Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC RN

10 November 2021

FRAN KELLY: On Breakfast this week we've been covering the alleged mass exploitation of seasonal farmworkers who are in this country under something called the Pacific Labour Mobility scheme. A proposed class action over wages theft is being put together against labour hire companies after some workers are left with less than $300 a week, we heard, after deductions for accommodation and transport. 
The ACTU has bought into the scandal, warning labourers will be at even greater risk of abuse and mistreatment under the new agriculture visa, saying that it will offer even fewer protections. 
David Littleproud is the Minister for Agriculture, and the driving force behind something called the new farm visa, which we've spoken to him about. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me.

FRAN KELLY: The first overseas workers will begin arriving next month on this new farm visa - the agriculture visa. What are you going do to make sure that they won't be exploited and mistreated, given the many complaints that are being made now under the Pacific Labour scheme?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well just to clarify, Fran, we are hoping- we are still in bilateral negotiations with four countries. It will be up to those countries to sign up. So, I don't want to pre-empt any decision by any of those sovereign nations - that would be disrespectful. But we are working through that, and hope to have those workers in as quickly as possible. 
Obviously, like any other worker, whether they come in under the ag visa or under the Pacific schemes, they will be under the same industry awards as Australians. And the reality is we are ramping up the accountability through the Fair Work Commission to ensure that they are doing the checks, they are making sure that the approved employers are being vetted. They're also making sure that we're doing pre-arrival briefings with these workers so they understand their rights. But you've got to understand the ag visa also gives these workers a pathway to permanent residency. So, this is about making sure we bring in the next generation Ian of migrants to grow regional Australia and grow agriculture. So, I think what the ACTU has done is a disgraceful generalisation and demonisation of Australian farmers …

FRAN KELLY: Well, let's look at what the ACTU is saying. They're saying they'll be no limits on the number of workers that employers can bring into Australia, no limits on the industries they can work in, no geographic restrictions, no pathway to permanent residency. And bosses will have the ability to share migrant workers, treating these people as the property of the employer.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well again, they're wrong. And this is just disgraceful in general…

FRAN KELLY: What's wrong? Tell me where they're wrong.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, well the pathway to permanent residency will be part of the agricultural visa. There will be portability, but we are putting in place a program, a Fair, Fair Farms program - $3.2 million topped up with that last week so that farms that do take this on, in terms of the portability of these workers, will have to sign up to this program and have accountability. The industry themselves are working through this. 
There is a small cohort, we acknowledge, that have done the wrong thing, like any other industry. And if you to apply the same standard that, that the unions are applying to Australian farmers, well maybe they should apply to themselves. There's been plenty of union officials that have done the wrong things. And all I'd say is that if you look at that …

FRAN KELLY: Hang on, hang on, hang on. Hang on, that is a complete distraction from what we're talking about. I mean, we've heard in the last week here on Breakfast, under the Pacific Island scheme, something like 1200 Pacific workers have left their employer, and there's, and there's a contemplation of a class action because of terrible conditions, almost slave-like conditions, the people are working under. I mean, are you aware of this?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Fran, there is a small cohort in industry that do the wrong thing. Our job is to try and weed them out, and the industry themselves are working with us to make sure we do that. But to generalise and demonise…

FRAN KELLY: But why haven't we done it? Why do we still have workers, Pacific Island workers, working, allegedly, for a wage of $900 a week, ending up with something like $300 a week because they're being charged $200 a week for substandard overcrowded accommodation in shipping containers, $100 a week for transport to the job, they're being paid for the water, they get to drink during the day. I mean, it's been described as a quote, pandemic worker abuse which is spreading like the Delta virus. Why is …

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, again.

FRAN KELLY: … why is that happening?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: That is, that is a generalisation, that is a small cohort, and they are, they are sensationalising…
            
FRAN KELLY: How small? How small?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, this is where, there is where the Fair Work Commission is undertaking and it has been ramped up in terms of their responsibilities and their abilities to fine, but also to go and find…

FRAN KELLY: Well, I read today in The Australian, not one prosecution's been launched by the Fair Work Ombudsman …

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, again…

FRAN KELLY: … against any approved employer under the Seasonal Worker Program in the last year.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: And I'll finish, Fran. It's important that in an interview, the interviewee gets to answer the questions. So, the reality is that we have challenges with some of these cohorts, some of these workers coming forward and being prepared to name and shame these farmers. 
Now, what we're trying to do is to ramp up our, our pre-arrival briefings to these workers, particularly these Pacific workers where we have been able to say to them that there is a clear pathway. Where there, if there is mis, mistreatment of them, then there is an avenue for them to come forward. And we need to get through that cultural barrier and work further with those countries to make sure that those small cohorts that are being demonised and are being exploited are found out and we weed those people out of the industry. That's what we're saying. We're not, we're not saying there's not a problem.

FRAN KELLY: So, you're saying- are you troubled by the fact there's not been one prosecution launched in the past year, given the mounting evidence of the terrible conditions? And this is not new. I mean, we've been talking about this probably for what, 15 years? This is not new - exploitation of farm workers.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Of course, I, I'm worried about anyone that's exploited, Fran. I'm an Australian. I'd hate to see…

FRAN KELLY: Well, why is this still happening?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, this is the challenge that we face, is there are cultural challenges that we are trying to break through and we are investing money in that to try and break through that. But to, to, to sensationalise and to say that it is right across the agricultural sector is trashing our…

FRAN KELLY: I'm not saying that. I'm not saying that.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. The union movement is, Fran. No, I'm not saying you are, but the union movement is. And I'd, and I'd say, when they've got their own problems, that I could only call them hypocrites. The reality is, we are doing what we can and then ramping up what we can to make sure that we weed this out…

FRAN KELLY: Okay.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: … and to make sure that any new program that we do bring into place has those protections. 
But more importantly, if we give that pathway to permanent residencies, then they have the comfort of knowing they're going to be part of our society, they're going to be part of our country, and they're going to have even greater comfort to be able to come forward and to name and shame those who do wrong things.

FRAN KELLY: Just to stay with the Pacific Island scheme for one moment longer, you talk about the cultural difficulties of, you know, not coming forward and naming and shaming. I mean, as we discussed with Border Force yesterday, the Government has launched a campaign to try and dissuade the farm workers- the Pacific farm workers, from quitting the farm that they're tethered to, includes a warning they're bringing shame on their families, and if they do this the scheme might be stopped, and that would harm their countrymen and women. I mean, you know, that doesn't sound like the problem- they're being told within, you know, their cultural heritage that things are at risk if they behaved differently and step out and name and shame. What kind of message is that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Because what we're trying- well, Fran, what I would suspect they are trying to achieve is to keep those workers within the boundaries of the scheme where there are those protections. And where those workers have gone outside that scheme, then we don't have the oversight that we should and can have, and that's where they can be exploited. And that's where- puts at jeopardy our reputation internationally, and that's why we have to continue to look at these programs. If we can't tidy this up, then there is going to be reputational damage, and that's what we're trying to fix, and that's what we're working through. And what we're saying to these workers is, please don't step outside the program, because once you step outside the program we have less sight over your safety, over your security, and it's important that you stick to that program because that's the best way to keep you safe, and it gives you a framework in which to come forward and to name and shame anyone that abuses.

FRAN KELLY: Let's go to Australia's climate change policies. A new international index released overnight at Glasgow put Australia climate policy dead last over more than 60 countries. According to this report, it's because there's no real plan to get to carbon neutrality and no commitments to end coal and gas. Seems like the international community hasn't bought the deal that the Nats did with the Libs, so why would the voters?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: With respect, I think that's more a political index than a legitimate index. We went to COP26, the Prime Minister outlined our plan to achieve net-zero with technology, and in fact today we're announcing a new fund to continue on that pathway to achieve it. The world has actually looked at- that's a political index, not a legitimate index, and what we're doing is saying that we'll get there through technology investments; in not just supporting the traditional industries to try and reduce emissions, but investing in new industries to reduce emissions. And that's the smart way to do it funded, looking the Australian people and the global community fair in the eyes and telling them how we're going to get there. With technology, not taxes, not a blank cheque. We've got this funded, and we're saying this is how we're going to do it, but we're going to invest in the smarts of the 21st century to achieve it, and that's the Australian way.

FRAN KELLY: There's more funding today, as we just heard on AM, the Minister announcing this $1 billion low emissions technology start-up fund, but it comes with a wedge for the Opposition. The legislation will also enable the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to invest in carbon capture and storage, because that would be part of the start-up that's opposed by Labor. Why does this new fund have to include carbon capture and storage start-ups when the Government's already announced this year something called the carbon capture, use and storage, which has funding committed to it for technologies, for the surge development and commercialisation. So you've already got that separate fund there - why don't you just leave that for carbon capture and storage, and not try and, sort of, you know, create a wedge with Labor over opening up the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to carbon capture and storage?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So it's to accelerate the technology, it's as simple as that. This is the technology to reduce emissions…

FRAN KELLY: Well we've already got a fund for that. There is already a fund…

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: This is a- again, I'll finish the answer, it's very important I do. It's important to understand that we're accelerating this investment and partnering with other nations, like the Biden administration, like the UK administration, that are putting significant amounts like the private sector here…

FRAN KELLY: Sure, I'm not arguing against that.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Because- well, again, so this is about making sure we can accelerate that technology to reduce emissions. And I can travel about 30 kilometres down the road from where I'm standing at the moment, and the first one here in Queensland is starting, in fact, the hole has been drilled - and that is being worked. Santos themselves will leverage this in their own partnership. This isn't just about government doing it all, this is about leveraging private investment…

FRAN KELLY: No, I'm not talking about why- I'm not talking about a government funding carbon capture and storage research. I'm saying a government trying to put that under the Clean Energy Finance Corporation when it's clearly about capturing the carbon emissions from fossil fuels. I mean, why not just leave it with the carbon capture, use and storage fund you've already got, you've already set up?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Because we want to leverage even more investment dollars from companies like Santos, who are about to put $200 million out of their own pocket. This isn't about just the Australian taxpayer doing it, Fran; this is about us leveraging the commercial dollar to do the heavy lifting as well. Shouldn't be just the good old taxpayer that has to pay for everything; we all have a responsibility to play in this, and this is what we're saying is, that we're going to leverage those dollars. We get an accelerated investment in that technology, the technology proves itself sooner, we reduce emissions sooner. And if we get back to first principles, that's what we want to do.

FRAN KELLY: It is.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: It shouldn't matter whether carbon capture storage, or hydrogen, or whatever it may be. It's a win so long as we're reducing emissions, we're trying to build those traditional industries, and creating new ones - new jobs - as well.

FRAN KELLY: David Littleproud, thanks very much for joining us again on Breakfast.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Any time, Fran, thanks for having me.