3AW - Interview with Tom Elliott

TOM ELLIOTT:

Alright, the population of Australia, well, when times were, let's not say booming, but going a lot better than what they are now, a lot of the time we would complain about the problems of congestion, too many people jammed onto our roads, into our hospitals, into our schools.

Now we've got the reverse problem. We've got everybody sitting at home, no-one's driving, no-one's going to the shops, no-one's going to school obviously because we're told to do home education.

And more to the point, a lot of international students have not turned up for their courses this year because they either can't get in or they don't have the money to get in.

A lot of temporary workers have had to go home because they can't get work and a lot of tourists simply aren't coming here either because if you do come to Australia you have to undergo a 14-day quarantine. As a result, it is possible that our population growth might stagnate and even go backwards over the next 12 months.

Our next guest is the Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure, Alan Tudge, good afternoon.

ALAN TUDGE:

G'day, Tom.

TOM ELLIOTT:

Would it be a disaster if our population did stagnate or even go backwards for a while?

ALAN TUDGE:

Two things. One, it's highly unlikely we'll go backwards because our population growth is driven by two things, one being migration and the other being natural increase. Migration accounts for about two thirds, natural increase a third. So we'll still continue to -

TOM ELLIOTT:

But I gather people aren't having as many children in these uncertain times either?

ALAN TUDGE:

That typically happens as well. Certainly in previous recessions around the world people tend to have fewer children because of economic uncertainty. But we just obviously don't know that. We won't know that for some time.

But getting back to the economic question, is it a problem if the population stagnates? Well, population is one of our big economic drivers, as you'd know, and it's a driver overall in terms of increasing the GDP but it has had an impact also in terms of increasing the GDP per capita, i.e. it's made each of us individually wealthier.

So it's been good for Australia but obviously because we're not - because the borders are closed we haven't got new people coming into the country at the moment and meanwhile we still have people exiting the country and so consequently the net migration rate is in the negative at the moment.

TOM ELLIOTT:

So let's go through the categories. I mean there's a lot of international students who physically weren't able to get here before the borders closed so they haven't taken up their places at universities. Our universities are crying poor as a result. There's tourists, obviously, which, you know, why would you come here if you're going to have to undergo a 14-day quarantine and then you've got temporary workers, they'd struggle to find a job, wouldn't they?

ALAN TUDGE:

Well, many of them - there's about 137,000 temporary workers at the moment on, you know, two or four-year skilled visas. Now, some of those will be laid off and some of them might be stood down. If you're laid off they will have to leave the country and meanwhile, right at the moment, new people aren't coming in. So we will see a decline there.

With international students, there's just under 600,000 international students in the country at the moment. You're right, there's still some which were stranded offshore and couldn't get into the country. By and large, those numbers are still pretty stable and we hope that that will remain that way because they have been a great source of revenue for Australia, and indeed, some of them do stay on and become Australian citizens.

TOM ELLIOTT:

Isn't the problem there that a lot of them depend on getting part-time jobs and usually that's in hospitality or in shops or even driving cabs or whatever and they just can't get those jobs right now?

ALAN TUDGE:

Yeah, that is an issue. Now, if you're an international student you're eligible to work 20 hours per week maximum and often that's - often the students do utilise those hours and some of them obviously haven't got those hours at the moment.

We've actually said to them utilise your savings, call on your family support, we'll give you access to any superannuation that you might have accumulated while you've been here and in addition the universities now are putting in place hardship provisions. So they've already announced $110 million into some hardship provisions to assist those international students.

TOM ELLIOTT:

Okay, but big picture, I mean obviously not having students coming in and not having - not having students coming in, not having temporary workers coming in, not having tourists coming in, it's all bad for the economy and I'm just adding to the list of things right now that are bad for the economy.

I know the Prime Minister spoke today about our next step will be to plan for our way out of this but I mean how long are we talking about? Because I don't know, you sort of live in this Canberra bubble where everybody has a job and everybody gets paid and the money just comes out of the grateful taxpayers' pockets, but the reality is our economy is really hurting right now, like whether it's lack of immigrants or lack of tourists, anywhere you point. I mean, when are we going to start changing things?

ALAN TUDGE:

Well, the Prime Minister just announced today that we may see some changes within four weeks. Now, there's three preconditions to that happening. Firstly, we need to have a much more broad scale testing regime which we're working on presently.

Second, we need to have a tracing regime so that if a virus does spring up somewhere it can be traced and the people that that person's been connected to can be identified and that's where our tracing app is leading towards.

And, thirdly, we need to have a mechanism for rapid response. So if there is a breakout in a particular geographical area, we could almost lock down that particular geographical area so it doesn't spread.

Now, assuming those three preconditions are met and we're hopeful they can be in the next few weeks, then we're in the position to start looking at relaxing some of the restrictions.

In the meantime, though, as well, Tom, the State premiers, and obviously including Premier Andrews here in Victoria, are going to reconsider some of the restrictions which they've put in place above and beyond the national restrictions and Victoria's actually been one of the most restrictive places in Australia and so they've said that they would consider some of those things even before that time.

TOM ELLIOTT:

Okay, but, again, I mean, in the National Cabinet, I'm not sure if you're part of that or not, but I mean, you know, you are going to have, like, as it is, the unemployment rate is probably 10% right now and would be 15% except that the people who get the JobKeeper allowance don't officially count as unemployed, even though they're not really doing any work. I mean, is there a sense of urgency here?

Because it's fine to say we've got to squash the disease and flatten the curve and all that sort of thing but as I see it from the ground, you've just got - I'm seeing businesses left, right and centre shutting their doors and most of them will not reopen and all the people they employ will not be able to get jobs. I'm beginning to wonder whether the cost of that is possibly worse than the disease itself?

ALAN TUDGE:

Yeah, Tom, we're certainly very conscious of this and there is a sense of urgency. I mean there's been a sense of urgency right from the get-go.

Now, I think Australians and Victorians can be assured that we've done almost better than any other country in the world at suppressing the virus and minimising the number of deaths and when you look across to places like New York or you look at places like Italy or Spain, they are not places where you want to be and we are nowhere near that. So I think we can have a level of comfort that we're in this position and everybody's contributed to that.

Now, there is that very rapid thinking in relation to the road out, if you like, and the Prime Minister's just signalled today what those three preconditions are and that can start potentially in four weeks' time.

I think, however, though, and in four weeks' time we can start looking at what measures we can take to unwind it and get the economy as much as possible back to normal. I think, though, Tom, in terms of some of those things like the social distancing, you know, having to stay 1.5 metres apart, I mean that's likely to be with us really until we get a vaccine. So that could be some time even beyond that four-week mark.

So, we're on the pathway, we're now thinking about the road out but we've also just got to be realistic and set realistic expectations here as well.

TOM ELLIOTT:

Appreciate your time. Alan Tudge there, Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure.