Subjects: migration program, regional migration, air arrivals and onshore protection applications, Australia’s humanitarian program, Tamil asylum seeker family
CHRIS KENNY: Let's move on to immigration. And Australia's permanent immigration intake has been cut to its lowest level in a decade. In the past year, 160,000 permanent visas awarded after the number was over 180,000 people and peaked at 190,000 over the previous decade. The Immigration Minister David Coleman is working at getting more migrants to settle in regional Australia. And I caught up with him in western Victoria a short time ago and asked him if he was pleased with the outcome so far.
DAVID COLEMAN: Yeah, I think it's a good outcome, Chris. 160,000 people in the permanent migration program last year. It's the lowest number for many years and it reflects our focus on ensuring that we restrain population growth pressures in Sydney and Melbourne in particular. And also that we focus on getting more people to regional Australia. So within that 160,000, we've seen a significant increase in the regional sponsored migration scheme which helps regional businesses who are often crying outfor more workers. And in this year that's coming up, we've got 23,000 places allocated to people who commit to live and work in regional Australia for three years. And as you know, the cap for this year and future years is 160,000. So we'll see a further modest reduction in the overall number this year and we'll also see a significant increase in the proportion of people going into regional Australia.
CHRIS KENNY: So what's driving this? Is it politics? Are you reacting to the concerns of the public about our high levels of immigration? Because surely, there's a detrimental economic impact from reducing immigration.
DAVID COLEMAN: Well Chris, no, what we've seen is that there is a large part of Australia that is really crying out for immigration in regional areas. And the system over the years has always had a view about the total number of people but has had a less strong view about how many people should go to regional areas. And that's changing. In South Australia, where there's very big gaps in skilled roles, in regional Australia and so many parts of the country, we want the immigration system to fill those roles. And in addition, in Sydney and Melbourne, we have seen a strong population growth. People have legitimate concerns about the level of population growth in Sydney and Melbourne, about the level of congestion. I think for a long time, Chris, people felt that they weren't almost allowed to raise that issue, and that's wrong because it has been a legitimate issue. And we will see a reduced rate of growth in the big cities and more growth in regional Australia, and I think that's a very sound policy which addresses our economic needs in the regions and continues to provide a sensible amount of immigration into the cities.
CHRIS KENNY: So this is a reduction from about 190 down to 160, so a substantial reduction in the permanent [audio skip]. But what about the net migration numbers that take into account people here on temporary visas, be it for work or for study. Doesn't that demonstrate that in net terms, in fact the actual number of migrants or additional people in our country on an annual basis are about double that? They're about double what the permanent migration intake is.
DAVID COLEMAN: Well here are couple of points on that, Chris. The first is that temporary means temporary. So temporary migrants by definition are not permanent migrants. Permanent migrants are people who are able to stay here on an ongoing basis. So that's an important distinction. The second is that within the temporary program, the single biggest category is international students. Now last year, international students spent $35 billion here in Australia. It makes it our fourth largest export industry and employs more than 200,000 Australians. So it's very important that we take a a sensible approach to industries like international education, which is the biggest category of temporary migration, recognising that the vast majority of international students go back home when their course is finished. But while they're here, they spend a lot of money. And in the process of doing that, they employ literally more than a couple hundred thousand Australians. And that's a good thing for Australia.
CHRIS KENNY: Yeah, there's no doubt it's a good thing. But don't a lot of those students and others end up becoming permanent migrants or settle here permanently. And I suppose the point I'm saying then, isn't that focus on just the permanent migration visa category understating the level of immigration to this country?
DAVID COLEMAN: Well, no, the vast majority of students don't stay, Chris. Eighty-four per cent go home and the people who stay are the ones that have skills that can be added to our permanent migration program down the track after they’ve graduated and that’s a good thing as well. Something we've done this year with international students is we're creating an incentive for them to study in regional Australia. So if they commit to a regional uni, they get an additional year on their post-graduate study visa, and that's a good thing because just as we do with the broader program where we're encouraging migrants to settle in regional Australia, we want to also encourage international students to look at all of our great regional campuses. So across the board, working holiday makers are another example where there are new incentives to settle in regional Australia. So that's a theme across our program and it's something we'll continue to focus on.
CHRIS KENNY: Alright. David Coleman, I want to ask you about the Tamil family that's been the focus of so much controversy lately. They're currently detained on Christmas Island. Their case is back before the courts tomorrow. I wonder if you can tell us when this family first agreed to go back to Sri Lanka, [audio skip] claims had been rejected and when they changed their mind?
DAVID COLEMAN: Look, I think the facts on the case are well known, Chris. I'm a party to those court proceedings and my position on the matter was put to the court yesterday. As the matter continues to be before the court, it's not appropriate for me to go further into the detail other than to say that my position was made clear to the court on that matter yesterday.
CHRIS KENNY: Well I wonder if you can just then speak in general terms without necessarily reflecting on this specific case. But if a family in this situation were deported, sent back to Sri Lanka, or any other country they might've come from, are they then able, eligible to apply for legal immigration into this country? I'm thinking in this case they might be sponsored back in by their employer. Are they able to come back [audio skip] or have they waived those rights because of what's gone on?
DAVID COLEMAN: Well, in general terms, Chris, you know, as you know, we had 50,000 people arrive unlawfully by boat under the previous Labor government and of those people, we had the tragedy of 1200 people drowning at sea, of 8000 children being placed in detention, and not to mention, the extraordinary economic cost to Australian taxpayers, which is now close to $20 billion. And as you say, a large number of those people have been returned to their country of origin and there can be opportunities for them to apply for other forms of immigration. But again, the key point in relation to the issue of unlawful maritime arrivals is it was a humanitarian catastrophe, Chris. If you look at Australia's post-war public policy history, it's very difficult to find an example of a worse piece of public policy. The Prime Minister and Minister Dutton fixed that problem and that is to the great benefit of our immigration system.
CHRIS KENNY: Yeah, certainly understand that. But the key point here, in pursuing this question, is that those people have been rejected after arriving here by boat and repatriated to their country of origin do still have opportunities, are not barred from applying to immigrate to Australia legally.
DAVID COLEMAN: There can be opportunities in certain circumstances, Chris.
CHRIS KENNY: Alright. Just tell me about the issue of compassion. A lot of people focus on the need for compassionate intervention here. Now, Australia, we know, is a generous and tolerant country, a country where a lot of policy is [audio skip]. How would you describe the role of compassion in the very difficult immigration decisions that you as minister are required to make?
DAVID COLEMAN: Well, look, Chris, we have a very compassionate humanitarian and refugee program. I mean, this year, we welcomed 18,750 people and on a per capita basis, there are very few countries in the world that even approach Australia in terms of our program. And of course, the integrity of that system is important, very important, and it is a very good thing that our nation is able to show compassion to people fleeing some of the most appalling situations in the world. One of the things I've done this year, Chris, is increase to 20 per cent of our humanitarian program, the Women at Risk program, and this is women who are fleeing evil acts of persecution and war people who are not the perpetrators of violence, but are sadly its victims. And it's a good thing that our country can be compassionate and can assist those people and we should be proud of it. And it's very important, of course, that we do that in an environment of secure borders and where our nation determines the outcomes of our immigration policies. But certainly, the facts demonstrate that we have a very substantial and compassionate humanitarian program.
CHRIS KENNY: Just finally, are you concerned about the large numbers of people who have flown into Australia legally with visas and then have claimed asylum? Your Labor counterparts are pointing to this as some sort of a problem in our system. Are you concerned about the rising numbers of those people who come here on visas, claimed asylum? Do you think there's any legal or [audio skip] you need to make in order to combat that?
DAVID COLEMAN: Well, look, first point on that, Chris, is people who arrived under the Labor Party by boat are, a large number of the times, we don't know who they are because of the issues in terms of identity. They don't have travel documents and there are still many thousands of those people who are on bridging visas in the community as a direct consequence of the 50,000 people who arrived under Labor. We've got that number down over the years but it's been a long process and continues to be and is a direct consequence of Labor's appalling legacy.
Now, people who arrive lawfully by plane, we obviously know who they are. They have a lawful visa. And in terms of the people who actually apply for protection when they get here, more than 90 per cent are rejected and the number of people who are applying, Chris, so far this year is down by about 20 per cent. So it's coming down the number of people are applying onshore for protection. So, for the Labor Party to raise issues related to protection visas is ridiculous. Their legacy in unlawful boat arrivals, where our Border Force officers were required to go out onto the high seas to place themselves at risk and of course, the families themselves placing themselves at risk, that was an appalling situation. It was a humanitarian catastrophe. And there is absolutely no comparison to other forms of applications for protection.
CHRIS KENNY: David, just a final, final question. I just want to ask you if this Tamil family is successful in the court tomorrow and were allowed to stay in Australia against the wishes of the Government, what would the consequences be for other cases that you have in the system?
DAVID COLEMAN: Well, look, again, Chris, I don’t want to be drawn on this specific case. It is - my position is clear before the court. It is under consideration by the court and the court will further consider the matter tomorrow. And I'm sure you can appreciate that it is important that I don't comment on this specific case more than I have.
CHRIS KENNY: Alright. Thanks so much for joining us, David Coleman.
DAVID COLEMAN: Thanks Chris.
CHRIS KENNY: The Immigration Minister there, leaving the way open for the Tamil family to come back here as legal migrants after they go back to Sri Lanka. Certainly, he hasn't guaranteed it; hasn't said it's common, but says there are opportunities for that to occur. So that's an interesting confirmation from him – that there is that opportunity in some cases for people even though they've been deported, claiming refugee status and not being genuine refugees, actually coming back here as legal migrants. We'll see where all this ends up. Of course, that court case occurring tomorrow.