Transcript | ABC Radio Melbourne Mornings | 17 May 2024

May 17, 2024

Friday 17 May 2024
Interview on ABC Melbourne Mornings
Subjects: Coalition’s migration policy, zero-emissions nuclear energy
Note: this pre-recorded interview was edited by the ABC to remove a factual error by the presenter.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: James Paterson is the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs and one of the Liberal Senators for Victoria.

JAMES PATERSON: Good morning.

EPSTEIN: Peter Dutton wants to cut the number of people who are allowed to stay here permanently. Which jobs are you happy to have empty if you cut that skilled migration program?

PATERSON: Well Raf, I think most Australians understand that what's been happening over the last few years on migration has just got out of control. Labor plans to bring in in their first five years, 1.67 million people. That's a city the size of Adelaide. And whilst we’re a very generous and welcoming country and we do have jobs that need to be filled, we also need to be able to house those people and provide services for them, and we're bringing them in at a rate where we simply can't do that. And we're all seeing the impact of that on the rental market and the housing market. So we will still prioritise skilled migration, in particular, we will prioritise construction workers who can come and help us build the homes we need as a country. But the rate that it has been growing at has just been too fast.

EPSTEIN: So are we going to have fewer doctors, fewer cybersecurity people? The way you're going to cut the skilled migration program, you're going to cut the skilled visa program. Which jobs are going to be empty?

PATERSON: Well, we're going to bring it back to the historical levels Raf, or just below the historical levels, the kind of normal levels that we had pre-pandemic. No one seriously argues that we need to bring in almost a million people over two years, which is what Labor has done in their first two years of office in order to fill skilled places.

EPSTEIN: You are conflating two things there. There's the post pandemic surge, and there's a temporary program and a permanent program. But if I can just focus on visas people are given to stay here permanently. Mechanical engineers, petroleum engineers, cyber security staff. Which job categories are going to get cut.

PATERSON: Well we'll prioritise according to the needs of the Australian economy at the time. That's how the skilled migration program works. But it's appropriate to set a cap on it and make sure that it's not going too fast, because we literally cannot house these people. Labor has built 265,000 houses, while they plan to bring in 1.67 million people. That doesn't add up. I mean, we have a bizarre situation in Australia where house prices are rising while interest rates are going up.

EPSTEIN: Do you think we've got a job shortage? Do we have a shortage of people to do jobs or not?

PATERSON: In some sectors we do. And that's why we'll have some other measures that will help increase the supply of labour. So for example we're going to increase the pensioner work bonus. This is a scheme that allows pensioners to earn more money while still retaining their pension by entering into the labour force.

EPSTEIN: It's not seriously going to help with cyber security staff and petroleum engineers. There's not a ton of them sitting around thinking, I'll do a few extra hours a week. Like that's not a serious answer to that job shortage, is it?

PATERSON: And not every pensioner will want to do that. But some will and some choose to, and some do have relevant skills in those industries and have value to add. We'll also be modestly increasing the number of hours that international students can work while they're here, by 12 hours a week, so they can help take some of the pressure off. But Raf, I don't think an answer to Australia's housing crisis is just to import unlimited amount of people at a rate which is not sustainable.

EPSTEIN: It's not unlimited.

PATERSON: Well it virtually is. I mean, do you seriously think we've built a city the size of Adelaide in these five years? Of course not.

EPSTEIN: But you're not proposing to wind back the unlimited visa category? The unskilled visa category? You're not going to cap that are you? All the people who come in, you know, working on a poultry farm or work in a restaurant, those numbers aren't capped. Peter Dutton didn't say last night he was going to cap those numbers.

PATERSON: But we are going to bring immigration down overall and we're going to do that with a number of leavers. The permanent migration intake, yes, but also student visas, which has been, as you said before, the major driver of the surge in the last couple of years, hundreds of thousands of students in in just two years, far more than we ever had before, at a rate which is putting enormous pressure, particularly on the rental market in cities.

EPSTEIN: All right. James Paterson is with us. He's the Shadow Home Affairs Minister. The whole visa system, the actual program that gets people here, that was broken by Peter Dutton. That was the verdict from the independent review. If he broke it, why should we trust him to run it?

PATERSON: That's a Labor Party talking point Raf.

EPSTEIN: No, that's a word from Martin Parkinson's review. He's the senior public servant who reviewed this system.

PATERSON: It is a Labor party talking point. You'll hear from the Minister for Home Affairs. But this is the Minister for Home Affairs who's presided over a massive surge of immigration on their watch. Labor is responsible for what happened on their watch. They made the decision to process visas at the rate they did.

EPSTEIN: If I can bring you back to the question, he was the Immigration Minister and then Home Affairs minister for seven years. An independent reviewer found the system was, and still is to some extent broken. If he didn't do anything proper on that for seven years. Why should we trust him to run it now?

PATERSON: Because Raf, under Peter Dutton, we never had migration out of control like we have had on the Labor under the last two years. And to the point I was going to make before, the Minister for Home Affairs used to boast about the number of extra public servants she put on in her department to process visas more quickly. In fact, she boasted that she was getting rid of the visa backlog. And what happened? Record migration.

EPSTEIN: I'm happy to have you as an opposition critique the government. But you have to admit, there was industrial scale visa rorting that included sex trafficking. That happened after Peter Dutton created Home Affairs and created Border Force. He did not crack down on people being trafficked for sex work.

PATERSON: That is an outrageous accusation, a very serious and baseless accusation.

EPSTEIN: Well it got worse, didn't it?

PATERSON: No, no, that is outrageous. Peter Dutton cancelled more visas of criminals in our country than any Immigration Minister ever has.

EPSTEIN: Let's focus on the substance of my question, which is if those things happened and the reviewer said there were serious problems that got worse when the new system was created, what do you say happened?

PATERSON: I'm very happy to compare Peter Dutton's record as Immigration and Home Affairs Minister with any Labor Immigration or Home Affairs Minister. Let's remember, he is one of the Ministers in our former government that bought the people smuggling trade under control again. That stopped the boats. That protected our borders. Under Peter Dutton's watch, we never released 153 violent criminals to again offend against Australians. Under Peter Dutton's watch a record number of visas of criminals, of domestic violence abusers and others were cancelled, of people of poor character, and they were deported from our country. He has a very strong record.

EPSTEIN: That is not an answer to my question.

PATERSON: It is an answer to your question Raf. We have a very strong record of protecting Australians. Our visa system is not perfect. It's not perfect under this government wasn't perfect under the previous government. But the main problem we have right now is far too many people coming into our country far too quickly. It is not sustainable. Talk to any Australian and they will tell you that the impact on the housing market, the rental market, on services, on congestion is clear for everyone to see. That's happened on this government's watch and we will fix it.

EPSTEIN: Just briefly, because I want to get on to one other topic. I know and I can see people, will text your dog whistling, that there's something about your conversation about the immigration program that has dark undertones. What do you say?

PATERSON: I completely reject that. We are a country built on migration. The Liberal Party is incredibly supportive of migration. We are still planning to bring in, in our first year in office, 140,000 permanent migrants. There'll be a lot of your listeners will say, we're not bringing it down enough, that that is still too high. But we think migration is positive. We think it contributes to our country, but we just think it has to be done in a sustainable way and at a sustainable rate. And that's not what's been happening over the last two years.

EPSTEIN: Something else that Peter Dutton mentioned last night. James Paterson was your commitment to nuclear power. A few months ago, Peter Dutton said he'd give us the details shortly. Why have you still not said whether or not there's going to be a nuclear power plant in the Latrobe Valley?

PATERSON: We'll we are going to announce the specific sites well before the election so that people can understand what we're committing to and make a decision accordingly. And we're also going to be announcing the policy about how communities will be consulted and will have a say and will have control over what happens in their communities. I think people will be really reassured by that when it's ready. We're in Opposition. We're working diligently and methodically on our policies as soon as they are ready to release, as soon as we have the opportunity and the clear air to do it, we'll do it.

EPSTEIN: I'm going to interrupt James Paterson, you did flagged that these details would be out before the budget. Now you're saying the details are going to be out before the election? Why weren't the details out before the budget?

PATERSON: I’ve got to be candid, the reason is that we were busy with a lot of other things, including released detainees committing serious offences in the community, including the people smuggling trade and the boats starting again. We're looking for an opportunity for clear air.

EPSTEIN: You are a highly competent Shadow Minister James Paterson, you could do both. I'm sure you could handle nuclear policy and immigration detention at once.

PATERSON: And we will do both. And people will have plenty of opportunity to decide well before the election whether they like our approach for zero emissions, reliable baseload nuclear power as every G20 country in the world except Australia does.

EPSTEIN: Is the reason we don't have the detail because you're fighting about it amongst yourselves?

PATERSON: No, it's because we're taking the time to get it right, and we'll announce it at a time when the public can hear what we have to say. It's a major, ambitious policy from Opposition. We are proposing a revolutionary change to our electricity network, because we don't believe that you can deliver net zero responsibly without going to nuclear power. We don't believe Labor's rush to 82% renewables by 2030 can be delivered. Labor themselves are starting to wake up and realise that, with their announcement about gas. We're doing this methodically as we should because it's a major announcement.

EPSTEIN: You're going to have to win a lot of seats. And you're right, the election could be really soon, maybe the end of the year. Do you genuinely believe you can win that many seats back and win government?

PATERSON: If you told me two years ago that we would be this competitive this quickly, I wouldn't have believed you. I would have thought it would have taken far longer to get to where we are. But the truth is, a lot of Australians feel our country is off track and they want to get us back on track. And the cost of living crisis that they are facing, and the government's inability to deal with that, in fact, it is now very clearly home-grown, as the Reserve Bank governor says. And they're making it worse, not better, is one of those reasons. But another reason is that a lot of Australians are not feeling safe. They're not feeling secure. They don't feel that this government is on top of the national security and community safety challenges that we face as a country. So I think we are competitive. That's what the polling evidence shows, and I think the next election will be close.

EPSTEIN: James Paterson is the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs, part of Peter Dutton's team. James Paterson, thank you.


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