Interview with Darren James, 3AW

17 January 2021

DARREN JAMES: Now, tennis players are allowed here, but what about workers for farmers? A lot of them are struggling produce picked. On the line now is the Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management, David Littleproud. David, good morning to you. It’s a bit of a worry, isn’t it?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: It is, mate, but it’s nothing new. I mean, we’ve been worried about this since March last year, and in fact the Federal Government worked with the states to get an ag workers code, and unfortunately not all of the states would sign up. And that’s just around letting workers move from one state to the other. And then we reopened the Pacific and Seasonal Worker programs, and we found 25,000 workers in 10 pacific nations ready to come, and obviously these jobs are market tested first with Australians. But they haven’t taken them up, and they can now be brought in, but the states who during this pandemic own the health protocols, and they own public health, and that’s under their sovereign right, and we respect that. We are now waiting on them to approve these workers to come in. In fact, Aspen Medical, one of the most pre-eminent health organisations in the world, put a plan to Daniel Andrews in October last year to bring in workers, and that was either creating a tent city out in Mildura or in fact doing it on farm, which they’re doing in Queensland, and we are still waiting on a decision from the Victorian Government, but we are now at a juncture where the crops need to be picked. They need to get from the paddock to your plate, and farmers don’t have the luxury to sit down and wait. So we’re just saying to the Andrews Government, you’ve made a priority for the tennis players; it’d be good after six months you could probably have a little think about our agricultural workers.

DARREN JAMES: So, Minister, have other states signed on and allowed Pacific workers in?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yes, they have. So the first jurisdiction was the Northern Territory, and they used Howard Springs. In Queensland, my home state, they're allowing them to work on farm and quarantine on farm. We actually even gone to the extent of getting Greg Hunt, the Federal Health Minister, to give the Victorian Health Minister a clear indication that there's no impediment from the Federal Government. There is nothing that would stop you from doing this for us, stamping these visas. We are ready to go. And sadly, we’ve still got the Victorian Government saying, well, the Federal Government’s holding out. I mean, we're not. We're ready to go. We are just waiting on them to simply sign off. If there is things, I haven't heard from the Victorian Government. In fact, I offered to have an urgent meeting with the Victorian Health Minister to sort this out. He assured me he'd reach out to my office. We haven't heard anything. We haven’t heard boo. And we just simply cannot get them to make a decision, but they’re prepared…
DARREN JAMES: Why do you think that is. Why do you think they're doing that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think they're frightened, you know, from bitter experience in Victoria, obviously. Daniel Andrews can't afford another outbreak. And he's frightened that if we brought in a large number of workers, that that could expose Victoria to that. That's why Aspen Medical, who is used, by the WHO and a number of sovereign nations around the world, has put together a strategy and a programme in which you would isolate them and work them away from the general public. And it's just it's just using common sense, but it's using proper protocols, health protocols. And that's why we as the Federal Government said we've got no problems. We'll stamp these people's visa. Ready to go. Other states have done it, but Victoria, after six months, still won't make a decision.

HEIDI MURPHY: I heard an ad on this very radio station this morning about the big harvest programme that the Victorian Government is running, a platform to try to find tens of thousands of workers needed for it. Is it- is part of the Victorian Government's reluctance to embrace this international worker scheme that they want to provide jobs for locals?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we're doing that. So every job that one of these foreign workers takes must be market tested. So Australians get first crack at them. But even before this pandemic, Australians weren’t taking these jobs. We've moved away from wanting to do these physical jobs. And that's an aspirational society, I suppose. When I grew up, my mum wouldn't let me stay at home during the school holidays, so I had to go out and pick rock melons and shift cotton. But these days they work in cafes or McDonald's, and I get that. So- but we've got to face up to the realities. Australians don’t want this job, but farmers don't have the luxury to sit around and wait. When their crop is ripe, it needs to go from their paddock to your plate, and unfortunately, Australians aren't going to do it. We’ve incentivised it with a lot of money, as well - $6000 in travel reimbursements and getting accelerated pathway to Austudy and ABSTUDY for young people. But we're only having hundreds take that up, not thousands. So we've got to work in the practical reality of foreign workers is what’s needed. Every other state has ticked off a programme, but Victoria still can't, despite us saying to them, we are there, and we will not get in your road.

HEIDI MURPHY: Are you absolutely confident there is no virus in any of the Pacific island nations?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's why there's health protocols in bringing them in. So that's why we've used- and Aspen Medical has worked with industry to create a protocol whereby it would be a closed loop and they would be isolated away from the general community, but still be able to work. And then obviously they'd be tested. An [indistinct] the juncture at the end of that 14 days, they may be allowed outside that bubble. But that's effectively what Aspen Medical…

HEIDI MURPHY: But I don't want someone potentially sick picking the fruit that I end up buying at the supermarket.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think you'll find that most medical advice would say that it can't be transmitted across the food in which we're putting it, because the food that comes through is always cleaned, and there is health protocols in place in the processing of our agricultural products. So those protocols continue on, and so that's totally within the realms. And that's why in Queensland, they're allowing them to isolate on farm while they pick, and Aspen Medical themselves are the ones that are auditing that for the Queensland Government.

DARREN JAMES: And most of the Pacific nations and New Zealand are- I can't imagine they've got extensive testing in many of the Pacific islands, but at the moment, what testing they do have, have indicated they’re COVID-free haven't they?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: That is correct. But obviously, we want to make sure that the countries that we create a [indistinct] bubble with, we have total confidence in their testing, in their health systems, but also who's coming in the other side? So who are they allowing into their country? Because obviously if they've opened up and allowing people in from other nations into their nation, which is their sovereign right, we have to understand what that is and where they've come from. So creating bubbles with individual nations, particularly in the Pacific, is challenging. And that's why New Zealand we can get confidence in, because they have a more mature health system and system with respect to COVID, whereas some of the Pacific nations are still working towards that. But as we can get confidence – and obviously we would continue to explore that as options [indistinct]… countries. But this has been time-sensitive for some months now, and we still can't get Victoria, the only state, to move.

DARREN JAMES: And the other thing is in raw, hard terms, what happens if you can't get those workers in? You can't get local workers, you can't get overseas workers. What happens to the crops?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, farmers are making commercial decisions now. They’re actually ploughing in crops, or they're simply just allowing it to fall on the ground and rot. So that's the reality of what we’re looking at. And some of these farmers have come out of a drought, prolonged drought, and it’s their first crack at getting some income. So they're paying the price, but you'll pay the price as well at the checkout. And you'll see prices increase from somewhere between 15 and 25 per cent as a result of this when we've known this problem was coming, we've said to the states, and we've given them every assurance, in Greg Hunt, personal assurance to the Victorian Health Minister, there is no issue. We will stamp the visas of those men and women that you want to bring in.

DARREN JAMES: Alright. Thanks for joining us this morning. Enjoy the rest of the weekend.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me.

DARREN JAMES: No worries. David Littleproud.