Thursday, 29 October 2020
Questions without Notice
COVID-19: Agriculture Industry
My question is to the Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management. Will the minister outline to the House how Australia's unique response to the COVID-19 pandemic is supporting our farmers and helping to meet Australia's agricultural challenges?
I thank the member for Mallee for her question. She represents a very proud electorate with a rich history not only in agriculture but particularly horticulture. After many years of drought and fire, now COVID-19 has thrown up another unique challenge to agriculture, particularly for the hort sector, around workforce. Traditionally the horticulture sector has relied heavily on overseas workers. Since COVID-19 we have gone from over 140,000-odd working holiday-makers down to over 60,000. We've continued to maintain the number of seasonal Pacific workers around the 8,000 mark, but this has put significant pressure on the agricultural sector, in farmers being able to get product off the paddock onto our plates and around the world.
In March we could see that there were challenges that were going to lie ahead as we got into the warmer months and we acted pre-emptively to extend the terms of those visa holders for 12 months if they worked in agriculture. We said to those three cohorts, 'If you come and work in the bush and help farmers, you can stay for another 12 months.' In August, the Minister for International Development and the Pacific worked proactively with 10 nations to reopen the seasonal and Pacific worker programs, and today they have got 22,000 pre-vetted work-ready workers ready to come to Australia to help farmers. Those jobs can only be taken once they have been market tested here for Australians to take them up first, but they are ready to come on demand when the states provide the quarantine arrangements necessary that their chief medical officer will allow. We are ready to stamp the visas. We are ready to support this, once Australians have had a first crack at it and once we can make sure that the states have signed off on the quarantine arrangements.
We have also said to young Australians that it's important that you go and have a look at your own country. There's no opportunity to backpack around the world. There is an opportunity to backpack around your country and support farmers. We've accelerated the pathway to youth allowance and Abstudy for those young Australians, who can go out and earn over $15,000. They will go back to uni, ready for O week, with money in their pocket and be ready to take up youth allowance when they get back. We've said not only to them but to every Australian that we'll help reimburse up to $6,000 of your travel costs to incentivise you, because these jobs are some thousands of kilometres away and are very transient. They last for three or four weeks and move on to another.
We said to the states in September, 'Please sign up to the ag workers code.' Once we have Australians moving and we have overseas workers, we need them to move between states. If we cannot do that, then farmers miss out. We have an integrated agricultural system, particularly across the eastern seaboard, and it's particularly important that the states work together to make sure that we do that in a COVID-safe way.
This is our way of facing up to the many challenges agriculture has faced. But it continues to shake them off and continues to move towards that ambitious goal of $100 billion by 2030.