Transcript - ABC Radio interview with Ali Moore

ALI MOORE:

Well, you probably saw the Prime Minister at his media conference yesterday, or you might have seen reports on it, be you might have seen him on '7:30' last night with Leigh sales, but as we start to see an outline of the path out of the current lockdowns, just how to get the economy back on track becomes an increasingly urgent question, and one of the key growth drivers of the economy is population.

And coronavirus is set to be driving the biggest population decline in Australian history. We've been joined by Alan Tudge, the Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure and he's also the acting Immigration Minister. Alan Tudge, welcome.

ALAN TUDGE:

G'day, Ali.

ALI MOORE:

Can I just ask you, first of all, I know it's slightly off and not completely connected to your portfolios, but you are a member of the Federal Government, paid pandemic leave for workers in a health setting?

ALAN TUDGE:

Well, I mean that would be up to the individual organisation to make those decisions.

ALI MOORE:

Well there's an application before the Fair Work Commission to have it inserted in awards. Would you support it, though, on a principle?

ALAN TUDGE:

Listen, you've just caught me literally in this moment putting this to me. I haven't thought deeply about it and obviously this would be a decision which the Industrial Relations Minister would have to make and would take to the Cabinet, I think, before making such a call.

ALI MOORE:

In principle?

ALAN TUDGE:

Again, I'd just have to think through it. You've only just sort of pitched to me immediately.

ALI MOORE:

I've caught you on the hop.

ALAN TUDGE:

And I don't want to say something which then would be taken out of context and you're always saying that you want members of parliament, and particularly ministers, to think through the decisions. I don't want to make a decision on the hop.

ALI MOORE:

Okay, sorry, I didn't think it was that hard a question, actually. But, Alan Tudge, let's get to your portfolio. As I just said, one of the biggest - or the biggest population declines in Australian history. How many tourists and temporary workers and students have left the country?

ALAN TUDGE:

So we've seen a decline from about 2.4 million people who were here at Christmas to about 2.1 million people today. Now, typically we have a decline between Christmas and now in any case but not usually as steep.

The biggest components of that by far in a way is international tourists who, by and large, are taking the opportunity to jump on flights and exit the country to their home country, and I think that's a sensible thing.

It's something that we have suggested to those people, particularly if they haven't got family support because many people are concerned that there may not be flights in the future and so in which case it's best to take that opportunity now to leave the country.

ALI MOORE:

You said international tourists, what about international students?

ALAN TUDGE:

International student numbers are still hovering at about 560,000 people and they've declined slightly, some have left but not too many. I mean most people obviously come at the start of the year for the academic year, and we still have very significant numbers here who are studying, many of them are studying from a distance perspective, obviously, now, but are still learning and that's a good thing.

ALI MOORE:

There is obviously some of these gaps in the assistance packages that the Government's provided and temporary visa holders, many of them foreign students, are, you know, well and truly fall into those gaps and they are being told to go home if they can't support themselves here. They can't all go home, as we know, and if I can just put one group, which I know you're very well aware of, Indian students, they have no opportunity to go home because their country is very much locked and bolted even to their own citizens.

ALAN TUDGE:

Yeah, India's an unusual case. In most instances, there still are flights to other countries, into Europe, into many Asian countries and to the United States, etcetera. India is unusual in terms of it has closed down its international airports, as you say, so even Indian citizens cannot get into the country. And that's different, you know, even to Australia. Obviously Australia, we have our borders closed but if you're an Australian citizen or a permanent resident you can come in after you've done your two weeks quarantine.

We're cognisant of this. The Indian Government had said that they were going to lift the restrictions on their international airports at the beginning of this week. They've actually extended it for a couple more weeks and so it's a watching brief on that.

More generally, though, for those students, we've said, particularly for the first year students of which the significant number are, our expectation is that you can look after yourself because that's what you declared in your visa application.

ALI MOORE:

But what about the other - the second and third year?

ALAN TUDGE:

The subsequent year students, the second, third and fourth year students, we've said that please utilise the savings which you may have available, please go to your families and get their support. We will give you access to your own superannuation which you may have acquired while being here for the last couple of years and you may have a few thousand dollars there. Go to your universities and they are offering hardship payments and they've already announced $110 million of hardship payments.

ALI MOORE:

But nothing else from the Government?

ALAN TUDGE:

Not at this stage and we've said publicly as well that we will continue to engage with the international education sector.

ALI MOORE:

But time is of the essence, obviously.

ALAN TUDGE:

Well, it is, but universities themselves are stepping up as well and that's a good thing. As I said, they've already announced $110 million of hardship payments so that's a good thing for them to be able to do.

ALI MOORE:

So you've said that of the people who are leaving a lot of international tourists have left, you've made the point, not so many students have left.

ALAN TUDGE:

No.

ALI MOORE:

So when you see modelling such as that of Victoria University's Mitchell Institute, which we're going to look at much more closely a little later in the program, but they're saying that the university sector is likely to be hit to the tune of around $19 billion by this, and a lot of that is loss of international students. Do you not see it as being such a significant impact?

ALAN TUDGE:

Well, their modelling assumes that next year there will not be a single new international student come into the country. So that's a very conservative estimate. We don't know at this stage what next year is going to look like but we've always talked about a six-month timeframe here in terms of trying to get through this pandemic.

Just yesterday the Prime Minister said that within four weeks if our preconditions are met, we may be able to start to relax some of the restrictions. So we've got to take that modelling with a grain of salt, we just simply don't know.

At the same time we have said to the universities and we've announced a package for them already which does guarantee their domestic fee income for at least the rest of this year and that's about $18 billion in total. So, I see that modelling done, let's just look at it very carefully and cautiously, though.

ALI MOORE:

Regardless of what that modelling says, we know that information international students, international travellers are incredibly important -

ALAN TUDGE:

Absolutely.

ALI MOORE:

- to helping to grow our economy which is incredibly important to coming out the other side of this. Do you worry we won't see the numbers of new international students? Not to say there won't be any, but we won't see the sorts of numbers we've seen in the past, and in part, because we have not been generous, we have basically said to them look, great, you've been fuelling our economy, we love that but now you're in trouble go home?

ALAN TUDGE:

I am concerned more generally that two important export markets, being international students and international visitors, are obviously being hit at the moment and significantly, and we'd like that to rebound in the future, of course we would. In terms of your latter question, will it be related to the comments that we've made; I don't believe so. Because the normal expectation for all people who come here on short-term visas is that they are able to look after themselves.

ALI MOORE:

In the first year only, though. That's always been -

ALAN TUDGE:

No, no, it's always been the case across the board for all short-term visa holders. Whether you're an international tourist or a backpacker or someone on a skilled visa or if you're an international tourist, the expectation is that you will always be able to look after yourselves.

We give those people work rights, often they will get Medicare or they will be required to have private health insurance, but they're asked to look after themselves and we're maintaining that expectation at the moment because we're prioritising, obviously, both the jobs and the welfare dollars to Australians and permanent residents.

The international students are a special case, in part because they're so valuable to Australians. And that's why we've said quite clearly for the second, third and fourth years, use those other resources, we'll give you access to your super, go to your universities who are already setting up hardship payments and the Government will continue to engage with the international education sector because it is such an important sector, Ali, so we're keeping a watching eye on this and very close eye on it.

ALI MOORE:

Alan Tudge, thank you very much for talking to us. No doubt we'll talk to you again as we follow the path out of all of this.

ALAN TUDGE:

Yes, thanks very much, Ali.