Transcript by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Weekend Breakfast, ABC News 24 – Homelessness, asylum seekers; Afghanistan; school funding

NICK DOLE: Minister, good morning and thanks for joining ABC News 24.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Happy to be here, thank you.

NICK DOLE: This $1.1 billion agreement (National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness) expires next year, you met your state counterparts yesterday, why couldn’t you make a deal?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well the meeting yesterday of state and territory ministers was not to resolve the new agreement from 1 July next year, but it was to talk about where we go next with housing affordability and homelessness. The Federal Government has invested more in homelessness I think than any previous Federal Government, because we believe it is unacceptable that so many Australians are without a home.

But we need to make sure not only we dedicate sufficient resources, but we do it in a way that breaks the cycle of homelessness and also prevents people from being either homeless or at the risk of being homeless.

Now we’ve, I think, seen some very good progress in recent years as a result of our efforts, and as a result of the partnerships with state and territory governments.

Yesterday I had a very extensive engagement with the other eight governments about what we must do to continue to cut the rate of homelessness in this country, and of course we need to determine what we do from 1 July next year; but there still needs to be further discussions around how we go about that – and of course the quantum of the investment will matter – these are things that must be determined some time through this year.

NICK DOLE: Your budget’s under strain and so are the states’ and territories’, do you think that funding in this sector – or do you think the sector’s going to have to prepare for cuts to funding in real terms?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well I think you’re right in indicating that it is a very fiscally challenging time. I mean, as we know, we’ve been finding savings and we are committed to returning the budget to surplus – that’s a very important thing to do in the current circumstances. And of course we as a government have invested more money in housing – whether it be in relation to affordability or homelessness – than any other previous Federal Government, $20 billion over the last four or five years.

And I think we’ve seen the benefits of that: nearly 20,000 social housing constructions. We’re building 50,000 low-cost rental houses for people that are struggling with rental costs. We’re doing all of those things because we want to ensure that we reduce the likelihood of people being at risk of being homeless. But as the governments consider what they are having to invest from 1 July, of course we have to look at how we find savings to do that.

But I want to make it very clear to you that the Federal Government believes that cutting the rate of homelessness is absolutely vital and it is a priority of this government. And we want to ensure that the other governments agree with us on this very important, ambitious but realisable goal of cutting the rate of homelessness by half by 2020.

NICK DOLE: So you think we’re on track to reach that goal?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: I think that it is a very challenging goal, but we must set ourselves high goals and seek to achieve them. That is what good governments do, and I think most people would believe it is unacceptable, as I said earlier, that so many Australians are without a home. It is certainly unacceptable to see women and children sleeping in cars, to see that nearly one in five people accessing homeless services in this country are under the age of 10.

These are very damning statistics and we need to address that, and that’s why when we were elected in 2007 we made this a national priority. I don’t believe it’s just the obligation of the Federal Government or indeed governments.

This needs to be a partnership with governments, the not-for-profit sector and indeed the corporate sector. And there’s been some very fine efforts recently by the corporate sector; and I think we need to see more of that because as a nation – as a wealthy nation – we cannot continue to see so many Australians without a home.

NICK DOLE: Okay, let’s move on. A group of asylum seekers has arrived back in Indonesia after being rescued off the coast of Java. They’ve clearly been through an enormous ordeal. They thought the Navy was taking them to Australia. Given that Indonesia isn’t a signatory to the convention, why weren’t they taken to Australia?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well this was a search and rescue mission. Of course the conventions of sea are that you take those that are rescued to the nearest port. As I understand it, as I’m advised – I mean these matters are determined by masters of vessels and by the agencies involved, the Indonesian agencies that were leading this rescue. And of course it was in the search and rescue zone of Indonesia, 42 nautical kilometres west of Java.

And so it’s entirely appropriate and consistent with the protocols of search and rescue that they would be brought to the nearest port that had the facilities to take care of those that are injured. And as I understand it by far the closest port in the context of this area where they were rescued was Merak and that’s where people have gone.

NICK DOLE: Doesn’t this show though, that the new legislation isn’t working? I mean, we’ve seen at least five boats in the last week alone.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: What it does show is as we indicated at the time of the announcement of the embracing of the Houston recommendations is that the people smugglers would continue to lie to those people that – so that they would lure asylum seekers onto unseaworthy vessels. I mean, one of the reasons we need to put this in place to deter people taking these dangerous journeys is exactly what we’re seeing here unfold in this terrible tragedy, insofar as this vessel and indeed those that have perished.

And I, as the former Minister for Home Affairs, I can assure you, have seen just too many tragedies. I happened to be on 15 December 2010 on the – on Christmas Island only 12 hours after those – after that vessel foundered on the rocks where more than 50 people perished. Now, I don’t want to see that happen anymore, and we really need to break this model, break this capacity for people smugglers to lure people on unseaworthy vessels on perilous journeys.

And we need to do that by putting in a deterrent, and we have. But in the meantime you will see – as I say – people continually lured onto these vessels, and with such awful consequences.

NICK DOLE: Well it’s been a horrible week for Australia in Afghanistan, with the loss of five soldiers in 24 hours. When you speak to constituents what message are you getting about the war and what sort of an effect does a tragedy like this have on Australians’ resolve?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well it’s just a very, very sad day. I mean, there’s – everyone is left with a heavy heart over the – I can’t even imagine how the families of the five soldiers that have died would be feeling. And our thoughts would be with them now and of course including the comrades, the soldiers that were friends with those that have died. It’s just a tragic circumstance; it’s a tragedy of war, but this war is a war with a purpose and with an end.

We need to make sure that we do not allow Afghanistan to again be a safe haven for terrorists and terrorist training, so they can kill Australians in the future. That was the reason we went there. And indeed we were looking to make sure we not only rid this country of terrorism, but we build up the capability locally, so that we can transition out.

And as the Prime Minister’s made clear, we are looking to transition out, and that is the bulk of the ADF would be coming home after 12 to 18 months time, after we have sufficiently built the capability in the Uruzgan province of the Australian – of the Afghan Army and also the Afghan national police.

NICK DOLE: Okay, well Minister, we’re nearly out of time but just finally, after a long wait the government does look set to announce its response to the Gonski report into education funding. The report of course found there was serious disadvantage in some public schools and of course there are some private schools that have tremendous advantage. Given that, does it really make sense to say that not a single school will lose funding given your budgetary constraints?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well I think we need to have an education system that is needs based, but we’re not about taking resources from other students. Look, in my own electorate in north-west Melbourne I have many government and non-government schools that have needs.

Now as a government we’ve invested more in education than certainly the previous Howard government, and we need to do that. If you look at our standing in the OECD, we’ve started to fall down the ladder through the Howard years. We’ve now – we’ve been restoring that, but I think we need to do more here; and our focus is in making sure that every school’s needs are attended to. But it’s not about taking from others, it’s about investing more in education and providing opportunities for all students in this country, so that they can have – they can choose, if you like – their careers.

They can choose to have an opportunity in life that may not be afforded to them if they’re not provided sufficient resources, and that’s not just the students. That’s the teachers, those people who of course are so important in the lives of our children at school; so I think this – the recommendations of Gonski are very important.

Of course the Prime Minister has an intimate understanding and passion for education, and I think you’ll see our response to Gonski consistent with the values of the Prime Minister and the values of this government.

NICK DOLE: Okay Minister, we’ll have to leave it there. Thanks very much for your time this morning.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Thank you very much.