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Transcript of interview with David Speers: Sky News Melbourne: 7 June 2013: inquiry into Egyptian terrorist; 457 visas

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DAVID: Well, as we saw in Question Time this afternoon, the Opposition pursued the Government over just how far reaching this inquiry will be. When it will report, the Prime Minister said, that's entirely up to the Inspector-General of Security and Intelligence, not the Government to decide. So it may not be until after the election. And also whether it would look at the activity within the minister's office at the time, in Chris Bowen's office. As we mentioned earlier, the department did send a submission to Chris Bowen's office in September. The Prime Minister only saying that the Government would fully cooperate with this inquiry.

Well, the Immigration Minister, Brendan O'Connor joins me now. Thanks for your time. I want to get to the 457 visa issue in a moment, but just quickly on this issue of this convicted terrorist. Let me ask you, eight months after ASIO informed your department, you were eventually told in April about this case. Why didn't you launch an inquiry then? Why did it take another two months and a lot of media and opposition pressure for the Government to do so yesterday?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, thanks. Good afternoon, David. Look, the Government's responded, I think, very appropriately in this regard. It's a very serious matter and the Government has of course commissioned a review by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. The matter - you might say the matter's been going on for some time. I was made minister early February, and of course as I have made clear to the Parliament, I was first advised about this particular issue and this particular detainee on 17 April. And of course at that point the person was moving to the high security detention centre.


BRENDAN O'CONNOR: ... let me just finish, please, had actually indicated he would be assessing the protocols amongst the agencies. The AFP, ASIO and the department, to ensure that we had in place an effective approach to dealing with these matters. But look, the Prime Minister, quite rightly, has called upon the independent office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, and I think we should allow them to do that work.

DAVID SPEERS: But what change between April and yesterday - when did the Prime Minister find out about this?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Look, I think the Prime Minister's gone through these matters in the Parliament. The point was, for me, was as minister, I was advised about this issue and on 17 April I made a statement to the Parliament about of course other processes. I've been, you know, I've been open about these matters. We provide briefings on these issues, and in fact there are current briefings to the Opposition, as we speak, in most of these matters.

DAVID SPEERS: But you didn't launch an independent inquiry at that point. That only happened yesterday. Why?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, as I say, I had ensured that the department was assessing the arrangements. I mean, you have to remember, the professionals here, the Australian Federal Police, ASIO and the department are the professionals and they deal with all our operational matters. They had already engaged and the department had already engaged in an assessment of the protocols between agencies in terms of determining these matters.

DAVID SPEERS: So why the need for this new inquiry now?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, I think that we're allowing - and that's why I can't understand the Opposition's position. I mean, the Opposition supported, David, the Joint Standing Committee to investigate something it doesn't have the powers to investigate yesterday, and opposed the actual appropriate agency to review the operations of agencies today when it does have powers to review.

I think it's important, and I think the Government believes that it should ensure that the appropriate body looks at these matters. But as minister, responsible...

DAVID SPEERS: But that's happened after a lot of pressure from the Opposition in the media. I mean, when you found out in April that you'd been kept in the dark about this or that you and your predecessor had, surely that was the point at which to say, we're going to have a proper inquiry.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: As I say, as soon as I found out, two things happened. There was an assessment about how that would proceed in future and the secretary was to report to me on that. And of course I made very clear that any comparable situation, I need to know about immediately because, as I say, I was advised on 17 April, and I was appointed on 4 February, and that was something I was not pleased with. And that's why I put those things in place.

Now, subsequent to that...

DAVID SPEERS: As you said today, though, there is no other convicted terrorist in detention, that's right? Surely this must have raised alarm bells with you when you found out about it.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, the actual transfer was put in train, but of course I took this very, very seriously, and as a result of that the - and I think on its own motion, to be fair, the department had decided to assess the protocols, as I think was absolutely appropriate. But let's

remember - I mean, people can talk about gradations of security, but the person was in detention at all times. And of course there were other things going on, involving ASIO and the AFP that I'm not in a position to disclose, in terms of monitoring this person.


BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Now, these things - that's important - but I wouldn't mind saying something about 457s because that was the basis upon which you invited me on your show, David.

DAVID SPEERS: Yes. Okay. Let's get onto that. Now you've introduced this legislation today to crack down on the 457 visas. You say they're being rorted, you used that figure of 10,000 a little earlier, a figure you said is an estimate. What is the need, though, for these tougher rules?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: I'm happy to go to that. And I'll tell you what the problem is. If I told people about a 457 scheme that requires employers to give consideration to locals first, they would say, oh that's fine, you know. But what if I said to them, but there's no need to actually even advertise, and there's no need to genuinely seek for locals to fill those jobs, people would be surprised. Because, I'll tell you why. There is a thing where the employer has to give an undertaking that they train locals and that they look for local workers.

DAVID SPEERS: That's at the moment they have to do that, do they?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, no. There's an undertaking, but the undertaking is not enforceable. And therefore if they breach the under - so they tick a box saying, yes, happy to do that, happy to do that, found that they haven't done that, but it doesn't trigger any infringement notice. There's no penalty for breaching the undertakings. Now, all I think...

DAVID SPEERS: So what will that now be if this goes through?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, the penalties don't change and we haven't sought to change the penalties, but they'll apply if someone breaches it. But I don't want to be penalising employers. I want to say this; if you've got a job shortage, we want you to look for local workers, young workers, unemployed Australians to have the job first. If you can't find someone and you satisfy the department you've done that then, you know, you can make an application to get a skilled worker from overseas.

We want the skilled worker scheme - the temporary scheme - to work effectively. But what shouldn't happen, what shouldn't happen, David, is that young workers and people in training who are looking for work or unemployed Australians miss out because they're not even being asked. Now if they don't have sufficient skills then the employer's absolutely entitled to use the scheme.

DAVID SPEERS: Tell me this, the legislation also empowers the Fair Work Ombudsman with now, I think it's 300 inspectors to monitor how these 457 visas are being used. Will they have power to enter a business premises at any time to check on those foreign workers?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Look, the rules they're governed by are the rules that were governing their arrangements when they were dealing in employment law. What we've done here - remembering they've got other matters to deal with, it's not like we - but what we've allowed here for, for the first time, is the Fair Work inspectors, of which you say, there are about 300, when they're going about their business, which is usually done by notice and by arrangement, but there are exceptions to that, but to look at not only employment law, employment law breaches if there are any, or allegations, but also immigration law that relates to this visa and other like visas.

Now, I think that's a very efficient way of using Government resources because I think one of the problems here hasn't been - the majority of employers do the right thing, but the problem has been we've had 30 or so inspectors in tens of thousands of workplaces, and has made it too difficult to actually ensure that there was compliance. And on top of that, we couldn't enforce the provisions when there were breaches of undertakings.

I think most Australians, David, would say, you know, if you can find a local to fill a job properly, you should take that option, but if you need skills from overseas because you can't find someone locally, then that's fine too. That's a fair balance.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay. Immigration Minister, Brendan O'Connor, we will have to leave it there, but thank you for joining us this afternoon.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Okay. Yeah, thanks very much, David