Interview with Warwick Long, ABC Country Hour

23 August 2021

WARWICK LONG: Let's talk agriculture visas now though on the Country Hour in what the Federal Agriculture Minister is calling the biggest structural change to the farm workforce in the nation's history. Australia will have an agriculture visa in place by 30 September this year, but when workers will actually start arriving in the country is still unknown. The Federal Government is still leaving it up to the states to have their own plans to quarantine whatever workers may arrive under this new visa. Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud joined me earlier today to talk through some of these details. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: This is one of the biggest structural reforms agricultural labour in our nation's history, and the National Party made sure that we leveraged our negotiations on the UK free trade agreement to achieve it. And we're now going to make sure that it's implemented, and the 30th of September will be that start date. It will start under a subsection of the 403 visa just to be able to get up and going, such is the need now, but legislation will be bought in to put in place an agricultural visa that is for skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled workers. It will also give a pathway to permanent residency. So it's a little bit different from our Pacific schemes, but it's complementary and supplementary to the Pacific labour schemes that we have in place at the moment, and such is the way that we feel that this is a structural change that will give our farmers the investment confidence now, but more importantly, into the future, of having labour supply, moving away from backpackers who I can't tell you when they're going to be back. So this is really making sure that we're just giving our farmers the tools they need to go and make a quid.

WARWICK LONG: How widely, in terms of the countries, will this ag visa be offered?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yes. So we're looking at Southeast Asian countries and getting those countries that we already have close ties and closing immigration ties with, such as Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, but we're looking beyond that into Korea and obviously the UK will also be part of this because that was the catalyst in which we were able to start the negotiations of getting the free trade agreement and subsequent this ag visa. So those negotiations will take place. We're also working through with industry now, over the coming couple of weeks, just around portability as well, and that was something that we got a lot of feedback on and we've been in discussions with industry for some time. And so we need to make…

WARWICK LONG: So portability, the ability for a worker to move from one agricultural business to another, is that what do you mean by that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: And that's exactly what I mean by that, and that's how we provide those protections to those workers. If we're able to achieve that is what we need to work through very quickly to make sure that we can give that confidence. So it's important to also understand this isn't just for horticultural; it's right across the agricultural spectrum and includes fisheries, forestries and meat processing as well. So this is a broad visa. And the fact that it's skilled and semi-skilled, as well as unskilled, and giving that pathway is around that generational change of bringing the next generation of migrants to Australia to grow agriculture and grow regional Australia and that's the exciting part of this as well.

WARWICK LONG: So not just farms, not just forestry, but meat works as well. Does that also extend to food processing, like dairy factories, for example?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: That's our intent, is to go through the supply chain, exactly what we're trying to work through, and those finalisations of those key Industries will be finalised and the meat industry has been engaged already. So those types of industries that do rely on those in regional areas is exactly what we're trying to achieve as well.

WARWICK LONG: On the details itself, you say it will be in place by 30 September, but workers won't be arriving by the 1st of October, will they? There's still some work to do in terms of quarantining the workers that actually can get an ag visa?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, the quarantining has and always will be, since COVID started, the responsibility of the states. They signed up to that. In fact, reaffirmed it in December last year at the National Cabinet. And in fact, your Premier, Daniel Andrews, was quite excited about the fact that he saw the opportunity to get this right because of the economic benefit, but also the fact that it might keep grocery prices down for those in Melbourne. So, the premiers have taken ownership of this and the chief health officers. Each state is doing a little bit different, but there's already 25,000 men and women in 10 Pacific nations sitting there ready to come. This will be supplementary and complementary to that.

Now, the bilaterals, depending how long they take, we're not expecting them to take an onerous amount of time, because we obviously have with some of those countries very close relationships already, and that's why we're trying to start those and get people available to come in, and if the states were inclined to have the quarantine capability, then obviously these workers will be here, ready to go, as quickly as we can.

WARWICK LONG: Well, speaking to Victorian Agriculture Minister Mary-Anne Thomas, on the Country Hour last Friday, she said she wanted the Federal Government to manage quarantine for this working visa. It doesn't sound like that's something you'd look at.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, I mean, I sometimes wonder why we have state governments. They come and make commitments- they come to National Cabinet, they tell us they're going to own something, and then they walk away. I mean, what is the purpose of them? The facts are the state governments have made it very clear they want to own this because they don't trust anyone else doing the quarantining bar them. Their chief health officers and their premiers have all made serious commitments to the Federal Government around this, that they want to do this in addition to their caps. The Federal Government's already helping them out with quarantine facilities to bring Australians home, and Victoria themselves will get a great big facility in Melbourne. There's one in Queensland, one in Western Australia. Surely they will live up to the commitment they make.

Now, either the Premier's not talking to the Ag Minister in Victoria, but they're going to National Cabinet saying one thing and coming out doing another. This is not the time for anyone to shirk their responsibilities. Otherwise, you know, really, why have a federated system in this country if every level of government is not doing the job that they said they would do?

WARWICK LONG: When do you expect the first workers to be arriving under this visa by realistically?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's- I couldn't- I'm probably a glass-half-full sort of guy. I'm hoping not long after 30 September, if we can get some of these bilaterals under control. But they're out of our control in some respects, because those countries obviously have their own sovereignty and their own right to decide whether they allow their people to sign up to this. So, I'm…

WARWICK LONG: Do you think workers will be here- is this going to be one of the tools to solve the problems for the busy, sort of, spring, summer, autumn, harvest period?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I think we've got to be more realistic. It will be towards the end of the year, we should see- if the states will allow the quarantine, we should see some of these numbers really start coming towards the backend of the fourth quarter. I would like to think that we could get it sooner, but obviously bilaterals and working with these countries will be pivotal to that. And then the states also agreeing on quarantine. But there's nothing stopping, there's nothing stopping the states bringing in those Pacific workers.

WARWICK LONG: Why are you announcing this, not the Immigration Minister Alex Hawke? Does that show that they're still discontent in the Liberal Party to do with this ag visa, and it's very much a National Party thing?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I'm not going to comment on another party's internal machinations. I can only speak for the National Party. This has been core to our belief for some time. We have worked with industry, and I've got to say, they have worked constructively with us. We proudly stand just for regional Australians and particularly for agricultural sector. This is the biggest structural reform to our nation's agricultural labour workforce. And the National Party made sure that we use every bit of leverage that we had to achieve it. And I'm not ashamed to say that we did that.

WARWICK LONG: Are you confident it'll pass Parliament, though, given that there have been some concerns about this from the Liberal Party before?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, it's gone through Cabinet, yes. It will go through the House of Representatives, it will be in the Senate. And let's have a look at the colour of the eyes of the Labor Party on this too. I mean, I think the Labor Party will have to show their true colours. And in fact, we'll get a first glimpse of that, because the changes to the subclass of the 403 visa is in fact a disallowable instrument, and they will be placed on the Senate table in the coming couple of weeks. So therefore we will see whether the Labor Party will vote against it, or One Nation want to vote against it; Pauline Hanson's even been out saying she thinks it's a dumb idea that we should be giving these jobs to Australians. Well, Australia simply won't take these jobs. And farmers had been very patient, and they can be patient no longer.

WARWICK LONG: A couple of really quick questions, Minister. Is there a cap on the amount of people that can come to Australia under this visa?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, this will be demand-driven, so there will be no caps, it's demand-driven. So industry will decide. They'll obviously have the opportunity to bring in Pacific workers through those schemes, but this will be in addition and supplementary, with no caps. It's fully demand-driven.

WARWICK LONG: And who has priority on the flights coming to Australia? Is it Australians that are still trying to get home that are stuck overseas, or is it workers under this ag visa?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's always been Australians wanting to come home. But what industry has been proactive in doing is, in fact, bringing their own charter flights in with these workers. So industry has been far ahead of everyone else on this. Very mature in terms of the way that they've dealt with all the quarantine issues. They just need the states to help them and to live up to what they said they'd do, which is bring these people in, quarantine them, and get them out onto the paddocks as quickly as we can.

WARWICK LONG: Is the pathway to permanent residency a new part of this plan? Has that just recently been added?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: It was part of the discussions. Obviously, we were in negotiations with the Coalition- within the Coalition around this, and obviously I think there is members from both sides that believe that was also a good move to make sure that we have a structural change that is long-lasting. And the way to do that is to provide a pathway to permanent residency because then they're here, they're part of- they're part of our regional communities, they're part of the industry. So we think that they'll have a more lasting effect on the structural change that's needed within the agricultural workforce.

WARWICK LONG: Minister, thanks very much for your time on the Country Hour.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, mate.

[End of excerpt]
WARWICK LONG: That is David Littleproud, who's the Federal Agriculture Minister speaking to you on this program about the government's plan for an ag visa.