narrative, are you still 18 months behind in the polls and it still looks like, poll after poll, that we will see Bill Shorten go to the Lodge? What has got to change?
ALAN TUDGE: I hope Bill Shorten does not go to the Lodge, and as you pointed out, we actually had quite good momentum up until Christmas and early this year, and then had a couple of issues which stopped that momentum.
And we need to now rebuild it and continue to focus on those core strengths of ours and the core things which matter to the Australian people.
And that is their economic circumstances, do they have a job, are their wages growing, are we getting cost of living pressures down, and are we ensuring that the nation is safe and secure? Those are our twin priorities and that is what we are going to be focussing on.
PETA CREDLIN: I think you have got runs on the board in both of those areas, particularly national security, and I know you have got a lot of experience in that area.
I think the economic runs are there, but the Government is so focussed on the high level economic narrative – jobs and growth, which does not mean a hell of a lot to ordinary people, and quite rightly these corporate tax cuts – but they do not tend to have a personal household impact.
But they have got cost of living pressures, they have got the power bills going up, they are worried about their mortgage payment and the credit card bill that hits every month, and too much is put on the never-never with people because they cannot make ends meet.
The Labor guys go out there, the ACTU, with this new Work Choices Mark 2 sort of campaign, tapping into the issue of wage growth and people feeling like they are falling behind.
The Government, I watched this happen to us in '07. If the Government does not get out in front of that campaign, the unions can outspend you four-to-one, easily.
What can you do to sort of contend with what you know is coming from the Labor Party and the unions and start selling a more household message, as opposed to a high level economic message? And it is not either or, to be fair. It is not either or.
ALAN TUDGE: And I think it is both. The fundamentals fundamentally are there, as you have pointed out, and we need that to translate into wages growth and we think that it will. We also need to ensure that jobs growth continues, and we have got a great track record there.
When there is strong jobs growth, people have more job security generally, because they know that they have got other options. If that job falls through, they have got other options in relation to jobs.
And then on the other side of the ledger is the cost of living pressure, as you are pointing out, the main one there being energy costs, and that is where we have done a power of work there, led by Josh Frydenberg.
We are seeing downward pressure now on those energy bills, and we want to ensure that they continue.
If we have got good job security, if we have got wages going up, and then on the other side of the ledger, if we have got cost of living pressures coming down, then I think individuals will start to feel better off and start to reward the Government more.
PETA CREDLIN: I always think it is so important for ministers to give voice to concerns from their own portfolios, but issues that, you know, you might be working on in a policy sense which are high level but they touch on the lives of ordinary people.
You are in a perfect position in your portfolio to do that, to give voice to their concerns. You gave a big speech to the Menzies Research Centre last week.
You touched on a whole raft of changes. You want to bring in reforms to citizenship and English language testing, and I guess cultural integration. Take us through those.
ALAN TUDGE: In essence, what I was arguing last week in my speech to the Menzies Research Centre was that we have been tremendously successful at integrating people into Australia, and that has been the secret to our multicultural success.
But the past is no guarantee of success for the future, and in fact, there is some early indicators that we are not doing quite as well as we have done in the past. For example, English language is no longer as prominent amongst migrants.
We are seeing a greater concentration of the overseas-born in particular pockets, more so than in previous decades. And that says to me that we need to do further work to guarantee that people will be integrated and therefore guarantee our multicultural success in the future, hence, an English language test.
We want to ensure that people are taking reasonable steps to integrate. And we want to assess that, and we also want to ensure that people are adopting Australian values, and do some sort of assessment of that also before they become a citizen.
PETA CREDLIN: Let me just jump in there so I can follow you. This is from the point where they apply to come to Australia, or once they are here they are assessed, you are saying, in an ongoing way?
ALAN TUDGE: Different people come in in different pathways. Typically people will be here for three or four years before they become a citizen. In that time, we would like people to have a demonstration that they have made an effort to integrate, that they have adopted Australian values.
And certainly, when they are applying for Australian citizenship, that they can speak the language at a reasonable level and can read and write in English, because fundamentally
that is the glue for the community, and if we do not maintain English as a common glue, then you will start to get fragmentation.
PETA CREDLIN: When you had this as part of a package of legislation last year, the Labor Party violently opposed the English language component. They called it snobbery and other things.
I know from in the past that when I have looked at polling on English language testing, often it is migrant Australians who support it more than ever, who say unless I came here and learnt the language as I did, I would never have been able to, my kids to feel like they are real Australians after one generation.
So do you think the Labor Party will be locked into their position of opposition? You are hoping to turn the crossbench if that is the case?
ALAN TUDGE: I am having very good negotiations with the crossbench. I am taking it steadily. I am trying to communicate with the Australian public about the importance of this as well.
Now, where will Labor end up? They are almost saying today that English language is no longer important for migrants, and I think that is a ridiculous position because it is the glue to our community and it underpins our social cohesion.
It is also in the interests of the migrant, by the way, because if you have got better English, you have got a better chance of getting a good job, you have got a better chance of taking advantage of all of the opportunities which Australia has to offer.
And indeed that is why people like the Migration Council came out and supported my position last week, as well as other prominent members of the multicultural community, because it is in the interests of the migrants to learn English, as well as being in the interests of society generally.
PETA CREDLIN: If I was critical of the Government today, one of the things I have found, there is not enough contrast with you and Labor. You have not fought along those ideological lines that decide why you vote one way as opposed to another.
This is the perfect fight and it is not a budget cost. It is a fight about what sort of country do we want, where do we want to see ourselves go.
ALAN TUDGE: Absolutely. This is fundamentally a battle about how we want to see Australia in the future. Our multicultural success is built on integration, not on assimilation, but not on separatism, which you sometimes see in Europe, on integration.
And we want to make sure that we guarantee the future of Australia's model of multiculturalism. The Labor Party appeared to be, from their position on things like English language, to want to more be going down the separatist path, which is the European path.
I do not think it has been particularly successful, where you do get ethnic enclaves. Sometimes they do not adhere to the national values of the particular country and they do not speak a common language, and so you do not get social cohesion.
In fact, you get social fragmentation. Let's stick to our model. It has worked, but we have got to build on it and we have got to put in place these key things to guarantee our future.
PETA CREDLIN: Speaking of Europe, you know, a lot of those countries are, and I am thinking of the outer areas beyond Peripherique in Paris where you have Sharia law operating, for example, you have areas where there are complete police no-go zones.
There are places in Birmingham and Luton in the United Kingdom which are the same. When you talked before about cultural values and mores testing and things like that, I can see how you assess English language.
How do you assess those other, less tangible parts of what makes Australians Australians? And what are you going to do to contend with the treatment of women in some of these communities?
There were statistics last week around International Women's Day, 200,000 women in Australia are at risk of genital female mutilation. So how do we teach people coming to this country that Australia has a very different view to women than the countries they might perhaps have come from?
ALAN TUDGE: It is a very good question. So the three things which I want to see in place before you become a citizen, a) reasonable level of English, b) a demonstration that you have tried to integrate, and c) a demonstration that you have adopted Australian values.
One of the core Australian values is equality of the sexes, and you can reasonably assess that. If a couple is not sending their daughter to school, for example, because they do not believe in girls' education, well clearly they are not adopting that fundamental value of equality of the sexes.
If they believe in female genital mutilation or some of those other practices, then that again would be contrary to our fundamental values…
PETA CREDLIN: Are we going to be brave enough then to knock them back from citizenship?
ALAN TUDGE: We have not documented exactly what this values framework will look like. We have indicated a few of the common values which have to be there.
The rule of law, the belief in our parliamentary democracy and obeying the law, equality of genders, freedom of speech, those fundamentals which underpin our society which we have to adhere to.
In addition, as I said, the other component is what I would call the integration framework. We want a person to have demonstrated that they have made an effort to integrate before they become a citizen.
That could be as simple as sending your kids to school, it can be endeavouring to get work rather than always being on welfare, and also involving yourself in the community because you have joined the local soccer club or the Rotary Club or something like that.
A pretty simple test, but nevertheless a strong signal you are making an effort to join mainstream Australia.
PETA CREDLIN: I was a bit shocked when I saw some statistics in a speech recently to say that there were about 60 per cent of people on welfare, Menzies Research Centre statistics, still on welfare after ten years, coming in on the refugee program, which brings me to the whole issue of immigration more broadly.
Bob Carr has been outspoken, Dick Smith has been outspoken, not about immigration per se, Minister, but about the rate of immigration, and in the case of Dick Smith, wanting to see Australia have a considered population plan.
We plan for everything else in this country. You know government better than me. Everything has a plan.
The only thing that does not have a plan is immigration, because it is the whim of the Expenditure Review Committee, Treasury, and the Treasurer every time we go into a budget.
Right now they will decide what our immigration plan looks like, when there is no plan that anyone else in the public can see. Why are we so scared of the debate on immigration and the rate?
Luke Foley, no friend of Tony Abbott's, was out there today saying we have got to have this conversation. If we have got pressure on infrastructure and housing and roads, we have got to say that looking at the rate of immigration is a smart way to go.
ALAN TUDGE: Let me just firstly pick up on the introduction to that question, which was talking about the employment rate of migrants.
Actually, the employment rate of migrants is about the same rate as everybody else. There is an issue with the humanitarian- with the refugees, where they are not getting employed at the same rate and we need to do further work on that.
PETA CREDLIN: Yeah, the refugees. Yes, yep. I mentioned the refugees.
ALAN TUDGE: But they represent about 10 per cent of the overall employment intake as such. Should there be a broader debate about immigration policy? I think there is one which is going on at the moment.
There actually is a population plan in the form the Forward Estimates, as you know, Peta. The Forward Estimates, over four years, does document what the population growth will be, and what the immigration intake roughly will be over the next four years, and then it is reassessed every year.
As you know, there is a consultation around that as well, Peta. It does go out to the migration councils, to the different community groups, the business groups, and asks them what they think about the population for the year ahead and the four years ahead.
PETA CREDLIN: Yes, Minister, but there is not a formal consultation. It is calls from the Immigration Minister to a few mates, let's be very honest, and I have been in the ERC room when this has been discussed.
It is Forward Estimates, based on what it does to the bottom line. You say to them oh, well, we are not coming in where we want to come in on growth; Treasury, you might have to dial that immigration number up a little a bit, or Treasury, the Prime Minister wants to dial it down a little bit.
It is used as an input to the bottom line of the budget. It is not about how many immigrants can Australia take at this time, what does our infrastructure in Sydney or Melbourne look like?
Because we cannot bring people to this country and under law require that they live in Dubbo. I wish we could, but we cannot and it is never successful when we try.
Foley's point today is, in Canberra you set these numbers, and in Macquarie Street he and Gladys Berejiklian have to deal with the infrastructure problem, but they do not get a chance to say what they think is a good number for New South Wales, and similarly Victoria and Queensland.
If you said just then we are having this debate anyway, why, Alan Tudge, don't you want to be part of this debate? Why doesn't the Federal Government want to be part of an immigration debate? Is it just because it came from Tony Abbott, or do you just not want to talk about it?
ALAN TUDGE: I am talking about it in the area of my responsibility, which is largely in relation to integration. For the people who come here, I started a debate last week to say well, how do we best ensure that people come here and integrate to guarantee our social cohesion? That is my responsibility.
PETA CREDLIN: And all credit to you for having the conversation that a lot of Australians are having, particularly in your state of Victoria, particularly in Melbourne.
They are having this conversation at home, you are at least talking about it publicly. Why can't you get your colleagues to talk about immigration rates as well?
ALAN TUDGE: There is, as I said at the outset, there is a broad discussion already in relation to the immigration rate, and it is looked at each and every year by the Cabinet in the Budget context.
You are right, you have been in those meetings; I have not been in those ERC meetings when they are decided.
PETA CREDLIN: And the Cabinet look at it the day the budget goes out. The Cabinet do not see it before the budget goes out. It goes out the day.
ALAN TUDGE: There are a lot of decisions, though, which are made by the ERC, as you know, Peta, in the budget context. But the forward projections, though, of course are in the Forward Estimates for everybody to see.
The New South Wales Premier, the Victorian Premier, can see those numbers, can have a reasonable expectation about what the migration figures are going to be. Of course, that is just one input on population.
It constitutes maybe about half of the population growth. The other half is from births, and in relation to New South Wales and Victoria, often there is a net migration out of the other states to those states as well, so immigration is probably a smaller component overall of the population growth for those cities.
The problem, to be honest, is that, particularly in Victoria, the infrastructure has not kept pace with the population growth. I am up here in Sydney at the moment, there are infrastructure builds going on everywhere across the city.
There is not that in Victoria. In Victoria, they are cancelling infrastructure projects, which you know, particularly the East-West Link project, and spent $1.2 billion to not build a road, rather than actually build the roads which are needed.
We are particularly feeling it in Victoria, and I know that if Matthew Guy is elected later this year, he will reverse that situation and get on with the job of ensuring that Melbourne can move again.
You made a point about can you put people in other parts of Australia. In part, you can. About 20 per cent do have conditions on their visas, but it is difficult to do that.
And of course once they do transfer and become citizens, as many do down the track, then of course the right of the citizen is to live wherever you like. Most of the jobs happen to be in Melbourne and Sydney, and so that is where people want to go.
PETA CREDLIN: All credit to you. You are having a debate that Australians want to have about what their communities look like in 20 and 30 years' time, and I think it is a privilege to be an Australian citizen and you are ensuring that people earn that privilege.
But please, go back to Canberra and invite them to start to get into a rate of immigration debate as well. Thanks for your time, Minister.
ALAN TUDGE: Thanks, Peta.