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AM Agenda -

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KIERAN GILBERT: This morning, the Government's response to criticism over its decision to divert money from its foreign aid spending to plug holes in the soaring immigration budget due to the increased number of asylum-seeker arrivals that we've seen in recent months. Coming up on the program, the Shadow Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison. Also today, my panel, Labor MP Kelvin Thomson and Liberal MP, Paul Fletcher.

First though, we're going to cross live to Melbourne and the Minister for Housing, Homelessness and Small Business. Brendan O'Connor joins me this morning. Minister, thanks very much for your time. We'll get to your portfolio in a moment. But first of all on this issue of aid spending and diverting it to the Immigration budget, are you comfortable with that, even if it is within international rules? Do you personally feel comfortable with diverting aid spending for that purpose?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: I do, I feel comfortable and the Government's unapologetic in dedicating resources to people who might be waiting to have their claims sorted in Australia, because we have a record amount of money going to foreign aid: $5.2 billion - $300 million more than last year. And it is a record amount of investment, because we are a generous nation.

But I don't think that should prevent us from providing resources, basic entitlements and resources to people seeking asylum and, indeed, having their claims determined here -

KIERAN GILBERT: Well, it's not really foreign aid though is it? How's it foreign aid?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, I don't see any difference between providing support for refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, as I would see it from providing resources here. We are dealing with a cohort of people who are seeking asylum. We are a generous nation with very, very high levels of acceptance of refugees, pursuant to the Refugee Convention.

Why not, consistent with the approach by other OECD countries, dedicate resources in that manner? I don't think there's anything wrong with that, and Australians should not be apologetic, given that we've increased our foreign aid, as much as any other country in recent years.

KIERAN GILBERT: Well why wasn't the Government upfront about it? Why wasn't the Government upfront up about it? It took a Treasury leak at Christmas time. It looks like you're totally covering it up.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, you may say that. The point is, we've made a decision. No-one's pretending otherwise.

We are investing in this way because we believe we have every right to ensure that the people that are waiting here get basic entitlements while they're waiting for their claims to be considered. And there is nothing inconsistent about our approach -
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, all right.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: - when compared with the way other OECD countries approach this matter.

KIERAN GILBERT: I want to get to your portfolio now. We are, of course, a week out from Christmas and this issue takes on a different resonance doesn't it at this time of the year, homelessness.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: I think so.

KIERAN GILBERT: You've released some data that says more people are receiving services - 230,000 vulnerable people receive support from nearly 1,450 agencies last year. Doesn't that show though, while there are more services being provided, it's good that there are more facilities for people, but doesn't it also show that demand is also up?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Not necessarily. The fact is, I think there's been too many vulnerable Australians that have not been provided any services because of the lack of investment historically.

In fact, we've got 300 extra agencies providing support. And why is that so important, Kieran? It's important because the best way to deal with this issue and, indeed, realise our goal of cutting homelessness by half by 2020 is ensuring that we invest to prevent homelessness, we invest early to break the cycle of homelessness.

And we know by preventing homelessness not only do we do the right thing by those at risk, but we save a lot of money.

And we also know by intervening early, we not only rescue people from terrible situations, but we usually prevent the length of time they are homeless.

So, the idea that we can actually have this amount of resources dedicated to our most vulnerable Australians is important, as you say -

KIERAN GILBERT: Well that - but doesn't the -

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: - exactly one week before Christmas. I mean, can there be any more important time to reflect on that?

KIERAN GILBERT: No, no, I don't think so but doesn't it - didn't the most recent ABS data show that the numbers have increased?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: The ABS data did show that there was an increase in the aggregate amount of homelessness between 2006 and 2011 but that does not paint the picture, the true picture of what's happened since we were elected.

The material and demonstrable change that occurred started around 2009 from the decisions we made the previous year and, indeed, things were a lot worse in '09 than they were in '06 and, indeed, we're much better placed today than we were in August '11. So I think a fairer thing to say is even with that data, Kieran, there was a reduction in rough sleepers, that's people sleeping on the streets, by 13 per cent.

KIERAN GILBERT: Yes.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: There was also an increase in supported accommodation -

KIERAN GILBERT: So is the Government still on track?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: - of 23 per cent.

KIERAN GILBERT: Is the Government still on track for that target of reducing homelessness by 50 per cent by 2020? That was the target set.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: I think we're on track and I'll tell you why. Firstly it was always going to take some time to start this up because, for example, we've built 21,000 social housing homes, we've built 11,000 subsidised rental homes with another 40,000 to come. We've invested more than ever before.

But it was always going to take some time and there was always going to be a lag, but the only way we're going to realise this goal, Kieran, is to ensure that the States and Territories join us - I've made an offer to them - and we work with the not-for-profits but also the corporate sector. This is a national goal. It can't just be left to government.

KIERAN GILBERT: The States -

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: It's a national shame if we don't get it done.

KIERAN GILBERT: The States are saying you're rushing the funding deal. It expires at the end of this financial year so you need a new one in place by July 1. The States have accused you of rushing it before Christmas as an election fix.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: That's absurd. I mean, what we want to do - if we've got thousands and thousands of dedicated and passionate and compassionate workers out there who provide these services to our most vulnerable Australians, what we don't want is them going into Christmas not knowing whether they've got a job from July next year. What we'd like to do is provide certainty for these dedicated people. More importantly we provide certainty to those Australians who rely upon these services to stop them from being out of home or to find them accommodation and the appropriate services.

And all I've asked the States and Territories to do is to give me an indication that they're going to match dollar for dollar the money we need to ensure that we can realise these goals to cut the rate of homelessness by half by 2020. I don't think that's too unreasonable. I really ask them to get on with it and join the Commonwealth, matched with, of course, the efforts by the not-for-profit sector and the corporate sector and realise this goal. It's a national shame if we do not get this done.

KIERAN GILBERT: On one other area in your portfolio, small business, I want to get your thoughts quickly on the Campbell Newman Government seeking business support for their efforts to remove, I think it was 380,000 small businesses from the Commonwealth industrial relations system and bring them under state awards. Can they do that?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: It's a retrograde step. Firstly I think there are some real legal questions as to the capacity for the Newman Government to do that. Secondly it is running backwards from national reform. You might remember there's been a consensus on one thing at least and that is we needed a national system for the corporate sector to have the same set of rules beyond the boundaries of one state.

What Campbell Newman's doing is cave man stuff. He wants to go back to the future by unwinding those reforms and suggesting that because you might not agree with one particular type of condition of employment you should just head off to another jurisdiction.

Well, that's a mistake. We do have, of course, issues around penalty rates for small business. That's being reviewed by Fair Work Australia. But I don't think you walk away from the system and unravel national reform just because you haven't got an agreement. I think all that leads to, Kieran, is uncertainty for business, uncertainty for workers and that is a recipe for disaster when we're looking at productivity and economic growth for this nation.

KIERAN GILBERT: Okay. Brendan O'Connor, I appreciate your time this morning. Thanks for that.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Yes, thanks, Kieran, and have a great Christmas.