Interview with Kath Sullivan, ABC Country Hour

21 October 2021

WARWICK LONG: With Farmers desperate to recruit workers this harvest, the Federal Ag Minister says the Government is a step closer to welcoming foreign workers under the new ag visa. But David Littleproud still can't say when the first workers will arrive in the country. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, we can publicly announce that Indonesia is one of the countries that we're negotiating with, with respect of the Memorandum of Understanding and a formal agreement with their government. That's a big step forward, and we're proud to say that's our closest neighbour, and very happy that they're- been able to…

KATH SULLIVAN: But they haven't signed up yet.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, but this is a signal, a very strong signal of intent. To be able to say that they're publicly working through this is a very strong and very loud public statement by the Indonesian Government. So we're obviously working through that. They're a sovereign government, as are the others that we're negotiating with. So we've got to respect that process.

KATH SULLIVAN: So the sector and the government have been waiting a long time for this visa. Can you give any indication of a timeline as to when Indonesia, or another nation might actually sign on the dotted line?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: We're hoping it'll be within a month. That's what we're hoping, but we can't push this, because you would understand, they are foreign governments, foreign and sovereign states that get to make their own decisions. But what we are doing is working behind the scenes with labour hire companies and approved employers to make sure that if any country, whether it be Indonesia or the other three that we're negotiating with, if they are to give us the formal notification, we are ready to move immediately.

KATH SULLIVAN: Assuming it signs on the dotted line within a month, when could Indonesians be here to work on Australian farms?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, literally, that'll be weeks after that. And it'll depend on the quarantine arrangements… 

KATH SULLIVAN: So quite quickly.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Quickly. And that's why we're doing the back end of it at the moment also with the labour hire companies and the approved employers. We're working with a cohort there to make sure that we can move as quickly as we can. We're also making sure that the states understand that at some juncture, their quarantine arrangements, as they've got in place now, will have to be met as well.

KATH SULLIVAN: Can you tell us what other nations you're discussing bilateral- or having bilaterals with?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, I can't. That's disrespectful.

KATH SULLIVAN: Could you tell us, if any are from the northern hemisphere?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, I can't tell you where they are...

KATH SULLIVAN: They're all ASEAN nations?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: All the countries that we've started negotiations with are from South East Asia, and we're making sure we're working through that. These are the ones that we already have closed immigration ties with. And we believe that if we start with those and then work through other bilaterals, we'll be able to build on this quickly.

KATH SULLIVAN: Would you consider broadening the ag visa to allow people to work in childcare services or as au pairs in remote areas?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's not agriculture. This is an agricultural visa for seasonal workers, for semi-skilled, and for skilled workers for agricultural pursuits.

KATH SULLIVAN: Nice to be talking to you about the agricultural workforce, but all the attention on the Nationals this week has been on net zero target by 2050. When are you going to tell the Prime Minister that you're on board?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we haven't got to that conclusion yet as a party room. There are a number of questions that were raised from the presentation that was provided to us on Sunday that our party room wants addressed. We've come to a conclusion about how that can be addressed. We've- actually presenting that to the Prime Minister today, and then that'll obviously give the Prime Minister time to reflect and understand what our concerns are and what we believe our mitigants (*) are. And then he'll come back to us. And the National Party party room will meet again on Sunday to determine the Prime Minister's response. And we'll make a determination about our commitment to what the Prime Minister wishes to take forward to Glasgow.

KATH SULLIVAN: What can farmers expect out of this deal?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, safety and security that they're not going to be asked on to foot the bill, but it can be part of the solution. And I think that's the opportunity here is that they shouldn't have to foot the bill any longer, but there is an opportunity for them to be part of the solution. And we've already started that with the Stewardship program. And the …

KATH SULLIVAN: Well, that's it. In a lot of ways, you've already done a lot of the work by setting up the carbon plus trial and trying to seek out these payments for biodiversity on farms. What more do you want?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, protections that future governments don't change direction and leave us paying the bill and holding the can. That's all we've done, is we're looking at the mechanisms, the regulatory mechanisms, to make sure that regional Australia, particularly primary producers, are protected, but they can be part of the solution. And the solutions can't be bastardised to have detrimental impacts on regional Australia and productive agricultural land. And we think we can get the balance right. We think we've got that right with the Stewardship program and the soil carbon piece that's been worked through the soil strategy. And what we want to see that is come to fruition, reward farmers. But we don't want a future government coming in and playing with that at farmers' expense.

KATH SULLIVAN: I was quite shocked to read this morning some commentary saying that the Nats had agreed not to tear up the Murray-Darling Basin plan as part of the negotiations. Was water policy on the table this week?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, there's a lot of staring of the pot down here at the moment, trying to provoke people into positions. But we've calmly worked through this as a party room, and we've made sure that we understand that the issue we're trying to resolve here is securing regional Australia's future through a target of net zero by 2050, and allowing regional Australia to grow. And that's the remit that we've undertaken as a party room. We've been pragmatic and mature about that. And we're not going to do rash things at any stage at all. We're going to work through these issues methodically. And that's what the party room has done. 
[End of excerpt]

WARWICK LONG: David Littleproud speaking there with Kath Sullivan.