Interview with Jaynie Seal, Sky News

25 August 2021

JAYNIE SEAL: Our top stories - the Northern Territory's mango industry has been given some much needed relief, after about 400 overseas workers were granted a new agriculture visa. The pickers will quarantine next month at the Howard Springs facility, ahead of the forecast bumper harvest. The newly announced ag visa will help provide long term relief to the crippling workforce shortage in the industry. The Territory produces half of Australia's mangoes, totalling close to 5 million trays every year. And by the end of September, a new visa will allow those immigrants to work on Aussie farms. Joining me now is Minister for Agriculture, David Littleproud. Good morning, Minister.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Good morning. Good to be with you.

JAYNIE SEAL: Nice to have you on the show. It looks like we're going to have plenty of mangoes about and countries able to take part in this new visa. Tell us what countries.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, we're doing bilaterals now, but these are from the Pacific, the Pacific programs that we've made available already. 25,000 men and women from 10 Pacific nations can come in, and have been able to come in for the last 12 months. The only limitation has been the quarantine arrangements with the states. But the ag visa will now be looking towards South East Asia. Looking to countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Korea. One- countries that we've had long-standing relationships with, with respect to immigration. But this is the biggest structural shift in terms of agricultural labour in our nation's history. What we're saying is that we want to bring the next generation of migrants to regional Australia to grow agriculture and to grow regional Australia. Because it's not just unskilled workers, it's skilled and semi-skilled workers as well. So this is a significant structural shift. This is about migration to the bush, growing the bush's capacity to be able to grow the food and fibre they need, and to take away the reliance on the working holiday maker. Because I don't know when the old backpack will be back. They'll still form part of the mix. But this gives our farmers the opportunity to make strong and long-lasting investment decisions now about their future, about their family's future on the farm. 
So this is the biggest in our nation's history in terms of structural change to agricultural labour. And the National Party made sure that it negotiated this with our Coalition partners in the free trade agreement with the UK. And we were also able to get better access to UK markets. So the Nats are cock-a-hoop at the moment. But that's what happens when you think solely about regional Australia and the problems of regional Australia. And this will go to the heart of solving much of those problems, and repopulating regional Australia as well.

JAYNIE SEAL: And what about people, Minister, who are living in Australia at the moment that don't have legal status? Can they apply?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, look, there's been a lot of talk about this, and in principle, I support this, but I'm being guided by the Home Affairs Minister, who's working through this with intelligence agencies and national security issues. Now, I'm not privy to all those, and obviously, I believe there's tens of thousands of these men and women that are here, and particularly in the face of COVID, there'd be an opportunity to put a jab in their arm while they're running around regional communities. But there is national security issues at play, and I have to refer to my colleagues on that. But those that are here on other visas, they are able, and this is what we're working through now with Alex Hawke, the Immigration Minister. We're working through to make sure they don't have to leave the country if they're here on another visa. And if we get that bilateral with the country in which they're from, then we're trying to find ways as quickly as we can to keep them here, rather than having to go home and then turn around, come back. So those are the sort of mechanics that are just being finalised now for the start date of 30 September.

JAYNIE SEAL: Alright. Anyone not happy with this result?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Oh look, Dan Andrews, shot from the hip yesterday saying, well, this- where's all the quarantine beds? Well, in December last year, he made it clear he understood the scale of the problem, and the scale of the problem hasn't changed. We still need the same number of people coming in. The ag visa simply adds to the quantity of programs that we've got - the Pacific, now looking at different ones. He also said, well, we should be opening up bubbles with other- with Pacific nations. We've already done that, we're doing that with Vanuatu. In fact, South Australia is the only state that would take up the in country quarantining. So I don't think Dan Andrews understands what he was saying yesterday, understands the problem. The scale of the problem hasn't changed. We're not asking for any more quarantine beds. He promised them on December 11 [sic], when he said Victoria alone needed around 15 to 20,000. He's only bought in around 1300. He still hasn't signed the agreement with Tasmania to do their quarantine again. So we're just saying, Dan, please work through the issue with us constructively, but understand the issue before you make comments.

JAYNIE SEAL: And how much interest have you had so far, Minister?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Oh look, I think, not only here in Australia, the industries themselves, we've been working on this for some time. And I mean, this is why we're cock-a-hoop about getting this because it's been such a big win for industry. But can I say that there has already been an initial discussions with some of the- some of our international partners, and obviously they want to work through the detail and make sure their citizens are safe. But I think this is a win-win. This is one of those common sense policy issues that have a long lasting legacy for regional Australia. And that's the exciting thing about it. And I think that not only industry will benefit from this, because the investment they make in the people who they bring here is something they'll get a return on year after year, rather than having to find another backpacker that they have to invest in every year. But it's also the skilled and semi-skilled piece, and it's also about building our regional communities. I've got communities in Charleville where we've got a strong Vietnamese community that work in an abattoir out there, and they are revered in that community. They are great citizens. Their kids are the school duxes and school captains, and they're great citizens in those little communities. And we'd be lost without them. And so these are the next generation of migrants we want to bring to Australia. We're built off migration and this is the next generation to build regional Australia. It just makes sense.

JAYNIE SEAL: And finally, Minister, you are in the electorate of Mungindi. We just spoke to farmer, Sam Heagney. And he was very happy to hear this result as well. But he also, as you know, Mungindi being in the border area of New South Wales and Queensland, is certainly having trouble with one permit, having to get the agriculture, you know, pass to the Z-pass. And there's just a lot of disruption there with the hospital and many residents. What can you tell us? And are we going to see any changes soon?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, look, there's two parts to this. And I heard Sam's interview, and he articulated it very well. We were asked by the states in March last year to create an Ag Workers' Code that allowed agricultural workers to work from one state to another, to move freely, to be able to do their job, to create the food and fibre that we enjoy every morning. We asked- were asked by the states to do that. We actually put it in place, but unfortunately, Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania wouldn't sign up to it. So they have their own arrangements. And unfortunately, under our federation, I can't force them into changing that. And we'll be asking them again to reconsider that, to use some common sense to allow farmers to go from one property to another across the border, so long as they go straight into those properties and don't stop. We simply ask that the ag workers code should be taken up by Queensland, which would give them some opportunity to take it up. And it's been going since March last year. So this is only new and other states have already experienced it. With respect to Mungindi, the member for Parkes on the New South Wales side and I have been speaking about this. And in fact, we wrote to both the New South Wales Premier and the Queensland Premier yesterday, asking them to extend the Queensland border around the community of Mungindi. That would allow the community to come back as a whole. At the moment, the hospital has been effectively downgraded because much of the nurses sit on the New South Wales side. And so its services have been reduced. And in fact, we've got a gentleman, sadly, at palliative care stage that's now being moved to Roma and his family are unfortunately on the New South Wales side. And we fear that they may have said their last goodbyes yesterday. And we're just asking for some common sense and some compassion to bring this community back together and to be able to do that in a common sense way, to extend that bubble around the community of Mungindi, put a hard border around it, if they like, and test everybody in the community. We're not talking thousands of people. Test everybody, then open it up and lock it up within Queensland, but just bring this community back together. You know, a line in a map was put on our, on our country 120 years ago, an arbitrary line that doesn't fit modern Australia. We're intertwined in terms of our communities, our living, and particularly in regional Australia. And we're just saying to the premiers and chief health officers, don't make arbitrary decisions predicated on metropolitan issues. Think about regional Australia differently. Come out and listen to these people. Listen to their concerns. They're Australians too. And at the moment, they feel like they're forgotten Australians. They deserve just as much right and protection. But you can do that in a common sense way, you're not doing it large scale. And we think there is a workable solution. And Mark Coulton and I are passionate about making sure we get a workable solution that keeps people safe, but brings this community back together.

JAYNIE SEAL: Yeah, well said. Let's hope so. Well, thank you very much for your time. Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud, thank you.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me.