Thursday, 17 September 2020

Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC Afternoon Briefing


TOPICS: Job figures, Melbourne lockdown, International students, migration program, Australian Citizenship Test

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Alan Tudge is the acting Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs. Minister, welcome.


PATRICIA KARVELAS: I'll get to your portfolio shortly, but on today's jobs figure, why do you think unemployment is falling more quickly than Treasury forecast?

ALAN TUDGE: It's a very good question. I was surprised by these figures also, but in most states outside of Victoria, those states are opening up and the jobs are coming back. I mean, we know that out of the 1.3 million or so jobs that were lost or hours reduced, about half of those were already back which is good. The real problem child, of course, is Victoria, as you know, PK, where the lockdown has meant that we're still losing jobs here. We lost a further 40,000 in the month of August. Whereas in the rest of the country jobs seem to be coming back. But I think as the Treasurer said, overall, the effective unemployment rate is still very, very high and we've still got a long road to go generally.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: You've seen the numbers that have been released today by the Health Department in Victoria. Clearly the COVID numbers are decreasing. You've been critical of the pathway out. Do you think Melbourne should emerge earlier from lockdown now?

ALAN TUDGE: Depends on what you mean by lockdown. We have a curfew in place, for example, at the moment. And there's evidence now that that wasn't based on medical evidence. That was a decision of the Premier, not based on that medical evidence. We've certainly got many parts of Melbourne which have very, very few cases. You know, across most of the east and south-eastern suburbs now, there might be three cases or four cases per municipality and yet the whole place is still in lockdown. So I hope that we can get back to a normal situation as quickly as possible and start to have more of a strategy which is what New South Wales has where they have really effective contact tracing systems in place so when an outbreak occurs, PK, we're quickly on top of it, isolating that outbreak and isolating the people who are connected to the outbreak, so that we can then keep the rest of society open. And that's my [indistinct]… can get there sooner rather than later.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. Do you think the curfew should go immediately?

ALAN TUDGE: I personally don't like the curfew. And I was always under the impression that it was the medical advice which had, the medical advice was driving the curfew. But we've since discovered that it wasn't based on medical advice, it wasn't based on policing advice. It was purely a decision of the Government.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. Let me get in here because the Premier's been asked, as you know, extensively in these press conferences he holds daily and his answer is that it's about movement and he's provided figures about the reduction in movement. Now clearly if you reduce movement, you reduce the potential for the virus to spread. Are you unconvinced by that?

ALAN TUDGE: Well, we've always acted on the basis of the expert medical advice at the federal level and the decisions which we've followed accordingly. And I was always under that impression that that was occurring equally at the state level but that hasn't been the case. Now, movements is one thing, it's actually connectivity with other people which is the main thing where the virus gets transmitted. So me or you travelling in your car by yourself, more than 5km to another destination, doesn't add to any connectivity. So social distancing is critical. Washing your hands becomes critical and those sorts of things. But equally critical and perhaps most critical is what I've mentioned, is the contact tracing.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. Does that stark contrast, going back to the jobs figures between Victoria and the rest of the country, back up the argument for special economic assistance in Victoria, given you're reducing literally imminently the payments of JobSeeker and JobKeeper? But if you're a Victorian worker or you've lost your job, nothing is going to change for you, so why should you see your payments reduced? Should there be a Victorian economic package that the Federal Government, your government, provides?

ALAN TUDGE: In part there is actually, PK, because the nature of the JobKeeper program, the single biggest public expenditure in Australian history is demands-driven. And Treasury is now forecasting that by the end of this year, 60 per cent of all of the JobKeeper expenditure will be in the one state of Victoria. So it hones in on where the problems are. And the problems are going to be in Victoria as we know. Now, on top of that, there are of course many other programs that we have in place as well, including one of my portfolios in terms of infrastructure and we'll have more to say about that in the Budget.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. Do you acknowledge there are risks in the decision to taper the JobSeeker payments while the economic recovery is so fragile? I spoke with former treasury secretary Ken Henry and he said there are risks reducing those supports at a time when the economy is so fragile?

ALAN TUDGE: It was always initially planned as being a 6-month JobKeeper payment and then the decision was made to extend it by a further six months but just slightly tapered off. From $1500 down to $1200. That's a decision the Government made. It's an incredibly expensive program and obviously it's being largely paid by future generations because it's going onto the Government debt. So you're really balancing out this. The money doesn't grow on trees. It has to be paid for somehow. And we're already in deficit, in deep deficit now and we'll be in deep deficit for the next few years. And so this is the balance which we have made and I think it's the right balance.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Is it your view that the migration cap should be lifted above 160,000 to help drive Australia's economic recovery?

ALAN TUDGE: We'll make that decision in the Budget, PK, and so that will be announced then. This year…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. I know you can't make an announcement, so I'll just help you out, like to give me some concept of your thinking here about where this should go, you know how important migration is and has been to our economic story. What is your current thinking about the way that that program should work?

ALAN TUDGE: Sure. Well migration, the migration system consists two parts. One being the permanent migration system which is that 160,000 cap for this year, and the other being the temporary migration system, much of which is demand driven. And so what I mean by that is if you've got employers who cannot find Australians and they've advertised for Australians and can't find them, then they are able to sponsor a person in. Now I suspect that we're going to have a lot, well I know there's a lot more Australians looking for jobs. And so that demand element of that employer sponsored scheme will naturally reduce in any case. So I expect those figures to be lower, even if we had completely open borders again. Overall, though, of course we want to get migration back again, PK. Migration has been critical, critical for our economic success. It's been critical for our social success and our cultural success. And so many people have gone on to become great Australians as a result of that migration program, as you know. So we have to get back there but we’ve got to do so carefully and methodically. It relates to the quarantining decisions which have been announced over the last couple of days. Because that becomes the bottleneck, if you like, on how fast the migration program can go. So, if we can get good quarantining arrangements in place and they can increase then of course over time we can also increase the migration rate.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, what do you make of this UNSW study that 30 per cent of international students have been unable to pay for essential needs?

ALAN TUDGE: I did see that study reported in the papers today and I feel for those international students certainly who are struggling to make ends meet. When international students come out to Australia to study here, we welcome them, but they're under the expectation, and they know this, that they have to care for themselves, they've got to use their own savings to make ends meet, and obviously we'll give them some work rights to be able to facilitate them in doing so as well. Now, that position hasn't changed. What has changed is that we've given people access to their superannuation immediately which they can access. We've put more money into emergency relief. The universities themselves are putting hundreds of millions of dollars to support some of those international students, and we've also expanded the work opportunities which those international students can have as well.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, so that's what you've done, but countries like the UK, New Zealand, Canada have extended unemployment assistance to international students. Couldn't Australia afford to do that or to do more?

ALAN TUDGE: Well, I mean, we're already in very significant debt, PK. And so this would be Australian taxpayers' paying for, in fact, it'd be future Australian taxpayers paying for those welfare payments for foreign students in this country. Our position has always been that our welfare expenditure is there for Australian citizens and for residents. And any temporary migrant who comes into the country very clearly understands that they are welcomed here, that they need to look after themselves. And that principle we have maintained. And consistent with that principle has been enabling them to access their superannuation tax free while they're here.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Do you accept there are people who come here fully expecting to be able to support themselves but haven't been able to because of the pandemic?

ALAN TUDGE: I certainly think that's the case. I mean, there will be some people who have been employed, who have been on say, an employer sponsored visa. And that might be a 4-year visa, they might be a couple of years in and that employer has gone belly up. And I totally feel for those migrants who are out here. They're on a pathway potentially for permanent residency. But while this is occurring in a more rapid rate now, that has also occurred in the past, where companies midway through a sponsorship arrangement will go belly up. So, again, we've provided flexibility in terms of their visas so they can be stood down. As long as they've still got that position, their visa is still valid. If they haven't got a job, we're asking them -  and they can't find a new employer, we are asking them to return to their home country where they'll be able to get that support.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, you've made an announcement today. Why is now the right time for an overhaul of the citizenship test?

ALAN TUDGE: Three reasons. Firstly, we haven't overhauled it for 10 years. Second, we have increasingly got people who are coming to our shores from countries whose value systems are very different to Australia's value systems. So, we've been keen to update the citizenship to incorporate a significant component based on Australian liberal democratic values. And the third reason really is we want to prepare ourselves for next year. 2021 is going to be a better year than 2020. And particularly for vaccine, if it becomes widely available. So, we're going to update the test. It will be available from the end of next year and we want to encourage everybody to consider, who is eligible, becoming a citizen and joining our family.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But Minister, you mentioned something that I really need to pick you up from. This idea that you might come from a country with different values as you've described it. If you've come to this country, what makes you assume just because you came from another country you necessarily have values that you're implying are negative or not within our kind of system? Many of these people actually have chosen to come here and have made that active choice. Aren't we making a judgement which is based on, not reality, in fact quite the opposite often?

ALAN TUDGE: I completely agree with the proposition that hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions of people, are attracted to Australia because of the values which we have, because of those liberal democratic values which have underpinned our success. I agree with that proposition. I'm not making any judgement about what values people bring. What I am saying is those values are absolutely critical to our ongoing success and they are the ultimate glue which binds us all together despite our diversity. So, what we're doing with the citizenship test is putting a significant proportion of the questions based on those liberal democratic values, rather than purely based on facts and figures which traditionally it's been based on. That will mean for most applicants, they'll be very straightforward questions. But for some it will actually make them consider what Australian values are and really more deeply understand it as they're preparing for that test. That's what the intent is. The intent is not to test, not to create a barrier as such, the intent is for people to focus deeply and understand deeply what our liberal democratic values are before they make that ultimate commitment and become an Australian citizen.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: I've got to be cheeky but that's my nature, as you know; you can sort of say anything in a test, can't you, Minister? It doesn't really mean anything about your values. Many Australians are born here and I've seen people born in this country and I wonder if they've got my values for instance even though they were born in this country?

ALAN TUDGE: Yeah, that's a fair comment. We're not doing, what we're aiming to achieve here is that people at least deeply understand what our liberal democratic values are. For example, they deeply understand that we're a system governed by parliamentary laws. If there's a conflict with a religious edict, the parliamentary law will be paramount; that people deeply understand that men and women in this country have equal opportunities, which is different to what is the case in some other communities.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Alright, but can we teach some Australian men that too?

ALAN TUDGE: [Laughs]

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Did you like that?

ALAN TUDGE: I think there are ongoing programs there, PK, in relation to that. But there's other things which, and I take your point, most people who will read the values section in the booklet, which is the guide for people to study before they do their test, will find them very unremarkable. And in fact, many Australians take our core liberal democratic values for granted: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, equality of opportunity between men and women, parliamentary democracy, the fair go, those sorts of things. But they're not always the case in every other country as you know. And so, yes, we can't, if you like we can't through this process ensure that people's values are changed but we can at least put in place a system to ensure that they do study up and at least understand what our liberal democratic values are.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, just really quickly and I'm pushing my luck but I always push my luck, it's my nature. There's a protest against the lockdown in Melbourne again planned for the weekend. What's your view? Are you urging people not to protest?

ALAN TUDGE: I don't think people should break the law. If people want to have their protest, they can do so in mechanisms which don't break the law. That would be, my view, it is one of core values, isn't it, PK? That people, and this is in the guide, you have a right to protest against government decisions. You have a right to argue your case. What you don't have a right to do is to break the law, and that's what some of those protesters have been doing. Whether you like those laws or not, you must abide by them.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us.