Interview with Michael Rowland, ABC News Breakfast

23 August 2021

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Now, more details have been mentioned, have been revealed about a new visa that will allow people from ASEAN nations to work on Australian farms. For more, let's bring in the Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud. He joins us now from Warwick in Queensland's Southern Downs. Minister, good morning to you.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Good morning. Good to be with you.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: So, how will this new visa system work?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, effectively this is for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled. It's complementary and supplementary to our Pacific schemes at the moment. But it will allow these workers to come in across that range in terms of skill and semi-skilled as well, to get onto our farms and to provide the labour they need, out of South East Asian countries. So this is the biggest structural reform to Australian agricultural labour in our nation's history and it's also about bringing the next generation of migrants to rural Australia, to grow agriculture and grow regional Australia because part of this is also putting in place a pathway to permanent residency. So, there are some features to this that is particularly going towards the heart of structural change, that the agricultural industry in regional Australia have been asking for, for so long.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: What countries are we talking about? Where will these migrants come from?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we're going to start bilateral negotiations with those countries straightaway. Some of those will obviously be in the ASEAN and South East Asia, the Vietnams, the Thailands, the Philippines, and Koreas of the world. For ones that we have already got very close and long-lasting immigration arrangements with, will be the easiest for us to sign up as quickly as we can. Because this is also not just about a structural long-term change, this is also about a short-term need that's needed now, and that's why we've expedited this, to bring it forward to the end of next month, to start to be able to bring people in, in addition to the Pacific schemes.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. But can you bring in people at the moment? I mean, that's the obvious question people will be asking, with the borders shut and COVID running rampant in, still parts of the world?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, this is the biggest challenge that we've been trying to reach out to the states, who, as far back as December, the premiers and chief ministers all remained adamant they wanted to own the quarantine of agricultural workers, in addition to their caps. We've respected that. We've tried to help them. In fact, we've been holding round tables with them and industry over the last couple of weeks to try and find new ways to help them bring these people in, to quarantine them - either on farm, as they are in some states. South Australia, in fact, has created their own facility. And South Australia are the first state in which we'll do in-country quarantine in Vanuatu. But we'll obviously be working with the states in helping them achieve this, because we're saying, as ABARES have been able to articulate through their work, they believe there'll be about a 30,000-person shortage in agricultural labour by February, and that will only grow. Because we've seen the backpackers leave, and this is now changing us structurally just for the short term, but more importantly for the long term.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: But can't the Federal Government raise the overall cap of people allowed to come into the country to bring in these workers?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, as we've seen, it needs the approval of the chief health officers and the premiers in each state. They're the ones that obviously want to own the quarantining. They have the capacity and they have to be able to live up to that capacity. So, we have to work hand-in-glove with them. We respect that. But we're trying to encourage them to be a little built more courageous. Some states, in fact aren't even living up to those caps at the moment. So, there's capacity within some of these states to take some of these workers, even within their hotel arrangements at the moment. So, we're just saying to the states, this is your opportunity. You wanted to own this in December. We're here to help you but we want to get these people in. Because, finally, our farmers have got some rain and they're going to make a quid. And they're also about to make some investment decisions about what they plant for the coming summer. And they need confidence. And this is about giving investment confidence to our farmers and our nation. Really, if it wasn't for resources and agriculture, our economy would be buggered during COVID-19. They were the ones that kept on going when everyone else was put under the doona. They kept on making a quid for this nation and we just need to repay that now with some courage and conviction. And we all need to work together to achieve that.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: But equally, a lot of the states are still battling the Delta outbreaks. What happens, Minister, if the states and territories don't come on board?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's the biggest constraint that we've got. We're just hoping that the states will act with a level of maturity and opportunity that they see, that we've been able to leverage not just Pacific workers but now those from South East Asian countries, that we'll look to long-term structural reform for agricultural labour in this country going into the future. This is a significant, significant announcement and achievement by the National Party, and it's just important now that we don't turn our backs, we don't say how we can't do things, but, in fact, work as a nation to say, how can we? And that's what we're saying to the states, is let's work together to say how can we bring these people in to make sure our farmers get the fair go that they deserve.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. I want to finish by still speaking about visas, this time with regard to Afghanistan. Over the weekend, church groups called for a radical increase in the number of refugees Australia is bringing in, well above the 3000. Your Liberal MP colleague, John Alexander, wants 12,000 spaces allotted to refugees fleeing the regime, refugees who helped our soldiers, our officials on the ground there. Will the government consider increasing that 3000 limit it currently has in place?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that will be matters that the government will work through, and obviously, as the matters unfold in Afghanistan, we'll obviously try to do that as quickly as we can. But we've also got to acknowledge the fact that Australia's done a lot of the heavy lifting already - over 1500 since 2013 that we brought into this country as a result of the work they've done. And over 400 of those have been people who have stood shoulder to shoulder with us on the combat field. So, we have done a lot of heavy lifting. Not to say that we can't do more, but those are the things that we have to work through in a calm, methodical way, and making sure we get the settings right. I think we, in comparison to the rest of the world, in terms of per capita, are really leading the world, apart from Canada. So, I think we're not shirking our responsibility and not saying we won't do any more, but we have to do that in a considered way and we'll do that as quickly as we possibly can.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. We'll leave it there. David Littleproud, appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, mate.