Interview with John Stanley, 2GB

31 December 2021

(interview conducted 29 December)

JOHN STANLEY: We’ve got- we mentioned this earlier, you’ve got a lot of areas around New South Wales and Queensland that are still disaster declared. They’ve got the aftermath of- well, going all the way back to the drought, then you’ve got COVID, you’ve got the mouse plague, you’ve got the recent floods, and then you’ve got the issues with staffing. And there is a bit of friction at the moment with farming bodies critical of the Federal Government over delays with the Agriculture Visa. This was promised back in 2018; the regulations were activated in September of this year, still not in place, and the want these Agriculture Visas there because they need people to come and work and clear some of the harvest that need to be done urgently.
David Littleproud is the Agriculture Minister, he’s the Deputy Leader of the National Party. He joins us now – Minister, good morning.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Good morning, good to be with you, John.

JOHN STANLEY: Now, is it right, this visa still in limbo?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, it came into effect 1 October, it was given royal assent on 30 September. The only thing that’s required now, despite creating the visa, is we need the country to sign up, and the Minister responsible for that is Marise Payne. She’s been working through that with a number of southeast Asian countries- is continuing to do that. The advice we had from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade back in around August was that they would be able to successfully complete some of those negotiations before Christmas. They haven’t been able to do that- and can I say, some of that, in defence of Marise and her department, is the AWU. They actually went and met with ambassadors and lobbied embassies of these southeast Asian countries, asking them not to sign up to this visa, because they believed Australian farmers would simply exploit every worker that came through – an absolutely abhorrent situation that has cast doubt in the minds of some of these countries. And so we're trying to work through that with them, and that's probably delayed us more than what we would have liked. But the visa is up and going, any country can sign up to it. But just because we've got one, it mean- doesn’t mean…

JOHN STANLEY: Well they haven't signed up, is that the situation? They haven't signed up.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: They haven't signed up to it. They are sovereign countries – they have got every right to decide whether their citizens can come or not, and under the circumstances they come. So we're working through that with them, and Marise Payne is working hard. She's making it a priority and she's made it clear to both the Prime Minister and I that she expects to get on and complete a lot of that early in the New Year. In January she believes that she'll have a fair bit of that completed. But there has been some muddying the waters by the Australian Workers Union that was just unnecessary. I mean, I get there is a small cohort that do the wrong thing, but there isn’t in industry, John. And you just don't demonise and generalise a whole industry on it. And we will weed those people out, but you just don't do that.

JOHN STANLEY: Just to clarify this for our listeners who don't follow this closely. You have got the Pacific Labour Scheme, which is different, and so it is operating, the Pacific Labour Scheme?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: It is John, and it has been going, in fact, we ramped that up in August last year. And I’ve got to say that Marise Payne and Alex Hawke, the former Pacific Minister, were able to find 25,000 men and women, and literally they have been sitting on the tarmac ready to come in. And they come in under the chief health officer and premier’s orders in each individual state. Each state does it a little bit differently, and I’ve got to say, your state and New South Wales probably led the way in terms of reopening up borders.

JOHN STANLEY: Yup.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: But they were to be bought in under their health orders, in addition to their caps. Now a lot of that is starting to change. So that scheme is still in place, and that is complementary and supplementary to the Agricultural Visa. The Agricultural Visa goes to skilled and semi-skilled as well. So it's about a structural change of bringing in a more permanent workforce, rather than relying on transient backpackers. We still don't know when we are going to get back to that, and I think this is something that the agricultural sector has been asking for for a long time, is some significant structural change. And the National Party, we made sure we negotiated this with our Coalition partners when the UK Free Trade Agreement came up.

JOHN STANLEY: At its heart, I mean, are there people who are struggling to get harvest done and fruit picked and the like, because they have not got people to do it?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: There is, geographically- some are under more pressure than others. It just depends where- you have got to understand the challenge we've got. These jobs are all market-tested first, you have got to understand that every Australian gets a crack at these jobs before a foreigner gets it. Now, unfortunately, some of those jobs are thousands of kilometres away. They last in one area for probably two or three weeks, and then you move on to another area, so it's a certain lifestyle you've got to sign up to so we've got to, so we’ve got to appreciate that. But these jobs are all there. In fact, ABARES is saying we filled in about 15,000 to 16,000 through the Pacific Scheme. There are probably another 10,000 to 20,000 that will be required between now and February, so they can come in out of the Pacific. And we are hoping if a country signs up- and in fact, we have already got approved employers and labour hire companies that the Government has accredited in these countries we are negotiating with. If they were to sign even today, we would be having those people in, ready to bring people in immediately. That's the work that we've done. We are just simply waiting for one of these countries to sign up.

JOHN STANLEY: All right, Minister, I appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, John.