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Transcript of interview with David Speers: Sky News, PM Agenda: 28 February 2013: 457 visas; Opposition demonisation of asylum seekers; visit to Manus Island Regional Processing Centre

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THE HON BRENDAN O’CONNOR MP Minister for Immigration and Citizenship



DAVID SPEERS: As we've seen, the Coalition has been accused today of vilifying asylum seekers after comments from the Shadow Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, suggesting that asylum seekers released into the community on bridging visas - and there are almost 9,000 of them - should abide by new behavioural protocols and the police and neighbours should be notified when an asylum seeker does move into a particular community.

Even some within Coalition ranks have expressed real concern about this. Tony Abbott today defended Scott Morrison's remarks and suggested the dog-whistling, if any is going on, is actually from the government in relation to their crackdown on 457 visas. Now this is the recent crackdown announced by the Immigration Minister, Brendan O'Connor, on 457 visas. These are the visas for temporary skilled migrants that business bring in when they apparently can't find Australians to fill those skilled jobs.

Now the government argues there are some businesses rorting, abusing the process, bringing in workers when they could actually be hiring Australians for the work. Big business is very concerned about the crackdown that's been made here and the Opposition too, they're saying well, where's the evidence that there are some businesses rorting these 457 visas?

I spoke about all these issues to the Immigration Minister, Brendan O'Connor, a short while ago.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: I can give you an array of examples. There are people that have been placed in positions that are not skilled labour. The applications seek to say that they are skilled jobs but they are dressed up to be skilled jobs. There are companies that are registered in this country that are employing only overseas workers and refuse to accept local workers even when the skills are present. There are problems -

DAVID SPEERS: Like who? Where's - what's an example of that? Who's been doing that?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well I won't - look, I'm not going to cite - let me just go through the examples insofar as me identifying directly those employers. I'll do that when we're in a position to do that but I'm telling you my department has advised me there are many, many situations and I'm giving them to you generically.

DAVID SPEERS: Why? Why can't you name names here?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Because I don't want to prejudice the matters that we can - and how we respond even under the current laws. What I'm told is this, the Department needs to have sufficient capacity to ensure whether the veracity, if you like, of employers sponsoring people under 457s is in fact the case. And what they say is there is not enough capacity to demonstrate that what is being put to them, that is put to the Department, is true and as a result we're seeing an increased number of rorts.

And you only have to look at, David, the comparison between the growth in 457s in the last - in recent times compared with the employment growth generally. There's been a -

DAVID SPEERS: I thought 457s visas were on the decline in the last six months. There were fewer applications.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: What we've seen, in fact, we came into office and in 2008 we brought in legislation to protect against some of these rorts but people have found their ways around that and so we so we saw a very steep incline. In fact, over the last two years there's been about a 40 per cent increase of 457 use.

Now what I'm saying to you and to your viewers quite clearly is we think there's a need for 457s to be used appropriately when there are skill shortages in the region or in certain industries, but what we do not think should happen is that local workers are discriminated against by using this temporary visa approach. That would be unfair. It causes problems in the community and it's unreasonable. And I think most Australians would agree.

DAVID SPEERS: [Indistinct] surely you know it would help your case if you could point to a couple of examples here where this has happened.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well I can - I just said to you I can cite a whole array of examples provided to me by the Department but I'm saying as -

DAVID SPEERS: But you can't tell us even one.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well what I haven't done is identify the individuals involved. What I am telling you is that we are investigating a bunch of matters and I'm also telling you that the council advising me on skilled migration has identified problems with the abuse of 457s. Now there are problems, they do exist, I'm happy to go through those but what I won't do is prejudice any formal approach we're taking to individual cases.

But let me just tell you, there are industries where people are using this properly and there are some workplaces where it's being abused. I'm looking at reducing the abuse because local workers deserve a chance.

DAVID SPEERS: Can I ask you about these bridging visas for asylum seekers. We've seen one of the Sri Lankan asylum seekers on a bridging visa charged with indecent assault. What is the status now of that man in particular? Is he being brought back into immigration detention or not?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well look, this now is a matter for the police. This is of deep concern to me. Any situation where there are allegations of such a serious nature are of concern to me. The first important thing to note, David, is if anybody commits a serious offence in this country, I don't care who they are, they need to confront the full force of the law. And it's really entirely now a matter for the police to deal with that matter and as I understand it that is what's happening.

Now as you know that the accommodation arrangements that have been put in place between Red Cross on behalf of the Department is something that is very similar to what occurred under the Howard Government with people on temporary protection visas. They were let into the community and the only difference here is we have a bit more oversight and we have a bit more support and

they are having to explain where they are accommodated.

DAVID SPEERS: So for this man in particular, though, until his case is dealt with by the courts, his visa won't be affected and his ability to live in the community won't be affected.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well that will be entirely - look, this matter now is before a - I don't want to talk much more on this matter because it's subject to police investigation and it is before a court but let me just say firstly -

DAVID SPEERS: But you're responsible for his visa conditions. They won't change?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well let me just say to you I think the first issue will be as to his conditions will be the conditions on what the court determines insofar as allegation made against him of a serious nature. I think that's the most urgent matter to be determined. I can assure you more generally if there are people who have committed offences, then of course it's going to directly affect the capacity for them to stay in this country and it will also of course affect the way in which the government will respond to rights to stay.

DAVID SPEERS: The Opposition is -

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: What we don't need - I mean, what we had yesterday from the Opposition is both the height of hypocrisy and opportunism. I mean, effectively they're suggesting - two weeks ago, David, they introduced into the parliament a TPV bill which would place people in the community exactly the way people are placed under the bridging visa except with less support than is being provided now.

And secondly, to blame thousands of people because of one allegation is the lowest level of politics, which I thought could not get any lower, David, until I saw Senator Abetz today compare people seeking asylum with paedophiles. I mean, it doesn't get any lower than that when you compare them with paedophiles and sex offenders and suggesting there should be the same type of register.

That is the lowest form of politics I think I've seen in this country in recent memory and Tony Abbott has to clarify this because if he's authorising the Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations and Immigration to take us down this path, this is a sorry day for Australia.

DAVID SPEERS: You've just returned from a visit to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. The media's not allowed in there to have a look but we do know concerns have been raised by the UN Human Rights Commissioner about the harsh conditions. There is a - they've described it, including the extremely hot, humid, muddy, uncomfortable conditions that people are living there including, I think it's 34 children now. What sort of conditions - or how would you describe the conditions you saw and particularly for those kids?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Look, I think the conditions are adequate. It is a temporary facility. Look, I was there. It was - the weather admittedly was mild that day so it was quite cool. I didn't have any problems, but I'm not suggesting there won't be times when it's quite warm. We want to make sure the conditions are as good as - that will ensure that people, particularly children, are comfortable. We've got really good service providers there - the Salvation Army, Save the Children looking after the kids' concerns, we have health teams, we've got psychiatric and psychologists that provide support. We have put in a lot of effort to ensure that we've got sufficient support.

And look, when I spoke directly to the transferees, David, when I was there, their main concern was the processing of their claims that will be undertaken by the PNG Government. They didn't talk -

DAVID SPEERS: So they want to know how long they're going to be there.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Yeah look, as you can imagine.

DAVID SPEERS: And what did you say to them?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, what I said to them on that was in discussions I had with the Foreign Minister of PNG is that the PNG Government is, as a matter of urgency, putting together the architecture for processing and they're doing that as we speak and so the processes will occur.

But I also said to them that the no-advantage principle, as recommended by the Expert Panel, will apply insofar as settlement into Australia if they're genuine refugees so that there is no benefit in people getting on these dangerous vessels. Now we understand why people might -

DAVID SPEERS: So they could be there for years, is how that no advantage principle works. Did you tell them that?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: There are people around the world that have been waiting for more than a decade to be settled. We should not be putting in place an arrangement which is going to induce people to get on crammed vessels and indeed die at sea. I mean what - will you -

DAVID SPEERS: I appreciate that but the difficulty of this policy is at the - you know, reality of it is that for those kids who are there - 34 kids at Manus Island - they're asking you how long are we going to be here, did you say to them, you know, you could be here for years?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well what I said to the adults - I did not discuss this directly with the children, I spoke to their parents and others through translators - I made very clear that we will do everything we can to make their conditions as good as possible. I made clear we're also building a permanent facility. But let me tell you, you cannot discuss these things in isolation, David. I saw, you know, corpses of two year olds, infants, on Christmas Island in December 2010 because they got on vessels and they died.

And if you want to start looking at these issues, we have to take responsibility about whether we're sending a message for people to get on these boats or not and I think it's absolutely important we discuss this in context, not in isolation.

DAVID SPEERS: Immigration Minister, Brendan O'Connor, we will have to leave it there. Thank you for joining us.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Yeah, thank you very much, David.