Doorstop Interview - Suva, Fiji

15 Jul 2022
Prime Minister
Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme; COVID payments; relationship with Pacific Island neighbours; relationship with China; aged care workforce; visas; National Cabinet; COVID

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Well, every day in the job that I hold is a good one. But today is a great day. And this morning brought me a great deal of satisfaction to know that our relationship with Fiji and with our Pacific neighbours is giving benefits in such a practical way for our friends here in Fiji, but also, of course them providing a benefit in Australia. The Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme currently helps around 2,600 Fijians who are in Australia, and more than 25,000 Pacific workers are currently working in Australia. Traditionally, it has been in areas such as agriculture, and in meatworks, and other blue-collar industries that have tended to mean that men from the Pacific have participated in the scheme. What we're doing here is expanding the scheme very much towards the services sector. This is good for our Pacific Island neighbours, because what it enables is more women to participate in the scheme. But it's also good for Australia, because these are areas in which there are massive skill shortages. Now, my Government has committed to 215 minutes of care in accordance with the Aged Care Royal Commission. We know that we will need more workers in order to satisfy the demand which is there. And this morning, we've seeing 40 enthusiastic participants in the scheme, learning skills, so they get up to a certificate three in aged care, many of them with a skill base to begin with. There were nurses that we met today doing the scheme, who are very keen on going, in this case, all 40 of these women will be traveling to Australia to complete their practical work, and then to be eligible for staying for up to four years to contribute to assisting people to aged care residents, getting a great deal of satisfaction from that work. These 40 workers who we saw today will all be going to regional Queensland, from Mackay in North Queensland, right through to Toowoomba in the south. And they will be, of course, providing benefits. We know that the average participant in those schemes remits around $6,000 a year back to their country of origin, as well. So, it's a way of boosting the economy here, whilst making a real difference back in Australia. I think this is an example of whereby our practical partnership is producing such an enormous benefit. And we can see today, the pride that these women were having in learning the skills that they are learning and being able to contribute to that. The other thing is, particularly, I think, appropriate in terms of aged care, one of the things about the Pacific that I know from my practical experience in both visiting here, but also with the diaspora in Australia, is that part of the culture here is respect for elders. And that is something that is really important when it comes to people working in aged care, getting satisfaction about assisting people who need that assistance in their later years. We'll also be expanding this. There'll be trials also underway in WA and the Northern Territory. And we want to look at tourism, hospitality, but also disability care as well. We see this as a really practical program, and a part of, as well, building those people-to-people relations that are so important for Australia to develop with our Pacific family. It's a very positive scheme. And I think it was a great morning. And I thank very much our hosts here for the hospitality that they've shown us this morning.

JOURNALIST: The workers here will fill critical workforce shortages in aged care. But there's more people off work due to COVID. And if they're casuals they're not getting a single dollar when they're off sick. It might not have been your decision to end pandemic leave payments, but you could decide to reinstate them now. Why wouldn't you?

PRIME MINISTER: I've commented on this before. We'll give consideration to all of these issues. But we inherited these decisions, but we also inherited a trillion dollars of debt. And that's something that was not our responsibility. There was enormous waste there in the budget had, for example, the Government not given literally tens of billions of dollars to companies that were increasing their profits, there would have been more space in the Budget to make the decisions that we would want to make.

JOURNALIST: You've said previously, health outcomes equal economic outcomes. Surely, the thing to do here is to provide the leave payments so people need to stay at home, to stop the spread of COVID, to stop the illness and death?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what is happening, to be very clear, there are a range of companies who are good employers who are providing those systems. The idea that no one is getting any sick leave at the moment, it's just not the case. Good employers are recognising that people are continuing to work from home whilst they have COVID and are receiving, therefore, payments through that. What's happening over a period of time, is that the economy and the way that we work is adjusting to the circumstances which are there. These payments were put in place by the former Government with an end date. That was a decision that they made at that time.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible).

PRIME MINISTER: What we do is that we share it around.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just on the Pacific Islands Forum. Are you able to say what discussion was had between leaders on the subject of China's push for a regional agreement with 10 Pacific Island states? Was there any sort of agreement that the Pacific Islands Forum should take carriage of that proposal in any way? And can you also say if there was any discussion on the Solomon Islands security pact with China? And were there any other Pacific leaders expressing any concern on that?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I won't comment on the internal deliberations that took place in the room because they're confidential. And I'm not someone who will be leaking text messages from other leaders, nor leaking confidential discussions. What is reflected though, in the communique, makes it very clear that the communique makes it clear that we responsible, as the Pacific family, for security issues. And it makes it clear that we respect sovereign nations' rights to make decisions. But clearly, in the discussions that have taken place, and if you look at comments made by Prime Minister Sogavare, he made it very clear his view that there would not be a base in the Solomons. He can't have been more clear about that. His public comment today. And his private comments certainly reflected that. I. of course, put Australia's position as you would expect me to do. But the facts speak for themselves. There was an attempt to publicly, when the Chinese Foreign Minister visited the region, to get a sign-up to various elements, and it didn't happen. The facts are there. And therefore, you'd be aware of what the Pacific Island states thought about that. Our Pacific Island friends, I think, are the Pacific family. And our partnerships have been strengthened by this meeting. It was really constructive, the way that we deal with each other. Building up a relationship of trust isn't something that happens at a meeting. This has happened over decades. Australia has been the security partner of choice since the Second World War. We remain so. We remain so in terms of our relationships with the Pacific, including programs like this are how you build those relationships and strengthen them. And I'm very positive about going forward.

JOURNALIST: Will there be visa pre-arrangements between Fiji and Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what we have is we'll have an increase in the way that the Pacific Australian Labour Mobility scheme operates. And we have said that we'll have more flexibility. So, for example, previously it was excluded for families to join. Now, if you're participating in a scheme, working in aged care for four years, a barrier to that, or certainly that might shorten your workforce participation in Australia is not seeing your kids for four years. A practical measure that we will have, and one that shows that we respect people from the Pacific and their contribution that they are making, is to allow families to be able to apply to join in Australia for that period of time. That to me seems to be a common sense move. It's something that we've put forward during the election campaign. It's something that we'll implement. The other thing that we will do is to have a specific visa for permanent migration to Australia. We committed to that during the election campaign. And we'll be rolling that out during the coming period as well.

JOURNALIST: When do you hope to roll these things out? And also during the election year also pledged to have 24-hour nurses in aged care homes. When do you hope to implement that policy? Will it be this year? And you expect foreign workers to fill these Australian jobs?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what we're doing is stepping up already. I spoke to the head of the centre here who's looking after this program. One of the reasons why this is happening right now is because of our commitment to 215 minutes of care for people in aged care. Now, that was in accordance with the Aged Care Royal Commission. So, what we're seeing is a response, if you like, from the market, as well as from non-government organisations to the commitments that we've made in anticipation of that. They know that there will be more work that's required. So, we're seeing this response. So, you're seeing it right now. Right now you are seeing a response of training. Right now we're looking at areas including migration, but also looking at training more nurses. We want this to happen as quickly as possible. And you're seeing here, at this facility, the real practical result of our commitments that we made. I remind you, less than seven weeks, seven weeks tomorrow since the election, seems a lot longer. But we are moving as a matter of urgency to implement all of our commitments.

JOURNALIST: People have been complaining about the length of the processing time. (Inaudible).

PRIME MINISTER: You are right. The time for getting replies and responses to visas is far too long. It's something that we have inherited from our former Government who left a massive backlog of visa applications. It's something that we have put people from other parts of the public service on to try and clear that backlog. We need to work on it. And I, through you, say to our friends in Fiji who have visa applications in, to give an apology because that shouldn't happen. But secondly, to say we're working on it and to encourage them to be patient. And we are working on shortening that time to as short as possible.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, as a result of this meeting, including your discussions with Mr Sogavare, do you believe that China will have less influence in this region?

PRIME MINISTER: It's up to others to comment about other countries' influence. What I would say about our influence is Australia's influence, which historically has been a very country of great significance to the region, has been enhanced by this meeting. And that is important. The relationships that we built at the meeting, I went along, I said I would listen. We did listen. I said I'd show respect. I did show respect. The fact that we had a meeting ended just after 3pm as opposed to argy-bargy about whether climate change was real or not until 10 o'clock at night, which is what occurred on the last occasion, was something that was reflected by all of our Pacific Island friends and leaders who were very positive about Australia's role at the meeting. They were positive and reflected, as well, in the communique. They welcomed Australia's new position on climate change. I've been invited to every one of our neighbours as well. And that, of course, will be filled by my Minister Conroy, who will be trying to visit each of the countries within the first 12 months of the formation of the new Government.

JOURNALIST: Chinese influence?

PRIME MINISTER: These things, as you know, I'd rather not comment on someone else's influence. But these things are all relative by definition. Australia's increasing our influence, then that has an impact. Thanks very much.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible).

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what we're doing here, as well, and I know that this is the Fijian Minister for Employment who has been with us here this morning. And one of the discussions that we had, as we walked around this morning, was the fact that the skills of the Fijian labour market are being lifted as well at the same time. This is a win-win. So, what you will have is people participating in the Australian labour market for up to four years, then returning, having increased skills, having access to the sort of different experience. We all benefit from having experience, just as I benefit, as an Australian Prime Minister, from participating in the Pacific Island Forum yesterday. I have skills that have been uplifted by listening and learning from the cultural differences of our Pacific Island leaders. The workers here will benefit as well, when they return to Australia, from enough lifting of their skills that they are getting training here. This is a great program that will continue to expand now into the services sector. And what we'll see as well, as a result of the expansion that we're very keen on to reflect the changing nature as well the needs of the Australian labour market, which is very much in the area of services, is seeing more women participating in the scheme. That means more people getting skills. It means remittances to Fiji from those who participate in the scheme. But it also will see people returning to Fiji and returning to their own countries in other parts of the Pacific with an uplift in their skills that will boost their economy in the long-term as well and also lead to a more fulfilling application because the satisfaction that we saw there this morning, just in training, was really uplifting for me. And I saw that it was very uplifting for the women involved.

JOURNALIST: National Cabinet on Monday, what do you want out of it?

PRIME MINISTER: Annastacia Palaszczuk texted me a few days ago. I've obviously been here. And she suggested we have a gathering. I've said to the premiers that will meet from time to time. And it's appropriate that we meet on Monday. We're not meeting today because I'm here.

JOURNALIST: Are you worried about the COVID situation?

PRIME MINISTER: Everyone has been worried about the pandemic over the last couple of years. We'll deal with these issues. We'll deal with them in a practical way. And that is what Australians are doing. Australians have been magnificent. They're resilient. We're having a discussion on Monday. As I said, Annastacia Palaszczuk was the person who requested the meeting. We were going to announce it this afternoon after I returned so that I would announce it back on Australian soil, consistent with my policy of dealing with domestic issues when I'm in Australia. The decision that was made, we were ringing around trying to get time. Of course, it's six premiers and two chief ministers as well as myself. So, we are having a discussion on Monday at 9am. Thanks very much.