Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC RN

16 June 2021

FRAN KELLY: The Federal Government will announce a new visa scheme for South East Asian farm workers today, in a bid to counter a shortage of fruit pickers caused first by COVID restrictions, and now, by the free trade deal with the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his British counterpart, Boris Johnson, signed the historic free trade agreement yesterday, the first major bilateral trade deal done by the UK since Brexit.

BORIS JOHNSON: This will be good news for British car manufacturers, it will good news for British services, for British financial services. And it will be good news for, I hope, for agricultural sector, on both sides.

[End of excerpt]
FRAN KELLY: That’s the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Under this FTA, British backpackers wanting to extend a stay in Australia will no longer have to spend some months working on farms. But there will be a new visa class for British agricultural workers. Tariffs on Australian beef and lamb exports will be lifted but there’s going to be a 10-year transition, and then there’ll be caps on tariff free exports remaining in place.

David Littleproud is the Federal Agricultural Minister. David Littleproud, welcome back to Breakfast.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Thanks for having me, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, Britain needed this free trade deal more than us. It’s their first trade deal done since Brexit, so Boris Johnson had plenty to prove and precedents to set. Have we driven a hard enough bargain?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I think so. We've got the balance right. We've opened up another free trade agreement, number 15, that allows our agricultural exporters to send boats left and right if we have trouble up the middle. And we've proven we've done that. And this just gives our farmers another string to their bow. And particularly when you look at beef, sheep, sugar, dairy, they've all been winners out of this.

FRAN KELLY: Well, winners, but not at a fast pace. I mean, under the deal on Australian lamb, for instance, tariffs are very high at the moment. They will come down but it’s over 10 years, we're not rushing this.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, well we've got an immediate increase in our quotas. So for beef, we’ve gone from under 5000 tonne to 35,000 tonne overnight, and for sheep from just over 15,000 to 25,000. And then that will go up on a linear scale. Beef gets up to around, I think, 175,000 tonnes and a 125,000 for sheep. So…

FRAN KELLY: It gets it to 110,000 tonnes, I think, and 75,000 tonnes.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: In- 110,000 over 10 years, but beef get to 175 over the 15. But that's not different to any other free trade agreement that we've struck. That always takes time for this transition. While we'd like it to be quicker, you've got to strike that balance and understand we're opening up this market. And in fact, when you're getting a significant increase in quotas, tariff free quotas straight up, straight off the bat, that’s real dollars into Australian to farmers’ pockets.

FRAN KELLY: And so Australian beef and lamb producers are ready to fill that immediate gap. That's, what, an extra 25 tonne of beef, I think you just told us, straight away. It’s there ready to go?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Totally. And I think we've got to also be honest about this, that most of our agricultural exports still go to our ASEAN family into Asia, and that'll continue to happen because of the proximity and the premium they're paying. But what this does is allow our exporters to look at new markets and be able to fill those. And I know of some producers personally up in Central Queensland that are champing at the bit to have a crack at that beef quota. They've already said that they've been limited. This will give them increased capacity. In fact, they're already investing in a new abattoir, such is the confidence that they’re having. And this will then just give them another string to the bow and investment in regional Australia that's going to create jobs here.

FRAN KELLY: We are making a big song and dance about this, though. But as you say, I mean, it's kind of the trade with the UK is minuscule and will remain miniscule in comparison to with our Asian neighbours and particularly China. How far will this deal go in addressing the gap left by the China bans?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think we've got to put that in perspective. Trade still continued to flourish, despite the real challenge with wine and timber, our beef exports have continued to go up. And in fact, last year, we did our quota under the China free trade agreement in June when we normally do it in October, November every year. So the demand is still strong line. While wine, it was very disappointing and we're working through the industry, whether we go to the WTO or not. And barely, we were able to find new markets. So I think you've just got to put in perspective, while there has been some challenges with China, trade’s still strong there, but so too is the rest of our ASEAN family, particularly Vietnam, a very strong and reliable trading partner for us, and now also Indonesia with the free trade agreement we signed July last year. So the free trade agreements are starting to rack up and they’re starting to also flow through to the farm gate.

FRAN KELLY: Okay. Let's go to visas now. UK travellers coming to Australia on 12-month working visas will no longer be forced to work in agriculture if they want to extend their stay. You've already calculated that would mean a loss of about 10,000 seasonal workers. Is that a fair price to pay for tariff free exports?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it was the line in the sand that we couldn't cross unless there was compensation. And myself and the rest of the National Party made it very clear that if we were to go and sign off on this agreement, we had to have a mechanism that would fill that void, but also build greater capacity, because we've seen the world change with COVID-19. Unfortunately, Australians can't be incentivised to go and have a crack at these jobs. We've got to just be up and honest about that. So the reality is we're going to have to continue to rely on overseas labour. And so what the- one of the concessions that the Prime Minister was able to negotiate with myself and Michael McCormack, was that we were to have an agricultural visa that would be extended to our ASEAN family to be able to give them the opportunity to come and fill that void.

FRAN KELLY: So that's- it's an agricultural visa for ASEAN countries?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: A seasonal agricultural workforce visa that will start off with our ASEAN families, and that will be in addition to the Pacific and Seasonal Worker Programmes. That is a flagship program. We've got 25,000 men and women ...

FRAN KELLY: Why don’t we just extend that one? Why have we developed a new one for ASEAN countries?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: There's different conditions. Obviously, being part of the Pacific family, we want to - we were very careful to make sure that they had extra conditions and protections laid on them. This is simply, really an extension of the Working Holiday Maker, the new visa. And so we'll obviously be working to make sure that those countries, those 10 ASEAN countries have confidence in being allowed their people to come. They have to be- they have to sign in. We're not just forcing them; we can't force them. So we'll be reaching out to those ASEAN countries and making this visa available to their workers.

FRAN KELLY: So just to be clear, are you saying that if- this is for like an Indonesian tourist who wants to come here and extend the stay, they'd have to do this. It’s the same deal as it was for the British or is it a particular agricultural visa?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: It's a specific agricultural visa. So effectively, what they'll have is a visa for three years and they'll be able to work up to nine months. They'll have to go home for three months. And basically they'll be able to work here on the proviso they're in agriculture. It’s specifically designed for agriculture. We've got a significant shortage and it's the biggest constraint that we've got on agriculture at the moment, and the...

FRAN KELLY: How many people would come in under this visa?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that'll be determined by which countries sign up to it and obviously we’ll now ...

FRAN KELLY: Well we must have a target, do we?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously well above 10,000. That's the baseline that we can work on. And there's no reason why we won't achieve that. In fact, there's been many discussions through embassies and high commissions already around the potential and the opportunity that Australia can provide to many of these country citizens for reliable work.

FRAN KELLY: What are the optics of this? That, you know, farm work is beneath British citizens, Australians don't want to do it, won't do it. So we're offering it to others. What does that say about the conditions?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, the conditions are award, up to their award, and anyone that doesn't, need to be found out and weeded out. They’re a cancer. And I don't think it's fair to generalise that Australian farmers don't pay fair rates. They pay the fair rates. Now, in an industry, there's always individuals that cut corners. And what we need to do is cut those people out of the industry. So I think it's dangerous where you've got unions running around and generalising and demonising farmers broadly, when that's not the case. There are, and like any industry, individuals that do the wrong thing ...

FRAN KELLY: There are spectacular cases of that, Minister, you have to admit.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, there are cases that have to be fixed. And that is what we are working, not only at a federal level, but working with the states. I’ve got to say, the states have put their hand up to work with us as well, because it's a joint responsibility. And we we're working hand in hand to make sure we can fix this to give confidence to those workers and to the consumer.

FRAN KELLY: Just finally, Minister, on the matter of the Murugappan family, the- otherwise known as the Biloela family. Here we are discussing the need for workers to travel to regional Australia and we have a family who has lived and worked in Biloela. Biloela, a regional town, wants them to live and work there. They have a need for abattoir workers. And yet we won't allow them to stay. Why?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Because the laws of the land, and at the moment ...

FRAN KELLY: Which have built in them the capacity for discretionary, Ministerial discretion.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: They have gone through a judicial process that they have been found not to live up to the laws of this land. They are not above the law of the land like anyone else that resides in this country. The law of the land is what has kept- the rule of law has kept this country safe. And that is what has kept our society to be one of the best societies in the world. Now, whether there's conjecture about the fairness and compassion of that, well and good. But our primary responsibility is to keep our borders safe and our people safe. And if you do not adhere to those laws, then unfortunately we cannot make exceptions. You cannot have public opinion and the mob decide what the law of the land is. That is a dangerous precedent in which to set. There is a judicial process underway and everyone should respect it and respect the judicial outcome.

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

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me. Fran.

FRAN KELLY: David Littleproud.