Interview with Leon Byner, 5AA

6 August 2020

LEON BYNER: Well, let's talk to the Federal Agricultural Minister, David Littleproud. David, thanks for coming on this morning. Can you explain this anomaly? Because, you'd think, wouldn't you, that with the unemployment we've got at the moment, that you'd find at least a lot of people, enough, to do these jobs? Without having to bring people in from overseas.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah and look, that is the intent of the Government, that we obviously want those who that are unemployed to get on work. Unfortunately, some don't want to work it- want to work and those that do and are forced to go under the mutual obligations of receiving JobSeeker, aren't fit to undertake this work, either physically or in fact, are in fact, a distraction and in fact a hindrance to the business. The other big issue is that many of them- unemployed people are not close to where these jobs are. If you're unemployed in Melbourne, at the moment and we need around 800 to 1000 mango pickers in Darwin, you're about 3500 kilometres away. And your work only goes for six weeks and those that are genuinely on unemployment benefits, on JobSeeker at the moment, because of COVID-19 who really do want to work, have family commitments, all that way away. Go up to 3700 kilometres to work for six weeks and then come home. It's not practical, we'd like them to do it and we're continuing to look at ways how we incentivise them to do that. But farmers don't have the luxury to sit and wait for someone to turn up and unfortunately, Australians just haven't wanted to do this work. That's the problem we've had and we still have now the economy's in transition and we'll continue to make adjustments to social security and the mutual obligation around that. But we've got a seasonal issue at the moment and I don't intend to sit and wait and farmers can't sit and wait for someone to turn up. They need them now, when it's ready to be picked.

LEON BYNER: Alright. We've got an issue, no different from the farmers in the Riverland, who are also wanting people to work on their farms and they can't get them. So, are we to do the same thing here?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: This will be all over Australia and this is the issue with agriculture; it's very seasonal and it's geographical. So, you've effectively got to be prepared to travel right across the country, at short notice and basically, for some short periods and then have layoffs. Now, financially, that's not always agreeable to many people and that's why overseas workers have taken that slack up because many have been holiday workers, the old backpackers that have come over and they can go and do the work and then go on holiday around the country. So, it's worked in well. And that's the problem, is the geographical spread and the nature and the diversity of our agricultural sector, it it's just meant it's very hard to get people to go out and to do these jobs. There is a cohort, we've got to be honest; there is a cohort of Australians that simply do not want to work. And businesses and these farmers are businesses, shouldn't be burdened with people that they have to pay that aren't giving them productivity. We, as a government, need to work through with what those policy settings should look like, for those people, those long term unemployed. But our economy's shifted and we've got a lot of people that are on JobSeeker, that are no choice their own, because of COVID, that we've got to work through. They've got family commitments many thousands of kilometres away. So, the practicalities of this is what we have to work through and it just takes time to do that. In the meantime, we've got to get crops off and we've got to get food on the shelves for each and every one.

LEON BYNER: Now, so it is legit, as far as you're concerned, that if you can't get the labour for these farmers and agriculturalists who do a tremendous job and they often hold up the economy where other sectors will box below their weight; these people do the opposite. This can mean that food prices can be up as much as 60 per cent. Is that your take on this?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I haven't seen that exact analysis. But, let me just say: that unless you can get that fruit and that product out of the paddock when it's ripe, then the supermarkets will not take it and then it simply becomes a demand and supply issue. That's why it's important you understand the fluidity of agriculture and the ability to be able to get your crop off when you need it. If you can't, you miss that short window, then effectively, you miss out on an income and in fact, that product isn't fit for consumption. Because Australians have very high taste when it comes to produce that they put in their mouths and rightfully so, because we do it better than anyone. But supermarkets will obviously have to reflect that through what they purchase out of producers. And so, if they don't get it off, then there will be a smaller supply that will hit those shelves.

LEON BYNER: So, David, what do you make of Senator Pauline Hanson's comments yesterday, where she's really had a go at you, saying: that there are over a million unemployed and we should be able to find people working locally and going out and bringing in imported workers is a bad thing. You've explained why, what do you think of her a sledge against you, this morning?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, in times of national crisis, the Australian people want leadership, they don't want political headlines or opportunism. I'll leave that for the simplistic populist nature of Pauline Hanson and I respect her. But I intend to work with the practical realities of what I face and listening to farmers on the ground. I just ask her that she might want to wander up to the Northern Territory to sit around there with some Northern Territory farmers and get a real appreciation of what happens on the ground. I get it. I passionately believe that those that are on unemployed benefits should be working where there's jobs available. But the practical application is that that doesn't always come to fruition and we try as best we can and make the policy settings as hard as we can to make sure that we get that result. But at the end of the day, farmers, like everyone else, get up in the morning and make a living. They have great pride in what they do and they want to make sure their product hits the shelf and they need that through labour. And if they can't get the labour through those Australians that are there, then we need to supply them with another source. And that's my job and I'll work with whoever wants to work collaboratively and cooperatively to achieve that. I'll leave the politics for others to undertake.

LEON BYNER: Now, one other point. One of the reasons we're short of a lot of these seasonal workers that come in from overseas, is that there's been COVID-19 issue. So, are we going to have a special rule for people we've got to bring in to work in the agricultural sector, test them and make sure that they're clear?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: There will be. So, there's strict protocols under these- under this trial is that there are two nations that are qualified, basically because they have their COVID-19 situation under control. We have to provide them with comfort that their citizens who come here will be safe and also, our Australian citizens that those that come into this country will be kept safe. So, we will work through the protocols in isolation and social distancing with industry, who've been very proactive in understanding their responsibility and we'll continue to work with that. This is going to go on for some time, because as long as COVID-19 goes on, the distribution of workforce around the world is going to be tight and that's why we'll have to continue and look at our settings around what JobSeeker looks like into the future and the mutual obligation on that. But, I just can't do that overnight. That's not my remit anyway. But we just can't do that overnight and he practical reality is farmers need action now. We'll continue to work with them, but I would encourage and just say that while we're saying that not too many people want to get off the couch and do this that have been unemployed. But it still pays reasonably well. It pays an award wage of over $24, $25 dollars, an hour. So, it's not as though you're not getting rewarded for the effort. And most of these farmers are also supplementing in terms of accommodation and transport getting up there and the Australian Government is also trying to incentivise people who are on JobSeeker to go and take jobs in the region. Where we're paying up to $6000 for relocation to take jobs. So, it's not just in the in the unskilled work. There's also skilled work within regions in the agricultural sector that are out there looking for applications of willing workers, that can make a real career and have a greater lifestyle within Regional Australia.

LEON BYNER: David, thank you for giving us the explanation. That is Federal Agricultural Minister, David Littleproud.