CLARE O’NEIL: I acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who have been the traditional owners of the land around Canberra for 50,000 years.
It is impossible to tell a story about Australia without acknowledging our ancient beginnings.
And, it is impossible to tell a story about Australia without talking about migration.
We are a proud, migrant nation.
Half of Australia’s citizens were born overseas, or have a parent born overseas.
Together, as one, and many, we have built the most prosperous, safe, cohesive country in the world.
Every Australian is entitled to feel proud of that.
And, to feel confident we can tackle what’s coming in the difficult decades ahead.
One of the remarkable things about Australia is that when we confront crisis and challenge, we use those moments to build a better country for the next generation.
In doing so, migration has been one of our most important tools.
In the 1940s, a gutsy Ben Chifley warned that we must “populate or perish”. The migrants who answered that call set the foundation for two decades of growth that delivered life-changing prosperity for Australian families.
In the 1970s, Gough Whitlam blew open the dusty doors of power to bury the White Australia Policy and welcome migrants from around the world. Fifty years later, multiculturalism is still central to our Australian identity.
In the 1990s, Paul Keating used skilled migration to drive Australia out of recession. Migration helped deliver the longest period of continuous economic growth in recorded history, anywhere in the world.
Today I want to have a conversation about migration which is direct and honest.
In each of these historic instances, migration helped us become more prosperous and secure because the system was carefully designed to meet the moment.
That is not true of our system today.
I would challenge anyone here to explain what national problems our current system is seeking to solve.
Our migration system is suffering from a decade of genuinely breathtaking neglect.
It is broken. It is failing our businesses, it is failing migrants themselves. And most importantly, it is failing Australians.
That cannot continue. Because we face big national challenges that migration can help us resolve.
Our economy is stuck in a productivity rut, and Australians are suffering because of it. Migration can help us change that.
We are the developed country most at risk of a warming climate, but also the nation with the most to gain from the transition to a net-zero economy.
But we need the skills to help us do it.
We confront the most challenging geopolitical circumstances since the 1940s.
Australia needs to build better sovereign capabilities, fast.
Our ageing population will demand more workers in health and aged care than our domestic population can supply.
Migration will never substitute our focus on skilling up Australians. It is not the full answer to any of these problems. But it is a part answer to all of them.
If populate or perish described Australia’s challenge in the 1950s, skill up or sink is the reality we face in the 2020s and beyond.
Today, we aren’t bringing in the talent we need, and we aren’t making the most of the talent we’ve got.
The solution is to end this era of policy neglect and laziness, where the system has passively run itself.
It means being strategic, and decisive, and purposeful about who we need to help us meet the very significant challenges of the moment, and how we will help them make their best contribution.
Since coming to government, my friend and colleague Minister Andrew Giles and I have been focused on this enormous challenge.
In November last year, we asked former Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Dr Martin Parkinson, to work with two of Australia’s foremost migration experts, Professor Joanna Howe and John Azarias, and help our government get this program working in the national interest.
Today we have released their report. Martin, Jo and John bought deep expertise and commitment to this work. It has been essential to us, particularly the Report’s clear articulation of objectives and guardrails, and I thank them for it.
Today I released for consultation a draft outline of a new migration strategy for Australia, built in our national interest. This document outlines a series of directions for significant reform of this system, which we will work on, consult on, and refine, before we release a final strategy later this year.
So today I want to explain two things: what’s going wrong in our migration system, and how we plan to fix it.
The first big problem is that our migration system today is not delivering Australia the skills that we need to tackle the challenges I have set out.
Who we invite to come here and join us in our national endeavours is one of the most important questions our government can ask.
It deserves care, love and attention. But over the last decade, it has been treated with disgraceful negligence.
Australia’s historic migration success is rooted in permanency and citizenship. We give people the opportunity to get established in their community, educate their kids, and become Australian.
Today, our system is dominated by a large temporary migration program. And that program is not well designed.
The tools which are meant to ensure that temporary migrants have the skills we need are broken and back-to-front.
To determine skills needs, we use outdated occupation lists that don’t reflect the needs of the economy, and labour market testing that both unions and business agree isn’t working.
The effect of many of these rules is that we often miss out on the highly skilled workers we need.
We use an income threshold to ensure the temporary workers who come here are skilled. Almost ten years ago, that threshold was frozen by the former government at $53,900. This is below the earnings of 90% of Australia’s fulltime workers.
Each year now for a decade, a growing share of people entering Australia on temporary skilled visas are being funnelled into low-wage jobs.
Under Peter Dutton, in his long-term role as Immigration Minister and Home Affairs Minister, our skilled worker program morphed into a guest worker program.
What he created was an immigration system which favoured temporary migration, in increasingly lower paid jobs. These are the two essential ingredients to the worker exploitation that we know is occurring in Australia’s workplaces.
International students are a very important part of the puzzle. We are incredibly privileged to train many young people in our brilliant universities and colleges. Those students are meant to come here to study. The bar we set for their entry is simply whether they will be able to perform in Australia’s education system.
The problem is that today, international students are the largest component of our temporary migration program, and the single biggest feeder into our permanent program.
More than half the people who receive permanent skilled visas under our current system arrived in Australia on a student visa.
The links between our temporary and permanent migration programs aren’t working.
The formula we use to determine which temporary migrants get the chance to become a permanent resident, and eventually a citizen, doesn’t help us select for the skills and capacities we need to build Australia’s future.
The upshot is this: Australia’s migration system has become dominated by a very large, poorly designed, temporary program, which is not delivering the skills we need to tackle urgent national challenges. And, that program created the essential ingredients for exploitation of migrant workers.
The second big problem is that our migration system has become a bureaucratic nightmare.
Our system is slow and crazily complex. This has real consequences for the quality of our migration program.
We have hundreds of visa categories and subcategories.
It is a mess of three digit visa codes – the 186, the 864, the 408 – so complicated that if I drew you a diagram it would look like a tangled bowl of spaghetti.
We have a visa class for just about everything, including one specifically for the crew of superyachts.
Add more than 1,300 separate labour agreements, rigid occupation lists incapable of adjusting fast enough to industries like the tech sector, and an achingly slow process to recognise skills and qualifications earned in other countries, and you get a system weighed down by rules, forms and bureaucracy.
Large businesses with massive HR Departments find this system impossible to navigate. And small businesses have got Buckley’s Chance of being able to use it to fill a skills gap.
For migrants, it means paying exorbitant fees to migration agents just to navigate the system.
These problems are more than just an irritation.
Remember that other developed countries are competing for the same migrants that we really need. For aged care nurses, engineers and tech experts, complexity and delay can put them off Australia altogether.
Professor Brian Schmidt is the Vice Chancellor of Australian National University and one of the finest minds of his generation.
He came to Australia in the 1990s and was granted a visa in four days. Today’s world-leading young astrophysicist would wait many months just to get look in in our current visa system. And that’s if she or he were lucky, and could find their occupation on the right list.
We can probably assume that today’s Brian Schmidt would simply take their Nobel Prize, and move to Canada instead. That is a national tragedy that, because of our broken migration system, is likely occurring all the time.
Our migration program is also failing once migrants have arrived in Australia.
Worker exploitation hurts our migrants and it hurts Australians. It is completely contrary to our values, I do not know a single person who would defend it. And yet, we all know it is happening.
Going forward, we need to design out the opportunity for exploitation as much as we can.
I said upfront that our migration program was unstrategic and unplanned. And there is no better example of that than our housing market.
Our country faces very genuine and significant challenges providing safe, affordable housing for Australians.
These problems are not caused by migrants. There are hundreds of thousands fewer migrants in the country now than we thought would be here, before the pandemic. And we still face very substantial difficulties with housing.
Our housing problem is the fault of 10 years of inaction by a federal government that never had a serious housing policy. And, the fact that there is no way today for our three levels of government to work together to plan for the housing, services and infrastructure needs resulting from population changes.
A final failure is how our migration system is not aligned with our values.
First, integrity. Because the former Government was asleep at the wheel, abuse of our visa system has gone unchecked. We need more resources in Home Affairs focused on ensuring that migrant worker exploitation is identified, and addressed.
Second, fairness. Too many migrants are stuck in permanently temporary limbo.
Third, inclusion. There is a big opportunity for us here to tap the potential of people already here, such as migrant women, who are being held back by slow and tedious skills recognition processes.
Let me summarise the four problems I’ve talked about.
We’ve just lived through a wasted decade, where continental drift and passivity have allowed Australia’s migration system to deteriorate.
What has emerged is a system where it is increasingly easy for migrants to come to Australia in search of a low paid job, but increasingly harder for migrants to come here with the skills we desperately need.
Our migration system is ridiculously complex, making the system incredibly difficult to use, which deters the very people we need the most.
We are not doing enough to plan for and look after migrants once they arrive.
And we must restore Australian values at the heart of the system.
We have been in government for almost a year. And in that time, we have made enormous progress on some of the most acute problems in the system.
Minister Andrew Giles has done tremendous work by dramatically reducing the one million long visa backlog. Healthcare workers are now getting their visas processed in one day.
We are changing the culture and dynamic in the Department, giving more resources to this part of Home Affairs, and bringing migration back to the centre of the work we do.
Business and unions welcomed a larger permanent skilled program last year to deal with the worst labour shortage we have experienced since World War II. This included 34,000 skilled migrants that settled in our regions.
In February, we delivered on our election commitment to provide a permanent visa pathways for approximately 20,000 existing Temporary Protection Visa and Safe Haven Enterprise Visa holders.
And last weekend Prime Minister Albanese announced that from July 1 this year, New Zealanders living in Australia will have a pathway to Australian citizenship, just as Australians do who live in New Zealand.
New Zealanders are the single largest group of permanently temporary migrants in Australia. Treating them in the same respectful way Australians are treated who live in New Zealand is the right thing to do, and very important to the relationship between our two countries.
Today, I am proposing directions for significant reform of our migration system.
Our overall goal is to end a decade of ad hoc and piecemeal change, and embark on a genuine reform that will set this system up for a more prosperous and secure Australian in the 2020s and beyond.
First, we need to fix the biggest problem we have – redesigning the system to help us get the skills we need.
We have begun consultation on a proposal to restructure our temporary skilled migration program, to ensure this program provides Australia with the skills we need to take our nation forward.
The draft outline of the Australian Migration Strategy that I’m releasing today proposes that we consider three new pathways for temporary skilled migrants to come to our country, tightly tailored to the needs of our country.
The first pathway is a fast, simple route for specialised, highly skilled workers we need to drive innovation in our economy, and to help us build the jobs of the future.
The second is a mainstream temporary skilled pathway to bring in the core skills we need. For this stream, we would focus on proper, evidence-based assessments of skills needs, rather than the current outdated approaches that everyone agrees are not working.
This pathway would include skilled migrants earning above an increased temporary skilled migration income threshold, to ensure our migration system remains a program for skilled migrants.
The third stream relates to our essential industries.
One of the reasons there is so much exploitation is because we have allowed low-wage migration programs to operate in the shadows, for example, through exploitation of our international student visa system.
That has allowed areas of the economy that rely on these workers to become either highly vulnerable to exploitation, or subject to chronic, ongoing labour shortages that put huge pressure on existing workers.
Instead of pretending that some students are here to study when they are actually here to work, we need to look to create proper, capped, safe, tripartite pathways for workers in key sectors, such as care.
Not only would this better support our industries, it would provide far better protection for the workers we depend on.
We will propose to reform the way we determine which temporary migrants end up as permanent residents, and ultimately citizens.
A critical change here is how we design what is called ‘the points test’. This may sound a little bit boring and technical. But it’s absolutely crucial.
Every year, we select roughly 100k permanent residents using the points test. By 2050, we could have millions of additional people living in Australia who are selected using this test.
But the current test is not working properly. The bar is set too low. And, that test rewards persistence, not the skills we need for Australia’s future.
Getting it right could add tens of billions to the Federal Budget over the next 30 years, and make a real difference to our economic growth.
Lastly, Australia needs to enter the competition for global talent.
We need to make a big switch in our thinking: from the passivity which drives the system today, to active engagement with the people we think can help build our country’s future.
We propose creating a new area in my Department, working with Jobs and Skills Australia to identify skills needs in Australia’s economy. Under this proposal, we would go out into the world and find the migrants Australia needs, and talk to them about joining us on our national journey.
I’ve spoken a bit about the terrible complexity in the current system. We don’t need more forms and bureaucracy. We need a proper, data-driven approach to migration will enable us to do away with a lot of the red tape.
Jobs and Skills Australia, a new government body, will be given a formal role in our migration system for the first time. With clear guidance and input from both business and unions, Jobs and Skills Australia will use facts and data to prove out where skills shortages exist.
Jobs and Skills Australia will help us properly integrate the needs in our jobs market, our training and education system and our migration system for the first time.
Our migration system should never be a substitute for properly skilling local workers, but it can be a complement. Jobs & Skills Australia can help us make sure we do this properly.
Part of our work will be simplifying our visa system, with the aim to strongly reduce the number of visa categories. There is just no need for things to be this complicated.
I’ve spoken about how we will change our migration system to ensure we are getting the people here that we need. We also need to make sure we’re getting the right outcomes for Australians on the ground.
Part of this will need to involve much closer collaboration with the states. While the federal government controls our migration settings, a real partnership with states and territories is crucial to us getting this right.
The fact that there is no genuine mechanism for us to plan for population changes, as a country, is a bit startling. Tomorrow, when National Cabinet meets, the Prime Minister will begin a conversation about how we could work together, as a federation, to plan better for housing, services and infrastructure.
This will build on the incredible work my colleagues Jim Chalmers and Julie Collins have done with the Housing Accord.
Ensuring we get the right outcomes on the ground also means looking after migrants properly who are here.
To do this, we need to reform the policy settings that drive exploitation. This means exploring ways to give migrants more flexibility to move employers and enforce their workplace rights.
A big focus of our efforts will be how we manage international students in our migration system.
We want to ensure that high-performing students, with the skills we need, are given the chance to stay. We propose creating simpler, faster pathways for the international students who will have special skills and capabilities we need.
But we also need to make sure our international student system has integrity. Working with my colleagues Ministers Brendan O’Connor and Jason Clare, we will look at tightening the requirements for international students studying in Australia, and ensure that students are actually here to study.
Strengthening how the international student system and migration systems interact will be a substantial piece of work that we will share more information on in the coming months.
The final big change is about restoring Australian values at the heart of the system.
I want to talk about three of these values.
The first value is integrity. Without integrity, we will lose public confidence in this system.
We can strengthen integrity by improving post-arrival monitoring and enforcement of wages and conditions to detect and prevent exploitation. And, by better regulation of migration agents.
The second is fairness. Fundamentally, this about ending permanent temporariness, and making sure migrant workers can exercise their rights.
We’ve done a lot of this already in our work to resolve some of the biggest caseloads of permanently temporary people. But we need to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future.
We need to avoid policies and conditions that create ‘permanent temporariness’. This means clearer pathways for the skilled workers we need and clarity for the migrants that have less of a prospect of becoming a permanent resident.
The third value is inclusion. We can do this by improving and streamlining skills recognition, to help more migrants, including secondary applicants, enter the labour market at a level that matches their qualifications.
Our government is today making a commitment, and proposing a pathway, to fixing Australia’s migration system.
And we’re not just proposing a pathway and a plan – we’re going to put a down payment on the system we want to build by taking the first set of actions in the coming federal Budget. I want to announce two of those actions today.
First, as of July 1, the temporary skilled migration income threshold, or the ‘TSMIT’, will increase to $53,900 to $70,000.
This is the first increase in a decade. And it is a big deal.
The Grattan Institute calls $70,000 the Goldilocks threshold.
We call it essential to ensuring this program is what it says it is: a skilled worker program, not a guest worker program.
Second, I can announce that as by the end of 2023, all temporary skilled workers will have a pathway to permanent residency.
This does not mean an expansion of our capped permanent program. It does not mean more people. It simply means that a group of temporary workers who had been denied even the opportunity to apply for permanent residency will be able to do so.
We want to increase competition for permanent resident places and ensure we don’t leave more workers in limbo, bouncing from visa to visa.
These two changes show we’re serious about the reform agenda ahead. And I hope as I finish up today, you have a clear sense of what a new migration system for our country would look like.
I have spoken a lot about what’s going wrong with Australia’s migration system today. There are a lot of problems.
But what I am genuinely much more excited about is the big opportunity. We have every reason to be optimistic about our country’s future.
And every reason to believe that our migration system can help us deliver a more secure and prosperous Australia, as it has done many times in the past.
We are a truly great country with a fundamentally broken migration system.
Just imagine what we will be able to achieve when we get this powerful engine working again in the national interest.
LAURA TINGLE: Thanks so much, Minister. If you could talk about that huge sort of swing instrument choice of international students. Can you explain for people who don’t know how the system works, if you’re an international student at the moment, what do you have to do to transfer to the skilled migrant program and at what point does that income threshold – where does that sort of come into play? And how is your proposal for a change going to change the number of students who effectively are staying on in Australia?
CLARE O’NEIL: Yes. That’s a long one, Laura. I’ll try to keep it as short as I can.
LAURA TINGLE: Yes. Sorry, I’m setting a bad example.
CLARE O’NEIL: Can I say, firstly, our international education market is incredibly important to our economy and it’s actually just important to the education system that we run in our country. This is our fourth largest export and one we’re very proud of. What we want to make sure – and I know the university sector and the training sector are with me here. We have got to make sure this is a system with integrity; otherwise, we degrade the experience of students here and actually our reputation around the region and internationally. So it’s really important we get this right.
So, some of the problems that I talked about – I’ll just recap a little bit. So I think the first issue is that we are assessing international students based on whether we think that they will be able to essentially survive in Australia’s education system. It is quite a low bar to set – appropriately, because they’re here to learn and we want to help them build their skills. The issue is this has become the dominant feeder into our permanent program. So, we have set a low bar. We have a broken test that converts someone from a temporary to a permanent migrant, and this is basically part of the dynamic that’s a bit broken at the moment.
So, you asked about the income threshold that I mentioned, so this will be very relevant because at the moment you can transition onto a temporary skilled worker off a student visa if you’re earning $53,900 a year, which, as I explained, is a lower income than 90 per cent of Australia’s full-time workers when this is meant to be a skilled program. So, by lifting the TSMIT we are lifting significantly the integrity of this skilled worker program and making sure that the people who are here are actually going to be in our workplaces helping lift the productivity and the capacity of Australian workers.
LAURA TINGLE: Sarah Ison.
SARAH ISON: Sarah Ison from The Australian. The care industry has been a big focus of your speech today, which makes sense. Of course, there’s a lot of challenges particularly in aged care. Is there anything in the very near term that you will do, that you plan to do, to make it easier for migrants to work in aged care and ensure more migrants are coming, given that by the middle of this year we have that quite large goal to have the 24/7 nursing, a lot of centres are very concerned about? Are you going to do anything before then? Is anything going to change before then to really address those concerns?
CLARE O’NEIL: Thank you, Sarah. Firstly, critically important problem for the country. We have the oldest of the baby boomer generation, this largest ever of Australian generations, just starting to access aged-care supports in our country and we are already struggling greatly to provide workers. A big part of the puzzle here, if I can just mention, is the low pay of aged-care workers, and that’s something the Fair Work Commission has acted on and our Government is addressing. I think, even if we do everything around pay and conditions, we are still going to have a shortfall of workers in this sector, and that’s why your question is so important.
The short answer to what you have asked, “Are we doing anything about it before we do the big fix?”, the answer is yes and I’ll let Andrew Giles speak a little bit more about that in the coming weeks. But I think what is really important here is not just thinking about this as a short-term problem. We have a structural issue of workers in our care sector, and one of the reasons I’ve talked about restructuring our temporary skilled program is we need to provide a long-term solution to this, not just see people come in on ad hoc labour agreements and that sort of thing, which is not really going to address this ongoing problem for the country.
SARAH ISON: Thank you.
LAURA TINGLE: Angus Thomson.
ANGUS THOMSON: Angus Thomson from The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Can you explain why the Government hasn’t raised the TSMIT to above $90,000 given that’s what the ACTU has called for and even I think the BCA have called for a figure in that range as well?
CLARE O’NEIL: That’s not quite right. The BCA, the figure was substantially lower than $70,000. I think that’s why the Grattan Institute calls this the Goldilocks threshold. It’s just about right. You are right there were advocates in the discussion calling for a significantly higher TSMIT. If I can just explain why $70,000 is the right answer for us. So, firstly, $70,000 is what the rate would have been had it not been frozen back at the 2013 rate. So, essentially it would have just tracked up to around $70,000.
But the other thing that’s really important here is that a lot of skilled workers who are coming to our country are quite a bit younger, and what we’ll inevitably do if we set this rate too high is exclude the younger people who are coming under the temporary skilled program at the moment. So, what we need to do is make a program that is going to be fit for purpose for those younger people. They’re not always coming in at the very top of the labour market but they’re still bringing in skills we really need. So, I think that’s why we’ve made the move to $70,000.
LAURA TINGLE: Andrew Probyn.
ANDREW PROBYN: Minister, as you were referencing in your speech, 54 per cent of permanent resident visas are given to former international students, but, alarmingly, more than half them end up working in the two lowest skilled areas. How do you fix this without discouraging or maybe forcing universities to only offer university places in skills we actually need, rather than allowing universities to treat international students as cash cows?
CLARE O’NEIL: I’ll just leave that last value comment for someone else to react to. So, a couple of things are important in what you’ve raised. So, international students should be allowed to come to Australia. We love having them here and they’re an essential part of our society and our economy, and that’s a really good thing. I think the real question for us is: what role do we want international students to play feeding into our skilled program and then ultimately to our permanent program? And one of the really significant issues here is – I’ve talked about passivity. This is a really good example. We’ve basically sat back and allowed the people who are already here to run through the system. And that’s why the proposal to actually get out and market Australia to the world and talk to people about the beautiful opportunity to move here is really important.
So, raising the TSMIT will do a lot of about this because what it will mean is that if you’re in those very low-wage jobs you’re not going to qualify to come in as a skilled migrant anymore. And I mentioned that I’m working with my colleagues, Jason Clare and Brendan O’Connor, to think about how we would need to lift the requirements for international students to enter and study in Australia. Thanks.
LAURA TINGLE: Michael Reid.
MICHAEL REID: Michael Reid from the AFR. Minister what kind of skills and experiences will be prioritised and what ones will be deprioritised in a more robust point system?
CLARE O’NEIL: So, thank you for asking that, Michael, and it allows me to make a really good point, which is that it shouldn’t be for the Minister to decide what skill shortages there are in the country. This is an evidence-based question that today we don’t have a lot of evidence behind, and part of the problem in the system is that because the Minister essentially does get to decide what a shortfall looks like, you end up with a system where, you know, one person’s got discretionary decision-making power and, in my view, too much control without having the information perhaps that Jobs and Skills Australia will provide.
So, in terms of prioritising and deprioritising, what I would say is that we would like to simplify the system so that would mean that we are going to try to move away from the strictures of occupation lists and have a broader description of skills needs that confront the country. I can share some of them off the top of my head which I think would be well known to you as an economic journalist. You know, care, which we’ve talked about a lot. We’ve got a significant issue getting tech sector skills in the country. We’ve got dramatic shortages of engineers. We’ve got dramatic shortages of people in construction.
So I think the broader point is all of us in this room can have a stab at saying what these are. Let’s get someone actually to sit down and properly use a data-driven approach to define what they are and take it perhaps a little bit out of the realm of politics where I fiercely believe it doesn’t belong.
MICHAEL REID: Thank you, Minister.
LAURA TINGLE: Jade Gailberger.
JADE GAILBERGER: Jade Gailberger from the Herald Sun. Minister, thank you for your address. If the Government does do all of the things in this strategy, will Australia end up with a larger or smaller migration program?
CLARE O’NEIL: Thanks. That’s a great question, Jade. Thank you for raising it. Let me be really clear. What I’ve talked about today is not about more people and you asked what would happen if we implemented all the things I’ve discussed, the consequence of that would be a smaller migration program for the country.
LAURA TINGLE: Tom Connell.
TOM CONNELL: Tom Connell from Sky News. Just following on from the end of your answer to my good colleague Andrew Probyn, so it sounds as though there will be, what, restrictions on universities in terms of who they can bring in or new levels of requirement? And what sort of degrees at the moment are people coming here and studying for that we really don’t need?
CLARE O’NEIL: Okay. Thanks, Tom. So, the second question I might leave to the experts. I think there’s a lot that’s been written about this problem and you can have a look at what the experts are saying are the areas where we might see a few issues. I think what we’re really talking about here is making sure that the international student education system is doing what it says on the label, and that is educating brilliant young minds from around the region that is Australia is very proud to do. Now, that’s not always the case today with the education system and so I’m working with Jason Clare and Brendan O’Connor to bring forward a series of reforms that will see us ensure that that system is principally about education as it says and we’re just not ready quite yet to share the detail with you, but I’ll come on your show, Tom, as soon as we are.
TOM CONNELL: I like that commitment. A super-quick follow-up: would the number change or just about the type of people?
CLARE O’NEIL: This is not about reducing the number, but I think it’s inevitable when we lift standards that there might be some implication for numbers. That’s not the target of this. The target of this project is making sure that we have the skills in our country that we need to meet national challenges.
LAURA TINGLE: Charles Croucher.
CHARLES CROUCHER: Charles Croucher from Nine, Minister. You’ve spoken about the need for increased monitoring, increased education, increased enforcement. How many more people are going to be needed in your department to do all these things? And given the exploitation going on, does there need to be increased punishments or new legislation to prevent what’s clearly occurring?
CLARE O’NEIL: Great. Thank you, Charles. Really, really important questions. My colleague Andrew Giles is going to have a lot more to say about this in the coming weeks so I might leave those details to him. But I will just say that we have come into Government to a clear commitment to addressing these issues. We should not see worker exploitation in a country like Australia. There’s no country in the world where the values are more betrayed by this practice, and so I’ll allow Minister Giles to share some details with you in the coming weeks, but the commitment is real.
LAURA TINGLE: Finn McHugh.
FINN MCHUGH: Finn McHugh, SBS News. Minister, thanks for your speech. On a different topic, a couple of months ago you took the quite unusual step of naming Iran as the country behind a foreign interference plot in Australia in what you said was the beginning of an open conversation on foreign interference. The speech notably didn’t mention China at a time when your government is obviously seeking to unthaw relations. I am wondering if those two things are linked. And going forward, when it comes to naming and shaming, how much will you factor in things like trade and bilateral relations?
CLARE O’NEIL: Thank you. The speech didn’t mention China because it was a speech about Iran, so I hope that’s clear. If you look at the speech, it’s actually quite specifically about issues facing our Iranian community here in Australia, which are very real. What I would say is that the discussion about foreign interference, in my view, was widely politicised by the former Government to the detriment of the lives of diaspora communities in our country, which are very important, and I don’t intend to do that as Home Affairs Minister. I will call out foreign interference when it is in the national interest to do so, and I will continue to do that as I progress in my role. We started with Iran but you probably also noticed in that speech I talked about the work that we are doing to develop an attribution framework for this so this is not the ad hoc decision of the Minister but something that is a structured and thoughtful exercise.
LAURA TINGLE: Melissa Coade.
MELISSA COADE: Melissa Coade from The Mandarin. My question is about regional Australia, which was also mentioned in Dr Parkinson’s report, and it talked about how the really sort of complex way that States, Territories and the Federal Government work together in inputting where those skills shortages and needs are and how the migration system adequately responds to it is a big problem. Given migration is such a political issue, as well as the economic sustainability of regional Australia, what do you envisage this strategy will do to keep the politics out of what say the States and Territories have in those policy levers?
CLARE O’NEIL: Great. Thank you. What an important question. So, I think that one of the under-discussed topics in this area is about the geographic dimensions of migration and, you know, we see sometimes quite fast population growth in our cities but real issues around population decline in regions and the bush. And this is something that sort of exercises the Government because when you think about something like aged care, those needs are not just in the city; we actually need to have distribution of workers.
One of the things that the report that Martin and Jo and John released – it talks about the vexed history of trying to drive population through the migration system. And to just cut it short, this is something Australian Governments have been trying to do for many, many decades and it’s tended not to be successful. The reason it hasn’t been successful is because it hasn’t been a collaboration with States and Territories and it hasn’t been a cohesive approach. You can’t just direct 500 migrants to go and live in a place where there aren’t services and there aren’t religious institutions they desire and there aren’t schools for their children. So, part of the purpose of the Prime Minister trying to lead a better discussion with the States is to try to start to think about these issues as they belong, which is as a whole.
So, we won’t be solving that problem through the migration system, but we’re ready to work with States and Territories on this problem in a cohesive manner that will provide proper support to new entrants.
LAURA TINGLE: Ben Westcott.
BEN WESTCOTT: Hello, Minister. Ben Westcott from Bloomberg. Thank you for your speech. In his review, Martin Parkinson was reasonably critical of the investor class visa. There were some issues there. Is that something that you would be looking to reform or alter in some way?
CLARE O’NEIL: We are looking at this at the moment and I think there’s some big opportunities here in this set of classes that’s essentially been created to try to enhance investment in Australia. One of the things I’d just mention is most of those visas were created at a time where Australia was a net importer of capital and actually in the last 10 years that’s changed quite significantly. For various reasons, we have quite a lot of capital here domestically. So, we’re thinking about that at the moment.
What I would say is that I think there are integrity issues at the moment with some of these visas that we need to look at and there’s room for improvement. It is part of the reform project but I just didn’t mention it in the speech because there’s a bit going on.
LAURA TINGLE: Paul Karp has a question.
PAUL KARP: Thanks very much for your speech, Minister. The review talks about shifting from an exclusive focus on the permanent migration cap to considering net overseas migration. If 1.8 million people being here permanently temporary – it is too many, is the Government going to set a target for what that figure should be and what do you think it should be?
CLARE O’NEIL: So, Paul, thank you for your question. The Government is talking about with the States and Territories tomorrow about thinking about this program as a whole, and I very much agree with the reviewers there. Laura, you mentioned in your opening that there’s virtually obsessive focus on the number of permanent visa holders that we grant each year while – all the while we’ve got people coming and going who are not sort of accounted for or thought about or talked about. I think that will change as a consequence of this. I think overall we absolutely believe in better planning for the migration output as a whole for the country and that’s why the Prime Minister is trying to work better with the States and Territories to think about how you’re going to plan for whatever the numbers are.
And just in terms of your question about what’s desirable, for me, quantity is not the really important question here. I think most of the migration debates that I’ve observed as an Australian have become virtually obsessed with big Australia or small Australia and you’ve got to push yourself into one of those dichotomies. I think inevitably the size of this program does depend a little bit on the circumstances of the moment. In COVID it was right to shut the borders and our migration rate was effectively zero. Coming out of COVID we are playing a bit of catch-up. We’ve got serious labour shortages and it’s probably inevitable that we will run a slightly larger migration program over time.
My desire is to see that program tightened and potentially smaller into the medium term and most of the proposals that I’ve talked about today will assist us in doing that.
LAURA TINGLE: Sarah Basford Canales.
SARAH BASFORD CANALES: Thank you, Minister. Sarah Basford Canales from The Canberra Times. You touched on the bureaucratic nightmare that migrants have to face in order to get to Australia. It’s obviously one of the first things they see about Australia. The review heavily criticises the Home Affairs Department’s IT system, calling it cumbersome, overly complex and the result of successive Governments trying to fix this problem with big bang approaches. So with that in mind, how will the Federal Government fix the years-long issue if big bang solutions haven’t worked in the past?
CLARE O’NEIL: Thank you. This is really, really central. I really want people to understand how much the administration of this system is actually creating poorer outcomes for the country and the IT system is one of those. I have sat with visa processors in the Home Affairs Department and honestly, like, hats off to these people. They are working between four or five different computer programs, cutting and pasting things retyping things. You would not believe the state of this IT. It is a real issue.
Something that the report talked about is the fact that attempts have been made to deal with this IT problem before we have defined what the migration system should look like, and that’s not very smart. We need to deal with the reform exercise first. There will be an IT project that comes out of this; whether it’s small or large, I’m not sure about that yet. But i think the most important thing for us right now is: What do we want our migration system to achieve? How do we establish that in public policy? And then we think about the IT that we will ultimately need to back that up.
LAURA TINGLE: Brandon How.
BRANDON HOW: Brandon How from InnovationAus dot com. Just to follow up on the question on the ICT systems, I was just wondering if you could provide a bit more detail on why the Government axed the most recent attempt to reform the permissions capability back in August 2022? And are you able to give a time line on when we could see the next ICT project?
CLARE O’NEIL: Well, we axed the permissions capability because the project was a disaster. And so it did need to not proceed if I can try to be polite about that, not very successfully obviously! So that’s sort of done and dealt with. We’re moving forward now. As I said, we need to actually define. We need to solve the policy question first. The reason that we have had basically endless attempts to digitise this system that haven’t quite worked is because no-one has done the hard thinking yet about what we want our migration system to achieve and what such a system would look like. Then we think about processes that sit underneath that. It’s a sequencing exercise and we are trying to break off this big chunk first, which is asking the difficult question: what do we want this system to achieve and how are we going to make it do it?
BRANDON HOW: Do you have an indication of how long that process might take?
CLARE O’NEIL: Not at this stage, no.
LAURA TINGLE: Julie Hare.
JULIE HARE: Hi. Julie Hare from the Australian Financial Review. Thank you for your speech. My question also goes to international students. You say that you want to ensure that the students who come here are actually here to study. They have to sign a genuine student test at the moment but everyone knows it’s a farce. The strategy actually talks about IELTS, English language testing, and whether the thresholds are high enough. And I’m just also wondering, you talk about the better regulation of migration agents. Does that always deal with better regulation of education agents? I guess my point goes – is to the point that you talk about the exploitation of international students; there is also exploitation here especially among education agents of international students onshore and their intentions of coming here, so that means you’re going to have to manage who comes in the front door better. So, can you just explain to me how that’s going to happen?
CLARE O’NEIL: Sure. You raise a really important point and for a lot of people who don’t not know the system particularly well, there’s a set of migration agents who are helping people navigate our migration system and then there are education agents who are trying to connect students from around the world into our education system. I think there are some issues with both of the ways that those groups are managed and we’re looking at that as part of this project with Brendan O’Connor and Jason Clare.
One of the things that’s important to me and I know to them is that we don’t convey only negativity about this sector. This is a hugely important thing for our country. We should be so proud of what is happening in international education in our country and fixing these integrity issues will help us bolster what’s working at the moment. It’s going to be a big and important project thinking about lifting standards for international students, how we can ensure that students who are here to study are actually here to study and making sure that we think about the pieces of the puzzle that are facilitating exploitation and education agents is in the mix there.
LAURA TINGLE: John Kehoe.
JOHN KEHOE: Thanks. John Kehoe from the Financial Review. Minister, with the new higher $70,000 TSMIT, will it be indexed annually; and, if so, what will it be indexed to? And what will happen to the people earning around $53,900? Are they going to have to get a nice big $16,000 pay rise to stay here or there’s some sort of grandfathering arrangement for them?
CLARE O’NEIL: Yep. So the grandfathering arrangement will be when their visa expires and they have to apply for a new visa and that visa will have an income threshold of $70,000. Sorry; what was your first question, John?
JOHN KEHOE: The indexing.
CLARE O’NEIL: We haven’t decided to index at this stage but this is in the discussion of the broader sort of package of measures about how we think about that temporary program. We have got a lot of decisions to make about the temporary skilled migration program. We are proposing this three-tiered model. It is a very big thing for the country to do. A pretty significant transformation compared to what’s there at the moment. So, we need to look at long term the role of TSMIT in that whole conversation under a new system.
LAURA TINGLE: Andy Lee.
ANDY LEE: Minister, so you did not mention about the business investment visa, so my question is that. So will the business investment visa subclass 188 A, B, C be removed in the future? And also for the existing business investment visa [indistinct] so will you concede to speed the time – processing time in the next financial year?
CLARE O’NEIL: Thank you so much. So, for those that aren’t as attuned to this policy subject, the business investment visas is part of this broader class with the significant investor visa which was designed to bring capital and entrepreneurs to our country, and there are some quite – on the record significant issues with those. We haven’t said that we will abolish those programs. What we have said is that they need a radical restructure as part of the work that we’re doing and I think this needs to be folded into the broader conversation about highly skilled people who we see as creating the future jobs for Australians and now how we manage them in. It’s not just about what’s called BIV and SIV. This is just the world of acronyms that I live in! It is not just about BIV and SIV. It is about the whole question of that, really quite – drivers of economic growth and how we should think about bringing those people into our country.
LAURA TINGLE: Anna Henderson.
ANNA HENDERSON: Anna Henderson from SBS and NITV. In relation to the Pacific labour migration part of this review, there’s a concern raised about some Pacific Governments that are worried that communities will be emptied of prime-age workers – I’m quoting from the report there – across all skill levels. What’s our ethical obligation to our Pacific partners to not allow that to happen?
CLARE O’NEIL: It’s big and it’s important. The Pacific scheme is something that we as a country conduct because it’s beneficial to our country but also to Pacific Island nations. Obviously, the Government takes incredibly seriously any concerns that are raised around that not working for our partner countries. It’s not the desire at all. This is meant to be a win–win for both countries and I think generally it is. I think there are some instances where there have been issues but if you don’t mind I might just leave that one for Penny Wong and Pat Conroy because that program is actually run through the DFAT department, so it doesn’t actually sit neatly in the migration system in the way that other things do.
ANNA HENDERSON: I understand. But as Home Affairs Minister does there need to be some kind of balance where only a proportion of people from a community are attracted to Australia at any one time?
CLARE O’NEIL: Yes. Again, sorry, not trying to be irritating and avoid your question, but the design of this program belongs to the Foreign Minister and the Assistant Foreign Minister. Their goal is to ensure that we build and strengthen our partnership with Pacific Island countries and they are really focused on that at the moment, so I’d direct that question towards them. Thanks.
LAURA TINGLE: Nic Stuart.
NIC STUART: You’re Immigration Minister, so you’ve obviously got some idea of the total number that we’re talking about. You said you want quality. Does that mean as Kevin Rudd might have said, we want 50 million quality intelligent people in Australia, 40 million, 30 million? What sort of number do you think Australia can cope with overall?
CLARE O’NEIL: It’s an important question but one that I’m not here to express a view on today. It’s really important to me that we can have a conversation about migration policy in our country which is not just reduced to the size of the population. There are lots of important questions in migration that are not to do with population but are about who we bring here and why. So, these are the questions that I’m trying to answer not so much on the population side.
NIC STUART: So, who’s looking at the total population? Whose responsibility would it be?
CLARE O’NEIL: It’s not that it’s not my responsibility. It’s just that I think it is distracts from the issues that we’re here to talk about today which is a migration system that’s fundamentally broken and not delivering for the country. Thank you.
LAURA TINGLE: Andrew Tillett.
ANDREW TILLETT: Thank you, Laura. Andrew Tillett from one of the cast of thousands from The Fin here today –
CLARE O’NEIL: Hot topic.
ANDREW TILLETT: – as well as a board member here at the Press Club. Thank you for rattling through so many questions, by the way. I think you may have set a record.
CLARE O’NEIL: I don’t have any choice. I’m just doing what Laura tells me!
ANDREW TILLETT: Look, I just want to ask you a question with your cybersecurity hat on. Australia provided assistance to the Ukrainian Government early on in the war last year with some cybersecurity assistance. There’s been reports this week that the Government has knocked back three – several requests from the Ukraine for further assistance. Can you just explain what the situation is and are we open to providing further assistance?
CLARE O’NEIL: Thanks, Andrew. I can’t get into the detail of those, but I can say we’re open to discussions with Ukraine about how we can help them and we do consider proposals from time to time.
LAURA TINGLE: As a prize for being such a good answerer of questions –
CLARE O’NEIL: I’m going to get more.
LAURA TINGLE: Yes, you get the president’s bonus prize, bonus question. Well, two questions actually. The first one is: how fast do you see the transition in the sort of international students regime, if you like, happening in terms of the sort of income threshold changing the sort of nature of people coming into the country and, therefore, affecting the labour market? And a separate question is: one of the issues that’s coming up is within the skilled migrant program, the families of skilled migrants also get counted and basically sort of fill out the program. Are you looking at changing how they’re counted?
CLARE O’NEIL: Yep. Great. Thanks, Laura. So, with regard to students, let me just say, it’s really important that we move really quickly on this. We don’t have time to waste and with a reform as substantial and all-encompassing as this, this could take a very long time and I don’t want it to. It’s really urgent that we fix the problems that we can now and so what we’re working on at the moment is sequencing out how we would move to the new system as quickly as we can and it’s going to be a piece by piece, not one day we move into a new migration system for the country.
When you talk about students, there are some things that are already going to happen which will basically immediately address some of the issues that I’ve talked about and the increase to TSMIT is the most important there. This is a substantial increase to ensure that we have skilled workers coming under a skilled program and it will have effect effectively from 1 July this year.
The points test is really, really important. And this is something where I think there’s enormous value for the country to be gained and something that can be changed without kind of extensive systemic kind of processes that have to be gone through. That’s something that we’re looking at as a kind of next cab off the rank to think about is how we can make swift changes. The reason that acts so quickly is, like TSMIT, it can take effect immediately. We process permanent resident visas all the time. If we change the system, we can choose when it takes effect. I think those are important things that will improve some of the issues that I’ve talked about with international students.
It’s really important that we be very careful and consultative in any changes that are being foreshadowed and discussed here. This is a really important sector to our country and it is a great thing that we do in training up so many people in our brilliant education system, and whatever we do with regard to the integrity of it, we’ve got to make sure that it’s not having adverse effects that we could have predicted if we’d taken our time. I want to say we want to move really quickly but we do need to move carefully on this.
With regards to your second question, you’re right, Laura, one of the kind of many dirty little secrets of the migration system is that that permanent visa list we create each year actually counts family members, which is not – that’s not a bad thing; it’s just a reflection really of how small it is of part of the overall scope of our migration program. One of the big untapped levers that we have here is the capacity of partners who are coming here to contribute to our economy. We can see really clearly in the data that partners of skilled migrants are not engaging with the labour market to the degree that their qualifications suggest that they should be. So part of the reform project that I’ve talked about today is digging in on that question. It is particularly for migrant women. Often the problem is they have skills and qualifications they earned overseas and we have this very cumbersome process of recognising those qualifications. That’s part of the mix here.
Maybe I could just say one more thing before we finish up here. You asked me a question about population. If I can just be a little bit clearer about that. I’m not someone who advocates for a big Australia in this conversation. What’s really important to me is that we’ve got these big national problems facing our country and we’re not getting the right people here through the migration system to help us address them. So, the focus of this task is not about more people. It’s not about a bigger program and the likely impact of the changes that I’ve suggested here is probably a slightly smaller migration program over time but what matters most is what this system is doing for our country. At the moment it is broken and our Government is planning to fix it.
LAURA TINGLE: Please thank Minister O’Neil for her time today.