Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

11 November 2021

KIERAN GILBERT: Now, let’s turn our attention to some reaction to a few different stories, the Ag visa is one of them. I’m joined now by the Agriculture Minister and Senior Nationals, David Littleproud joins me from his electorate in Queensland. David Littleproud, thanks so much for your time. Let’s start with the Ag visa, because Kristina Keneally and Julie Collins have written their critique of the visa in The Australian, saying; Labor remains concerned that this visa will undermine key elements of the Pacific step up, including the Seasonal Workers Programme, and Pacific Labour Scheme. Are you worried that that’s going to be an adverse response to what you’re trying to create with the Ag Visa?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, because this complements and supplements the Pacific scheme, and in fact, the Ag visa goes to skilled and semi-skilled workers. Much of which- much of the Pacific island countries don’t have. So we are, by February, going to have a shortfall just in horticulture of 30,000 workers in February next year. So the reality is just in hort we’re behind, but then you put over the meat sector, and every other part of agriculture. There is more work to go around than you can poke a stick at. And Australians aren't interested in taking this work up. We've put over $60 million worth of incentives out there. Less than 6000 have taken that up, and of the 6000 who’ve taken up those incentives, around 70 percent are foreign workers that are already here anyway. So what Labor Party doesn't understand is that this work needs to get done. Farmers don't have the luxury to sit around and wait for someone to turn up. When it's ripe, it needs to get from their paddock to your plate. And we need to have a suite of measures that that supports that. And unfortunately, these two are making their policy predicated off what the unions are telling them. And unfortunately, I just say to them they might want to wander out and talk to a farmer instead of the closest they're getting is from 30,000 feet from flying over them.

KIERAN GILBERT: Well, their argument goes to the fact as well that workers were being duded, essentially, in some cases that the Fair Work Commission ruled in favour of the Australian Workers Union and amended the Horticulture Award, to guarantee every fruit picker on every farm the minimum pay of $25.41 an hour. Some had been earning as little as $3 an hour. Will you accept that that judgement or will you seek to override it, the Government?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, and we've already made that clear, that we respect the decision of the independent umpire. The Fair Work Commission is a statutory authority separate from the Government, it makes independent decisions, we respect that. And I think if you look at the decision, what it says is that the piecework arrangements can still continue, which is a good thing. What they're saying is that there is a minimum wage that underpins that, and that’s what farming groups will now work through. So this demonisation of Australian farmers by the AWU, and now the Labor Party, is disgraceful. There is a small cohort that's done the wrong thing, but there's also a small cohort of the Labor movement and the union movement that’s done the wrong thing, that quite publicly been- had charges laid against them. But we don't demonise them. So if you want to pass the same test against Australian farmers against the AWU, then you'd have to call them hypocrites. We need to clean up that small cohort that's doing the wrong thing, and we will. We're putting in place legislation, working with the states, having mirroring legislation between state and Federal governments to increase regulation on labour hire companies. Alex Hawke, before Christmas, will put in legislation that will increase penalties for those that exploit foreign workers. So we are doing what we need to clean this up, but just to simply say, well, let's get rid of an Ag visa because of a few shonky dealers, is a lack of understanding of the problems that is faced in the agricultural sector in terms of supply of labour. And if we don't do that, and if we don't fix this, then you're going to pay more at the checkout.

KIERAN GILBERT: We saw the jobs numbers today spike. In those numbers, there is an expectation from the RBA down that that will fall over 2022 down to close to 4 per cent. Is that still the Government’s view? Are you sanguine about the numbers out today?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, I think the Treasurer made it pretty clear around this that it is the tale of two states, and effectively when you look at the lockdowns, the lockdowns do cost jobs. And I think once we get some certainty and some leadership from the premiers right across the country and we get this country back up and going and dealing with COVID. We're going to come out of this better than most, but there are still challenges, skill challenges particularly in the regions as well, and they still remain, and we've got to look to how do we solve those problems to keep the pie growing. And that's really the challenge that we're facing now. But the opportunity, and I think we are facing the opportunity and our economy has shown that. Despite the blimp in the numbers today, our economy is still strong and that's a good thing, but I think what's happened is the fatigue of these lockdowns have got to many businesses, particularly in Victoria, where they've just said: you know what, bugger this. We've had enough. We don't trust Dan. We could cop it again. It's all too hard. And most of them are trying to find their way up to Queensland if they'll open up the borders. So, I suspect we'll see another tranche of Mexicans up here sometime soon.

KIERAN GILBERT: Yeah. Well, I'll tell you what, I wouldn't mind being up there myself. But if you look at…

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: It's a bit hot, mate, I can tell you.

KIERAN GILBERT: The labour market, I know the Government is talking up the recovery and all that sort of stuff. I can see why. But there's about two million workers, just under two million workers, who either don't have a job or would like to work more. Does the Government need to be cognisant of those that are missing out? This is not an even- it won't be an even recovery. It's certainly isn't now.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, and that's the challenge that we've got is that how do we open up the country and get it moving again, when you've got premiers going out in their own directions with lockdowns and border restrictions. So, this is the challenge that we're trying to work through. That's the challenge that the Prime Minister has put towards these premiers at National Cabinet to work together, to trust one another, and that's the opportunity that we're trying to work through. But I'm more confident, I think, that once- now that the vaccine is starting to be taken up, we're heading past that 80 per cent jab rate, double jab rate, there is opportunity now for the country to open up if the premiers will allow it and you'll start to see that evening out of opportunity. And I think that's what will happen and then those figures will reflect that as we move forward towards Christmas.

KIERAN GILBERT: A surprise deal between the US and China at Glasgow, including a broader climate deal but also specifically on methane. Does this further isolate Australia at those climate talks, in your view?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. I mean, they’re two biggest emitters in the world, and so they should be doing more. We have made commitments not only Kyoto and Paris that we will meet and beat. We've now said we'll get to net zero by 2050. Now, around methane, we've said that it's a whole of economy. We're not going to isolate one industry out. But even with respect to methane, the agricultural industry is doing a lot of work around reducing those emissions. MLA is doing a lot of work around feed supplement and also genetics to get us back to carbon neutrality…

KIERAN GILBERT: There’s an opportunity there, isn’t there?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, there is, and that's what we're saying, is we're not going to mandate. We're going to actually put the science and technology in front of people and let them take it up. And lo and behold, that's what we've done all the way along. We haven't passed legislation, and in fact, the only legislation that was passed was by Julia Gillard to impose a tax. And every other target that we've met, we've been able to achieve that by putting an environment around the Australian people to do it, and they've done it.

KIERAN GILBERT: Well, your Coalition colleague in New South Wales, Matt Kean, has got a bit of a different approach. He's signed that CoP 26 declaration on zero emissions cars by 2040. Should the Federal Government override that or allow it to stand?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, there's a process in place that obviously the Federal Government will look at this. We've been burnt before by state governments running off on tangents, on trying to get some attention. The reality is we need a national approach to this, a whole of government approach, and a whole of economy approach. And that's why the Federal Government will look at this of what the New South Wales Government signed up to and look it through the lens of what is in the national interest.

KIERAN GILBERT: David Littleproud, thanks.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, mate.