Interview with Andy Park, ABC RN Drive

28 March 2022

ANDY PARK: Well, in a move that the Nationals are labelling as one of the biggest achievements of this term, farm workers from Vietnam will be the first to be employed under the Federal Government's Agriculture Visa. Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced Vietnam was signed the memorandum of understanding with Australia in a statement just this afternoon. The agriculture specific visa has long been a source of, well, contention between the Liberal and National MPs. You might recall the Prime Minister first supported the visa in 2008, but it wasn't until last year's UK trade deal that the Nationals won a firm commitment. Well, David Littleproud is the Federal Agriculture Minister. Welcome to our RN Drive. When will the first workers arrive in Australia, Minister?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, thanks for having me. That implementation process starts today. That's what the memorandum of understanding goes to. So there'll be contracts signed between Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and approved employers, and they've already been identified. So much of the legwork has been done. So now what will effectively take place is they'll identify those workers in Vietnam, work with the Vietnamese government to be able to bring those workers, identify them and then bring them in as quickly as we can. So obviously, this is the first step in making sure that this is a legacy piece that will continue on for some time in terms of a structural change to agricultural workforce. We've relied heavily on backpackers, and we've gone from about 140,000 of those down to under 30,000. But what we're trying to do is get away from the transient nature and have a more skills based approach and one that farmers will invest in the human capital that comes here in making sure they train and skill them up, and actually progress through the agricultural workforce here in Australia and obviously grow our regions.

ANDY PARK: Well, I'm sure these employers would have been identified a long time ago because these are the ones who have been lobbying your government for this deal. What are the requirements of the visa and how skilled will they be?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So there will be skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled. And obviously we already have the Pacific schemes and this will complement and supplement them. But the first tranche is likely to be in the semi- and unskilled worker- sector. So what we're now trying to do is to make sure we work through this and put the frameworks around it. These people- these jobs are all market tested. You've got to understand Australians get first crack at these jobs. They are extensively tested, and if Australians don't take them, that's the only time that we look to the Pacific schemes or look to now the Ag visa. And you've got to appreciate some of these jobs, particularly in the unskilled sector, are very transient in nature. And so if you're unemployed in Melbourne and the job is for three or four weeks in Bowen, it's very hard for you to get from Melbourne to Bowen to do this work and obviously quite costly. We've tried to incentivise - and there's about 7000 that have taken up the incentives of us repaying back some of those travel costs - but it just simply isn't a long term solution. So what we're trying to do now is bring in these workers, but look at it as a structural adjustment way of bringing workers that will come and actually live in regional Australia, not just pass through it. This could potentially be the next generation of migrants we bring to Australia to build, and particularly build regional Australia and build agriculture. So we're trying to work as quickly as we can now, but those approved employers - and obviously labour hire companies that both ourselves and the Vietnamese government have vetted - will now work and sign off on those contracts, identify those workers as quickly as we can and as safely as we can.

ANDY PARK: Minister, you mentioned that this will complement the deals already in place. Won't this put the noses out of joint of our Pacific neighbours who have been relying on some of these employment deals throughout the pandemic, what few of them they were, in a space and a time when we're already not very popular with some of our Pacific Island neighbours?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, this is an extension. There's plenty of work to go around. And this is only for agriculture. You've got to appreciate that we've extended the Pacific into other areas. And while there are still men and women that we're bringing in under the Pacific scheme to work in agriculture, not only in agriculture but in other sectors. We have an unemployment rate that's soon going to have a three in front of it, such is the way that our economy has rebounded through COVID, one that we should be very proud of, but has actually created some constraints in our growth in coming out of that. And so this will only complement and supplement the Pacific scheme. And the Pacific scheme is only for unskilled workers. This goes beyond that and looks for skilled and semi-skilled workers within the agricultural sector. Not just horticulture, but forestry, fishing, meat processing. So it's a lot broader in the scope of what it's trying to achieve.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Last month, you didn't hide your frustration that deals hadn't been finalised, saying the only challenge was the Foreign Minister completing those bilateral deals. This deal is months behind schedule. Are you convinced your coalition partners truly understand the importance of the deal, especially to your constituents?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, they do. And I think one of the complexities that was added to this was the AWU in the way that they demonised Australian farmers. I mean, it was disgraceful to think that you would walk into an embassy and tell an ambassador not to send their citizens to Australia because farmers would exploit them. That's a generalisation that is outrageous. There is a small cohort, as there is in any industry, that cut corners and do the wrong thing. Our job is to weed them out and to work together to do that and put regulations to protect those workers. But to actually sabotage, but more importantly, to damage the reputation of Australian farmers, family farmers, as well as Australia's own reputation. I don't think I've ever seen an Australian organisation ever do that to its own citizens before. So what we're saying is; this is also very important, that will go to cost of living pressures. You would appreciate when everyone thinks that fuel is pushing up prices in the supermarket at the moment, there are investment decisions being made by farmers at the moment whether to plant or not, and if they don't have certainty of people to pick their crops, they won't plant. And what that does is push down the supply and push up your price. So, if we hadn't put this ag visa in place, then let me tell you there were investment decisions starting to be made where farmers were simply not going to plant. And the biggest impost on your cost of living at the supermarket was going to be the fact there was no supply, and that's what we were addressing. And this is why it's important now that Anthony Albanese just says yes or no, does he agree to it and give everyone the certainty, the investment certainty to go out and plan and know that we're going to have a sure labour supply, and obviously give Australians first go at the jobs.
 
ANDY PARK: It's 6:14, RN Drive with Andy Park. My guest is Agriculture Minister David Littleproud. On the text line, 0418-22-6576. Minister, pretty simple question from a listener. How much will they be paid? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, the Fair Work Commission has already put in place a minimum wage for agricultural workers. That will continue to complement and add to it a piece arrangement, piece work arrangement, that allows them to earn more. So there is a minimum wage that has been set by the Fair Work Commission that will protect all workers. That's a good thing. And I think the industry showed maturity, while showing some concerns about the cost, were accepting of it. I think what we do need to understand is that many do get paid above the minimum wage. When they come to work here, they actually prefer the piece work arrangement because they can make significantly more. But there has been, and we can't sugar-coat it. There has been unscrupulous employers that need to be weeded out, and it's important we weed them out and we give the protection to these workers who come under the same minimum wage as what an Australian would also receive. So the circumstances are the same, we're bringing them in on the same circumstances an Australian worker would get, because we're market testing these jobs with Australia's first. 

ANDY PARK: You mentioned how there's been some issues in the past, I suppose the Government's had its fingers burnt in the past with unscrupulous employers. And you also mentioned that there's a vetting process for the recruitment companies that might find these potential Vietnamese workers. How will you make sure that there's not issues, whether they be human rights issues or other issues that ultimately lead to Australians having Vietnamese workers on primary producing properties who are just not suitable, and in fact, are breaking the law? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, and this is where we've tried to not only do more at a Federal level, but having to work also with our state jurisdictions, because there's some overlapping laws here. And the Attorney-General's working through legislation- mirroring legislation with state jurisdictions to make sure that we tighten those protections up and the regulations up. But we're also increasing the penalties. The other two pieces we're doing is we're bringing these schemes in under the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to give them the resources to be on the ground, but also to be in country before anyone comes, not only from the Pacific schemes, but also with this scheme. There will be education classes to these workers before they come, so they know their rights. They know the mechanisms that they can trigger if they feel as though they're being exploited. In fact, some of the feedback we're getting from the Fair Work Ombudsman is that those cases of exploitation, we often find when they've left either Pacific scheme that they're in at the moment and gone out and trying to do it without the safety net of those schemes, and they've absconded from the actual program. So what we're trying to do is make sure people understand their rights and responsibilities, but also their opportunity for protection if they feel as though they're being exploited. And this is where we're trying to make sure that we get that regulatory framework right, not just for the ag visa but also for the Pacific scheme as well. We've acknowledged that there's been a small cohort that's done the wrong thing and we've got to clean that up. That's the right thing to do, and we can do that. That's the Australian way. 

ANDY PARK: Just quickly shifting to the flooding situation in the Queensland town of Dalby, which I know sits in your electorate. An emergency alert is current with Mile Creek, expected to exceed the major flooding level this evening. What's the latest you're hearing? Are residents taking to higher ground? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, I just spoke to Mayor Paul McVeigh probably just under an hour ago. And there are some residents that have now gone to an evacuation centre. They're monitoring it. They believe that obviously there will be a number of houses that will be inundated, but they've taken all the precautionary steps. So I've got to say as a Queenslander one thing we do too well is we do disasters, sadly, better than anyone else, because we get so much practise of it.

ANDY PARK: It's a strange thing to hang your hat on, but it's the case certainly. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I know, it's tragic. But I got to say to the- our local governments up there, they work so well. And to the State Government and state agency, it is precision clockwork. And I've got every faith that the local mayor there who leads the actual disaster management committee will make sure that they've got all the pre-emptive steps. And I've obviously made the offer of any Federal support, but between State agencies and the Western Downs Regional Council, they've assured me that they have this under control, despite the fact that they can see the water rising and will continue to rise, and they've taken every step to keep people safe, as the primary cause. And can I say to everyone out there, their responsibility back is to make sure they stay out of flood waters, not to put Emergency Service personnel at any risk. They've got enough on their plate. Just simply do as you're instructed and just ride this one out. 

ANDY PARK: If it's true, like you say, that Queenslanders have become quite good at coping with these disasters, the Queensland Government this month announced a, I think, $771 million flood recovery package, which seeks to fund 50/50 with the Federal Government. The Queensland Government says the Federal Government hasn't responded to that yet. Why is that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I'm not the Emergency Service Minister, but I'm sure that we will respond. The normal course is for the states to make application through category, A B, C, or D funding. And then obviously those assessments are made predicated on the information they've provided. So I'm not privy to the details of that, but there is a process that takes place. The Queensland Government knows that, but they obviously decided to politicise that as soon as the application was put in rather than actually working constructively. Because if you are putting in an application of that scale, it's normally one that is worked constructively and collaboratively together to make sure that we got the actual programmes right. So, I would suggest that there's work being done behind the scenes. 

ANDY PARK: Appreciate your time tonight, Minister. Thank you. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me.

ANDY PARK: Agriculture Minister David Littleproud here on RN Drive with Andy Park.