Subjects: Citizenship; regional migration; integration
Alan Tudge, thanks for joining us Alan.
I wanted to ask you first, I want to get to your portfolio area in a moment. Well actually, as Citizenship Minister, I suppose this is right in your bailiwick.
The news story today that the Liberal Senator, former Family First Senator in South Australia, Lucy Gichuhi may still be a Kenyan citizen. Is this another dual-citizenship brouhaha about to unfold? Or are you satisfied that she is okay?
No, this is a beat-up by the Labor Party who are trying to create a distraction away from their own dual-citizenship fiascos which they have been facing.
I think the key point here is, it was the High Court itself which put Lucy Gichuhi into the Senate spot. Because the person above her on the Senate ticket, who was initially elected, was found to be a dual citizen.
So they themselves found that she was okay to go into the Senate. And that was different by the way, Chris, to say in New South Wales where it wasn't just Fiona Nash in that case who was knocked out. But then the next person down the ticket, the High Court also knocked out before they got to an eligible member.
So the High Court has already found her to be eligible.
Okay well that is good. That is a relief. That is a fair point in terms of the High Court already having a look at this. But obviously, if there is going to be anymore by-elections, we would want them out now.
There would not be a by-election of course for the Senate. But there will be no more cases on the Liberal side, you are confident.
As you mentioned, Labor are certainly throwing stones at others on the Coalition side suggesting there's doubts over Josh Frydenberg, Jason Falinski and others.
We have been through all those cases ad nauseam. All the information is out there now, tabled in the Parliament for all to see. I do think this is just an absolute distraction. It is the Labor Party trying to create a distraction because they have got themselves into such a mess over this.
And now we have got, as you know, four or five by-elections coming up. Four related to dual-national issues due to the fact that the Labor Party didn't get their work in order which was plain as the eye could see six months ago.
Let's talk about immigration and integration, a couple of areas that are very important to you when it comes to national policy. Luke Foley, the New South Wales Labor leader created the brouhaha himself – to use that word again – just over a week ago when he talked about "white flight".
You have gone into print suggesting that was the wrong move. But you also accede that there are some issues Luke Foley was talking about that need to be addressed.
I think that is right Chris. I mean, I don't like the term "white flight" because I think in this day and age we should be more interested in a person's contribution and character rather than the colour of their skin.
I think what Luke Foley was trying to get at is that there are some issues in Western Sydney to do with integration and I have been talking about this for some time.
I suppose the main issue which is emerging, and the data is showing this, is that we are getting increasing clusters of the overseas born in particular pockets – often overlayed with lack of English being spoken.
And that obviously makes it more difficult for integration to occur. And what we don't want to see is parallel communities emerge, like you sometimes see in Europe.
We want to maintain our own successful model of multiculturalism which is much more based on communities blending together and merging together, rather than sitting side-by-side.
So what can you do to act against that? If you decide as a Government, and I think a lot of people, a lot of mainstream Australians would agree with you, that it would not be an idea to have these clusters of people, who are perhaps – where little English is spoken – it might be one particular foreign language spoken and people can live their lives without actually engaging outside of that community.
If you decide that is not the way Australia wants to go, what can you do as a Government to work against that, to ensure that people do spread out and integrate into the broader Australian community?
There are a few things which we are looking at Chris, but I think the most important thing actually is that English language is – people at least have the capability to communicate with their neighbour and participate in society.
Of course, speaking English is good for the individual because your chances of getting employment is so much higher if you have good English. It is important for social cohesion and of course it is vital for our democracy as well. Particularly when we have compulsory voting.
You need to be able to understand the political debate that is going on to be able to make an informed decision. We would like, at the very least, to raise the aspirations in relation to the English language requirement.
Chris, at the moment, only about 30 per cent of the immigrants that come to Australia actually have to satisfy an English language test.
We are not necessarily suggesting you have to speak English when you arrive here, but certainly before you become a citizen, we do think it is desirable that you at least have some conversational English, as well as we are looking at some other levers as well.
What other levers are there? What can you do about enclaves, if you like, that already exist in Australia, that you are worried may be more internally-focused I suppose, not engaging with the cities and suburbs around them?
Ideally, people would be merged together rather than going into enclaves because of course the more interactions which you have with the mainstream community, the faster you will integrate into that community. So we want to absolutely encourage that.
One of the things we are looking at presently, Chris, as well is to try to encourage more people to, when they do immigrate here, to go into the regions or go into some of the smaller states.
What I have been finding, as I travel around the country is that many of those regions or smaller states are crying out for people, they simply cannot get enough people to do the jobs that are available.
We want to make it easier for people to be able to go to those regions and maybe put some requirements on those people if they are sponsored into those regions to actually require them to stay there for a few years as well, hopefully put roots down and make it their home.
Yeah, look I was going to come back to that later. But let's talk about it now. I think we have a front pager of the Warrnambool paper, for instance, sitting in south-west Victoria of course, screaming out for people to take up jobs.
They say 1,000 jobs are left vacant. Tell us about the amount of employment opportunities that are available in the regions and how can you possibly force immigrants effectively, or oblige immigrants to go into the regions to take those jobs?
It is a good question Chris. There are many regional areas now which are just begging for workers. They simply would take almost any warm body which is available. There's places like Dubbo, for example, which have 2 per cent unemployment.
I was over in Kalgoorlie recently, it has got 3 per cent unemployment. You mentioned just there, Warrnambool, a beautiful sea-side town just a few hours to the west of where I am here in Melbourne and it is screaming on its front page of this local paper saying 1,000 workers wanted.
What we want to do, I suppose, is encourage migrants and encourage citizens as well…
There are plenty of people in the cities who don't have work, whether they are migrants or not.
Absolutely, that is exactly right. I mean, I think there is almost no excuse at the moment for a person to be on the dole because there are so many jobs which are available in those regional areas.
And certainly, we have a new jobseeker compliance system kicking into place on the 1st of July which I worked on in my previous portfolio and I think that will act as an encouragement for people to take the jobs which are available.
Secondly, we do want the migrants – to encourage them to go to the regions as well. There already are some regional migration programs.
One of the issues we have though, Chris, is that people might be sponsored into the regions on one of those programs, but once they get their permanent residency, sometimes they disappear back to the big cities.
And at the moment we have very few levers which require them to stay in the locations which they were sponsored.
What levers are you looking at? Presumably, if they did leave the regions, it would break their obligation, break their agreement. You could at least cut off any family welfare payments, any sort of support.
Perhaps you could make them ineligible for Medicare. Some sort of stick to go along with your carrot of getting people into the regions.
We haven't actually settled on what it will be just yet Chris. But we are working on that. And in some respects, at the moment, we don't necessarily always know where they go. They get sponsored into a region, but we know anecdotally that many people do move out of the regions very quickly.
What we do want to do is put in place some additional mechanisms, such that they hopefully do stay there for at least a few years because after a few years of being in a regional area, you are much more likely to put roots down.
You have got your kids going to the local school, hopefully you have joined the local football or netball club and you might be going to the local church. And then you start to make it your home, and that is what we would ideally like.
And that is what the regions want as well, including some of the smaller states like South Australia who actually want more migration there, whereas some of the larger cities like Melbourne and Sydney are feeling the pressure at the moment of high population growth.
I think this is important stuff because there has been a pretty blunt argument about numbers and of course, if our numbers stay the same as our population grows, then as a percentage, our immigration intake is shrinking anyway.
But there is definitely an issue about where immigrants are going. And as you say, some parts of the country are crying out for immigrants, others are getting too many.
You mentioned this problem with enclaves and you have made speeches talking about suburbs in Melbourne and Sydney where there is high levels of people speaking no English at all or certainly English as a second language.
Certain ethnic groups clinging together, I suppose, rather than engaging with the rest of the community and integrating. Is this more applicable to our humanitarian program of migration?
Is that where the problem lies? Because most of our immigrants who come in on skilled worker programs or whatever, through their jobs are going to be engaging with the rest of the community.
You are partially right Chris. Certainly, with the people who come through the skilled migration programs – they do come, they are typically sponsored into a job. Their partner is not always, and sometimes their partner doesn't speak English.
We do certainly have an issue with the humanitarian intake, particularly in relation to English language being spoken, and that leads to a very, very high level of unemployment. In fact, only 17 per cent of the humanitarian intake are in employment 18 months after arrival.
Which is just – it is just a hopeless situation. And we all have to take responsibility for that. I am not apportioning blame here to anybody. But it is not a good situation.
Ideally, a person, when they arrive here – instead of arriving here on day one and going to Centrelink on day two, they are actually arriving here on day one and going into a job on day two. That is what I would like to see.
Because once you have got a job of course, you are interacting with the mainstream community, you have got pride in the work which you are doing, you are contributing to the country straight away and you are much more likely to settle here and make friends and really make a great contribution.
As you say, the key to integration is going to be having some sort of English level or skill. Some sort of proficiency in English and them being able to engage in the community around you.
How can you do that if you wear a burqa?
Listen, that is a good question Chris. We have programs which are available for everybody to learn English and there's 510 hours available of free English language classes to all migrants who don't speak English well.
We want people to take up those opportunities, but we know that they don't always do so, which is another thing which we want to take a look at.
If the English language classes are there, and you are not actually taking advantage of them, but your English is poor, then we do want to take a look at how we could provide some further encouragement to take those classes, to get your English up to speed.
Because ultimately, it is in your individual interest as much as it is in society's.
I mentioned the burqa thing because it is a hot-button issue and people will criticise us for even raising it. There are hard-line approaches saying it should be banned. We note that in the last couple of days in Denmark, the burqa has been banned in public places.
But it does get to this issue, if we want people to integrate into our community, that is a pretty obvious way to shut yourself off from the integration into the wider community. So it has got to be something we are prepared to discuss, surely?
I think it is. I mean, personally, I do not like the burqa because it does tend to shut you off from the individual and it of course is difficult to communicate with a person who has their face completely covered.
I think it is one thing if you have the hijab on which at least has your face open and you can have a conversation, you can engage and read their body language. It is very difficult to do so if a person is wearing a complete burqa.
Personally, I don't like it. We are not going to be dictating what people have to wear. That is not the free society which we live in. But I personally don't like it.
I would prefer that people do show their faces and that people do make an effort to integrate into the broader community, to get work, to join community groups and to make an overall contribution to Australia.
What you are saying to us here tonight is common sense. You favour immigration, you want people to be good Australian citizens, you want them to come from whatever country they like from around the world.
But you accept that when you have high levels of immigration, you can have integration problems. And that we do have problems and that you are working through Government policies and other programs to overcome them?
That is right? You say there are issues with integration in our country right now?
The data actually does show that there is. I think we have got to look at the data and they are some emerging integration challenges.
This is why I mention this. Because they had the New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian on the program last week and she just denies that there are any integration programs.
She talked about Luke Foley's comments – "white flight" – as "a racist diatribe" and told me straight out that there were no integration problems.
You might argue that they are all problems that are manageable and we are all on top of it. But I think blind Freddy could tell you that in some of the enclaves, as we have been saying, and some of the lack of engagement through education and the workforce, there are issues we need to work through.
I tend to rely very hard on the data which is available and the Scanlon Foundation Report is the best report which is available which provides an annual snapshot of our social cohesion.
And last year was quite unique in terms of its report because it for the first time actually did provide some warning signs for us. And those warning signs in their executive summary were some of the things which we have been talking about tonight.
A much more – high proportion of the overseas born in the particular pockets, a lack of English language and a decline actually in the proportion of people who are supporting immigration or who are indeed facing discrimination as well.
There's a few issues there that we do need to be concerned about and do need to work on. Having said that, I don't think there is anything to be alarmed about as such and we do need to put it into the context, Chris, that Australia has been tremendously successful at integrating people from around the world – better than any other country.
But let's work on the issues now, so that there are not more substantial problems down the track.
Absolutely, and to that end, what's your thoughts on Gladys Berejiklian's idea of devoting an entire COAG meeting of state and federal governments to immigration? Perhaps once a year, perhaps once every two years?
Because of course, the states are integrally involved in issues such as infrastructure, education, healthcare and the like.
I certainly think it is a very good idea for the leaders who are dealing with immigration policy, including myself, to be engaging with the state ministers.
And I tend to do that on a regular basis as I know Peter Dutton does, and Malcolm Turnbull does as well. Whether or not we have a separate COAG meeting to discuss those things, I will leave that to the Prime Minister to decide.
It is ultimately up to him – those matters. But engaging with the states is vital because they have to deal with some of the things like hospitals, like education, like picking up on some of the infrastructure when we do have higher population numbers due to immigration.
And just on something to finish on, something completely different of course, after of course watching the rest of this program, will you be flicking across later on to find out what Barnaby has got to say on one of the commercial networks?
I won't be. When I get home, I know my kids are going to be having Masterchef on and so that is what my family is going to be watching, Chris.
I think that might be better family viewing than Barnaby. Thanks very much for joining us Alan.
Thanks very much Chris.