Interview with Tom Connell, Sky News

6 September 2021

TOM CONNELL: An agricultural visa will come into effect later this month in an effort to ease Australia’s labour shortage. But, as states and territories refuse to budge on the arrival intake, there are questions over how migrant workers will even enter the country. Earlier I spoke to the Minister for Agriculture, David Littleproud, and asked whether any countries will be signed up to the scheme by the time it comes into effect on September 30. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: This week the temporary solution to this is to have a subclass of the 403 visa. We’ll be tabling that on the Senate. It’s a disallowable instrument. We don’t intend or think that there’ll be any impediment to that. So once we’ve tabled that it will then allow us to notify South East Asian countries of what this visa will look like. And then obviously we will start those bilateral straight away. 

So that means that we’ll be able to get moving on this basically immediately. We’ve done a lot of the grunt work basically as soon as we announced this visa, and now this is about the mechanics being put in place and now hoping that countries in Southeast Asia will sign up to it. 

TOM CONNELL: Right. So what does that mean in terms of actual countries being on board by September 30, then? Is that timeline achievable? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, I don’t think, to be honest, that we’ll see people in the country by 30 September. But earliest we would hope October, but likely November. It will depend on those countries that want to sign up to it. We’re going to start particularly those bilaterals with those countries that we have long-lasting relationships with on an immigration basis that we think will want to be able to take up this opportunity straight away. So that’s what we’re trying to target, to make sure that we can build that capacity on top of the Pacific scheme that we’ve got. 

So it’s important to understand this is complementary and supplementary to the Pacific scheme. But this is a pathway to permanent residency. It is skilled and semiskilled workers in addition, and that’s making sure that we’re bringing the next generation of migrants to regional Australia to grow regional Australia and to grow agriculture. So this is the biggest structural change to agricultural workforce in our nation’s history. 

TOM CONNELL: Right. So that’s the tool, if you like. But then there’s actually getting people in via quarantine. No states have agreed for extra intake. Does that mean any people coming would have to come through Howard Springs? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, this isn’t about extra intake; this is actually – the scale of the problem is still the same. The states are running around saying, “We’re adding more people, we’re adding more people.” No, we’ve added another program. So we’ve got the Pacific scheme, we’ve now got the AG visa, and we’ve also got those schemes that we’re trying to incentivise Australians. So the states either don’t understand or they’re running from their responsibility. The scale of the problem has not changed. And, in fact, on the 11th of December all the Premiers said this was a significant issue for the economy and for regional Australia. Dan Andrews was the one that came out and said this was the most significant problem facing Victoria, and yet they still haven’t signed up their agreement to do their quarantining in Tasmania. 

So the Premiers know the scale of the problem. There is a process to make sure this can be expedited without red tape, and that process is simple: the Premiers write to the Prime Minister outlining the quarantine arrangements that they want to put in place in their individual states and we sign the visas. It’s as simple as that. 

TOM CONNELL: So it has to go through the states, though? Those workers will have to go through the states. They won’t go through Howard Springs? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, Howard Springs is being utilised by the Northern Territory. Howard Springs is also being utilised by the Commonwealth to bring Australians home. So, with respect – 

TOM CONNELL: But those spots won’t be used for these workers, the Howard Springs Commonwealth spots? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, some of them will be because the Northern Territory government’s paying for that portion of the workers that they need. So each Premier decided that they wanted to own this. They wanted to put these in addition to their cap. So they set the number of people and the method in which they bring them in. Each state has done it a little bit differently. In Queensland they’re allowing them to do on-farm quarantining. It’s had the most, but it hasn’t met the supply demands that are there. In South Australia, which is the gold standard, they’ve created their own facility and they’ve also this month will be trialling in-country quarantining in Vanuatu. Western Australia has let Bladin Point slip through their fingers because they wouldn’t allow the Northern Territory Government and them to come to an agreement to be able to quarantine workers for their grain harvest. And in Victoria, they’re the other state that won’t allow their workers to quarantine in their own state. They’re sending them to Tasmania first. 

TOM CONNELL: Okay. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So each state has done it differently, and we’ve respected that. That’s the sovereign right, and ultimately that’s why we’ve made the process very simple where the Premiers and Chief Health Officers simply write to the Prime Minister in the way that they want to safely bring these people in and we will sign the visas. 

TOM CONNELL: I want to talk to you about Inland Rail. There’s been reports you sent documents to colleagues that essentially urged to change the current route. Doesn’t that go against what you’ve signed up to as a member of cabinet? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that’s incorrect, and those reports were not correct. The reality was – 

TOM CONNELL: Have you circulated any material to colleagues indicating – 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, the document – well, I’ll answer the question, because I think this is important, Tom. There’s been a lot of conjecture and a lot of commentary by journalists that haven’t even bothered to ring me – they’ve simply taken innuendo and gossip. The facts were there was another Queensland LNP member that created this document. Barnaby Joyce’s office asked the Queensland LNP members and senators impacted by his to come together. That document that was created by this member and senator was, in fact, presented to the Queensland LNP members impacted by Inland Rail, and then that was presented to the Deputy Prime Minister. That was not my document, and to say so would be a lie and a fabrication. 

TOM CONNELL: But the question was whether you circulated the document? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, the fact is I was asked on behalf of the Deputy Prime Minister to convene a meeting of Queensland LNP members about the corridor from Goondiwindi to Brisbane. The fact was the Deputy Prime Minister asked me to do that, to bring them together. The fact that an independent member brought this document to the meeting and then asked for it to be sent around to all of those impacted is simply me living up to my job of what the Deputy Prime Minister asked me to do. 

TOM CONNELL: Have you told constituents, your constituents, that you will lobby for change to the route with Inland Rail?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: My statement, and quite public, has been that I’m a member of cabinet and I support the decision of cabinet. And any decision that I’m party to in that cabinet I support. 

TOM CONNELL: But have you told any constituents that you will look at or urge a change? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I’ve told it quite publicly, Tom. I’ve told it quite publicly in not only local papers, in local TVs but also in The Australian. So I don’t know how much more public I can be. 

TOM CONNELL: No, but what I’m asking about, privately with some of your constituents? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yes, I’ve advised them that I’m bound by cabinet and the decision by cabinet is one I support and one in which that I will get on with in supporting the Deputy Prime Minister. But if the Deputy Prime Minister asks me to do something on his behalf out of his portfolio, then of course I’ll do that as well, if it’s impacted not only my electorate but Queensland LNP members and senators. 

TOM CONNELL: Did you discuss altering the route with Barnaby Joyce as part of condition for supporting him for leadership? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. 

TOM CONNELL: No? No discussion in any way on that topic? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. There was no discussion with any of the candidates on anything. The facts were that was – that spill has come and gone and we’re now getting on with it. There was discussion whatsoever. 

TOM CONNELL: And you’ve got no concerns about the route and where it goes through your electorate? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, of course I’ve got concerns, Tom. And as a local member I’ll continue to work with the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department of Infrastructure and ARTC to make sure that those concerns are addressed. But engineering solutions – 

TOM CONNELL: But not by altering the route? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, no, the route is locked in, Tom. 

TOM CONNELL: Okay. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: And engineering solutions in which we can get across there to appease the concerns, which primarily are around flooding, and quite rightly so. These are people’s livelihoods and homes that are at risk. So we’ll obviously work with ARTC to make sure those concerns are addressed with science, with engineering and hydrology. 

TOM CONNELL: Okay. Just finally, your colleague mentioned the national plan yesterday, Stuart Robert, saying it’s subject to change. It he just echoing the reality of a what the states and the power they hold here? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, this is – I mean, the reality is we work as a federation. And while we’ve had challenges of federation that have been for all to see, particularly over the last week or two, the Prime Minister’s trying to show leadership and bringing us together to get us out of this Covid nightmare and to get people back out to normal living a best we can. And to do that we need cooperation; we need to work together. But we need leadership, and the Prime Minister is showing leadership. We just need the Premiers to show some leadership with him, take his hand, have some courage and conviction, and go on this journey together to get Australians back to as normal living as we possibly can. 

TOM CONNELL: Minister, David Littleproud, thank you very much.