Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC RN

23 August 2021

FRAN KELLY: Thousands of foreign farm workers will be brought into Australia to try and fill labour shortages that have been exacerbated by the COVID crisis. In what's being hailed as a huge structural shift in the migration program, a long-awaited agricultural visa will be introduced to boost the workforce in the horticultural, meat processing, fisheries and forestry sectors. The visa will offer the temporary workers, who will be sourced from 10 South East Asian nations a pathway to permanent Australian residency. David Littleproud is the Minister for Agriculture Minister. Welcome back to Breakfast.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Good to be with you, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: How many workers will come into the country under this ag worker visa and will they be here by the next major harvest?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: It'll be demand-driven, Fran. So, there are no caps on this. Effectively, it will come down to, obviously, the bilateral negotiations that will take place now. And we're obviously trying to accelerate those with countries that we have long standing immigration relationships with, such as Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. But it also means the UK, because this obviously came about as part of the negotiations the National Party had with our Coalition partners on the UK free trade agreement. So, UK workers will come under this and this is the primacy of this, but it also supplements and complements the Pacific schemes that are in place at the moment. 
So, there's nothing stopping the over 25,000 men and women through those seasonal Pacific schemes coming in. This is also going to skilled and semi-skilled workers, not just unskilled workers, these- this new ag visa. And it's broadly right across agriculture, not just horticulture. So, this is a little bit broader. It will complement and supplement the Pacific schemes, but a huge structural change. This is the biggest structural change to agricultural labour in our nation's history. And what it does is underpi…

FRAN KELLY: So, no caps, open ended. I mean, the workforce shortage, I've seen the figures, has been put around 30,000. One meat processor alone has about 700 vacancies. If it's not capped, what's the modelling telling you? What are you expecting in terms of numbers over the first, say, three years?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we're seeing - ABARES are telling us, just from horticulture owners around the 30,000 shortfall by March next year. And that doesn't take into account the other agricultural sectors, such as grains, even in our beef and dairy industries and then obviously, the meat processing sector. Most of our meat processing sectors are running around 60 to 70 per cent capacity at the moment because they simply don't have the people to do the jobs. These jobs also, Fran, is important to understand, are market tested. 
So, Australians get first crack at these jobs. But it's important to understand that farmers have been patient, but they can wait no longer. When they need to get their crop off …

FRAN KELLY: Okay.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: … and you get it from their paddock to your plate, it needs to have someone there to help them.

FRAN KELLY: Farmers get fir- Australians get first crack at the jobs. What about first crack at the quarantine places? Because some of these workers will be coming in from countries like Indonesia, where the Delta strain has been rampant. They're all presumably going to have to quarantine. Why - I mean, there's risks associated, obviously, given the, as I say, the COVID outbreak in some of these countries. But why are these farm workers been given priority over the 38,000 Australians who are desperate to come home?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, they're not, Fran. These will be coming in the same way that our Pacific scheme have been. And they're in addition to the caps and the state's premiers and chief ministers all put their hand up and reaffirmed back in December that they wanted to own this, they wanted to control, because they wanted to make sure they got the quarantining right. And so, they are doing it themselves in their own states in addition to their caps …

FRAN KELLY: But what does that mean, in addition to? Still in hotel quarantine or will there be specific quarantine set ups? And if they can be made for workers, why couldn't they be made for the Australians who are stranded?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, such is the beauty of our Federation. Each state's done something a little bit different. In Queensland, they've done on farm quarantining where farmers have been able to quarantine them on the farm. In Victoria, they've got Tasmania to quarantine for them. In South Australia, they created their own facility to bring in around 1200. And now, this month we'll be trialling in country quarantining in Vanuatu. Their chief health officer has got comfortable with the risk profile of Vanuatu, that they'll allow them to quarantine in country. 
So, it will be determined by the chief health officers and the premiers and each- and chief ministers in each of the states and territories. They'll make those determinations as they are now, to build that capacity in addition to the caps. And obviously, the Federal Government is already committing to supporting a quarantine facility in Victoria, one announced in Western Australia and one at Pinkenba in Brisbane, to bring Australians home. 
So, this is in addition to the caps and the states have put their hand up to say they'll own this and we thank them for that, but they now need to get on with the job with it.

FRAN KELLY: There have been terrible breaches of pay and conditions in- amongst some of the foreign worker schemes already operating. Now, I know we have regulation, we know we have monitoring, but it clearly doesn't work. We've had reports of farmers retaining passports for sexual favours. I know these are just a few people, people being really, really screwed in terms of their wages. With this number of workforce coming in, how are you going to monitor this?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, so the protections, in fact, there's a bill that the Immigration Minister has just put through consultation, community consultation, and it'll be increasing the penalties and increasing the compliance tools for Australian Border Force and other officials to be able to work through with these programs to get better oversight and better policing and prosecution. We're also then working through the Attorney General, who's also looking at increasing the labour hire company regulations, and then working with the states to make sure those legislative barriers are also broken down and their legislation mirrors ours so that those protections are afforded to those workers. But the big piece of this, Fran, is the people under this ag visa will be given a pathway to permanent residency. So this is- this goes to the heart of the structural adjustment that we're looking at. We're also bringing in the next generation of migrants to grow regional Australia and to grow agriculture. And that's the exciting thing is to bring them in. They will be part of the long term solution, but will be part of our communities. And that also gives us some inherent built-in protections as well by them being part of the community long term.

FRAN KELLY: Okay. Why is it fair to offer an ag worker, who commits to three years, a pathway to permanent residency when you won't offer that to the more than 4000 asylum seekers from Afghanistan who are here on temporary protection visas, some of them been living here for more than nine years? Why is that fair or sensible?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously, there are- the complexities of Afghanistan are far different to that of some of the countries in which these workers are coming from…

FRAN KELLY: But these people are living here now. If an Afghan on a TPV was willing to relocate to- and do ag work for at least three years in rural industry, for instance, could they be given a permanent residency? And if not, why not?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, so with respect, again, they're coming from a complex environment where ...

FRAN KELLY: No, they're here.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, but the primary responsibility of our government is to make sure we keep our people safe. Obviously, Border Force, and migration and immigration ...

FRAN KELLY: They're living here amongst us, Minister, and working here amongst us.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Well, if you want me to answer the… I'm prepared to answer the question, Fran, if you'd like to let me answer it. But the reality is, as we work through a process whereby we can make assessments about these people and the contribution they can make to the country and the security risk they provide to this country. Now, obviously, we will work through, and as the conditions change and have changed significantly in Afghanistan, then obviously settings will change into the future around temporary protection visas and alike. But those are decisions that we won't rush into in the heat of the moment. You need to be considered about that because our primary responsibility is to keep people safe and Australians safe.

FRAN KELLY: Okay. On the ground in Afghanistan at the moment, almost- reports of almost 200 Afghan national security guards who worked at the Australian embassy were told over the weekend they weren't eligible for the locally engaged employment visas. But now the government says they are eligible under separate humanitarian category, but there's confusion about whether they have to activate that, whether they have to go and- and go through the process of applying and getting a migration officer, or if the government is going to enrol them automatically in that. Can you clear this up for us?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I can't, but I'm sure the Immigration Minister will. And I think they need to do it quickly. Obviously, because of the unfolding events, we need to get surety to these people that have supported us and been there. And I think that's where some of these administrative errors need to be fixed and rectified quickly so there is certainty and confidence to those people that we want to bring back. And I'm sure that over the ensuing hours, that the Immigration Department will fix that.

FRAN KELLY: Okay. On the COVID crisis, Minister, before I let you go, there's now a furious debate, angry debate between the states on whether to stick with the national road map, it would seem, given the high record- the record high number of caseloads in New South Wales. Will it be too dangerous to start opening up once we hit those Doherty targets of 70 or 80 per cent vaccinations? That's the fear of some states. And the government in your home state of Queensland says it could keep its border with New South Wales closed even after the 80 per cent vaccination target is hit, depending on case numbers.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, this is where we need our premiers and first ministers to come together at National Cabinet and give some confidence, but above all some hope to all Australians about a pathway forward. Now, I understand that the Doherty Institute were providing further analysis to Friday's, at National Cabinet. And it's important that our premiers and first ministers come together and have a cohesive opportunity to look at this, but also a cohesive way forward. That's what people want, is just confidence and hope. And when we have premiers trying to outdo one another, it really doesn't help. I mean, I haven't been as misfortunate as many others locked down for hundreds of days. In fact, I've had basically nearly zero. So I can't actually imagine the pain and stress that those people, those Australians have gone through since this COVID-19 has hit that they just simply want that confidence and hope. And that's why we just say to the premiers, this is the mechanism. National Cabinet was a mechanism to try and create that, and it's important they try and deliver it now. And particularly on Friday, when there's more analysis provided by the Doherty Institute, we live and breathe by that, but we can't stay under the doona forever. At some point, we're going to have to come out.

FRAN KELLY: Okay. David Littleproud, thank you very much for joining us.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: David Littleproud is the Minister for Agriculture.