Friday, 06 November 2020

Multicultural press conference, 6 November 2020


​ALAN TUDGE: G'day everybody. Thanks for joining us once more. I'm just sort of flicking through my screens and see some very familiar faces and some familiar names for those who can't see. This is one of my regular multicultural media conferences. I'll say a few words up front about a couple of the things which might be of direct relevance to your readers and listeners, and then, really to hand over to you though for questions as to what you might want to raise.

I want to start today on a couple of health related things. Firstly, the vaccines announcements, which was yesterday. I just wanted to re-emphasise for you that we've now made further purchases of vaccines so that they can be available to all Australians next year. We've got a diverse supply of vaccines now as well from different sources, which are slightly different vaccines. And I guess we're optimistic that these vaccines will work and that they'll be readily available from about March of next year; and that certainly, by the end of next calendar year, that all Australians who want to be vaccinated will have that opportunity to be vaccinated. So I think that's a very positive way to start this press conference on is in relation to that vaccines announcement and just re-emphasising that particular point.

I think when we do start it in March, there'll inevitably be some groups and people that we prioritise first. Those people who are on the frontline, health workers, no doubt, probably the elderly would be the second group. That'll be subject to further advice closer to the date when we are fully available, and fingers crossed that those third stage trials come to fruition and are successful. So that was the first point I just wanted to make.

The second point was a further announcement just this week, which has a direct relevance to all Australians and a particular relevance as well to multicultural Australians. And that is in relation to the additional mental health support that we've put in place. Now, as you know, this pandemic has led to many people facing mental ill health and needing support. We've seen the level of requests for support skyrocket this year compared to last and particularly in Victoria, my home state, and I know the home state of many of you. We've already done a lot of - put in a lot of additional money for that; perhaps most importantly, extended the number of Medicare counselling sessions that one can get from 10 to 20. That was quite a significant step and a considerable amount of money to support that. But additionally, given further funds to organisations like Lifeline, to Beyond Blue and the like.

This week, though, we also announced a further $10 million for a COVID mental health campaign called How's Your Head Today? Now, this is going to be an important campaign. It's a lot of money for a campaign. In essence, asking people how they're going, trying to reduce any stigma which might still be there in relation to seeking support – and we hope that a lot of that stigma has dissipated – and encouraging people to reach out and get help because help is available. That campaign will be translated into 15 different languages, and we'll be, again, utilising all of our various networks, including the multicultural media, to help get that campaign out. I believe that there will be ads placed in some of the multicultural media, the print radio, online media as well, to help facilitate that. So, I just wanted to bring that one to your attention too because it's such an important thing, is people's mental health. There's been some tragic consequences associated with the pandemic, and as I said, particularly in Victoria, and mental ill health is certainly one of those.

Finally, I just wanted to just mention sort of the latest update on the borders, both the domestic borders and the international borders, which again, I know many of your readers, listeners will be interested in. I think you're aware no doubt of all of the internal borders which are slowly coming down. Even in Victoria, this Sunday night will be the end of the 25 kilometre rule, the end of the “ring of steel", if you like, around the city. From the 23rd of November, New South Wales is opening up to Victoria. And Western Australia, from November the 14th, will allow all travellers in, assuming that they maintain their low COVID rate which they're on presently. So we're going to be very close by the end of this month to having completely open borders again. Queensland's probably the last significant state that hasn't made decisions yet, and we're hoping that they will be able to make decisions soon.

All this means is that, leading into the Christmas period, it's looking likely that we'll be able to at least travel internally in Australia, anywhere in Australia, to be able to see our loved ones over Christmas or to holiday at the destinations that we choose.

On the international borders, we're continuing that work of trying to get our borders slowly but safely reopened. We're doing this in a number of a number of ways. We've firstly started to bring in some temporary skilled migrants again but on a priority listing. We've started the bubble arrangements now with New Zealand, whereby you don't have to quarantine. It's a very significant step. We're working on those bubble arrangements with some of the Pacific nations, with Japan, Singapore, South Korea, those countries who have also had very low infection rates. If those open up, it means, again, we'll be able to bring people in to Australia without the quarantining. Because the quarantining, as you'd appreciate, almost becomes the bottleneck, if you like, or the speed limit of how many people we can bring in to the country. They're governed by the states and territories. At the moment, I think we have something like 5000 beds per week, which obviously we're prioritising Australians and permanent residents for those beds. But it means there's only certain spots, if you like, available. If you don't have to quarantine, we can just have the planes coming in. So we're still working on that.

People are constantly asking me about international students. And again, I know that many of your readers and listeners would be interested in this. We're still hopeful of having pilots up and running in relation to international students very soon, particularly in the NT and South Australia. But I can't give you any further details, really, other than that, other than we're still working on trying to find solutions for it, knowing that having international students in Australia is great for those students, it's great for Australia. Over the years, international students have been a terrific source of new Aussies down the track as well. So we do want to get that international students market back up and running again, but we've just got to do this carefully and steadily. When you think about the numbers here - in a normal year, we would have about 185,000 international students come in to the country at the start of the calendar year. It's a very significant number and obviously, that's really tricky at the moment given the quarantine arrangements that I was mentioning before of only 5000 or 6000 beds each week.

So that was just the last thing that I wanted to mention. I just wanted to, as I said, cover off on those three thing - our optimism about the vaccines, our additional support for people who may need help with their mental health. And thirdly, just a quick update on the borders – and knowing that there's progress there, but we're just doing it safely and steadily. I'm happy to take any questions on those or on any other topic that you want to raise. At the end of the day, these should be, as they are, sessions whereby you can ask whatever you like of me, and it can be a two-way exchange. So, over to you.

[audio dropout]

ALAN TUDGE: Why don't you kick off Fred, because I saw your hand up.

QUESTION: Awesome. Thank you for joining us. And it's awesome to have you here today. So, my question is about foreign interference. Yesterday, a Melbourne man named Sunny Duong or Di Sanh Duong was charged with preparing for foreign interference in Australia. Does that suggest the threat of foreign interference is very severe in your community right now? How much do we know this case? And can you reveal how this man worked for a foreign government?

ALAN TUDGE: Yeah, I just - I missed some of that because - I might just ask people to mute, if you could, unless you're speaking, because otherwise we get a bit of interference. So, can you just go over that last bit again, Fred? I know you're referring to that arrest yesterday, but I just want to understand your question towards the end.

QUESTION: So, how much do we know about this case? And can you reveal how this man worked for a foreign government?

ALAN TUDGE: I cannot reveal that. And that's a matter for the police. So, the Australian Federal Police obviously are in charge of ensuring enforcement of the Australian laws. We introduced laws, must be a year or so ago now, in relation to foreign interference. Effectively, those laws require people to be open about their connections to a foreign government if they are influencing a public official, for example. So, for example, you know if, the embassy, the Singaporean Ambassador or High Commissioner comes to see me, I know that he's representing the Singaporean Government, so it's not a surprise. He'll lobby in the interests of the Singaporean Government. Those foreign interference laws are about that transparency.

The matters are now before the courts. He's been charged. It was a serious offence. It's the first of its kind in Australia. The matter will go through the court system, Fred. We have a presumption in Australia of innocent until proven guilty, and also a convention that you don't comment on cases when they're before the courts.

I would refer back - I made some comments, you might recall, Fred, to the National Press Club a couple of months ago now, which did mention foreign interference, that we are now having levels of foreign interference in Australia which haven't been seen since World War Two. It's not from any one individual country, it's many sources. We are taking it very seriously. We've put more resources towards that, and indeed introduced new laws such as this one, which is being actioned upon yesterday. Thanks, Fred.

QUESTION: Hello, Minister. Thank you for joining us today. My question to you is regarding the plan that Prime Minister shared [inaudible]. The Prime Minister said that he will get all Australians home for Christmas. What is the plan for the next six weeks to get almost more than 20,000 people home?

ALAN TUDGE: Yes, so that is certainly the plan in terms of being able to prioritise those Australians, have flights there for the Australians that want to - that have indicated as at a particular point in time that they wanted to get home by Christmas, and we're working towards that. So, in essence, it's coordinating the flights, it's coordinating the quarantine systems, working with the airlines, working with the states and territories to map out when people can come in to the locations which they want to come into. So, in some respects, it's as straightforward as that. We are confident. We've made that commitment that people will be able to join their families over Christmas.

QUESTION: But will there be special flights? More special flights being arranged like the ones we saw from UK?

ALAN TUDGE: My understanding is that there's coordination with the airlines. I haven't been doing this myself. It's Michael McCormack, Deputy Prime Minister, looks after that. My understanding is he's been working closely with the airlines to be able to ensure that there are sufficient airlines in place. So, I've just been informed there's 34,000 Aussies who are registered with DFAT at the moment- sorry, who were- yeah, who are registered at the moment, 34,000. This year DFAT's already helped over 30,000 in the last few months. So, those mechanisms are there. We're confident that those people will be able to get home by Christmas.

[audio dropout]

QUESTION: Hi, Minister, how are you today?

ALAN TUDGE: G'day, I'm pretty good. Yourself?

QUESTION: Very good. Very good. You look very cheerful. I have a very simple question. Because none of the countries in Europe and even in India, the virus seems to be surging and becoming a dangerous thing. So, how do you deal with that and so many people overseas, Australians. How does the government plan to balance that? Because people will not be happy. And if you call anyone, as one child had positive yesterday. In that context, I'm asking you.

ALAN TUDGE: Yeah. And this is the really tough challenge, Neeraj, in terms of opening our borders again. We obviously can only do it if we do it very carefully and very safely. Closing our borders was probably the single most important thing that Australia did to get control of the Coronavirus in the first instance. We're fortunate that we've got good borders where, in some respects, we're blessed that we are an island nation in that regard.

So, we're doing it very steadily and we are obviously concerned about what we see in some other countries, whereby the virus seems to be taking off rather than slowing down. I guess this comes back to my first point as well about the vaccine. Now, these are all global vaccines that are being developed and we're securing supplies so that as soon as they're through their trial phase, we will have those supplies ready to go. But obviously, we would like those vaccines to be available globally as well.

Our ambition is, by the middle of next year, certainly, that we will have a more sophisticated digital visa system, including your incoming passenger card system. At the moment, you fill in a hard copy, incoming passenger card when you're on the plane before you land in Australia. We're digitising that. Now, that's just not making it more efficient, but by digitising it, we get more integrity. We understand exactly who the individual is. Plus, we'll have a system in place whereby if someone has been vaccinated, they'll be able to effectively digitally staple that vaccination to their incoming passenger card so that we will know when they arrive that they've been vaccinated and therefore may not need to quarantine. Now that could be a real breakthrough as well, so that even if there isn't mass vaccinations across somewhere like India, which may take some time, those who have had a vaccination will be able to travel into Australia, potentially. Now, obviously there's a few preconditions for that. Obviously, the vaccine has to work and there has to be valid, legitimate vaccination certificates, which we can authenticate. But that's our ambition as well, Neeraj. So we've got a few irons in the fire as you can see, as we're working through these. Because it goes back to this point that: a) Australians love to travel, to leave the country and come back, but b) and more importantly, we're a land of immigrants and immigration has been so critically important to our economic, our social and cultural success. And we do want to be an immigration country again, but we have to get there carefully.

[audio dropout]

QUESTION: Thank you. How is Australia's immigration and border arrangements during the COVID-19 pandemic, progressing? And what are the future course of actions? And number two, the growth impact of COVID-19 pandemic on Australian immigration and the education industry and the export sectors - how was government safeguarding and balancing economic prosperity and well-being?

ALAN TUDGE: I didn't quite catch that last bit. How we're safeguarding…?

QUESTION: How is safeguarding and balancing economic prosperity and well-being?

ALAN TUDGE: And well-being. Certainly on the borders - I don't know if you there at the beginning - I mentioned a little bit about the borders, both internal borders and international borders and how we're sort of slowly and progressively opening up those international borders. But we're only doing so if we're very much assured that we've got the quarantine systems in place and/or vaccinations in place, or having bubble arrangements with countries who, like New Zealand, have exceptionally low COVID, in which case the risks are very, very low.

So that's the first point on the borders. The international students I also briefly mentioned. Other exports and safeguards with - balancing off the economic and the health. I mean, that's been the challenge the whole way along, I'd say, Ravi. Certainly the Prime Minister said from the very beginning of this pandemic that this is both a health crisis and an economic crisis. We've had to work very hard on both of those fronts and in cooperation with the states and territories, in particular, in relation to getting control of the virus as they control many of those levers there.

To be honest, I think we've done it as well as any country in the world, both from a health perspective as well as an economic perspective. We're in recession, but our GDP decline in the last quarter was seven per cent, from memory. A lot of the OECD countries had 15, 20 per cent GDP declines in that quarter. So, we've largely held up. Our unemployment rate has not collapsed. Clearly, many people have lost jobs, but a lot of those have already come back and we're working very hard to get those jobs back. Consumer confidence is back to the levels it was prior to the pandemic, which is a really positive sign. So economically, there's still a lot of hurt out there. Absolutely. Particularly those who have lost their jobs. But when we compare ourselves, I think, to most countries in the world, we're doing, I think, as well if not better than most others. But we've still got a long way to go.

QUESTION: Good morning Minister. Once again, thank you very much for this opportunity and for speaking with all of us here in the multicultural arena. The question is: you said about the vaccine, which is a very, very good news. My question is more around the temporary skilled migrants and the students. So, maybe first on the temporary skilled migrants. Do you know what categories and what would be the requirements?

ALAN TUDGE: So, the temporary skilled migrants - there are 17 occupations which we presently have on the priority occupations list. So, typically there's a list of say, 200 occupations nationally and several hundred more for the regions. Based on advice from the National Skills Commission I think it's called; we've got a priority list at the moment of 17. But that will be under constant review. Many of those 17 – and we can get you this information Umesh – are health related, although some of them are also - to be honest, some of them are directly related to the mining sector as well which has still obviously been going gangbusters in Far North Queensland. So, if you need us to follow up on that, Umesh, we can get you that particular list.

QUESTION: [inaudible]...migration program, normally there's planning that is around March. So, are we still on track with that March planning or would that be delayed under the current circumstances?

ALAN TUDGE: There's two things that we do in relation to migration. One is we set caps for the permanent residency programs, which we've done again in the Budget. We do it every year in the Budget. Now, this year of course we didn't have our Budget until October, so those caps were again outlined in the October Budget, and again we can get that information for you, Umesh, if you need it.

Then the second thing we do as a government as a whole is forecast what the net overseas migration is likely to be for this year, next year and over the next four years. And net overseas migration is a combination of both permanent residents plus long-term temporary residents. Anybody who's basically here for a year or more gets counted in that. That's almost the most important measure from a population perspective, is that net overseas migration figure. The interesting thing there – and in some respects, it's quite a confronting thing – is that for the first time in 75 years, we're actually expecting net overseas migration to be negative this financial year, and negative next financial year, i.e. more people will be leaving Australia than coming into it. That has very significant economic consequences. Then we forecast it largely to come back by year four, but it means in these next couple of years we're still forecasting for very, very few people to actually come into the country. So that's one of our big challenges you mentioned - I think people can understand that now and the only silver lining to this, I think, is that it enables some of our big capital cities to have a bit of a breather and allow the infrastructure to catch up. Some of our big capital cities have been really feeling the population, very rapid population growth, in previous years. That's the one silver lining. But, you know, we do want to get that migration coming back again and we're working towards that.

QUESTION: Alright. Thank you for inviting and engaging with us, the multicultural media. My question to the Minister: with the department supports the diversity in the media, I know these type of things are really encouraging for us, but in terms of resources, are we doing anything, Minister, to access some resources and some funding for the media?

ALAN TUDGE: That is a good question. I don't know. I think there was, from memory there was a media package. I'd have to get further information for you on that, Ram. I haven't been closely connected to that particular one and it's obviously a niche industry, as such. So I'd have to get back to you on that, Ram, as to whether or not there was. I'm pretty sure there was a media package during the COVID period. Did that extend to the multicultural media? I don't know. But I can come back to you on that and I'll ask Jordan to follow up, if that's okay.

HOST: Thank you Minister. I think now there's an opportunity for any final closing remarks you'd like to make.

ALAN TUDGE: Not really any further closing remarks, other than just to say thank you again for all the work which you do in the multicultural media and many of you do it as volunteers in terms of informing your communities. So thank you for the work that you do. I see people like Umesh who have about half a dozen hats and just one further hat is his radio work that he does. Equally, many of you do. You're community leaders in your own rights and so I thank you for that leadership role that you've been playing as community leaders as well, during this pandemic period. We've really heavily relied upon the community leaders to assist the Government's efforts to get control of COVID and ensure that people are informed about the opportunities that are available for them. I just wanted to express my thanks once again for your role, both as community leaders as well as the multicultural media for helping to facilitate that.

And we'll do this again. I haven't got a regular pattern locked in as such, but if any of you think that it would be worthwhile having a further press conference because you haven't heard from me for a few weeks, then certainly, just reach out and suggest that to me. We can very quickly put something together and through this format is obviously convenient, I think, for people to be able to get together.

Very good.