Interview with Nadia Mitsopoulos, ABC Perth Statewide

10 September 2020

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Now we have been talking a lot about the regional labour shortage particularly on farms and orchards. And… and you are- the Government is begging you to leave the city and head bush, but it isn't working. Their calls for you to go bush don't seem to be working. There's been ad campaigns. You hear politicians talking about it a lot and it seems other incentives are needed. And we've been waiting to see what are the other incentives that the Government would bring in to help you make that decision to leave city life and go and work in the bush for six months, a year, whatever, and it finally unveiled those yesterday. If you are willing to work on a farm, you'll be able to get up to $40 a day to pay for accommodation. You can claim that for up to 12 weeks. And if you relocate more than 100 kilometres away, you can get relocation money as well. So $500 if you go to the Kimberley, $350 for the Gascoyne or Pilbara and $150 for everywhere else. Now, this scheme starts on the 21st of September, but remember, you will not be able to get the cash up front. You have to go and do the work first, at least two weeks' worth, and then you claim the money back.

So what do you think about this? 1300-222-720. Is it enough for you to pack up and head bush? Let me know. Because we have about 7000 seasonal jobs to fill and I wonder if you think this is going to do the trick. The State Government is hoping it will but it also wants more help from the Federal Government, and I wonder if that will be forthcoming. I spoke to David Littleproud, who is the Federal Agriculture Minister, a little earlier and asked him what he made of these incentives.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well obviously we welcome it. There's workforce pressures, particularly in the agricultural sector and around seasonal workers being able to support our primary production as we get into the warmer months is imperative, so I welcome the fact that the West Australian Government has taken these steps.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Do you think it will work?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well I think we've got to try everything. We've got to understand that we normally, and particularly in Western Australia, rely on the old backpacker, the working holidaymaker. Those numbers have diminished significantly down to around 70,000 from 160,000, and we're seeing them go back every day. So I think all measures need to be looked at and that's why the Federal Government looked at the Agriculture Workers Code and we're looking at the Pacific and Seasonal Worker Programs in ramping them up to supplement those Australians that are in these jobs and trying to incentivise Australians to get into these jobs before we actually take those options, opportunities up.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: So on that point, I mean in a typical year, WA needs an extra 7000 seasonal workers. Do you think it's possible to fill all of those positions from within WA?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well that's going to be a challenge and I think we need to be pragmatic about that and that's why we should spread our risk and open ourselves up firstly to the rest of the country where it's safe to do so. And we respect the fact that Western Australia has hard borders and that's kept you safe, but there's pragmatic and safe ways to do that, ensuring that you can get workers from other states into Western Australia, in from COVID-free areas, but those are the matters the West Australian Government will have to work through themselves.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: And there's no desire at this end, at this stage to bring down that border, but it's interesting that you're advocating for that because the reality is most of our backpackers come from overseas. The eastern states have a harvest at the same time. So, is it realistic to think that people from the eastern states would want to travel to WA just to do seasonal work?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's obviously what we're trying to mobilise the significant number that no longer have jobs, particularly on JobSeeker. We're trying to incentivise them and looking at ways as well. It's great the West Australian Government has started this and we are already looking at measures and working through the appropriate ministers to make some announcements soon. But we're going to have a shortage unless we can mobilise those that no longer have jobs and those that are on social security payments, how do we incentivise them to go into key and essential services like agriculture.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: You mentioned there's some announcements soon. What are you talking about?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well the Government's working through a number of measures where I haven't made any final decisions yet, but we are looking to try and incentivise particularly those Year 12 students that finish up school that normally would go and backpack around the world. Is there a way to incentivise them to backpack around Australia and go and pick fruit and make a dollar while they're doing it? Is there a way for those students that are on Youth Allowance at university in the university holidays to try to incentivise them to go out and work on farms, to pick the fruit that's needed to get onto the supermarket shelves? So, we're looking at a range of different measures and the Government will work through that quickly and they're being worked up now and costed now, and then we'll obviously make some sort of decision and subsequent announcements if it's approved.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: So are you looking at something along the lines of what's been proposed in the Northern Territory where university students would get a discount on their HECS if they go do seasonal work?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. I think we've got to be careful about jumping the gun here in terms of the incentives that we're looking at, whether they be HECS or anything else. There's a suite of measures being looked at that'll try to go to the pressure points, that it actually incentivise those, particularly on Youth Allowance, to undertake this work. Because you've got to understand one of the challenges we've got with those that are unemployed at the moment, they're not normally very close to where all these jobs are, and it's costly for them to go and move and to go and take up these jobs. So we're looking for transient workers, those that don't have some of the commitments that some of the people who are on JobSeeker have in terms of family commitments, to be able to move around, not only in Western Australia, but around the country safely. So we're going to try and look at that to see if those young people that don't have the ties traditionally that older Australians have to be able to get them to move around more freely and incentivised to do that financially, and we'll work through that very quickly and try and make some announcements soon.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Okay. So if there's a financial incentive that we know will come from the State Government, possibly one from the Federal Government, that could make things a bit more attractive for people certainly here in Perth.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Oh, totally. And that's why we welcome what the West Australian Government has done, and that's why anything that we do and announce will compliment that and hope that other states will also undertake these pre-emptive measures as well.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: David Littleproud is the Federal Agriculture Minister and our guest on ABC Radio Perth and WA. The WA Premier Mark McGowan wants your Government to help with an idea where people on JobSeeker, and potentially even JobKeeper, continue to receive that payment on top of any money they might get for farm work. Would you seriously consider that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, all things are on the table at the moment. And I think this is a pressing issue that we are going to have to address very quickly and make some announcements in the coming weeks. Because, as we get into the warmer months, the pressures are going to mount, and that's why we're working up a range of solutions as we speak now. And that's why we welcome what West Australia's done, and we've encouraged other states to do the same, and even better it if possible. We do appreciate that the Australian taxpayers' put 16 per cent of GDP into support payments and programs for COVID-19, the states have put about 2.5 per cent. So, this is a great initiative from Western Australia, and the other states could probably follow suit, and even better.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: And Minister, I appreciate that you're- you've got to decide what incentives you will put on the table. But that concept of allowing somebody to get a welfare payment as well as a wage, does that sit well with you?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Oh, look, we've tried before. In fact, some years ago, we tried incentivising those that were on social security payments to earn up to $5000, their initial $5000, before it impacted their social security. So, those are the types of things that we'll continue to look at. I mean, this is unprecedented territory, and many of these farmers are having their first summer crops for many years. So, it's important that we try and get that labour supply there, and appreciate that the mobility is an issue, and West Australia's chipped in to try to help that. And then, how do we actually make it financially enticing for those that are in Perth to move around the state, and even move around the country if need be.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: And Minister, why do you think that backpackers are willing to do this work, but generally Australians aren't? Is there an attitude problem here?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: There is in a small cohort of the population, I think it's fair to say. But I think the realistic problem is, is that these jobs, in many respects, aren't very close to capital cities and they don't last for very long. So, you're talking through a very short window in one location - so, you could be working for three to four weeks in one location, and then have to move some hundreds of kilometres down the road to the next location. And that's, obviously, for someone in the country that we ask our citizens to aspire to be all they want to be, and we've got a great education system. Obviously, our society's moved away from these types of jobs, and that's why backpackers have traditionally taken this up over the last decade or so. But these are trying times, and this is where we're trying to recast where society sees these jobs and the opportunities that lie with them.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: And so, do young people need to be a little more willing to change as well?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I'd hope so. I mean, my first job was a cotton shipper. So, I mean, I know what it's like, and I remember when I left school, through the holidays, I used to pick rockmelons and potatoes to make a few dollars. So, that's the sort of change that we need to think and hope that our younger generation will understand; there are opportunities, good money. It's hard work, but it sets you in good stead for future endeavours in life.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: And when we talk about this, we get lots of people contact the program to say, farmers don't pay enough, growers don't pay enough. Is this an issue that needs to be addressed?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So there are awards in place. Obviously, we're working through the labour hire companies to make sure there's protocols, and people aren't exploited. But there are awards in place to protect people. That's fine if you want to pay more, but just be ready to pay it at the supermarket; farmers can't absorb all the costs. That has to be passed through to the supermarket, the checkout, and no one has any issues with that. And in fact, that may be where it gets to, and this is where the supermarkets have a responsibility in not trying to do farmers over in this and holding them down if there is an issue around labour. Because if they still want the supply, they're going to have to pay for it, not the farmer. And if there's more money that needs to be paid, that has to flow through to the checkout.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: What happens? What happens if these regional businesses, if the farmers, the growers, can't get all the workers they need? We're hearing growers saying they'll have to start dumping fruit and veggies. I mean, how bad could this get?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we're already seeing that. And this is the challenge we've got, is that the demographics and how our society's changing, is changing so rapidly. And the transition away from international labour, trying to get Australian labour is very difficult to do that in a short, narrow window of time. And that's what we're trying to work through as quickly as we can, as we get into even greater pressure points, as the months get warmer. This is going to be a real challenge. I don't think you need to panic that there won't be food on the shelves, but the supply is going to diminish if farmers can't do, and that'll put pressure on prices, and we just have to appreciate that. But I just say to all Australians, there's opportunities in agriculture; it shouldn't be seen as a second class career pathway. There are opportunities there that pay well, it is hard work at times, but much of it is recognised now in the extent that we are the greatest adopters of technology than many industries in Australia altogether. So, just to think that it's backbreaking work, isn't necessarily correct.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS:        We appreciate your time.