Wednesday, 20 July 2022

Interview with Patricia Karvelas

PATRICIA KARVELAS: When the government announced the remit of its Jobs and Skills Summit, big business and states urged them to turbo charge Australia’s skilled migration system. And with unemployment at record lows even unions have softened their opposition to allowing more foreign workers into the country.

So, in a bid to rapidly address areas of dire shortage such as health, education and aged care, the Albanese Government will now prioritise processing the almost 60,000 permanent visa applications lodged by skilled workers based overseas.

Clare O’Neil is the Minister for Home Affairs and Cyber Security, and she joins us this morning on RN Breakfast. Minister, welcome.

CLARE O’NEIL: Good morning, PK. Great to be with you.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: A cut of more than $800 million in the Home Affairs Department dramatically slowed visa processing. How quickly do you believe you can get these 60,000 permanent visa applications processed, and how important is that for the economy?

CLARE O’NEIL: It’s very important for the economy, PK. If we just step back a little bit, the most important piece of context here is that we’ve just come through an unprecedented period in our history where the borders were shut for almost two years. So, at the other end of that we have a business community and an economy that’s crying out for more workers and an enormous visa backlog.

Now, when I arrived in my role two months ago, I came into the job with a million unprocessed visas sitting in the system, and the former government had made no plan for how we were going to work through that backlog. So, the really urgent priority for me and for Minister Andrew Giles, who shares this responsibility with me, is what can we do within the constraints of the current system to quickly work through that backlog. So, we’ve very much increased the staffing who deal with this area of visa processing.

But the other big change that we’ve made that your foreshadowed is a shift to how we prioritise these visas. What many people probably don’t realise is a lot of the people who are given visas to work in Australia are actually already here, and if we continue to operate that way, of course we’re not going to address the skills crisis. So, the change is prioritising people who are offshore who are wanting to come here to work and working through those applications as quickly as we can.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And putting a priority on particular areas of shortage? Can you talk me through that?

CLARE O’NEIL: Yeah. So, there are areas of shortage really all through the economy. So, whether I talk to café owners and pub owners in my electorate or the multinationals I deal with in my ministerial role, everyone is having an issue finding workers at the moment. But there are some areas where we have an acute national need. So, areas like our health workers, nurses, aged-care workers, teaching. These are areas which are a pivotal priority for us. So, we will continue to process applications across the economy, but we do need to address this really urgent need in particular for health care workers.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, 60,000 is the number. How quickly can you get those 60,000 bodies into the nation doing this work?

CLARE O’NEIL: Well, we’ve got a 160,000 current permanent skilled migration intake for the financial year that we’re in at the moment. So, we will work through it as quickly as we can. But what we’re really running into here, PK, is the jobs summit across the first and the second of September. And there’s a discussion to be had there about the size and composition of this program overall. So, we’re working as hard as we can into September and then I think we want to have a big discussion with civil society, with unions and with business about whether this migration program is actually suitable for the needs of our modern economy and what we might want to do to shift it.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: What’s your thinking? Do you think it’s suitable for the modern economy right now?

CLARE O’NEIL: Well, the discussion at the jobs summit is going to be really important here, so I can share some thoughts, but ultimately this is a decision for the community, and that’s why Anthony Albanese is bringing all these different groups together to have this conversation.

I actually see there’s a real opportunity for the country here that is staring us right in the face. We’ve turned off the immigration system effectively for two years, and I don’t like the idea of just effectively turning the tap back on, because I think there are issues with the way that we’re managing this. So let me share some of those with you.

You know, one of the most important things the Australian Government does is decide who gets to be one of us, who gets to be an Australian. And at the moment that system isn’t strategic, it isn’t built around clear national interest goals. And it’s too often used to kind of plug gaps in the labour market that actually are demonstrating shortfalls with our skills and training system.

So, I think we’ve got a big picture conversation here to say how do we want to drive a big productive economy into the 2020s and 2030s so that more Australians have really good quality, high-paying secure jobs, and how is the immigration system going to help us do that. And I think if we start the conversation there, we’re going to end up with a really good discussion about whether the immigration system is actually meeting our needs today.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But having said that, you are actually prioritising these areas to deal with shortages right now, right? So, we are still using that model, am I right?

CLARE O’NEIL: Yeah. Yeah, we are still using that model to a degree. But, PK, we’re doing that as a short-term response to the urgent need in the economy at the moment. We’ve got enough economic problems on our plate to deal with, and a labour shortage is not helping us manage them. But that is not the long-term approach of this government.

Our priority is good quality jobs for Australians. And one of the biggest issues with the immigration system at the moment is that there isn’t enough interaction between skills and training and the immigration system. So, we will put nurses on the skills shortage list, and they’ll still be there a decade later. And that’s wrong. If we know that we need nurses, let’s get the skills and training system, let’s talk to young people who are making big career decisions and get those people trained up into these really brilliant, high-skilled professions. But we’re not using the immigration system that way at the moment.

So, a lot of my work at the moment is talking to the Skills and Training Minister Brendan O’Connor about how we can get these systems properly interacting together so that not just today’s Australians, PK, but your kids and my kids have got really high-quality jobs and a great training system that will help skill them up to get them.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Does Australia need a higher annual target for immigration?

CLARE O’NEIL: Well, the Jobs Summit is going to be the location for this discussion. And you talked to Phil Coorey before, and he explained that business are pushing for a higher permanent skilled migration intake. The unions will have something important to say about this, and, of course, we’re a government that listens to a broad cross-section of voices in the economy. So, we’re going to have that discussion at the Jobs Summit.

But I would say, PK, I feel with this debate about immigration there is an almost obsessive focus on the size of the program. And I’m actually just pointing out that there are many other aspects to this about the strategy that we have for this program that are not really about the size. This is really about thinking what type of economic change do we want to drive, what are our sovereign interests in an immigration program and how do we design a system that’s really aligned to those national interests.

Because this is not something that should be the afterthought of a bunch of other government decisions. Our immigration program to me is a sacred nation-building exercise that we need to really think about and have a good community conversation about and design it carefully and thoughtfully. It shouldn’t just be an afterthought.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Now, just a final one on this before we move on, overwhelmed with messages from listeners saying, “Well, what are you going to do to house these people,” because we also have a housing crisis in this country.  What’s your answer to that? Bringing in a big influx of people. What do you do about the housing situation?

CLARE O’NEIL: Yeah, it’s a really good point. And, you know, the Labor Government brought to the election a range of policies to try to help us expand the supply of housing. And it’s something that’s very important to us.

These things ultimately have to be managed. And we’re not talk about big increases to our population size here, PK. Remember, there is a big outflow of Australians every year who, you know, young people going to make their way in countries around the world. So, we’re not talking about big increases to population. What we’re talking about is a moderately sized immigration program that helps us meet the needs of the Australian people and the economy.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yeah, that’s an interesting point. It’s not just one-way traffic.

Last month you travelled to Sri Lanka following a surge in asylum seeker boats from there trying to reach Australian shores. What was had focus of your talks with the Sri Lankan government officials? What was the consequence of that visit?

CLARE O’NEIL: Yeah, so, PK, Sri Lanka is going through without question the worst crisis that it’s ever experienced as a country. We’ve got one of Australia’s very dear and old friends and neighbours of 22 million Sri Lankans who are facing a very, very difficult situation. The country has run out of fuel. And when I was there, there were, you know, three, four-kilometre lines of cars just waiting outside petrol stations in the hope that someone might come along with some fuel for them. They’re shutting schools. They’re shutting business because no-one can get around.

And that crisis is morphing into a diabolical food shortage. So already seven in 10 Sri Lankans are cutting back on meals because there is literally not enough food in the country. And that situation’s about to get dramatically worse in the months ahead.

So, the primary purpose of my visit to Sri Lanka was to visit a friend. We’re coming up to 75 years of diplomatic relations. Before my visit the Foreign Minister announced $50 million in aid for Sri Lanka which will predominantly go to actually just securing food for many people who today are not able to find food.

We also talked about issues around crime in the community and people smuggling. And this is an area on which we have the strongest possible partnership with Sri Lanka. So, we talked about some of the ways that we can continue to work together on that issue.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Do you expect the collapse of the Rajapaksa Government and the economic crisis facing Sri Lanka will see more people trying to reach Australia? And are you prepared to offer more funding to help stop boats leaving?

CLARE O’NEIL: So, we’re continuing to talk to Sri Lanka about how we can support them. And, you know, you’re making this sound very transactional, and it’s actually genuinely not, PK. We have a genuine, enduring friendship with this country, and we’ve got a very large Sri Lankan diaspora in Australia, and don’t forget there is a geopolitical context here. Australia is safest in a region of prosperous, functional, strong democracies, of which Sri Lanka was one until very recently. So, we have an absolute national interest here in helping this country get back on its feet.

I think things are going to deteriorate in Sri Lanka before they get better. And the most important thing for me to do in my position is to just continue to reiterate to people that Operation Sovereign Borders is Australian Government policy. Don’t get on a boat and think that you are going to be able to make a life in Australia. You will be turned back. Everyone who has tried to make it to Australia by boat since the election is now back in their country of origin, and that will continue.

There are other ways that we can help Sri Lanka. But coming on a boat is not a pathway to come to Australia. And I would just urge Sri Lankans to understand that there has been no change in government policy.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, was there any marketing of the change of government that led to increase boat attempts? As you say, they’re not here, but increase attempts?

CLARE O’NEIL: No, they’re not here. Everyone who has tried to come is back in Sri Lanka.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Can you give me the numbers of those who have tried to come?

CLARE O’NEIL: We provide a monthly report that’s posted on the Home Affairs website, I won’t circumvent the usual process there. But it is a public report that’s provided monthly.

So, we are not –  so, sorry, PK, what was your question?

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, in terms of turning back boats and taking – you know, obviously the Coalition said that if there was a change of government there’d be a marketing of a new government and boats would come.

CLARE O’NEIL: Why were people making these attempts? So, I mean, without question the predominant factor here is down to that of Sri Lanka. We’ve got a country that’s within our region which is going through an incredibly difficult time and people are desperate and they’re trying to find a way out. So, this is the main factor that’s driving people out of the country.

We have seen after elections in Australia that people smugglers will try to exploit that situation and have a go. That’s happened after the 2016 election, the 2019 election and, you know, that’s what we deal with. But I have to say, it’s a calm process. Everyone gets returned and that’s the Australian Government’s policy. And that will continue.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just on Australia’s humanitarian program, Labor promised to end temporary protection visas in opposition. What will happen to the 20,000 refugees on temporary protection visas in Australia right now? Will they be put on to permanent visas?

CLARE O’NEIL: So, PK, we will work through that issue. And we’re into our eighth week, I think, in government so we haven’t quite solved all the problems yet. But I would say I think we just take a national interest view here. We’ve got some people who are in the country at the moment who have rolled from temporary visa to temporary visa for – some of them for a decade. And I think there’s just a real question for Australians about whether that’s the right thing for our country and whether Australia is benefitting from that system.

There are a bunch of people in the country who essentially are legacies of policy changes of the torrid political history that surrounds this topic. And I can tell you in my role as Minister for Home Affairs, I will be doing everything I can to draw a line under this. Really since the Tampa election in 2001 this has been a political football in Australian politics, and I think we need to move on from it.

Operation Sovereign Borders is Australian government policy, and we need to now move forward on to the many pressing topics that face us as a country.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Clare O’Neil, I look forward to many conversations with you as minister. Thank you for joining us.

CLARE O’NEIL: Good to talk, PK. Thank you.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: That’s the Minister for Home Affairs and Cyber Security Clare O’Neil. And before you even ask me, I had so many other questions, and that’s why she will come on again and we will ask them all. There is – it is a huge portfolio. But it is her first broadcast interview, and I thought those issues around immigration and Sri Lanka and asylum seeker boats were pretty important ones given they’re quite pressing.