Interview with Tom Connell, Sky News

10 November 2021

TOM CONNELL: Well, fruit pickers working in Australia will have to be paid a guaranteed minimum wage in what the Australian Workers’ Union is calling an historic win for farm workers. The Fair Work Commission ruled earlier this month that fruit pickers must be provided with a minimum wage of at least $25.41 an hour, instead of remuneration depending on the number of fruit or vegetables they have harvested. I spoke to the Minister for Agriculture and Northern Australia, David Littleproud, about the decision a short time ago. I started by asking him about the Commission’s findings there is no safety net for hot conditions and less experienced workers.
[Excerpt]
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, look, we respect the independent umpire. What they've done is they've kept the piece work arrangements but put in place overlaying that a minimum wage. So they haven't removed the piecework, which is very important because there are in fact some workers that would be disadvantaged by that. So we obviously will sit back and wait and see if industry appeals us. They've got until 26 November. But I think what the commission has tried to do is strike the right balance here, and obviously we'll work with industry around that. Now, if there are increased costs, we would expect that transparently that appears at the checkout and that the supermarkets don't try and make farmers absorb this as they have in the past, that this goes right through to the checkout. If this is what the Fair Work Commission has got to, this is what the independent umpire says is the ruling. Then it needs to flow right through to the checkout, rather than farmers absorbing the costs.

TOM CONNELL: When things normally go up in price, it's normally absorbed throughout the chain. So a hit to consumers, yes, a hit to supermarkets, but a hit to farmers as well. I mean, if they've been paying workers effectively less than minimum wage, don't they need to absorb some of the difference?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. With respect, I think what the arrangements were was around the piecework was that obviously there was uncertainty and that's what the Fair Work Commission has provided in terms of giving that certainty around the piecework part of the decision. Now, what they're saying is they want to underline that now with the minimum wage. Now, some people obviously work and achieve well beyond what the minimum wage is for piecework arrangements. Others aren't, whether for proficiency or want, and that's where obviously now the Fair Work Commission has made a determination that obviously these farmers will now have to manage these workers through in terms of performance management, if they're not- if they're not able to meet minimum standards, as you would in any working environment.

TOM CONNELL: So we've been through this before though, seemingly, about you not happy about supermarkets and farmers getting squeezed with milk. Is there anything you can actually do other than call on supermarkets? Hope, in your words, they do the right thing?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we had an ACCC perishable goods enquiry only in the last couple of months, and there are some findings in that that the government is going to work through. We've also put over $5 million out into trying to make sure that we get greater transparency on pricing and in terms of cost of production so that money was announced in the budget. So we've already moved with respect to some of that. But there are- there are things here that I think the supermarkets can show their transparency and honesty around this as well, rather than just pushing back on farmers. They've got a very poor record when it comes to dealing with farmers, whether it be with dairy or any other perishable good for that matter, whether they be the two Australians or the big German. They've all had a crack at Australian farmers and had lost leaders in their supermarkets at farmers’ expense.

TOM CONNELL: COVID’s highlighted the difficulty of getting workers to the regions, and even with some big incentives, that's been a struggle. I know we've got the ag visa coming into play, but is there a push within the Nats for a broader visa, a so-called regional visa that means a worker can go into the regions and do whatever job they like, not be tied to a specific industry?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, but we're part of the conversation about looking at how that- how that workforce strategy into the future will look not just for agriculture, but more broadly right across the skills base. There is a skill shortage out here. There's a great lifestyle. You can make a quid and raise a family out here and have a great- have a great career pathway, but we're having trouble attracting them at the moment. It's important we work through that and I know Stuart Robert is doing a body of work around that. We obviously…

TOM CONNELL: So does that part of the visa appeal to you though?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously we want to see the detail. We're not going to sign up for something until we see the detail. And that's why the ag visa was an article of faith for the National Party. That's why I held out in terms of negotiation on the UK Free Trade Agreement with the with the Liberals until we got this, so that’s…

TOM CONNELL: But does the ag visa go far enough? Is that- are you happy for now with that? Or do you think a regional visa as needed?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, with respect to agriculture, that's always been our purview is that agriculture is the necessity of an agriculture specific visa. And that's what we've achieved. Now, in terms of the other workforce pressures is what we're working through. And I'm quite confident around what Stuart Robert is putting together in being able to map that and understand that. And then obviously, we'll work together as a coalition to what that solution may be.

TOM CONNELL: Electric vehicles. Voters might have a bit of whiplash here. Not so long ago, it was the end of the weekend and they couldn't pull a ute. Now it's the brave new future.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, look, what we're saying is we're simply putting the environment and infrastructure around for people to make choice. We're not going to give rebates or subsidies for people to buy these things. The Australian taxpayers shouldn't have to kick the tin for that. But what we're saying is as part of the technology mix in terms of where the international community is going and trends are going, our job as a government on behalf of the Australian taxpayer is to spend their money wisely and doing that, and putting the infrastructure environment around people, being able to make that choice.
Now in my part of the world, I think you might find that they might struggle in some respects, but we will have hybrids and I think the hybrids are already- you're seeing manufacturers move towards those, moving away from the big diesel engines to the hybrid in the cities, then electric vehicles would obviously be more attractive to some of those people in metropolitan areas.

TOM CONNELL: So you mentioned your part of the world; how will that be affected by the fact that there’s no plan for a replacement road user tax? There’s a fuel excise at the moment, so people with petrol cars effectively pay for the roads, people with EVs won’t. is that fair?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Because we’re, we’re going to grow the economy, Tom, and that’s how we play the bills. So…

TOM CONNELL: But hang on, but that- I’m talking about the split between motors- motorists. An EV user doesn’t pay anything for the roads out of their driving; a petrol user does – is that fair?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, there are decisions in some states that are already looking at that, and that’ll be something that states can look at on their own volition. We have on, on federal roads and 80-20 split. What we've said is we're not again increase taxes, we're simply going to grow the pie, and to grow the pie we've got to empower the community and the business community to create wealth, and to create efficiencies and productivity in the economy. And that's why- how we're going to pay our portion. What the states do for their portion is up to them.

TOM CONNELL: That's all well and good. But again, the question is, and there would be a lot of people in your electorate in this position, you just alluded to the fact that there'll probably be a later take up of EVs. Electric vehicle drivers, according to what the Federal Government decides, don't pay anything towards roads - petrol drivers do. Is that fair?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, again, what we're saying is that we'll pay our portion of that 80 per-cent by growing the economy. What the states do in terms of how they fund their portion is up to them. Now in terms of equity our job is to make sure that we create an environment for the economy to grow, and that's what we intend to do. And that's what we are doing. And if you look at the fact that our economy has grown despite COVID 19 is an outstanding result. And that's why those simple principles and values are ones that we adhere to and we’ll continue to, to protect as custodians if we're given the honour to be re-elected at the next election.

TOM CONNELL: But the fuel excise is in place to pay for roads - that's what it's always been there for - nothing to replace it. I just don't understand why for the petrol user?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, growing the economy replaces it, Tom.

TOM CONNELL: And not for an EV user?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So if you grow the economy, Tom, if you grow the economy, Tom, people pay more tax, and when they pay more tax, that grows the pie and you get to put it into, into more roads, into improved roads, into repairs and maintenance on roads. That’s the, that’s the mentality that we’re taking.

TOM CONNELL: Sure, but that's just- any government would want to grow the economy. But I'm just asking about the difference between a petrol driver and an EV driver in terms of paying for the road.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that comes down to priority of how we're going to pay for it. We're going to grow the economy to pay for that and, effectively, if the states want to go down some equity route, then that's up to them - but not ours. We've made it clear we're not going to increase taxes.

TOM CONNELL: Okay. You said before the deal on net-zero, farmers should be compensated for land use emissions reductions that have happened so far. Is that happening?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, there is carbon farming, as you have it at the moment. There was a challenge around the Kyoto credits in terms of the fact that the Federal Government gave $350 million to the states when they put in place vegetation management laws - that wasn't passed through. So what we're saying is its time for the states to look at that. We're also working with the NFF around that about how do we, how do we actually work through that? You can't, you can’t…

TOM CONNELL: So is there nothing yet?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: There's nothing yet, but I can say that we are working with the NFF. You can't double account the carbon credits, and we understand that. But what we're saying is, well, how do we find a way that if we can work with the states to make sure that there is an improved availability of that land to produce, whether it be grasses that still abates carbon - and that's also using the current technologies that we're trying to produce in terms of efficiency, like soil carbon - the stewardship program. So there's a suite of measures we're looking at. We're trying to be proactive and making sure that farmers are part of the solution rather than footing the bill.

TOM CONNELL: Minister, thanks for your time today.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Anytime, mate. Good to be with you.