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  • Rikki Lambert

Political posturing puts farmers on the back foot for coming harvest

The Coalition sprung a surprise on the Andrews Victorian government on Monday announcing an Agricultural Visa. As commodity and farming representatives scrambled to share their responses, it became clear some sense needed to be knocked into the politicians to get on with getting farm labourers in for harvest.

The 2020 harvest season saw a political argument over the Andrews and Morrison governments result in fruit rotting on trees as the Victorian Premier played politics on whether to bring workers in from overseas.

Clearly, ideology is at play here but what could have been justified in 2020 can not in 2021.

Labor wants Australians to get jobs first wherever possible, before bringing in workers from overseas to fill those positions.

As farmers know, though, farm labour jobs very rarely are picked up as a career path for young, under-employed or unemployed Australians.

The British backpackers that some farmers heavily rely upon are no longer around thanks to the pandemic, and even in that instance Labor has at times played politics implying they are depriving young Australians of farm-based jobs.

Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud pointed out that the new Agriculture Visa would map a pathway for migrants to permanent residency in Australia.

FlowNews24 spoke with Minister Littleproud about the new visa and the states' reactions to it - the article continues further below.

The Andrews government's dithering or dragging of heels on bringing foreign workers in is silly in the 2021 context, where Australia is virtually at 'full employment'. With unemployment as low as 4.6 per cent, theoretically those that want and are able to work, have it already.

Estimates are hard to nail down but are in the tens of thousands when it comes to the labour demand in horticulture alone for the coming harvest.

Minister Littleproud praised the South Australian government for its approach to quarantine, calling it the 'gold standard'. SA's approach included 'in-country' quarantine in the workers' home countries to speed their entry into the farming workforce.

Dr Webster, left, with former Nationals leader Michael McCormack

Federal member for Mallee and Mr Littleproud's Nationals colleague, Dr Anne Webster, grasped the severity of the situation as it was discussed on FlowFM this week.

With NSW and Victoria presently locked down - NSW extending theirs a fortnight past this Saturday's previous deadline - contingency planning may be needed to find a way to get workers in for harvest if lockdowns linger.

Dr Webster said she wanted to copy South Australia's Paringa quarantine model from the neighbouring district's Riverland, and replicate it in Mildura in her electorate.

The federal political rhetoric is that this lies at the feet of states to resolve.

Constitutionally, it is clear that 'quarantine' - as a word, at least - is a federal responsibility. However that feeds into the broader debate on who should have been leading the COVID-19 responses, lockdowns and vaccine rollout.

Minister Littleproud baulked at the question FlowNews24 posed that maybe the federal government should show leadership and get state Agriculture Ministers together to find a solution so that all farmers, regardless of location, will have workers to meet their needs.

Victorian minister for agriculture, Mary-Anne Thomas

Victorian Agriculture Minister Mary-Ann Thomas told FlowNews24 in a statement that was precisely what she had asked her fellow state and federal agriculture ministers do.

Minister Littleproud said it wasn't time for meetings, but for action. He claimed the visa arrangements and pathways were now sufficient for states to simply ask for approval for the workers, and the federal approvals would come.

South Australian Agriculture Minister David Basham told FlowNews24 he didn't want to get involved in political posturing, but on getting on with bringing the workers in for harvest that South Australia needed.

In a federation fractured by the pandemic, it looks more and more like its every state for itself - and tough luck if your state government would rather play politics than help its farmers and country communities.


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