Saturday, 04 April 2020

Press conference, Melbourne CPO

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

Topics: Temporary visa holders and coronavirus

ALAN TUDGE: Well can I start by the cautiously optimistic news that the infection rate is continuing to come down. Just a couple of weeks ago we were tracking at about a 25 per cent growth rate every single day. A week or so ago it dropped down to 15 per cent growth rate per day on average. And now it seems to be well below 10 per cent per day and getting actually closer to 5 per cent and so hopefully stabilising there. So a cautious level of optimism there, and that is really down to the terrific work of all of the Australian people who have been abiding by our social distancing measures that have been put in place by the Federal and State Governments. So a very big thank you to everybody who's undertaken that and doing the right thing to ensure that we can hopefully maintain that very low growth rate and continue to get it down even further. Just in the same breath can I also make a particular shout out to the multicultural communities. As the acting Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Minister, I've been engaging with multicultural leaders constantly in relation to the measures which we've been announcing. And they have been terrific in supporting us, getting the messages out there and the multicultural communities, just like all other Australians, have been playing there part to ensure that we can get that infection rate growth down. And we need to all collectively continue this effort, but I specifically as the Multicultural Affairs Minister for the moment, wanted to thank them for their contribution.

Today, I'm announcing some changes to temporary visa arrangements which will be in operation during the corona crisis. There's 2.2 million people in Australia on temporary visas. And they come here for a variety of reasons. Some to visit their family and to tour the country. Some to study here, others to fill job shortages and for all sorts of other reasons. But they are given a visa for a short period of time, sometimes as little as a few days but sometimes a few years. But because of the crises, we've had to make some changes to these temporary visa holder arrangements. Before going into the details of the different various classes, I want to take you through the broad principles upon which have guided the changes which we are announcing today for the temporary visa holder arrangements.

  1. The first principle is that Australians and permanent residents are our primary focus. Now they're our primary focus for the work which is available and for the welfare which we are making available. Now our focus for the Australian jobs, must be for Australian citizens and residents. Our focus for Australian welfare, must be for Australian citizens and for residents, that's our first principle.
  2. Our second principle has been that there has always been an expectation that temporary visa holders are able to support themselves and that expectation remains. Now we are going to make that easier for people who have already done some work in Australia, by allowing them to access their superannuation while they're in Australia to help facilitate their stay here if they're in financial hardship. And that is similar to the arrangements which we've already put in place for Australians to be able to access their superannuation. But if you can't support yourself generally having put in place these measures, then you should be going home where you can get that support.
  3. Now the third principle which has guided our changes, is that in critical industries such as health and education, we will provide visa flexibility so that these foreign nationals can stay longer.

Now what does this mean? That means that foreign nurses are invited to stay here longer and work longer hours where they can. It means that foreign workers on farms are invited to stay here longer and fulfil the critical needs on the farms as well. That's what these proposals will mean. So these changes are all about prioritising Australians, being concerned for the health of Australians and permanent residents and other people in this country. And sending a message that we ask those foreign nationals who are here on temporary visas, to continue looking after yourselves and if you are unable to do that, then to make arrangements to return home where you can get the support that you might need.

Now having outlined those principles, let me go through some of the major visa classes and the specific measures which are applied to those. I'll start with visitor visa holders. These are our international tourists. Now there's 203,000 international visitors in Australia, and they're typically on visas which last anywhere up to three months. International tourists should return home to their home country as quickly as possible is our message. Particularly for those who don't have family support in Australia. This message was stated yesterday very clearly by the Prime Minister, I'll reiterate that point today. That international tourists should return home, particularly if they don't have family support in Australia. Now thousands I know are already doing this, I see that in the data and others should be following their lead.

In relation to international students. We've got almost 600,000 international students in Australia. Many studying in the higher education and vocational education sectors. And these people have been a terrific contributor to our tertiary sector and our economy and they support hundreds of thousands of jobs by being here. Now we're saying to international students that we encourage you to rely on your family support, on your part time work where that is available, and on your own savings to help sustain yourself while you're in Australia. We know that as part of your visa application, you're required to demonstrate that certainly in your first year of being a student that you can support yourself. So our expectation is absolutely that. That if you're a first year student that you're able to support yourself, but if you are unable to support yourself then you might need to consider other arrangements. In relation to second and subsequent year students, as I said we ask you to lean on your families for their support, going into your own savings to support yourself if you need that. In addition, we will allow you to access the superannuation which you may have accumulated here in Australia as well through the part time work which you are able to do while you are here. So that's the message in relation to international students. They have been a terrific contributor to Australia, supporting Australian jobs. We want them to stay here where they can support themselves. We're providing additional flexibility for them to support themselves and I'll also point out that we're continuing to work with the international education sector on future arrangements as well.

I'll get to New Zealanders now who are on what's called a 444 visa. Now as probably people know, New Zealanders and Australians have reciprocal arrangements whereby New Zealanders can come to Australia and stay in Australia and work in Australia just like Australians can go to New Zealand, stay in New Zealand and work in New Zealand. About half of the 600,000 or so New Zealanders who are in the country won't have access however to the JobSeeker payments. They will have access to the JobKeeper payments. So we're not proposing to change those arrangements. So if there is a New Zealander in the country who is unable to access those JobSeeker payments, then again we ask them to consider returning to New Zealand where they will be able to get their support that they need.

I'll go to temporary skilled visa holders now. Now there's about 139,000 temporary skilled visa holders in Australia. These are people who were invited and sponsored into Australia to fill really valuable skills shortages here in this country. And they're typically on either a two-year visa or a four-year visa. Now we know though that those businesses who are sponsoring those people many of the are doing it very tough. They've had to stand down people or lay off people and that includes some of these foreign nationals on temporary skilled visas. We're making a distinction here in terms of our measures between those who have been laid off and those who have been stood down. For the individuals who have been stood down or had their hours reduced by their business owner, by their business sponsor, their visa will remain valid. It's an important point because clearly it's an indication from the business owner that they would like that person to be there and be part of the rebuild once we're post the corona crisis. So I'll repeat that, if they've been stood down or they've had their hours reduced, their visa will remain valid. They can stay in the country and we will give them access to up to $10,000 of their superannuation. If you've been here for a couple of years already working, no doubt you would have at least that amount of money in your superannuation account. For those who have been laid off, the normal arrangements are going to apply. That is that you will have 60 days to seek another business to sponsor you in the country, but if you do not the usual arrangements will apply where you'll have to depart the country. That's for those who have been laid off.

Let me come now to working holiday makers, the backpackers in Australia. And we have about 118,000 people in Australia on what is colloquially known as backpacker visas, whereby people can come into the country, they can work for limited periods of time as well as travel the country. The changes we are making here relates only to the critical sectors of health, aged care, disability care, agriculture and food processing and child care. In relation to those critical areas, we are making changes to allow those people to work longer in those industries. Typically, they will have only the rights to work for six months for any one employer. However, the changes we are announcing today, is that if you are working in one of those critical industries where we know we need your skills, you will be able to work longer than that six-month duration. Furthermore, when your visa expires after one year, if you have been working or are working in those critical industries we will extend you visa for a further year and subsequent years should that be the case if you're already in your second year of your visa. In addition to that, myself along with David Littleproud and the Deputy Prime Minister have announced this morning that we will also be extending the Seasonal Workers Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme. We will extend the rights of those people already in the country for up to an additional 12 months. These are people, relatively small numbers, who have come from Pacific Islands, who are working on the farms doing those critical jobs. We will be extending their ability to stay in the country for up to 12 months.

Now of course all of these arrangements will be under constant review. We know that this situation is changing rapidly but we are sending the signals out today in relation to the changes that we are making, the flexibility that we are providing, but also setting that expectation for those people who are foreign nationals here on a temporary basis – that if you cannot support yourself in Australia, then please consider departing the country, going home where you can get that support. I'm happy to take any questions.

JOURNALIST: So if someone is on a working holiday visa and worked for example as a qualified nurse would they be able to work in that industry rather than just in fruit picking. Would they be able to change the industries they're working in?

ALAN TUDGE: Yeah that's right. So they will already have the ability to work as a nurse. And the changes mean that if they are working as a nurse, they're coming up to the end of their visa at the end of 12 months. We will roll that visa over for a further 12 months should that person want to stay. And obviously we'll be encouraging those people who have those skills to stay.

JOURNALIST: Will they be able to transfer to a separate industry say fruit picking, between those separate industries.

ALAN TUDGE: Well it's for those critical industries where we have shortages and we know we're going to be needing these people, if they are working in those industries now, they will have the ability to stay and they will have the ability to extend their visa. So of course that also means, if they're still within their first year, still within their visa rights which goes for a year. They can go and work as a nurse, if they're working as a nurse they will have the ability to extend for a further year.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned that for visitors who can't sustain themselves, they should leave, and the PM made that quite clear yesterday. Are you considering terminating visas to people in that situation to force them to leave?

ALAN TUDGE: I can see from data that people are already taking this step. We've had an enormous number of people who have already taken flights over the last few weeks. Knowing that they can get better support back home. So our simple message is precisely as the Prime Minister said yesterday, for international tourists, take the next flight home, particularly if you don't have any family support. And there are many flights to be able to get you home. For example, the largest source of tourist in the country at the moment are from the United Kingdom. From the United Kingdom, next week alone, there are 150 flights to London. So there are those options for those people to be able to get home. And we ask them to exercise those options particularly if they don't have family support here in the country.

JOURNALIST: Is there anything else you can do other than ask them, particularly for those people who are backpackers in city hostels, unable to pay their bills and not prepared to go region?

ALAN TUDGE: If people are in the country such as a backpacker and they are unable to support themselves, then they need to return to their home country. That’s the simple message, and if they are refusing to do that, then their visa will expire and they will be in breach of their conditions and they will be required to leave the country.

JOURNALIST: But you’re not considering bringing that forward [inaudible]?

ALAN TUDGE: They are able to stay for the duration of their visa, so a typical backpacker is on a one year visa with the option of extending it if you’re working in critical industries which to date has mostly been in the agriculture sector, if your visa is still valid of course you can stay in country, but you need to be able to ensure that you can support yourself. And if you’re not confident about being able to support yourself because your work has dried up in the cities, then you need to be taking a flight home. That is the clear message. I will also say a very clear message to those backpackers who may not be adhering to the social distancing rules and we’ve seen some of these in the media to date. A) You will be in breach of state law for doing that and you can be fined but B) you will be breaching your visa condition and if we find that out, we will be kicking you out of the country and then that will be a mark against your name for future visits to Australia. So this is deadly serious. For those backpackers that are here, they must abide by those social distancing conditions, otherwise they will put at jeopardy any future visits to Australia.

JOURNALIST: Can you just go over what the critical industries are just for clarity.

ALAN TUDGE: So the critical industries are outlined in my press statement which has already been issued – heath, aged and disability care, agriculture and food processing and child care. Those are the critical industries that we’ve identified, so people who are working in those sectors, they have the additional work rights.

JOURNALIST: I’ve just got some questions about mercy flights for Australians overseas. Can you tell us what the Government is doing in that sector?

ALAN TUDGE: That’s being organised by the Foreign Minister and Peter Dutton so I’m not across the details but you might put those questions to them. Thanks very much everybody.