Interview with Gary Hardgrave, Sky News

31 December 2021

(interview conducted 28 December 2021)

GARY HARDGRAVE: Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, joins us from his home on Darling Downs. Good to talk to you, Minister. Happy Christmas and a happy New Year ahead. This Agriculture Visa, the workers that you were wanting to bring in – it seems to have hit a stall. Well, according to one of your colleagues, things aren’t happening. Why not?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, the Ag Visa was put in place – came into effect, in fact, on 1 October. And all we’re waiting on now are the bilaterals with a number of South East Asian countries that Marise Payne is negotiating with – she’s been doing that for some time. And we’re hoping and we’re very confident that very confident that, very soon, she’ll finalise those bilaterals. And in fact, we may move on to other countries to expand it.
But this is the biggest structural change to agricultural workforce in our nation’s history. You talked about, earlier, about those migrants in the 50’s and 60’s that came out. Well, this is the next generation we want to bring in under the Agriculture Visa, because we’re offering them a pathway to permanent residency. We don’t want them to transient through regional Australia, we want them to stay there to build regional Australia; to build agriculture. And this is a very important program. 
But you have to appreciate that these countries have to agree to it. We- Just because Australia arrogantly puts out an Ag Visa, it doesn’t mean everyone signs up to it. And, and the Foreign Minister has been working hard. But the structures in place - it’s been in place since 1 October. And, what some of my colleagues are obviously feeling, the pressures on the ground because there is a constraint on agriculture at the moment - that is labour. 
And while every job is market tested, not every Australian wants these jobs. And I appreciate some of them are some thousands of kilometres away and they're very transient in nature, but farmers don't have the luxury to sit around and wait for someone to turn up and pick their crop. When it's ripe, it’s got to get from their paddock to your plate as quickly as possible. And we have relied, traditionally, on foreign labour through the backpacker. 
This now gives a more structural change, a long term change, but builds our nation while we're doing it. I think this is an exciting, exciting thing that the National Party was able to secure in terms of the negotiations on the UK free trade agreement, which has also come into effect and given us greater access for beef, and sheep, and sugar, and dairy, and wine. So this was a win-win, one in which the Coalition was able to work together to make sure that we got a really successful outcome. 
We just really need this Ag Visa to be finalised now, because there is a constraint by February. We expect probably somewhere between 10 and 20,000 men and women short to pick. But it also complements the Pacific schemes out there as well, which is important to understand is that they can come in. There’s 25,000 odd sitting on the tarmac since 12 months ago. 
And some are, as you just alluded, these premiers have dictated when they could come in because they gave the health protocols, the health orders between them and the chief health officers. And the Prime Minister in December last year said: let's cut the red tape. You just tell us how you're going to bring them in addition to your caps…

GARY HARDGRAVE: Yep.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: … and we'll sign the visas. So the Prime Minister got out their way. It was probably one of the one times that National Cabinet, where they were all singing from the one hymn sheet, but there's just been little action from some of the states. Some have done a good job and have tried really hard.

GARY HARDGRAVE: Well, I mean- So I mean, that's the point. You're talking 10 or 20,000 people needed to get it from the paddock to our plates. And I guess that the growers have been doing their darndest to, to try and provide Australian grown fruit and veggies, so during the Christmas period. And we were asked to put up with the fact that some may not be as perfect as they have been in the past. But I mean, we get that. 
But you know, it's frustrating, isn’t it? You can't get people easily moving between state borders. I was talking to a friend of mine who's just been overseas, come back – said: it's easier to leave Australia and return to the country than it is to go from, say, Sydney to Brisbane right now. It's so onerous. It's, it's actually quite threatening, the processes that are in place.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it is. In March last year, the states asked for national leadership. We brought them together – there was- all the state ag ministers said: you've got to make agriculture an essential service. We've got to get contractors and pickers from one state to the other. So we devised the Agricul- Agricultural Workers Code. Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania wouldn't sign up to it. They wanted to have their own bespoke arrangements that just made it even more difficult. And that put even more pressure. 
I’m not try- I'm just bringing in Pacific workers, but the Ag Visa to be up and going. And can I just say that one of the other big constraints on, on us being able to get the Agriculture Visa up has been the disgraceful action of the AWU. They’ve actually gone and visited embassies and ambassadors; demonising Australian farmers; generalising, saying that they will all exploit their citizens. In saying that they should not allow any of their workers; they should not sign up to this visa. You know, the most disgraceful act I've seen in my life. 
I don't know why the AWU doesn't like this country. Australians get first crack at these jobs. We've tried to move them around. Premiers have inhibitors. And all they're saying to farmers is: bad luck, you can miss out. After years of drought, the first time you're going to make a quid, and you're going to miss out. And we've tried to get this collaboration, not only from the states but from unions, and they've all turned their back and just basically told farmers to take a running jump at the time they needed them most. They need help, and we're trying to give it to them.

GARY HARDGRAVE: You know, it- Minister, it just- it's extraordinary. I mean, that particular point you've just made emphasises again that Australia is not as attractive to some of these international workers as we would like to believe they would be. I mean, a lot of people in the Pacific Islands love the idea of coming here because we can pay them well. There's a pathway to permanent migration outcomes for people from some other countries, which is an extraordinary thing. 
And back in the day when I was a, a minister - and I hate to do that to a current minister, a senior minister like you - but I mean, we were, we were so short on people during the mining boom back in the early 2000’s. People weren't even emptying- weren't able to pick up the rubbish- well, in places like in your electorate in the city of Roma- in the town of Roma. They were- they just couldn't get people to empty the, empty the garbage because they were running off to the mines. We are short on people, particularly in rural Australia. You've come up with an answer, and the premiers aren't playing ball.


DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. And look, this is, this is the challenge that we find in our federation, and our federation needs to recalibrate - it needs to work together; it needs to trust one another. And we need to learn to live with COVID now. Break the shackles as best we can. We’ve worked from the science, and hopefully the Omicron science will come through that will give us some more comfort and confidence to be able to ease some of these restrictions, and ease up. 
We had some visitors from Victoria that got through only this morning- were sitting on the border. I mean, they were waiting for three days in Tenterfield to get a pass to come and say hello and then to move on to their family. 
This is modern Australia…

GARY HARDGRAVE:  Ridiculous.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: … and I don't think that's what our forefathers thought when they created the federation. They were lines put on a map 120 years ago, but modern Australia has evolved past that. and we just need these premiers to stand behind the Prime Minister at National Cabinet, and when they walk out, still be there when he makes announcements and not go off and do their own thing. Because that's how we get back to a normal country that can pay the bills, that can grow.
And we are growing. If you look at the economy, and where we're going, and what we've done - pre-COVID, post-COVID - there is not a country in the world that would not look at Australia and say: can I have a piece of that? We should be damn proud of it…

GARY HARDGRAVE:  Yep.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: … of what we've achieved - not this self-loathing. But we just need these premiers to work with us. And if they can and they do, then this nation will prosper and come out of COVID quicker and better than any other nation on the planet.

GARY HARDGRAVE: I can't not let the question of water go by before, before we finish, David Littleproud. You know, you and I have talked plenty of times about it. We've had so much water drop into your own electorate, that’s flooded parts of your electorate and is now heading its way down the Darling, I guess, ending up in South Australia. Isn't it frustrating that, despite having a national water plan, there is just no movement by premiers to actually contain and plan the better use of water? When droughts come, we’ll be crying about the, the water that's just flowing into the sea.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, Gary, the frightening thing is that since 2003, there's been 20 dams built in this country. Sixteen of those have been in Tasmania. The Eastern Seaboard states have not done a thing. The reality is- The next frightening statistic is that our population, particularly on the Eastern Seaboard, has gone up exponentially. In fact, by 2030, there will be a 37 per cent reduction in storage capacity per person per megalitre of water. Which means, even in the cities, your ability and amenity to turn the tap on to water the garden, to wash the car, will be less because the population's gone up. But no one's burning any diesel to dig a hole, to store the floodwaters, or to plumb the states. 
And Tasmania, to their credit, has effectively just about taken the last bit of money from us – the $3.5 billion that we put out there – they've come back and asked for another 400 or 500, I think, to finish off the plumbing of Tasmania. They've had the courage and conviction to do it, and it’s time that we work together again. This federation came together, understand that water will grow our nation. And particularly in the northern Australia - the opportunities are there. 
We've got the science, we've got the know- how and we've got to stop this mentality of: why not, rather than: how can we? And if we change that culture, that mentality, then we will dig some holes and we will burn that diesel to plumb the nation and to get this country going; and to build the wealth outside our capital cities. But also what we're doing- giving them in the capital cities and major metropolitan areas, the amenity to turn the tap on.

GARY HARDGRAVE: Yeah. Well, at EPBC - the Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act, the Federal Act - I voted for it. I confess I wish they hadn't now. But David Littleproud, that's got to go into the shredding machine as the starting point. I know there's been a review, but we need some action. The states are using it as a weapon to beat you guys up.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, and I think that's a valid point. And one of the, one of the things that the National Party, in terms of the net zero by 2050, was that we had to have a good hard look at the EPBC Act. And there are some practical resolutions to…

GARY HARDGRAVE:  Yeah.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: … to that that we can resolve. And Sussan Ley, to her credit, has been working through with us on that. And I think you'll see that the- that that win by the Nats will come to fruition at some point in the future.
Because everybody, from the Prime Minister down, can see that it's been weaponised to an extent that it shouldn't - it's holding the country back. And we can use science and technology to understand the environment, to get the environmental and economic and social outcomes that we desire. We're a smart nation. We’ve just got to back ourselves.

GARY HARDGRAVE: Yeah. Good on you, David Littleproud. Straight talking as always. Good to have you on the program. All the best for 2022. David Littleproud, Deputy Nationals Leader, also our Federal Agricultural Leader- Minister.