Interview with Rebecca Levingston, ABC Radio Brisbane

14 September 2021

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Have you done your weekly grocery shop yet? Have you noticed that fruit and veg is a bit more pricey than usual? Yeah. Prices shot up by 5 per cent in June, they're set to get even higher because there's a shortage of pickers. But a plan to streamline the Pacific Islander Work Visa Scheme could change that. The Federal Agricultural Minister is David Littleproud. Minister, good morning.

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

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: What's the plan for fruit and veg?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it's a, it's a multiple of facets that we're putting into this because it is a complex situation. And so what we're trying to do, we've had seasonal workers here from the Pacific, we're trying to streamline that process of application, bringing together the Pacific Labour Scheme and the Seasonal Workers Program to make sure that there's a one shop in terms of applying for both and that, if you're on one scheme, you can go across to the other. And also, we are lifting the caps of those that can employ these, the numbers that they can bring in. 
So we're trying to increase to get in the 27,000 men and women that are ready in ten Pacific nations to come here and to work. And that's obviously on top of the AG Visa that will start at the end of this month which is for, not only unskilled workers, but for skilled and semi-skilled as well. So we're, we're looking at this in kind- terms of trying to make a structural change to agricultural workforce to get people to, not only come- transit here, but actually also stay here. Because what we've done with the AG Visa also is to give people a pathway to permanent residency. 
So we're looking at this, understanding that the good old backpackers probably a couple of years away. But farmers, really, are at a pressing point now where they'd need the workers, otherwise they're making investment decisions not to plant, and then that obviously puts upward pressure at the supermarket, which we've seen.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: So 27,000 workers are needed to come into Australia to pick fruit and veg?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: We estimate- our best estimates, by February we'll need 30,000 - and that's just horticulture. So then you've got to look at the rest of broader agriculture and the shortage of workers that we need. And that's in processing- the processing sector with not only meat, but in fruit and vegetables as well, and fisheries and forestries. So it's right across the board, but 30,000 just in horticulture.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Okay, so how many more in meat, fisheries, and forestry are needed?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Look, this is into the thousands. We're are probably looking at another 10,000 at least with respect of those industries. And that's why we're trying to make sure that we structurally change that workforce. Because if you think about meat processing, the processing sector, and in the fisheries and forestry, a lot of those jobs aren't seasonal, they're permanent. And that's why we're looking to the AG Visa to go into South East Asian countries as well to try and bring in those workers, but then incentivising them to stay. We want them not to just pass through Australia, we think this can be the next generation of migrants into regional Australia, into agriculture. What has grown agriculture has been migration, and giving them that pathway is important. And that's what we think will be the structural change that'll gives farmers and indus- whole industry's a certainty to make investments now and into the future.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Does your plan have the backing of the Immigration Minister? Who, let's be honest, there's a pretty high profile bloke who used to work in an abattoir in Biloela who can't go home to get a job there, and here you're talking about, you know, 40,000 odd workers coming in to fill a gap.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, every one of those 40,000 that'll need to come in will have to play by the rules of this country. No one is beyond the laws of the land. No matter what your personal circumstances may be, and as, as harrowing as they may be, the reality is is that this country is built on fairness and no one's above the law. Sometimes the law may not seem fair but unfortunately, that's what's kept us safe, and that's what the Government will stick to.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: You're listening to David Littleproud, the Federal Agriculture Minister. Changes afoot to change the Pacific Labour and Seasonal Workers Schemes that may indeed translate to cheaper fruit and veg for you on your supermarket shelves. Minister, what does it say about us, that Aussies don't want to pick the fruit and veg that we grow here?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Well, I think our society's evolved, it's moved past this. I think there's this thing called aspiration, and a lot of young people these days want to go into tertiary education, want to go into further studies, or they'll go and become baristas or work in pubs or cafés. When I grew up, mum wouldn't let me stay at home in the school holidays, I had to go and pick potatoes or rock melons, and I became a cotton chipper. So the world has changed and aspirations have changed. 
And what we're trying to do is understand farmers don't have the luxury to sit around and wait. When their product is ripe it's got to get from the paddock to your plate, or to a port to get it around the world. And that's really the practical reality of what we, we are facing. We've tried to incentivise Australians. And all these jobs, you've got to understand, are market tested, so Australians do get first crack at this. 
We've said to uni students, you can get a pathway to independence for ABSTUDY and Austudy if you go and work in agriculture, and that means that you'll have money in your pocket to go back to uni with, and then you'll get Austudy. But we've only had around 4,500 that have taken up those incentives here in Australia, and that means that we're going to fall well short. 
So my job's to make sure that farmers can still make those investment decisions. Today we're announcing that we'll be getting a record agricultural production this year of over $70 billion. We've never hit that before. And so that's the biggest constraint on agriculture at the moment is labour, and the big, the big issue for us is to solve it and give them confidence now and into the future.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: From a practical perspective there's also quarantine requirements. And you're probably familiar, Minister as a Queenslander that, at the moment, it's pretty hard to get into the Sunshine State. How do you see this playing out if you're going to bring in tens of thousands of workers from the Pacific? Where will they quarantine? Where will they stay? Has the Premier ticked off on this?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Oh well, yes, she has. In fact, in December last year, all the premiers signed off on ownership of the quarantine of agricultural workers. And the protocol and process to remove red tape for the states is pretty simple. They decided at National Cabinet that the premiers and chief health officers would simply write to the prime minister to say, this is how we'd bring in the agricultural workers into our state. This is how we would do it. This is the means, and we would simply stamp and process the visas. 
Unfortunately, not all the states have, have done what they need to. Queensland, while has brought in the most, goes nowhere near the needs that we need to meet here in Queensland. They've done on, on farm quarantine, but they've only done not only enough to do a small proportion of what's needed in Queensland. Other states like South Australia have built their own facility and are now doing in-country quarantining in Vanuatu. I suspect the camp at Wellcamp will probably become a facility for agricultural workers, and I hope it would if the Premier continues to go down that path. We're already seeing that plan is starting to fray with international airlines saying, well, why would I fly to Toowoomba when I can fly to Brisbane? But I think that opens up an opportunity for the Pinkenba facility the Federal Government's building, for those, for those people to go in there, and agricultural workers could potentially go to Wellcamp. 
But those are issues the Premier has, has signed up to solve, and it'd be good if she was consistent with this. This isn't a new problem. We've known this for eighteen months. Mark Furner said he was going to solve it and we're giving them the opportunity with the men and women from the Pacific and now the AG visa to fill the void.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: How quickly do you think fruit and veg prices could come down for my listeners?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, I think you'll, you'll see some change as we move forward, probably into the new year if you're lucky. But that'll depend on how quickly the states can bring these men and women in, and how quickly they're prepared to quarantine the quantities they're prepared to. But you've also got to understand, we've got strong export markets as well, and that's what's also driving this. Because you're- we're now competing with the export markets. Our farmers are looking around the world as well to sell their produce. So that's the challenge that we're also facing. But if we get that labour supply that'll stabilise prices in the future, I would suspect.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Really appreciate your time this morning, Minister. Thanks so much.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: David Littleproud, the Federal Agriculture Minister.