Interview with Rod Henshaw, 2CC

31 December 2021

ROD HENSHAW: Well, we all know how the Australian agriculture is screaming for people to fill jobs, just as our hospitality industry is struggling to find people to fill jobs in restaurants, hotels and other parts of that sector. And some of the blame for the shortage has been the inability to access foreign workers because there have been COVID-related delays in getting visas finalised to bring them here. But Agriculture Minister and National Deputy Leader David Littleproud came out this week with another reason, and he shooted some of the blame and some of the delays back to the very union who represent such workers - well, many of them, anyway.
The Minister joins me now. David Littleproud, good morning, old friend, and welcome to New Year's Eve and all the best for New Year, in case I forget to mention it at the end.
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, you too, Rod. Good to be with you.
 
ROD HENSHAW: Now, just before we go into that issue that we spoke about there, are you in Canberra at the moment?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, no, at home in Queensland.
 
ROD HENSHAW: Okay, because I heard- no, the reason I asked is, I heard a grab of you talking about the atrocity that went on at the old Parliament House yesterday. I think you bought into that one about democracy, didn't you?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah look, I think it was a sad day for our democracy. In this country, no matter your race, no matter your religion, no matter your beliefs, no one has the right to vandalise in demonstrating their beliefs. And particularly a symbol of our democracy, a democracy that over 100,000 Australians have died defending. I think we all have a right to be custodians of that democracy, and we have to live up to that. You have got a right to demonstrate, but you have got to do that in a peaceful way that doesn't impinge on other people's rights. And so I think it's just sad, and I hope that the federal police in Canberra can act swiftly and bring those to justice. No matter their cause, no one is beyond the law, and they should be held to account for the damage that they have caused to that symbol of our democracy - and in fact, it's a museum of modern democracies.
 
ROD HENSHAW: Exactly.
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: It's very symbolic to our nation, and I think that as the current breed of Australians we have a responsibility to make sure that that is protected, that the values and principles that has guided us, and as I said, many have died defending, is protected at all cost.
 
ROD HENSHAW: Yeah, when you saw those pictures on TV last night, because it went national, possibly even international, what went through your mind?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: It's just so sad. I mean, I've been in that old building. I'm privileged enough to walk into the chamber...
 
ROD HENSHAW: I used to work in it.
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: And let me tell you, it's a privilege to go into the chamber that I sit in now, but I've sat in that old chamber…
 
ROD HENSHAW: Yeah.
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: …and just thinking through the history- the titans of Australian politics, the fathers and mothers of modern Australia that sat in there and defined what our country is today…
 
ROD HENSHAW: Yeah.
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: …and to think that there are people in our country that would disrespect that, and to disrespect our system of government that has given us the freedoms that many around the world don't enjoy, is the saddest part of that, and I think as Australians it's important we do reflect on how lucky we are. I get that we don't always get it right, but it's important you demonstrate that in a civil way that reflects what our country is, not a way that doesn't reflect what our nation has become.
 
ROD HENSHAW: Well said, mate, well said. Now, you say the Australian Workers Union, getting back onto the subject at hand, the Australian Workers Union, or the AWU, is causing delays in finalising bilateral agreements with the migrant farmworker scheme. How did you get to that conclusion? What's the logic behind it?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, the AWU in fact has met with ambassadors and visitors and contacted many embassies from Southeast Asia, encouraging them not to sign up to the agricultural visa because they believe that Australian farmers will exploit their citizens. Now, I appreciate there is a small cohort in agriculture that has done the wrong thing. Like any industry, whether it be agriculture, whether it be construction, whether it be hospitality, there is always a small cohort that do the wrong thing. But to generalise and to demonise Australian farmers like this has muddied the waters, and made Marise Payne's job a lot more difficult than what it should be in being able to finalise this. She is responsible for negotiating this. We put in place the visa - in fact, it came into effect on 1 October. The National Party made sure that we negotiated this in the UK Free Trade Agreement with our coalition partners. And it then became the responsibility of Marise Payne once we were able to put the mechanics in place to negotiate it. And one of the challenges that she does have is that they are muddying the waters and trying to demonise Australian farmers and generalise, and say that all their citizens will be at risk. Now, we are putting in place regulation around labour hire companies and increasing penalties, and increasing resources to make sure that we can police this, to make sure that they can have comfort. But every citizen has comfort, because any citizen that comes here works under the same conditions as what an Australian worker will, and all these jobs have to be market-tested with Australians first. We only bring in foreign labour when we need it. And can I tell you that ABARES is telling us that by February we will probably need another 10,000 to 20,000 workers in agriculture - not just horticulture, but right across agriculture, and we simply can't get Australians to do this work. And farmers don't have the luxury to sit around and wait…
 
ROD HENSHAW: Yeah…
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: …for someone to turn up. When it's ripe, it's got to get from their paddock to your plate, and you shouldn't take that for granted. And particularly when farmers have gone through drought, fires and cyclones…
 
ROD HENSHAW: You name it, they've done it.
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: …they can't cop another one, and this is their chance to make a quid. And we are actually growing agriculture despite all those challenges and we did- the biggest constraint on us now is labour, and we are just saying to the AWU this is an opportunity to be constructive, not deconstructive on this. Don't sabotage this. This is your opportunity to understand. Rather than sitting in a high-rise in Melbourne, I would encourage them to go out and meet a farmer, and understand what the majority of farmers do.
 
ROD HENSHAW: Okay, there are a couple of underlying things here. I mean, the AWU reckons that overseas workers could be open to exploitation. Is there any evidence of exploitation? We do hear stories from time to time that people are getting ripped off, or workers are getting ripped off. And I guess in some of the Pacific nations where the, you know, pay is very meagre, they come out here and they think they have died and gone to heaven when I get a pay packet. But is it enough? Is that what they should be paying? Are they paying, you know, award rates, or are they sneaking a bit under?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yes, Rod, we've got to be honest. There has been some in the agricultural industry, like any other industry that's done the wrong thing. You can't sugar coat it. But what we've got to do is to make sure we catch them, we weed them out. They are a cancer on our industry, and we remove them. But to generalise and say everyone does the wrong thing is not correct. There are other industries that do the same thing that we need to make sure, and that's about governments policing it and prosecuting it. And so- but to generalise is wrong, and to demonise is wrong. And so what we've got to do is make sure those regulations are there. But also, what's happened recently is the Fair Work Commission has made a ruling that there is a minimum wage for seasonal workers. There's still a piecework arrangement, but there is a base wage that underpins it. And the facts are that there was always a minimum wage that was paid to an extent.
But what was happening is some of these labour hire companies were exploiting workers around additionality, in terms of accommodation, transport, shoes, clothes, that weren't appropriate. But what is appropriate is if those cases come forward, that they'd be referred to the appropriate authorities. The Fair Work Ombudsman is the policeman on the beat, and they need to be made aware of these abnormalities, and they need to deal with them, not just being politicised and publicised; they need to be dealt with. And that's the process that has underpinned our society for so long. That's the way we can fix it, and that's the way we can give confidence, not just to Australians, but to everyone, that if you come to this country, you're going to be looked after.
 
ROD HENSHAW: Now, David the AWU reckons the new visa program would jeopardise Australia's relationships with some Pacific nations that I referred to a moment ago, because of a conflict, or perceived conflict, if you like, between Australia and Pacific- the Pacific Labour Scheme. Can you talk us through that?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So this is complementary and supplementary to the Pacific schemes. There's been over 25,000 men and women pre-vetted ready to come into our country, since August last year, to come and work in agriculture. Unfortunately, some of the state health protocols and health orders the chief health officers are putting in place haven't brought them in as quick as we'd like. But what the ag visa is, is not just about seasonal work but, Rod, it's also about skilled and semi-skilled agricultural workers. So it goes beyond that, and it also looks to be able to give a pathway to permanent residency. And what that means is that we're going to bring the next generation of migrants to grow regional Australia, to grow agriculture. So it's a structural shift away from transient labour to a more consistent one that's going to live in regional Australia and grow it. So there are some differences around, but it will always complement and supplement the Pacific schemes. They are very important, and they take primacy, particularly in the seasonal space. But we are looking for skilled and semi-skilled workers as well, like in the meat processing sector, where they are very highly sought after. So these are the types of things that we're looking for, and there's plenty of work to go around. And we've expanded the Pacific schemes beyond agriculture as well, so there- so what we're understanding is the shortage of labour that we've got, the biggest constraint on our economy is labour, and we're looking to our Pacific family, but also expanding it for industries like agriculture, for specific jobs as well.
 
ROD HENSHAW: Yeah, I think it's- yeah, it's an irony, and it's a cruel irony that, you know that some of the farmers have had the best seasons in years, and a lot of stuff is going to waste in a paddock, as you say. That's a cruel irony. But the AWU National Secretary, what's his name, Dan Walton, he says the union is not out to stymie the scheme. Just to make sure farmers who use overseas labour are doing the right thing. You say there's a little bit more to it, that they're actually sabotaging it.
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: When you go and actively walk in to an embassy and talk to an ambassador and encourage them not to do it, that is outright sabotage. That is about demonising the farming industry, bringing down their reputation. But also bringing down a whole country's reputation. I don't know why the AWU hates Australia so much and hates farmers so much. You don't go and do that and actively sabotage a program and actually remove any good will around our reputation as a good citizen globally. And that's what we're saying. This is outrageous behaviour, that these sort of discussions should be held at government only, that we can have those discussions, that there are plenty of public reports around the wrongdoing - no one's walking away from that. But what we are able to demonstrate is that we can fix this, and we can make sure that that small minority, and it is a small minority, are weeded out. And I think that's the important thing. When you have mixed messages going to embassies and ambassadors, they have to report back to their sovereign governments. And that's the challenge we've got. You've got mixed messages of the union actively sabotaging that and bringing down our nation and our farmers reputation internationally. That's not the right thing to do.
 
ROD HENSHAW: Are you hopeful of a speedy resolve as we go into the new year?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, look, Marise Payne has given a commitment to the Prime Minister and I that this is her top priority in finalising in January. She believes that a lot of work has been done, and she's done a lot of work in being able to accommodate the concern of these countries to give them that comfort they're looking for. So I have great faith in Marise and I think she's been a very good Foreign Minister. She's given us that commitment to the Prime Minister and I. The Prime Minister's on the hook, he knows, he made the commitment, a promise, and he's followed through. We put this in place at the end of September. So it's now important that Marise has given the clear air to be able to finalise these negotiations.
 
ROD HENSHAW: Yeah, because I did hear, actually, there seems to be some tension between the Nationals and your coalition partners, with some of your party claiming the Libs are creating obstructions.
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously, there's frustrations, and this has been an article of faith for the National Party, one in which I fought for when I first became Ag Minister in '17, and was rolled once before. So I'm as passionate about this as anyone. This is something that I fought tooth and nail from- for since I became Ag Minister. So if there are colleagues that are feeling those constraints from their farmers, their constituents that are telling them they're about to make money, but they're about to lose it because they can't get people on the ground, Australians won't do this work. And the only solution, apart from the Pacific, is the ag visa. So the frustration is building. You can understand the frustration when they've lost so much money after- over so many years from the elements, and now it's sitting in front of them, but they can't touch it. And that's why a lot of my National Party colleagues understand that it's a Liberal Minister that's responsible - Marise Payne, in finalising the last piece of this. I have the utmost confidence in Marise been able to go negotiate this, but she just needs clear air. She just needs the unions and everyone out of her space and allow her the clear air to be able to undertake these negotiations.
 
ROD HENSHAW: Good on you, David. How are you spending New Year?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I'll be tucked away in bed by 9.30, I reckon. [Laughs].
 
ROD HENSHAW: Me too. I've got to be back here by five in the morning, I'm not happy.
                                                                                                [Laughter]
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: You're probably better for it that way.
 
ROD HENSHAW: You're probably right. You take care, mate, and we'll catch up in the new year. Say gidday to your dad for us and I hope all is going well up there.
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: You too, Rod. Have a great new year. Thanks for having me, mate.
 
ROD HENSHAW: Thanks mate. David Littleproud, Minister for Agriculture, and the Nationals Deputy Leader.