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Transcript of interview with David Speers: Sky News Australian Agenda: 28 April 2013: asylum seekers; 457 visas

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David Speers: As we mentioned at the outset one of the policy challenges facing the Gillard Government for many years has been immigration. This month we have seen nearly 3,000 asylum seekers arrive on more than 100 boats. That's despite offshore processing being in place now since August last year at both Manus Island in PNG and Nauru. Our guest today, the Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor, joins us now from Melbourne.

Minister, thank you for your time. Can I simply ask you, is offshore processing, now that it's been in place for eight or nine months, is it working?

Brendan O'Connor: It won't work alone. The fact is we need to ensure that all of the recommendations that were outlined by the Houston report are realised, and I think the fact that we are not able to do that without the support of the Opposition has of course led to significant challenges.

It's also meant that we've had to do other things insofar as bilateral arrangements. And we saw that recently over the last several months with the return of over 1,000 to Sri Lanka.

David Speers: But the remaining element you are referring to there is Malaysia, is it not? Do you really think that sending 800 people to Malaysia would stop boats coming in far greater number than that?

Brendan O'Connor: I think the first thing to note is that we've have had experts come from different perspectives: border protection, diplomatic experience and refugee settlement, and I think forge some very significant recommendations. It's quite interesting to see Mr Abbott seek to refuse to accept the advice of experts again. He refused to accept the advice when we responded to the global financial crisis; we see it again here. And my argument is that we should be implementing these recommendations and we believe yes the Malaysian arrangement will have a significant deterrence. But what you have here, David, is an Opposition that wants to have an agreement with Indonesia when Indonesia says no and an Opposition who doesn't want to have an agreement with Malaysia when Malaysia says yes.

David Speers: Just focusing on what you're doing, the expert report did actually say the Malaysian agreement needed to be improved; it needed legally binding guarantees.

Brendan O'Connor: And as I said to you once before, David, you can understand Malaysia's reticence in resolving any outstanding matters when they are subject to the ferocious attacks by the Opposition in relation to their human rights record. I mean, you had the Shadow Minister fly to Malaysia, stand on their shore and effectively abuse them.

If you think that the Opposition - if they were to be elected - are able to engage productively with transit countries like Malaysia and Indonesia when they are continually insulting them then I think people don't understand diplomacy and do not understand the requirements of having the two most significant transit countries working with us to deal with this very complex regional challenge.

Paul Kelly: You've now been in the job for several months coming to grips with this incredibly difficult challenge. Can I ask you to take a step backwards and reflect for a moment. I'd like to ask, how realistic is it, do you think, to imagine that we can stop the boats? Given all the difficulties involved is that a realistic national objective?

Brendan O'Connor: I think that needs to be the national goal but I accept, Paul, what you say that this is a very complicated and complex area. And that's why the only way in which we're going to see a significant reduction and ultimately a cessation of vessels arriving in this manner is a comprehensive regional framework implemented as determined under the Bali process. And that means a lot more work by not just countries of destination like Australia but countries of transit and countries of origin.

There were, of course, almost 35 countries that came together a few weeks ago; we need to do more work there. I think, though, the notion that you just can stay "stop the boats" and the boats will stop of course is nonsense. That's why, Paul, it's been clear in the last few weeks that the Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister are now no longer talking about stopping the boats and in fact have said that they can't even define a timeframe and they can't even say it will be in the next Parliamentary term if they were elected. So they don't know whether it's going to be months or years. That's because, I think, they've realised the notion that you can have just offshore processing and temporary protection visas and an impossible arrangement of turning back vessels is not going to do what they suggested it was going to do.

Paul Kelly: You've talked about a regional agreement and we know about the Bali framework, what I'd like to ask though is what is the essence of a regional agreement that can take a big step forward towards stopping the boats? What's the key element in such a regional agreement?

Brendan O'Connor: I think it's the collective realisation that every effort has to be made at every point. That means, for example, that more effort should be made up the pipelines in Afghanistan and Quetta, for example, to ensure that people take the regular path. That where there are places available, and we've increased those places, people seek that path to be determined to be a refugee. I think for transit countries it's looking at those coming into their country for the purposes of launching on vessels and I think our efforts with Indonesia have been significant in terms of disruptions. For example at least one half of the launches of vessels have been disrupted by Indonesian authorities working with Australian authorities, but I think there needs to be a greater level of engagement about determining the intention of people arriving into countries of transit. I think that needs to be fully fleshed out and we need to fully engage with Indonesia and Malaysia.

Now we were doing that, of course, and will continue to do that by embracing Malaysia and their innovative approach to deter people but there needs to be more done there. And we need really, I think, a bipartisan approach in Australia, without which there's going to be an ongoing problem. Really you cannot have an Opposition that will refuse to accept the advice, the innovative approach which has never been tried. Now whatever doubts people may have about the arrangement that

we've engaged with Malaysia I think it needs to be implemented and we need to have a look at how well it works.

David Speers: If we can turn to those who have made it to Australia, there are security concerns around a small number: a Sri Lankan man who's allegedly fled his home after being accused of killing his girlfriend; an Egyptian man who's allegedly the subject of an Interpol red notice for terrorism activities; and an Iranian man who is allegedly accused of drug trafficking. Can you tell me where in detention these three are and are any of them in community detention?

Brendan O'Connor: All three are currently in detention. One is being provided with medical support. But even in that circumstance they have security guards and that person's detained.

David Speers: In high security detention? Because I know there are different degrees.

Brendan O'Connor: In the case of the person who's getting mental health services within a hospital they are detained and have security. This is just based on allegations that we take seriously. But if you know, for example, how a red notice of Interpol works, David, and I do as working with Interpol for two and a half years when I was Minister for Justice, these things can be flagged quite easily by signatory countries to Interpol and therefore it is an allegation. But we take it seriously and therefore on that basis we will secure these people in a way in which would not allow them to be any danger to the public.

David Speers: So are they in Villawood? Are you able to say where they are?

Brendan O'Connor: I can say they are detained and in the case of the person being provided medical support because of mental health issues there are security guards on that site as I'm advised.

Paul Kelly: Minister, we've sent back to Sri Lanka more than 1,000 asylum seekers. How confident are you that the human rights of those people will be protected when they are returned to Sri Lanka, given some of the evidence we've seen this week about human rights abuses?

Brendan O'Connor: Well I'm of the view we're doing the right thing here. We are looking at those who are either saying that they are fleeing persecution or looking to Australia to have a place of haven. What we have done, and it's been quite rigorous, Paul, is that we have examined each and every person's reason for arriving in our waters and as a result we've made a decision to return those who after quite a rigorous interview process showed no evidence of our obligations being engaged pursuant to the refugee convention.

So in the case of, for example, the vessel that arrived near Geraldton or in Geraldton we had 38 returned and we had 26 where there was some doubt screened in, and they will then now go through a process to determine whether in fact they are to be afforded protection. I think that's a reasonable approach. In so far as Sri Lanka...

Paul Kelly: What about the issue of human rights and the reports and the evidence that some people have been subjected to human right abuses and torture? Has the Australian Government specifically checked out this issue?

Brendan O'Connor: Yes, we have and there has been in-country advice and we are provided - that is our agencies are looking at the in-country advice, contemporary advice that's received regularly and it is on the basis of that advice and other information that we make these decisions.

Now, we believe that on that advice we were entirely correct in examining people in this manner. There's no doubt there's been a very, very significant increase in people who are economically motivated to migrate to Australia using this passage and therefore we are delineating between those who sought to come here for economic purposes and those who were seeking to be afforded protection pursuant to the convention.

And I'm confident that our agencies do a very good job in delineating those two cohorts of people.

David Speers: Minister, if we can turn to the issue of 457 visas. You're releasing a report today, new data on the number of 457 visa holders and particularly you've raised a concern, I see, about the number in low income jobs.

Brendan O'Connor: Well, look, we've seen an increase again this month compared to March last year; a 19% increase. What we've always said is we support 457 applications and think the visa is a very important vehicle or mechanism for us to respond to temporary skill shortages in our economy. I said that on the day I announced the reforms on the 23rd of February. We have significant levels of permanent migration into this country, two-thirds of which are skilled, and I believe that we also need other forms of labour and we use the holiday maker visa and the student visa in a way to respond to labour shortages across our country.

But what we do need to ensure is that the 457 visa scheme is used legitimately and not as a replacement for employing local people. And what we've always said is insofar as skilled applications is that where there are clearly shortages in any area of our economy or any region of Australia then we need to use this visa scheme effectively. But where there are not shortages it should not be a replacement and it should not be the first option for employers.

Paul Kelly: Minister, I think there is confusion in the community, and particularly from business, about just how far the Government intends to go on this issue. Now I know you're not providing numbers as such but at the moment I think we've got about 107,000 people on 457 visas in this country. So what sort of crackdown are you talking about and what sort of numbers do you think would be appropriate down the track after your policies have been implemented?

Brendan O'Connor: Well, we've never sought to cap the scheme, Paul. We understand that people seek us to do that and indeed other countries do have a cap on similar schemes. We believe that it should be based around the fluctuations of shortages and it's very hard precisely for governments to determine exactly what might be required so we therefore go to ensuring that employers demonstrate that the shortages are genuine and that the jobs that they are seeking to allow applicants to fill are properly constructed. That is, they are what they say they are.

Now we've had evidence where people have been employed where there are not shortages in the area and we've got evidence to show that the nature of the job that was on the application is nothing like the job that actually exists when the application is processed and the applicant fills that job. Insofar as numbers I believe that the areas where there's been an illegitimate use of 457s numbers in the thousands, it's not negligible. I still believe...

Paul Kelly: Just in the thousands of tens of thousands?

Brendan O'Connor: I would say it would exceed over 10,000. I think it is closer to - when you say tens of thousands there's 107,000 a year. But I think it's a very significant breach of the scheme, it's

not just negligible proportions, and for that reason the reforms will just make it more difficult for those people that are currently misusing or abusing the scheme. For those that use it properly there is no concern for them.

Paul Kelly: That is obviously a significant change that you're just indicated there. Do you think that this should be an election issue? Does the Government see this as an important issue at the election?

Brendan O'Connor: Well it's only an election issue if it's to be one, Paul, because the Opposition are going to vote against the legislation that I will introduce into the House, and it will only be an issue come election time if the Leader of the Opposition - as he's promised to do - makes this the mainstay of immigration. And indeed if the Opposition do what the Shadow Minister said that they want to do, which is to remove the protections that we already put in place.

So I think a very unremarked upon speech from the shadow minister in August last year to the AMMA conference made clear that they wanted to increase quite significantly the access to 457s when it was already growing faster than at any time since it's been created. The debate we should be having is not whether I just should introduce reforms or leave the status quo, because that's not the options here. The options here are do we actually ensure that this is used properly and for the purposes it was originally constructed or do we, as the Opposition, say allow for a laissez faire attitude, deregulated approach, which will undermine, in my view, employment conditions and employment generally in certain parts of our economy.

David Speers: Minister, you've said now that you will be introducing legislation to the House. What exactly will that legislation do?

Brendan O'Connor: I've always said there is a combination of reforms. So we would look at administrative, regulatory and legislative. I'm yet to determine what parts of the reforms would be introduced in legislation but I can assure you we will be looking to legislate. But there will be some parts that might be reformed through regulation.

David Speers: So you will be legislating but you're just not sure exactly what.

Brendan O'Connor: Well I’ll obviously look at it and seek advice about the best way to bring about reforms. Many of the arrangements...

David Speers: But if there's no pressing case in your mind to legislate surely this is a stunt?

Brendan O'Connor: No, there are reasons why we need to legislate and that's why...

David Speers: What are they?

Brendan O'Connor: That's why, David, we legislated in 2008 and 2009. So this will be looking at strengthening the reforms we introduced when Minister Evans introduced reforms. There is no reason why we wouldn't be looking to properly protect the efficacy and integrity of this scheme by way of legislation. We've done it before.

Paul Kelly: So, Minister, do you see this legislation as a real test for the Opposition?

Brendan O'Connor: That's entirely up to them, Paul.

Paul Kelly: How do you see it? Surely it is?

Brendan O'Connor: How I see it is this is a significant reform that came off the back of the departmental advice last year to improve the efficacy of the scheme. If we don't ensure the integrity of the scheme then the confidence of this scheme will be undermined and that would be a bad thing. For the Opposition of course it's entirely up to them, but if they take the approach that they want to see a deregulated approach to 457s then in my view that will be considered by most workers in this country as putting them second and not allowing them to be the obvious option when there are jobs in this country.

Paul Kelly: It certainly sounds as though the Government wants to make this an election issue.

Brendan O'Connor: Again, it's entirely up to the Opposition. If you are suggesting, Paul, to me that they won't reconsider their view and ensure that the 457 scheme is used in the manner in which it was supposed to be used, well that's entirely up to them. But there is nothing new in us legislating in this area. What we've sought to do is really remove the loopholes that have allowed for rorts and I think it's now of course up to the Opposition to choose what they will do with this.

David Speers: Minister, are you going to be running taxpayer funded ads on this?

Brendan O'Connor: Look, I've not even contemplated that issue at all. My focus here, David, is looking at ensuring we have a 457 scheme that's legitimate, to ensure that the employers who use it properly are not at a disadvantage against those employers that use it improperly, and to ensure the Australian workers get options of jobs. That is Australian citizens and permanent residents get the first options for employment before we look overseas for work.

David Speers: Just having a quick look though at the report that you are releasing today, just a quick look at it shows that while there has been an increase in 457 visas this March, as opposed to March last year, the peak was in August of the of last year. Since August last year they have actually been declining and they have declined over the last month again.

Brendan O'Connor: And the rate of growth is still continuing. So by the end of the next parliamentary term if it was left unamended there will be 350,000 new 457 applicants in the country. In the end, as I've made clear to Paul, we're not looking at a specific number because to some extent our economy will drive the need for the temporary skilled scheme.

What I'm more concerned about is that the scheme is used legitimately and that it is responding to temporary skill shortages. And my concern is there are significant problems now that are unfair for local workers where they miss out. And further to that down the track unfair for young people that are acquiring skills where they might miss out on entry level professional jobs or indeed post trade qualifications jobs. And we don't want to see that happen.

Paul Kelly: I think you're pointing the finger here at business in a big way. I think essentially what you are arguing is that business is exploiting this program to reduce wages and conditions for workers. Is that your point?

Brendan O'Connor: I say some do. I say the majority of businesses do the right thing. The overwhelming number still comply with the spirit and intent of the scheme.

Paul Kelly: How many do?

Brendan O'Connor: Well, I'm saying the overwhelming number. We don't have a precise figure on how many breaches and indeed how many people adhere, but the evidence I've got and looking at the macro evidence I believe that most occupational groups in most sectors there has been a legitimate use. For example, the use of 457s for medical staff, for doctors and nurses, has been in most cases a very reasonable response to shortages. And I can't fault employers that are responding to legitimate shortages. But equally what we don't think is reasonable is that you have a significant number of applications coming in where there are not skills shortages and where we've seen nominal and real wages fall in some occupational groups in it some sectors. That runs contrary to the notion of a shortage. Because where there is a skills shortage you shouldn't see a decline in real wages, but that's happened in certain areas.

David Speers: Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you for joining us today.

Brendan O'Connor: Thank you very much David and Paul.