Wednesday, 29 April 2020

COVID19 Multicultural media briefing – Melbourne

Subjects: Coronavirus, COVIDSafe App, racism, support for small business, China, temporary visa holders

ALAN TUDGE: Well, good morning everybody and thanks for joining us once again at these weekly updates which I provide. I wanted to start just by again saying a very big thank you to all Australians, including the multicultural communities here in Australia.

We have a total number of cases of just over 6700 at the moment, and in the last 24 hours, only 13 new infections were discovered. Now, that is a very low number and that continues the trend which Australia is on in terms of having a very, very low infection rate. So it's very pleasing and everybody has made a contribution towards achieving that end result.

There's no other country in the world that is doing better than Australia at the moment in relation to flattening the curve, keeping infection rates low, keeping the death rates very, very low and dealing with this coronavirus crisis. So thank you once again for all of the efforts which you have made, abiding by the social restrictions and continuing with the directions which federal and state governments are providing.

Secondly, can I just point out that the coronavirus app is available, as you would be aware, and there's almost 2.5 million people in Australia who have downloaded this app. Now, this coronavirus safe app helps you stay safe and it helps the community stay safe. I'm encouraging everybody to please download this app, make it active, so that then if you are in contact with somebody who has the virus, you will be able to be notified and take those precautions as a result. That might mean getting the test yourself, getting treatment should you need to do so, but also then isolating yourself from others so that you may not be at risk for other people, infecting them as well.

Please take the time to download this app. You can download it on your Apple or on any other Android device as well. It is a very straightforward thing to do. It's obviously free. There's only a few pieces of information which are required to enter in to the app to make it active: your name, your age range, your postcode and your telephone number. Four pieces of information only.

All of the information on there is yours. It doesn't go anywhere unless it is triggered by somebody who has the infection and that you have been close by to them - in which case then you would get an alert from the relevant state official. That of course then enables you to be safe and enables you to avoid having the risk of infecting other people.

It's a very important app and we want as many Australians to download this as possible. So can I ask the multicultural media who are here today to please encourage people to download that app. I'll point out that there are now - the fact sheets in relation to this app is now translate into 63 languages and they'll be distributed through our normal networks to the 2000 or so organisations that we have regular contact with. Those fact sheets are available here today as well. Now that outlines all the privacy mechanisms. It outlines how this app works and other details which you may be interested in. We won't be translating the app into other languages because it is so straightforward, but if you are having difficulty in understanding the app, just ask somebody else who can help you set it up. You may want to have a look at the fact sheet in your native language so that you can feel comfortable that all the privacy concerns are addressed, which I'm sure you will once you read those fact sheets.

The next point I want to make today is my concern and the Government's concerns in relation to an apparent rise in racist attacks against people of Asian origins. I just want to reemphasise that this is completely unacceptable conduct. It has no place in Australia.

We have one of the greatest multicultural countries in the world, where we welcome people from across the planet to our shores, and in doing so, we've all been enriched. And we encourage tolerance. We encourage integration and we've done this so well. Any incidences of racism are absolutely firmly rejected by myself, by the Prime Minister and the Australian Government. I just want to re-emphasise that point because there have been too many individual instances that I have heard of that have been played out in the public sphere, and it is not acceptable.

The Australian Government is on the side of the broader Australian community, including the multicultural communities. You shouldn't have to put up with it. And we've got protections in place to ensure that you don't. I encourage people that if you are facing racism, then report it to the Human Rights Commission. If you have faced violence or assaults which is based on racism, then report it to the police - don't hesitate to do so - and they will be followed up. For other people who might witness racist attacks, I encourage you to call it out because I can assure you that 99.9 per cent of Australians abhor racism of any description. I just want to really re-emphasise those points.

If you need support, please call the Australian Human Rights Commission. Please call the police. Or if you need counselling support, there are those avenues available as well. We'll be placing some advertisements in some of the multicultural media in the weeks ahead, pointing these facts out that racism is unacceptable and providing guidance as to who people might be able to report to if they see it or are facing it themselves.

Finally, can I just make a comment in relation to small business today. This is not new information but I just wanted to emphasise this to the multicultural community, because new Australians are well and truly overrepresented in terms of small business creation and in the running of small businesses.

We know that many small businesses are doing it really tough at the moment right across Australia. I just wanted to emphasise to multicultural community who are running small businesses that there is a lot of support which is available to those small businesses.

Obviously, the JobKeeper payment is the most important one and that is, if you have had revenues decline by 30 per cent or more, a month versus the previous year's similar month, then you'll be eligible for $1500 per fortnight for each of your employers. So it's a very significant contribution to help your business along. There's also up to $100,000 in payments which businesses can apply for to boost their cash flow and that is worthwhile examining as well. That's available to businesses up to $50 million dollars in turnover.

There's a further $20 billion guarantee that we've put in place which provides more ready access to loans. And so again, that is something that small businesses should look into should they need that financial assistance. As well as we have increased the instant asset write off. So if you're in the position to invest at the moment, then you can write off an asset immediately in this financial year of value up to $150,000. Now that just will help obviously with your cash flow come tax time as well.

Of course we've introduced just as well to mandatory code of conduct on commercial tenancies. So for those businesses, often your rents may be one of the significant costs which you have, we now have a mandatory code of conduct to assist with you at your negotiations with the landlord, which may help facilitate that reduction in those rental costs.

So there's a number of items there which I encourage those small business owners to look in to. Go to the Australia.gov.au website and that will have the full details in relation to that. And again, we'll have fact sheets in multiple languages as well.

Let me finish where I started in again thanking the broader multicultural communities for everything they have done today in terms of contributing to our success to date in flattening the curve and getting control of the coronavirus. We're not out of the woods yet, but we are obviously looking now at the road out to get back to as normal as possible in the future.

We've started that journey by reopening elective surgeries, reopening things like IVF treatments. We're now obviously encouraging the schools to reopen, so the kids can go back and there'll be further developments in the weeks and months ahead. Happy to take any questions that you may have.

QUESTION: [Indistinct] speaking on behalf of the Chinese community. Last week long, I received three reports of racial attack, and obviously, the victims are not happy with the way the police are dealing with them. So their garage and door and house got racial words like “Chinese go home" like this, and then report it to the police, and police refuse to show up, and they just tell the victims too paint those words on their own. So what can you comment on the situation?

ALAN TUDGE: I'm very aware of that particular case you're referring to. It happens to be my electorate as well. I've spoken to the family there too and provided my great sympathy to them - my 100 per cent support for them - and reassuring them that the individuals who did that are cowards and are not representative of the broader Australian population. I can't be more blunt than that. They did call the police, I know the police have looked into the matter, and I've encouraged them also to contact the Human Rights Commission as well in relation to it. But to date, the police have not been able to identify the individual who did that damage and made those disgraceful attacks on their home, not only in terms of the racist language but also in terms of throwing rocks through their windows and causing general harassment.

It's unacceptable, and I've made that comment very public as well as have other community leaders, and I think 99.99 per cent of Australians would be equally disgusted by that individual coward who did that act.

QUESTION: Minister Tudge, the Australian Government's push for an independent review on COVID-19 has led to China threatening to boycott Australian goods and services. Your views on this one?

ALAN TUDGE: Our desire is for there to be a full investigation into where the coronavirus crisis came from, and what were the conditions which set it about. And I think it's a reasonable request to have, in part so that we can learn the lessons of what occurred and ensure that it doesn't happen again in the future. Because this has had global ramifications as you know. Many thousands of deaths and massive economic impact across the world. So we need to know what happened so that we can learn those lessons. And we certainly reject any suggestion that economic coercion is an appropriate response to our reasonable suggestion that there be a proper independent investigation into what happened so that we can learn the lessons.

QUESTION: Just one question about the temporary visa holders, they are contacting the department but the responses have been very slow or not get any response at all. So is there any timeframe you can set, especially for those overseas and ones who want to get the visa extended, and want to know in which way the department can help.

ALAN TUDGE: Yes, certainly if you are overseas at the moment and you're not an Australian citizen or a permanent resident, then you can't come into the country because our borders are closed. There are exceptional circumstances for compassionate reasons, in terms of diplomats and others who may be able to get an exemption granted by the Australian Border Force commissioner, who we have delegated to have that power. However, the borders are closed.

Now, we also have difficulty in terms of processing visas offshore at the moment too because many of the core services which you need to go to fulfil your visa application are closed down. For example, the health services to check your medicals, the English language testing regimes, for example, are often closed down. So that is an impediment obviously to us being able to finalise visas as well.

At some stage in the future, and it's too early to say when, we will want to reopen our borders of course, because we're a country built on migration and we'll continue to be a country built on migration. Immigrants have literally built our country and they're so important to our society and our economy. But it's too early to say just yet when we might be able to open those borders.

QUESTION: Okay, regarding visa holders as well here, a lot of complaints that our readers [indistinct] have told us is that they have come here for a better life to contribute to this country and then pay taxes, insurance, school fees, and yet apart from Tasmania offering [indistinct], they don't get anything. Is there a chance that something might be set up for these people who are in dire straits without a job at the moment?

ALAN TUDGE: It depends on which category you're referring to. We have put some additional funds into the emergency relief fund, which anybody who's a resident in Australia is able to access through the normal emergency relief providers.

Our broad message has been that we know that some people are in difficulty. We know that, we acknowledge that, and we have empathy for their situation, which has not been caused by them. Having said that, whenever a person comes into Australia on a temporary visa, there's always been the expectation that they're able to look after themselves while they're temporarily in Australia. And that we have always reserved the welfare and the job assistance to citizens and permanent residents. We have made it easier for people to be able to look after themselves by giving them access to their own superannuation while they're in Australia.

Now, as you probably know typically when a temporary resident who has been working in Australia leaves the country, they are able to apply for that superannuation as soon as they leave the country. Now we have made it such that they can apply for that superannuation while they're in the country if they're facing hardship.

Now, if you've been working for a year or two you, may well have $10,000-$20,000 in that superannuation account which you can access to help with the living costs. We've also provided flexibility in relation to visas as well and particularly for those who have been on skilled visas who may have had their hours reduced or may have been stood down. Ordinarily, that would lead to them being in breach of their visa condition. We've allowed greater flexibility there such that their visa will still be valid. There won't be any issue there while they may have reduced hours.

Of course, we've increased the ability for some visa holders to work more hours, particularly international students in certain industries, particularly the working holidaymakers in certain industries as well. Those industries where we know that we do need those skills and in fact, there's greater demand for those skills.

That was even in supermarkets by the way up until quite recently where we allowed international students working in supermarkets to work 40 hours per week rather than 40 hours per fortnight, just to help deal with the enormous demand, as everybody knows, which were placed on those supermarkets when there was the rush going on over the last couple months.

QUESTION: As we know like when the Australian immigration system we have a hundred or so subclasses, especially those who are overseas on the temporary visa and department is willing to help, is there any way you can refine the subclasses, those who are overseas, they may get a chance to extend the visa while they are overseas? Is there any anyway that you can fine tune the subclasses to put in on the public domain and people can have easy access?

And similar to this concern, the COVID-19 form on the Department of Foreign Affairs website is only - looks like it's only helping the people who are Australian citizens or their immediate family members. The temporary visa holders, they're agreed to contact the department, they're still like contacting their NGO, they're contacting their MARA agents. So is there any specific point of contact that you can establish for temporary visa holders?

ALAN TUDGE: It depends what they want to contact the Government in relation to it. So if it's in relation to their visa, then they should be contacting the Immigration Department, my department, in relation to that. And if they're concerned about their visa conditions, they should do so as a matter of urgency.

If it's in relation to other matters - if they're an international student, for example, they may want to contact the university or their tertiary institution because many of those institutions are providing hardship payments for their students. In fact, there's been about $110 million set aside for international students to be able to access from those tertiary institutions.

They can also contact some of our emergency relief providers as well but also note some of the consulates are providing assistance to those individuals as well. That's obviously a course of action that people can take. Those consulate offices are here in Australia to support their citizens. So I know that in many instances those consulate offices have been of assistance.

Furthermore, there's been great community support for individuals who have found themselves into difficulty and, in some respects, that's the great Australian way that we all chip in and help one another when that occurs and I know there's been instances where that's happened also.

Just briefly in relation to those who are overseas and the extension of their visas there - it's hard without knowing the individual visa class they're on. Some visa classes don't allow lawfully an extension while others do. So depending on what their visa class is, if they're concerned that it's going to expire, then if their visa class does allow an extension, they should be looking to do that again as soon as possible or when their visa is due to expire.

QUESTION: [Indistinct] small business. There are some parents who are here from India and also some Buddhist visitors from India. So because of the no flights, now India is in a lockdown and we never know when their visa is going to expire. [indistinct].

Number two, today the [indistinct] petroleum is selling at 77.9 is the lowest price is just beginning. Having said this, the small business now - if the oil price stays low, as you advertised in the social media and Facebook I saw it a couple of days before you adding oil reserve. So like, Australia also can sell the oil for the future benefit of small business community. So that stay low; they can [indistinct] low price so that they can do more business, to sell the community and to get back onto that track. So what is the arrangement this Government is having so the oil reserve will stay low? Thank you.

ALAN TUDGE: Certainly, in relation to the oil, as you point out, we've increased our oil reserves because the oil price is so low at the moment. In fact, it went into a negative price at one stage in terms of crude oil. We've made a very significant investment to increase our water reserves and that's important for economic and national security reasons.

The oil price generally, I would I would imagine, would continue to be maintained by the global markets in terms of what the price is. And in relation to the particular proposal that you put, I'm not aware of any plans to do that. But the Energy Minister would be the person to best answer those questions.

Just remind me again, your first question was in relation to?

QUESTION: Immigration.

ALAN TUDGE: Immigration and extending visas and the like and - the Indian nationals who are here in Australia, I have particular sympathy for because the international airports have been shut down by the Indian Government which means that even if the person wanted to exit Australia at the moment and go back to their home country, then it is impossible to do so.

Now, Prime Minister Modi is going to re-evaluate that decision on 3 May and may decide at that particular point in time to reopen those international airports which would then enable flights to go back to India. In the meantime, if somebody is concerned about the validity of their visa, I would encourage them to immediately contact the Immigration Department. If you're on a tourist visa, for example, get in contact with the Immigration Department, and get that extended or apply for a new tourist visa, and we'll ensure that that person remains valid in the country until the flights reopen.

QUESTION: [indistinct], before the COVID-19, the oil prices are controlled by all major petroleum companies but the governments don't have a hand to control because the ridiculous price just keep going. And people cannot- hardworking Australians cannot afford the fuel prices. [Indistinct]. Having said so, that the Government have to - this situation, so the ACCC or Energy Minister have to put in place this COVID-19 the future oil prices, how do we consider affordability for the hardworking Australians and small business.

ALAN TUDGE: Getting energy costs down generally has been one of our Government's priorities since the get go. We initially ran on a campaign six or so years ago on getting rid of the carbon tax because in essence we saw that as being an energy tax. And as soon as we got rid of that, we had the biggest drop in the prices for some time and those prices continue to go down.

Your point about petroleum is an important one and those prices are more dictated of course by global markets. But that obviously helps those small businesses as well as individual residents in Australia, to be able to get around. But we want to see gas prices down, we want to see electricity prices down and that remains absolutely a firm focus, because ultimately, businesses create wealth and we want businesses to thrive. That's why we put in place this JobSeeker payment and put in place these other mechanisms to help businesses through this difficult time, and then we want to see them roar back when we're on the other side because that's going to be the way that we get out of this crisis and back to normal as well, is through businesses.

All the entrepreneurs out there of which there are millions of migrants or entrepreneurs in this country, and we want to see them succeed because it helps them and it helps all of Australia.

Alright? Thanks, last question.

QUESTION: Minister, do you think, especially that COVID-19 for permanent citizens [indistinct] here, we have established a special online form. Do you think it will be easy for the Department to collect all the relevant concerns from the temporary visa holders, those who are overseas, to establish a separate email ID or separate form that will facilitate them and that will also facilitate the Department to filter the temporary visa holders here?

ALAN TUDGE: The temporary visa holders in Australia, I mean, they're a very significant cohort so it's a very big part of the general work which they do. There's about 2.1 million people in Australia on a temporary visa class of one description or another.

I'm not quite sure what you're getting at in terms of that separate form or separate line because at the moment, it'll be the majority of their work, dealing with the changes in visas, visa extensions, changing conditions meaning that people are concerned about their visa validity. I think we have those processes in place. And certainly, my department, at my instruction, is ensuring that all of the information in relation to the coronavirus is being translated into multiple languages. If people's English isn't good that they can get that information. We send that out through over 2000 various organisations that we have relationships with and we ask those organisations to forward on that information or indeed, do a short video themselves which they can post on their social media sites so that that they can inform the broader community.

I think to date that's been working. I've seen some research that says that the broader multicultural communities are understanding all of the social distancing requirements and other requirements at the same rate as anybody else, which does suggest that that information is getting through to the broader population as well.

QUESTION: Sorry, a very quick one. For people who have been stood down, but have had their visas extended nonetheless, will these months where they're not working count towards their permanent residency visa applications?

ALAN TUDGE: It will. And on top of that, if a person is stood down and they return back to their home country for a particular amount of time, or if they're laid off and return to their home country for a particular amount of time, if they come back to Australia with a sponsor, they won't be starting from scratch again. We'll ensure that that time that they've spent in Australia can count towards their permanent residency pathway.

QUESTION: And what's the maximum time abroad that you can have in order to [indistinct]?

ALAN TUDGE: So we haven't worked out all the details in relation to this. I've indicated our statement of intent to do that because there are going to be some people who are - listen, they might be three years in and they're on a PR pathway, permanent residency pathway, and all of a sudden, for no fault of their own, the business who is sponsoring them has been unable to keep them on and they've had to return to their home country. We want to say to those individuals that we recognise that you've been on this pathway and that if you apply in the future to come back to Australia and you have a sponsor who can support you, then that time that you have spent in Australia already can count towards that four years minimum that you need to have to apply for that permanent residency.

The details, we're still working out precisely how that's going to work.

QUESTION: When do you think that might be ready?

ALAN TUDGE: I don't want to put a timeframe. If I say a timeframe now, you'll hold me to that. We're just still working it out. It's quite complex, as you can probably see, in terms of precisely what the rules would be in relation to that.

It's obviously not urgent at the moment because we have our borders closed, so it's not applying to anybody. But at some stage of course, we will be wanting to open up our borders again and then those new rules will be in place then.

QUESTION: [Indistinct] for parents and [indistinct] who want to extend their visa [indistinct]?

ALAN TUDGE: We haven't considered that at the moment. It depends again on the visa classes which people are on as to whether or not it's able to be extended readily or they need to apply for a new visa. Some visas can't be extended legally and they would have to apply for a new visa in which case there would be a small fee applying, but we haven't considered waiving it at this stage.

QUESTION: Thank you.

ALAN TUDGE: Thanks everybody.