LAURA JAYES: Now, the agriculture industry is welcoming the introduction of a new visa from 30 September. From providing a range of employment opportunities to workers in ASEAN countries, the industry had been pressuring the Government for a long term solution to farm labour shortages as a result of international travel restrictions. Let’s go live now to David Littleproud, the Minister for Agriculture and Northern Australia. Minister, thanks so much for your time. I know you’ve been pushing this for some time. The premiers have been standing in the way, but for many it’s too little too late, isn’t it?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well no, I wouldn’t say that. There’s 25,000 men and women sitting in ten Pacific nations that can still come. When it gets to skills, well the Australian Border Force Commissioner in fact has the power to be able to allow those, where there are skill shortages, in with visas. So we’ve, we’ve actually had a temporary mechanism in place. But what this is, is the largest structural change to the agricultural workforce in our nation’s history.
This is in fact changing the dynamic entirely and giving that investment confidence to the agricultural sector to spend their money because they’ll have the certainty of knowing people are coming in. But the biggest, the biggest challenge in this – this is about bringing in generation of migrants into our country to grow agriculture and grow regional Australia. Because we’re giving them a pathway to permanent residency.
LAURA JAYES: Okay.
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Because it’s not just about seasonal workers, it’s also about, it’s also about skilled and semi-skilled. So this is transformation in what we’ve been able to achieve, and it was part of the negotiations I had with the, with the Liberal Party and the National Party - made sure that while we got good agricultural access for the UK free trade agreement, the National Party also said we had to square the ledger on this visa. That had to be done, and it's been overdue for far too long.
LAURA JAYES: Well, that's great because it does provide a longer-term solution. It means you're not just getting workers in for this season. But, you know, as you know, I spoke to some harvesters a couple of months ago and they said they had 30 days to get these harvesters in. They needed the skilled workforce because the grain just doesn't hang around. Some of these crops have just been left to die, haven't they?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, there's been crops that have been left to rot, but there's also significant investment decisions being made now as we get into the warmer months, where farmers are simply saying, I'm not planting, or they're pulling out permanent plantings because they're saying we won't have the labour. So we're giving them the confidence, not only with that 25,000 men and women that are sitting there now - of which only 10,000 have come in - but we're now going to complement and supplement that with these from South East Asia and the UK. But we're going to need the states who, who are handling the quarantine for agricultural workers, in addition to their caps, we’re going to need them to show a little bit more courage…
LAURA JAYES: Well, so have they given that guarantee, Minister?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Sorry? I just didn’t get that question.
LAURA JAYES: Are the states on board with this? Because, you know, as we know, in the last 18 months, if the states are not, any agreement you strike doesn't really matter if they're not on board.
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, they are. In fact, and this is why we're asking them to show a little bit more urgency. On 11 December after National Cabinet the premiers all reaffirmed that they wanted to own the quarantining of agricultural workers. In fact, Dan Andrews was leading the charge in his statement, saying that this was an economic imperative.
And also, it goes to the heart of making sure that supermarket prices don’t get out of control. So, we’ve respected the sovereignty of the states - we understand that. And we’re working with them in saying, here are the solutions. You’ve got to get your chief health officers, your premiers, to, to get comfort with those solutions, to tick it off, otherwise we can’t stamp the visas. And this is critical, and I think industry’s shown a maturity to come forward in looking for solutions. We just now need the states to show a little bit of courage, back ourselves, and know that we can do this in a COVID-safe way.
LAURA JAYES: Are they showing that courage? You’re kind of talking like it's a bit of a grey area and not set in stone.
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well let me tell you, some states are. I got to say, South Australia is probably the exemplar. They are the closest to meeting the demand of labour in their state than any other. While they haven't got the most numbers coming in, they're getting close to meeting the demand because they've put a facility themselves where they've quarantined, and now they're looking to do in country quarantining with Vanuatu. Every other state has turned their back on it. Queensland has got the most numbers in coming in, but it doesn't go anywhere near meeting the requirements because they've gone to on farm, which we encourage. But we're now finding that they're knocking back on farm applications. In fact, even one in my own electorate where they'd gone to the, to the expense of hundreds of thousands of dollars of building the quarantine facility on farm, and then at the 11th hour, being knocked back by the Queensland Government.
So, we’re just saying, you've got to, you've got to work with industry, there’s solutions out there, and, and it's up to the states who want to own this. We've all got a responsibility in this. We’ve got one level of responsibility that we've got to live up to, and we just in the states- some states have done a good job in trying to live up to their responsibility, but now's the time to shine. Because otherwise our farmers, after finally getting some rain, look like making a quid, now are, are going to be left at the altar with nothing.
LAURA JAYES: Yeah. And they can't wait. I mean, Mark McGowan is not even letting in compassionate exemptions from New South Wales at the moment. Yesterday, the Queensland's Chief Health Officer said she's not going to allow her state to necessarily open up, even with 80 per cent vaccination. Where are we at right now, David Littleproud? Don't we need to be a bit real with the Australian people?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we are. And that's what the Prime Minister is trying to do. And that's why National Cabinet is being created because this is testing our federation. The Prime Minister's trying to show the leadership, the calm leadership of bringing them together to get consensus and to use science. And that's why the Doherty Institute report is so pivotal in giving us the comfort of having a safe plan of getting Australia out of this. We've got to learn to live with it in a safe way. And that's what the Prime Minister’s engaged with. But we need the leadership of the premiers. That's the federated model. That’s what our forefathers …
LAURA JAYES: Sorry to interrupt, but what does that mean? Because we're at a point where we need some straight talk, right? So, living safely with COVID means that there are going to be hundreds of thousands of cases over six months and there will be deaths.
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: And particularly, that's exactly right, and particularly for those that don't vaccinate themselves. At the moment, the main way in which to arm ourselves, as Qantas has quite clearly articulated in such a beautiful way, is that the best way to get ourselves out of this, to live with this, is to have- is to have a vaccine in your arm, to protect yourself. If you choose not to, that's your choice. We respect that. But know that there are consequences. But we cannot sit underneath of doona forever.
This country has to move forward. We have to learn to understand, like other viruses, this will take people's lives. So long as we have got a health system that's secure, that's strong enough to support them with the medical facilities they need, which is what Doherty is saying that if we get those - those jabs in the arms and this is our ticket to actually trying to live with this. But we've got to be realistic. We've got to be honest. No one is entirely safe.
But there is- there is always risk in life. But to live underneath the doona, as some of the people in southern states, I haven’t experienced it, I've got to say are ready to do it and they're ready to put their arm out, and they’re ready to live with this. And I think that is where the conversation the Prime Minister's trying to change and he's trying to give them a safe pathway to do that with science, with Doherty. And now, it's just going to take the leadership of the states to come with us.
LAURA JAYES: Without using expletives, Minister, what do you say to the premiers who do not open and will not open, even with 80 per cent of their population vaccinated?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, just disappointment, I mean, people are shattered. I mean, they're looking for confidence and certainty and hope, and this is what leadership is about. In these trying times, you are tested. And we just say those premiers, we've got to back one another. Lines that were put on a map 120 years ago are not relevant to modern Australia. And at some point, we're going to have to have a safe plan out and we're going to have to come together as a nation not as states. And this is the leadership that's going to be required. And this is what is testing our federation.
The Prime Minister is trying to keep the federation together, but it's just going to take a little bit of courage, conviction of all our state premiers to come with this and to make sure we work together rather than in isolation.
LAURA JAYES: Very restrained of you. This might that change things as this is happening on the border of your electorate in Mungindi. The hospital is separated by the rest of the town. Staff can't go to that hospital and patients are being moved 300 kilometres away. This is Bianca's story. I spoke to her yesterday. Have a look.
BIANCA: Saturday morning, I went round with my four children and we just went and said goodbye to him. And it was awful. The nurses were all in tears and all the residents there, like some of them, have dementia. And the nurses are trying to be upbeat and tell them that they're going on a holiday. And it was really sad. There's just tears everywhere.
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LAURA JAYES: Minister, that's Bianca there talking about her father- in-law Charlie who’s in palliative care at Mungindi Hospital. He's now potentially being moved to Roma because there's not enough staff there because there's no border bubble. This is madness.
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: It is and I have to disclose that my cousin is one of those nurses at Mungindi Hospital, and I'll disclose that up front. But this is in my electorate and this really is the human toll where there isn't leadership in this country.
And I'm writing to both premiers and Mark Coulton, who's on the New South Wales side, representing the New South Wales electorate of Parkes, where we border. We've been trying to work through solutions on this. And I'll be writing to both premiers saying, can you please just extend a bubble?
And the bubble really only has to go not that far. I mean, the hospital is on the Queensland side, but most of the town lives on the New South Wales side. You don't have to take that bubble far. There are no cases in Mungindi. And surely there's a practical way in that we could test the community and then open it up as a bubble and then have a hard border around some of that – around Mungindi to give the comfort to that community.
I think this is where there needs to be some leadership by our chief health officers. I get they’re living by the mantra of keeping us safe. But there's got to be some compassion and some common sense. And this is where leadership’s important, this is where premiers can reach out to one another and say, let's just solve these problems. Because that human toll of those people who have reached out to my electorate office as well are the human story and the human tragedy of what is happening.
We are Australians foremost than anything else. And we have to act like that rather than lines being, arbitrary lines put on a map 120 years ago.
LAURA JAYES: Yeah.
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Surely, we can come together as Australians.
LAURA JAYES: Alright. Well, can you let us know if you get any progress on that? And let's hope it's soon.
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, will do.
LAURA JAYES: Alright. David Littleproud, thanks so much for your time this morning. We’ll speak soon.
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, Laura.