Monday, 06 April 2020

Interview with Patricia Karvelas – ABC News 24

The Hon Alan Tudge MP is currently acting Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs

Subjects: Temporary visa holders and coronavirus, online Australian citizenship ceremonies

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Government's $130 billion wage subsidy package will be introduced to parliament on Wednesday, and Labor has signalled it will support the legislation. Under the scheme, full-time and part-time workers - along with sole traders and casuals who've worked with a business for more than a year - are set to receive a $1500 per fortnight salary subsidy.

I'm joined on this for more by the Acting Immigration Minister, Alan Tudge. Alan Tudge, welcome.


PATRICIA KARVELAS: The ACTU - the trade union movement - says if you're a worker in Australia, then you're an Australian worker and you should get help. Why did you decide against helping everyone?

ALAN TUDGE: Well, we've been guided by a few principles: a) that we're focused on Australians and permanent residents for the jobs which are available and the welfare which is available, and b) that there's an expectation, and there always has been, for temporary visitors to this country that they can look after themselves while they are here. So we're fulfilling that expectation as well. When the two principles come together, we're absolutely prioritising those Australians, and sending a clear message to those temporary visitors who are here that, you are very welcome here however, if you cannot support yourself over the next six months, then you should consider leaving the country and going home to a place where you can be supported.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: There's 185,000 people on temporary work visas with superannuation. You're letting them access, I think it's $10,000 this financial year. How fast can they get that?

ALAN TUDGE: That's right. We'll be working as quickly as possible for those residents to be able to get that. And again, it's keeping with that principle of when they are here, they should be able to look after themselves. We're going to facilitate that by allowing them to access the superannuation. If you've been a skilled visa holder for a couple of years, you may well have $10,000 or $20,000 in superannuation which you've already accumulated. That can help you get through to the other side, so that then you can be fully re-engaged again if, in fact, you have had your hours reduced or are being stood down.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. And then after the financial year, you're able to get the next $10,000?

ALAN TUDGE: Well, we'll consider that when we get there. At this stage, we've just said the first $10,000, and we'll obviously be reviewing the situation.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. So, you may allow them to get another $10,000. What are the considerations around that? Why are you hesitant to commit to that?

ALAN TUDGE: Well, we're just making the first step at this stage in terms of laying out the principles, setting expectations for people who are here. There are 2.2 million people in the country, Patricia, who are temporary visitors. They're here for all sorts of different reasons. Some people are here just as tourists to visit their parents or to tour the country. Others, they're skilled workers, others are students, others are backpackers and all sorts of other reasons. So, we've had to make some changes to their arrangements given the coronavirus crisis, and we're also just setting some expectations upon them as well so that they can properly prepare for themselves over the next six months, or indeed take action now and get a flight and go back home where they may have more support.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: What happens if their employer hasn't paid their super entitlements?

ALAN TUDGE: Well, that employer would be breaching the law, and they should be paying it. I mean, that's what the law is, and there's serious consequences for any employer who underpays their staff.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: There's more than 139,000 temporary skilled visa holders in Australia who've been stood down. Is it the Government's view that those who've lost their sponsor and can't find a new one have to leave?

ALAN TUDGE: There's 139,000 temporary skilled visa holders in the country at the moment, Patricia. Some of them will be laid off. Some of them will be stood down or had hours reduced and others may just continue in their full employment. We've made the distinction between those who have been laid off versus stood down. For those who have been laid off, it's a bit of an indication that the business simply cannot keep you going and they're going to be struggling in the future. And the usual arrangements will therefore apply to those individuals who have been laid off. That is, unless they find another employer to sponsor them in the country, they will have to leave.

For those who have been stood down, though, Patricia, or had their hours reduced, we will change their visa status such that their visa will remain valid throughout that period. Because in essence, it's an indication from the employer that they still want that person on, and hopefully when the business rebounds once the coronavirus crisis is over, that person can go back to being a full-time employee again and making a great contribution to the country.

So, that's why we're making that careful distinction. And with that latter category as well, they can access their superannuation to supplement any wages which they may be getting.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And have you got modelling or estimates around how many people really fit into this category?

ALAN TUDGE: We don't at this stage. It's very difficult to assess in terms of how many people may be stood down versus laid off, or indeed just continue on as they normally are. Businesses don't want to lay off any staff, be they Australian staff or foreign staff. And indeed, they will often go out of their way to sponsor a foreign person into the country to work in their business because they can't find an Aussie to do the job, and they spend money, and so they want to keep that person, if at all possible. We're making it easier to keep that person by just allowing that flexibility with the stand-down provisions and allowing the individual to access the super but at the same time, if they're laid off altogether, then we're saying unless you can find another sponsor, then you will have to go home.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, what happens if they can't get home? Because we know that there has been a radical reduction in flights going to some of these places, there are lockdowns in some of these countries of origin for these people, which means that not only can they maybe not get a plane, but they can't even go to the country where they may be from. Will there be exemptions for people like that in that situation?

ALAN TUDGE: At the moment, there still are flights available to most destinations. For example, the largest number of tourists in the country at the moment is from the UK. Also the largest number of backpackers in the country are from the UK. At the moment, there's still something like 150 flights this week alone back to London. So there are flights available and we're signalling to people that, if you don't feel as if you can look after yourself, because you haven't got the family support, then you might want to consider getting on one of those flights over the next couple of weeks back to your home country, where you can get that support.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But of course, if they choose not to, you can't compel them to, can you?

ALAN TUDGE: Well, we're giving pretty strong advice, and we're giving pretty firm expectations that the Australian taxpayer, through their government, will support Australians first and permanent residents first. The expectation is that temporary visitors can look after themselves. It's very firm expectations we're setting here, Patricia, and therefore they need to examine their circumstances, their savings, how much super they might have, and make those decisions accordingly.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: International students have also been told to go home if they can't support themselves. Should they be entitled to a refund of the fees they've already paid if that happens?

ALAN TUDGE : We've said, Patricia, particularly in relation to first-year students - because if you're an international student, when you apply to get an international student visa, you must show the Government that you can look after yourself in its entirety for the first year of that visa. There's a full expectation that, even if you don't have any work available, that you're able to look after yourself. So we're saying to that first-year cohort, if you're coming to us now saying you don't have the money, well, I'm sorry, you might have to consider returning home. For those who are in their second and third or subsequent years of being a student in Australia, we're saying to them; use the savings which you have available, use the part-time work options which are available to you, lean on your family to get through, just as you ordinarily do, and we'll give you access to the superannuation which you may have accumulated. And hopefully that will be sufficient to see you through. We still want international students to be studying here, contributing here, they support hundreds of thousands of Australian jobs while they're here. They've been a great export market for Australia. But at the same time, we have to send proper expectations to those international students as well in terms of what we can and cannot do for them.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Isn't there an economic value to keeping these students here and connected to the university where they're enrolled? I mean, clearly we're in a crisis, we all know that. I don't think anyone's missed it in the country, Alan Tudge. But we have had this very strong industry around international students. Aren't we taking a risk that we will lose it forever, or at least in the foreseeable future, if we force people to go home?

ALAN TUDGE: We're trying to be careful in terms of the expectations which we are setting here. As I said, for the first-year students, I think it's quite legitimate to say, you had to declare, to get into the country, that you could look after yourself. So we're holding you to account in a relation to that. But for subsequent-year students, we are providing access to the superannuation they've already accumulated, and that will assist them.

We also know that the university sector, or international education sector, does provide some financial support to students who face hardship as well. I've indicated that we will continue the discussion with the international education sector in relation to how they go about providing that hardship. Because you are right, it's been a great industry for Australia. They've contributed enormously to our country. They've supported Australian jobs. They've supported Australian research. We want that industry to continue. Hence, we're laying out these markers for them. Plus, saying that we'll continue to engage with the international education sector.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Backpackers and people on working holidays will have to self-isolate for 14 days as they move from region to region. Who's going to enforce that?

ALAN TUDGE: So that would be up to the states and territories to enforce those rules. The reason we're putting that in place, of course, Patricia, is because we don't want the virus to spread from the cities, where it predominantly is, into those regional areas.

The regional areas rely very heavily on backpackers throughout the year - different farms at different times of the year, depending on when their crop is sown, et cetera. Inevitably, there'll be people, backpackers and Australians, moving out to the regions to pick the fruit work on the farms as the work is needed. And we don't want to take that virus from the cities to the regions, hence the self-isolating principles which will be in place, and they'll be pretty strictly adhered to. And what's more, we'll actually be putting a little bit of the responsibility on the farmer who might employ a backpacker as well, for them to have a reasonable assuredness that that person has, in fact, undertaken that self-quarantining.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, I've got quite a few messages from people in a very difficult situation where they've applied for partner visas but perhaps have lost a job. These are people who have written to me, obviously I host a TV and radio show and have said this is the predicament they're in and have said, what will happen to their applications for partner visas? Will they be able to bring their partners and have their partners have their residency and citizenship to Australia accepted?

ALAN TUDGE: Depends on where they are, Patricia. Some people apply from Australia and may, indeed, be applying for a partner visa. Others will be still overseas applying for a partner visa. I appreciate it's very difficult for those couples, if they are separated and we have our borders which are closed, and so it does become difficult for them. But the borders are closed for a reason, we're only taking people in if they're Australian or permanent residents, they can come in and self-isolate, and a select group of other people, on a case-by-case basis. But there isn't a general rule that people who are trying to get their partner in on a partner visa will automatically be able to come into the country. That's just an unfortunate by-product of the circumstances that we're in at the moment.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Do you know how many people are in this situation where they won't be able to have their partner come and live with them?

ALAN TUDGE: I don't know how many applicants that we have on-hand right now. I can obviously get that for you. Some of the processing, additionally, has been slowed down overseas, of these applications, not just partner visas, but other applications. In part because we can't get the medical tests done because the medical facilities may have closed down, or they can't get the English-language tests done because some of those may have been closed down. So there's some real stresses on the system generally in terms of processing some of those applications in any case because of the coronavirus and the impact which it's having right across every sector.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, just briefly, you've announced that citizenship ceremonies will now be done online. What will that look like?

ALAN TUDGE: Yeah, we are, because we've got a lot of people in the country who have gone through all the right processes and they're just at the final step to go through the ceremony where they publicly declare their loyalty and affirmation to Australia. We still want to keep that process going while abiding by the health restrictions which are in place. And so that means that we'll be doing some of it via video-conferencing, in essence. Obviously, we'll have to have a proper identity check at the other end, but then the person will be able to make that declaration to an official over a video-conferencing arrangement and can become an Australian through that process.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: I have to ask; are they allowed to wear thongs?

ALAN TUDGE: Patricia, as you know, we put in a reasonableness in terms of a dress code for citizenship ceremonies just so that people would be in keeping with the seriousness of that ceremony. By and large, people do that.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But you can't see my feet right now, right?

ALAN TUDGE: No I can't. We've got no idea what you've got on your feet there right now, Patricia.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: I'm not wearing thongs. But it's an interesting question. Clearly you can't police that anymore. Alan Tudge, thanks for coming on.