Friday, 02 September 2022

Patricia Karvelas Interview with Minister Clare O’Neil

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Lifting the skilled migration cap has been one of the big consensus points in the Jobs and Skills Summit so far. The ACTU and Business Council of Australia are also advocating for improved pathways for permanent residency for temporary visa holders. Clare O’Neil is the Home Affairs Minister and will be leading two panels this morning on migration, and she’s our guest this morning. Minister, welcome.

CLARE O’NEIL: Good morning, PK. Thanks for having me on.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Now, this has been a two‑day summit, this is the second day we’re entering and you’re looking at the role of skilled migration in resolving the current jobs crisis.

CLARE O’NEIL: Yes, that’s right.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Will you be making the announcement today on an increase to migration?

CLARE O’NEIL: So, we’ll certainly be talking about the detail of this in the summit today. You’re right, PK, I think there’s broad consensus, from unions, from business, from civil society that we’ve got a skills shortage in Australia that’s really affecting the lives of Australians. This is not just a problem that relates to business. We’ve got nurses who’ve been working double and triple shifts for two years now and they just can’t continue. We’ve got teachers who are worn out and leaving the workforce in droves; we’ve got restaurants across country, and particularly in the regions, that can’t open because they don’t have staff; and we’ve got farmers who’ve got fruit rotting on their vines. So, there’s absolutely no question that we need to do some pretty significant things about this problem.

Just to set the context, though, jobs for Australians is always going to be our focus and a lot of the discussion at the summit so far has been about how having this skills shortage and having a low unemployment rate is a really amazing and unique opportunity for us to provide employment to people who perhaps are normally marginalised in the workforce. You mentioned childcare. We’ve got this huge untapped resource from women, people with disability, First Nations people are not getting the employment opportunities they deserve and we could do something about that now. But even doing all those things, we are suffering greatly at the moment because of the skills shortage and we need to address that.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The BCA has chosen not to advocate for a specific number. The ACTU says it wants up to 200,000. How will you balance the need to increase the cap while still prioritising Australian workers?

CLARE O’NEIL: Yes, a really important question, and, I think, as I said, our first point of call is thinking about skills, it’s about thinking about bringing new people into work who are here at the moment. But the summit is all about this balancing act. I want your listeners to understand the feeling and the mood here in the room is so positive and constructive. I think there are 140 people gathered here because we’re sick of having a decade where nothing important in our country really moved forward and we’ve got 140 people in that room trying to find compromise and common ground, and that’s how we’ll be resolving all these issues, including the number of permanent skilled migrants coming in this year.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The unions and business are at odds on a number of other aspects, though. One particular point of contention is the ACTU’s demand for skilled foreign workers to be paid a minimum of $90,000 a year. Is that a reasonable ask, or is it too great a burden on employers?

CLARE O’NEIL: A really good point, PK. So, one of the things that about our migration system at the moment is there’s a big reform opportunity here. I don’t think the system delivering for the country and we’re going to have a conversation today about the short‑term skills crisis, but also a really good discussion about whether this system’s actually serving our future and one of the big problems with this system is that we’ve created one where it’s actually very easy to come to Australia as a temporary worker, probably in a pretty low‑skilled job, but virtually impossible to come here permanently as a high‑skilled worker. I think we’ve got the program backwards. We need to think about migration as a driver of productivity and great jobs for your kids and my kids, PK, and the system that’s in place today doesn’t help us do that.

I think the ACTU’s put a specific number on that income threshold that it wants to set for migrants to come in. We’ve got lots of different views around the room, but the summit is about finding areas of agreement, and this is a really important issue where everyone agrees. We’ve got to lift that number. Now, exactly where we get to, we will talk about that today. But one of the amazing things about migration in this particular moment in our history is that there’s actually so much agreement about how we need to make this system better serve our country’s interest.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, to my substantive question – $90,000 a year, the ACTU’s proposal, is that too high or too prescriptive?

CLARE O’NEIL: Look, I think we need to list it. I think $90,000 a year will result in a lot of workers who are coming under the program not able to come anymore, and we need to have that discussion. But I’m listening. I don’t have a fixed view about this. I’m going to talk to business, to civil society, to experts and to unions today about this matter and we will flesh out these issues and we’ll find a way through it.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And you mentioned coming temporarily, one area of consensus seems to be allowing people to come temporarily to make not temporary but actually a permanent feature and make them Australian citizens. Are you going to move on that?

CLARE O’NEIL: PK, it’s a really important point and it is one that Labor feels very strongly about. So, we have this amazing history of migration in our country and that system has always been grounded in permanency and citizenship and bringing people here to invest in our country and help us solve national problems and to become one of us. Really, when John Howard was Prime Minister, he made a big change to the system that started this shift to temporary workers. And a lot of your callers who are texting in or phoning you saying, worrying about the population rate, the big driver of that is not the permanent skilled migration program; it is this big influx of temporary workers that started all the way back in the early 2000s and just over the last 20 years, no‑one’s ever really had a discussion with the community about whether this is the right way to run a migration program. So, my view here, and I think this is shared again by business, unions, and civil society, is that we can build a better program if we think more carefully about bringing people into this country who are going to set down roots and support their local school and do all these amazing things, PK, that our forebears did that built this great country. So, we can do that again, but the migration system we have today isn’t getting us there.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: In that element that has been raised with me over and over again – housing, housing, housing – if you’re going to increase migration up to, and there’ll be an announcement, 200,000, which is a significant increase, it’s a 40,000 increase, are you going to couple that with an increase in investment in Australia’s housing?

CLARE O’NEIL: Yep. So, again, I think you’re raising a really, really important point. One of my big frustrations with this system is that it hasn’t been properly planned. So, this is something that governments have previously thought about as turning the tap on, turning it off again. I don’t want to think about migration that way. If we are going to bring people into our country through the migration system, we need a social licence from Australians to do it, and we’re only going to get that if we address this difficult issue with housing.

Now, anyone in Australia today, my generation or younger, is stuck in this same trap where we are either in debt up to our absolute eyeballs or basically have Buckley’s chance of ever buying a home, and that’s not right. That’s not right and it’s not what the Australian promise is. So, the Government took a number of important commitments on housing to the election. We are back in the game of housing as a Federal Government, and I think if we’re going to have the discussion about increasing the skilled migration rate, it’s got to be coupled with a discussion about housing and real investments to make sure that we’ve got a home for everyone who comes here.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. That’s an interesting point you make, an important point, I think. Look, it’s one thing to increase skilled migration, it’s another to actually get people into the country. You have inherited a significant visa backlog that we’ve talked about on this show before. In May, it was close to one million applications across all visa types. We know that processing times have blown out. What’s been done to speed up approvals?

CLARE O’NEIL: Look, so much, PK. So, when we arrived in office in June, when I arrived as Minister in June, we had almost a million applications unprocessed in the system and no plan to deal with that, which I think is absolutely crazy because we’d had the borders shut for almost two years and it was quite foreseeable that we were going to end up with this enormous backlog. So, the Immigration Minister and I, Andrew Giles, have been working incredibly hard on this. We’ve got processing staff working overtime, 150 staff, working overtime. We’ve brought 180 new people into that part of government to help try to speed up those times, and the times have come down.

So, there’s a short‑term issue here around that visa backlog, but I just want to say, again, there’s a broader strategic point here: our immigration system is not quite paper‑based, but it’s virtually paper‑based. There’s a lot of human involvement in visa processing which is unnecessary and that’s because we have not invested in the system properly. So, what I want to talk to the delegates about today at the summit is we’ve got to have a big strategic think about this program, but we’ve also got to think about how this is functioning within Government and having a visa processing system that intractably slow is not good enough for a modern country like Australia and I do think we need to do something about that.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, I want to tease that out with you a little more. Are you looking at a new IT system or something? You mentioned paper‑based.

CLARE O’NEIL: Yeah, yeah, so, really, what happens at the moment is there’s a great deal of human judgement and intervention. There’s not a proper sorting mechanism that in any business that I’ve ever worked in would happen perfectly electronically. So, we do need to make an investment in the IT system. Now, I’m not making an announcement about that because it’ll be big dollars and it’s probably some way into the future.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, it’s not going to be this coming Budget in October?

CLARE O’NEIL: No, so there’s not going to be a big IT investment, but we’re going to have a discussion at the summit today about what more we can do about visa processing because I think the rates are still – it is still taking too long for people to get an answer about their visas but there’s a structural issue here now that in my time as Home Affairs Minister I want to address.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just back on backlogs and potential workers, there’s an estimated 330,000 people on bridging visas in the country. Independent MP now Monique Ryan and many others want the Government to improve work rights for those visa holders. Could that unlock another potential workforce?

CLARE O’NEIL: Look, it’s probably not the first port of call I would go to. The people who are on bridging visas in this country are in a variety of difficult circumstances. But many of them are on their way out of door, basically. They’re people whose visas have been cancelled for whatever reason and they’re here, being transitioned back to their home country. There might be some opportunities for us to work with people who are on longer term bridging visas and something that Andrew Giles and I are working on is really when we came to office, there were big groups of what I call legacy caseloads, basically people who were either in an impermanent state here, who have an unresolved visa issue, who are just sitting there, and that’s not good for the country. We need to give these people an answer about their visa and either let them stay or take them back to where they came from, so Andrew and I are working through some of those issues at the moment. But I have to say, PK, it’s extremely complicated because every single person in this country with a bridging visa has got a different set of circumstances and different story, so I don’t think there’s a kind of batch answer here. But I’m sure there are some opportunities.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yesterday, there was a real focus on women and the role of women in the economy. You mentioned unlocking our own domestic labour force and women is a key part of that. Is that a focus also in the migration program as well? What is the gender split when it comes to the people we bring into the country?

CLARE O’NEIL: Let me say something first about the role of women in the forum. I’ve been kind of coming to events like this for, I think, about 20 years in Australia. I’ve never attended one before where women have really been genuine equal partners in the conversation, but this is happening at the summit and I want Australians to understand that. There are women leading panels. They’re making presentations. They are driving the discussion. They are driving a feeling of consensus and optimism and constructiveness and it’s just amazing to be a part of it and I think it’s really great for the country that this is happening.

On the migration side, I’m not sure what the exact breakdown is of gender across the visa program at the moment, but it is something we do need to think about. One of the really interesting problems we have in the migration program is that care workers is a major shortage of skills in the country. Everyone would understand that if you’ve got a relative in aged care or you’ve been to a public hospital in recent years. This is a predominantly female workforce. These are predominantly not particularly well-paid people and I think this is one of the big sort of skills discussions we need to have properly about this care workforce, the extent to which it comes from overseas and how we can make sure we’re attracting migrants to come here and work in our care industry, but also Australians too.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us.

CLARE O’NEIL: Terrific to talk to you, PK.