Interview with Nadia Mitsopoulos, ABC Radio Perth

23 August 2021

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: I want to tell you more about the Federal Government which has, this morning, announced a new agriculture- Australia agriculture visa. Now, this is designed to get more overseas workers into the country and on to farms. But it seems that this is easier said than done. David Littleproud is the Federal Agriculture Minister, and I actually spoke to him a little earlier this morning.

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

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Can you explain how this agriculture visa will work?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. So it'll be a temporary adjunct of the 403 visa until the legislation is passed, but we understand the urgency of trying to bolster agricultural workforce. So from 30 September, we will be starting an agricultural visa that will complement and supplement our Pacific schemes. And we'll obviously start, now, those bilateral negotiations with countries in South East Asia, but also already the UK as part of the negotiations the National Party had with the, our Coalition partner around the UK Free Trade Agreement that UK workers could transfer from working holiday maker to this visa. So it will be up and started by the 30 September. Those negotiations need to take place.
There is also some work that'll now need to be done around the portability of this visa from- for workers who come here, and, and we're working with industry to make sure there's appropriate protections for those workers. 
But the other most significant piece of this is a pathway to permanent residency. This is the biggest structural reform to the agricultural workforce in our nation's history. We are moving away from reliance on a working holiday maker to now trying to bring the next generation of migrants to Australia to, to grow, not just agriculture, but to grow regional Australia. So this is a significant structural reform, one in which we hope will have some short term benefits, but more importantly, have a long term structural reform to, to the requirements here in Australia.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Okay. A couple of things there. First of all, what countries will you target?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, the count- going to target those countries, particularly in South East Asia, that we already have close immigration links with; that we've already proven to have bilateral relations because we think that that can be done quickly. We won't be, we won't be limiting our scope to just a few countries. Obviously, we're trying to, to get capacity. So we're targeting those that we already have existing relationships and arrangements with. 
So to that extent, there'll be three or four we think we can, we can do very quickly in South East Asia. But again, they are sovereign countries, and it comes back to their, their agreeance on this. But we've already had some initial conversations that, that are quite promising, to think that we'll be able to get some of these countries signed up very quickly.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: So what? Vietnam, Thailand, those kind of countries?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Those type of countries that we've had long, long standing relationships with. The Philippines, Korea, there's a whole range of them that we've obviously had longstanding relationships with. But, yeah, they're not limited to that, and obviously the scope will, will be where DFAT now will post their energy into making sure that we can expand it responsibly across as many countries as we possibly can.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Will this apply to skilled and unskilled migrants?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: It is skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled. So that is the, THE big change in this. And it is not just for horticulture. It's important to understand this is for broader agriculture, for fisheries, for forestry and also for the processing sector. So this is about looking at the structural demand that will be required now and into the future, and making sure that we have an appropriate mechanism that complements those Pacific schemes that we've got in place now.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: On ABC Radio Perth in WA I am speaking to the Federal Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud. When you talk about this becoming a pathway to permanent residency, how would that work? What would these people need to do to be able to then settle permanently in Australia?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, good question. Effectively, what we're looking at, the construct is around a three-year visa. But then you would have to commit a further period that we're obviously still to determine, we'll determine that the coming weeks and month around what that might be - that may be another two or three years. But that commitment can't be in a metropolitan area, that commitment would have to be out in a regional area in agriculture. 
So, they'd have the first, the first stage of moving towards that to being able to be eligible for permanent residency, is that they'd do three years under this visa, but then they'd have to give a subsequent commitment to agriculture and regional Australia. Because we think if you can put your roots down in the community for, for four or five plus years, you're genuinely going to be part of that community. 
And that's why this is such a structural change, a significant one. Because we think that we can bring that next generation of migrants to grow Australia's agricultural sector in regional Australia. And they've done such a great job so far. But this is just ramping it up and changing the structure of our reliance on- from backpackers, to now a more secure supply that'll be looked after the community, because they'll be part of a community.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: And, be good to hear from people in the country today, in the regions about, particularly, those who work on farms, or who, who run these kind of businesses, how many people you need, and you know, would you like them to be resettling in your country town. 1 300 222 720. This visa comes into effect, Minister, next month. But realistically, how quickly can you get these workers in? Because they're needed now. And in WA, of course, our grain harvest is coming up.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. And there's nothing stopping people brining in through the Pacific schemes, they are open and there's 25,000 men and women sitting there now. This is an addition because this will be skilled and semi-skilled, as well as the unskilled as well. The bilaterals with those countries will determine the time, that's why we're trying to work as quickly as we can. We've got a temporary mechanism in place through this sub class of the 403 visa that we can implement by the end of September. But the longer term piece will just determine how we go with those bilateral arrangements. 
And as quickly as we can, we want to see these people come in, but the states will then have to agree to the quarantining - they've owned this, they want to own it, we respect it, and they've been constructive on this, and that also will need to feed into it. And I know industry's been working with the states, so too has my Department and Home Affairs. We've had roundtables as late as last week and another one this week about trying to, to get comfort to the states around the quarantining - particularly to the Chief Health Officers and the Premiers. They are the ones that need to get the comfort on that, because they are the ones that set the arrangements in which they come into their states. So…

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: And this is the problem, because we don't have enough- we won't have enough room to, to quarantine these people above our cap that we have at the moment.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that depends on your state. So in some states, they've, in South Australia, created their own quarantine facility and they've actually even, this month, will be trialling in-country quarantine in Vanuatu. In Queensland, they've done on farm quarantining.


DAVID LITTLEPROUD: And so, and so there are other options. In Victoria, they've actually struck an agreement with Tasmania where they brought in- they'll be bringing 1500 through Tasmania, you know, in a facility there and then up to Victoria. So each state has their own risk profile around COVID and we've respected that, and they're making the determinations around that. 
In your state, in Western Australia, obviously, we helped the Western Australian Government reach out to the Northern Territory, around Bladin Point, so there's an opportunity there that I know that the Western Australian Government has been constructively working through with the Northern Territory. Because they don't have risk appetite to quarantine the workers in WA. So they're. they're now looking at those arrangements. So…

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Well, just on that point, just on, on Bladin Village which was a former detention centre. The Northern Territory Government says they're happy for workers heading to WA to quarantine there, but they don't have the staff. And so they're saying, maybe it's up to the Federal Government to provide the staff - the doctors, the quarantine staff, the security - to be able to get that up and running. Would you consider that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. Look, we've made that clear, at the moment we are obviously working very, very hard in New South Wales, in Sydney, and now right across the regional New South Wales, in trying to, to keep the Delta variant under control. The states- on 11 December, all the Premiers and Chief Ministers decided at, at the National Cabinet that they wanted to own the quarantining of agricultural workers in addition to their caps. They made those commitments, they have been working to those commitments. But, this is something that the states are going to have to do. We, we are going to help them with quarantine facilities. We've got one that'll go in in Melbourne, one will go in Queensland, in fact we announced one in WA. But if WA want to outsource their quarantining because they don't have the risk profile, they are going to have to work with their industry to achieve that. 
There in fact actually is, as I understand and been advised, there's 600 beds sitting on Rottnest Island that the Western Australian Government isn't interested in using, but would prefer to use Northern Territory. So, these are arrangements…

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Well, we have used it before, but that is one of our premier holiday tourist spots as well.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, granted. But let me say, this is a critical juncture, particularly for the grain industry over there. We have put all the solutions in front of them. We have tried to help them. But, ultimately, these are sovereign governments that get to make the decisions. They've wanted to own this, they own it, they've got to step up to the plate. This is, this is something that the state governments can solve, they have, they have wanted to own this, they have demanded to own this, and therefore, they need to provide the solution. And we've tried to help them. And in fact, we've also had industry sitting around these roundtables to make sure we constructively help the states find a solution that their Chief Health Officer and Premier would get comfort with.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: What about Christmas Island? Would you consider allowing that to be used for this purpose?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. Because sadly, even as far back as when Peter Dutton was Home Affairs Minister, he advised Western Australia that that facility is currently being utilised, it is fully utilised with people whom we would not want to mix with foreign workers. And there aren't the medical facilities there to support a quarantine facility. They've known that for many months. So, this again is a cost shifting and responsibility shifting from a facility in Western Australia, because the risk profile. If they were really serious then Rottnest Island would be perfect. But if they don't want to do that, then they have to work…

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: But Minister, you know that's not- you know that's not going to happen?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Why not? Tell me why not? If they're serious about, about solving this issue for the grains industry, then they've taken the responsibility up, they've owned the responsibility of this. This is a time for state governments to prove why we have them. This is an opportunity for them to say, this is a priority - a priority that we can temporarily use for, for these workers, for Western Australia's harvest. But instead, they don't want to do it in your state. You've got to understand when you don't want to do it in your own state you are going to place limitations and constraints on your ability to do it, you're relying on other jurisdictions to help you out. So that is the course that West Australian Government wants to take. We've found them a facility, they will then have to work with the Northern Territory Government to get that up and moving.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: David Littleproud is the Federal Agriculture Minister, mentioning there Rottnest Island. What do you think? 1300 222 720. You mentioned South Australia and having in-country quarantine. How does that work? The workers actually quarantine in their home country, but then come straight in and straight onto the farms once they're in Australia?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: In essence, you're exactly right. And so, the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, will have got comfort - they did some work over in Vanuatu - they, they got comfort with the number of cases being zero and the protocols they've got in place about people coming into the country that they got comfort to the extent that they made it available to all the states, that they could avail in-country quarantine. 
The only state to take that up is South Australia. And that, again, comes back to the Chief Medical Officer's and the Premier's risk profile, and we accept that. We simply made that available. South Australia is wanting to trial that this month, they're in negotiations now about starting that with the Vanuatu Government, and we're obviously helping them facilitate that. So South Australia's been very forward leaning on all the options available to them to meet the demand of workers in their state. And they've looked at all options, whether that be in-country quarantining or, in fact, a facility they started themselves in, in the Riverland.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Minister, I appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me.