Tuesday, 1 December 2020
Joint Standing Committee on Migration; Report
The report is a good bit of work as far as it goes, and at the outset I want to thank the chair for the way in which he conducted the enquiry. He is a decent man, a little bit too politically conservative for me, but he takes his role and responsibilities seriously. The Prime Minister would do well to sack a bunch of the incompetent ministers in the reshuffle and promote people like the member for Berowra. He would do well for the government.
But I want to make some remarks on one aspect in particular of the report, on which I made some additional comments. That's the issue of the SHEV and TPV holders—the safe haven enterprise visa and the temporary protection visa holders, which were covered in the last part of section 4 on the committee's report. There are about 17,400 SHEV and TPV holders in Australia right now. The majority of these people arrived in this country by boat nearly a decade ago, risking their lives on a dangerous and expensive journey fleeing war and persecution. They've been living in Australia for around 10 years—nearly a decade—some even longer, and they've been accepted by our country, officially by the government, as genuine refugees. As the Department of Home Affairs acknowledged during the inquiry, their employment outcomes are excellent. Nearly 87 per cent of SHEV visa holders are in paid employment, contributing to the community, paying taxes and building a future.
But, as the committee heard, for an overwhelming majority of the people, these genuine refugees, there is no realistic pathway to permanency. A false promise has been offered by the government through the SHEV as a pathway to permanency, but for most people it is simply illusory. For a decade they have had limited access to the Adult Migrant English Program, no ability to study, and no hope of being able to actually meet the conditions for the visas that they can theoretically apply for.
These genuine refugees have been condemned by the policies of the Australian government to become members, here in our society, of a permanent underclass of temporary migrants—living here amongst us but never able to plan for their future. They are condemned to a life lived in limbo, hopping from temporary visa to temporary visa, unable to put down roots and contribute fully to Australia with the security that comes from permanent resident status.
Thousands of these people have been separated from families and children. Families are kept apart and broken, with no hope in sight. There are thousands of people in my community in this situation—literally thousands, probably 10,000 or more. I know them, I hear their stories and I witness their pain. The most common issue in my office is migration. It's not the Centrelink stuff-up; it's not the tax office or the NDIS; it's not the rorts or all the other problems that people come in with: it is migration matters. There are men who come in month after month, crying in the foyer, wondering, 10 years on, whether they will ever be able to see their children. They can't go home; they will be murdered. The government has accepted that. But still they just live here in limbo as an underclass. There is no real prospect in the short or medium term of security improving in their homelands. Are we really going to start sending these people back to Afghanistan any time soon? They are, in effect, permanently temporary refugees—safe but never secure in our country.
The committee—indeed the parliament and our nation—must ask: at what point can these people simply become Australian? Is it after 10 years, 15 years, 20 years? Is it at the point where they've lived more than half their lives in the country that we can finally say, 'Okay, you can be Australian.' The very notion of permanently temporary refugees is a nonsense. It does our nation and Australian society no credit and no good to have a permanent underclass living amongst us. How does this help us as a society? Is this the kind of country we really are—a country that's prided ourselves for seven decades on being a permanent settler society?
Resolution of these issues is a much broader problem. I agree, and we acknowledge in the report, that it's outside the scope of the inquiry into the working holiday-maker program. But SHEV and TPV holders demand and deserve serious, thoughtful, creative attention by the government, not just stale talking points about boat people. There has long been bipartisan support for tough border protection policies, and the government well knows it. Humane resolution of this issue is possible without restarting the boats, but to date it has not been politically convenient for the government to address. That is the truth of it.
During the inquiry, the Refugee Council of Australia put forward a proposal to offer permanent residency for SHEV and TPV holders who undertook a year of work in a regional area in industries suffering critical labour shortages. The committee received compelling evidence in support of this from the Australian Hazara community, for example. There is a critical workforce shortage, which government members well know, right now in regional Australia, exacerbated by the reduced temporary migration resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no single solution, as the report makes clear. Australia needs as many people as possible—Australian citizens, permanent residents and temporary migrants of all sorts—to help with the harvest and other critical work in regional Australia over the next 12 months and beyond. It is very clear from the inquiry that, with the right incentives, SHEV and TPV holders could make a significant contribution to help fill these critical labour shortages in regional Australia. I know people from my own electorate who have called me and emailed me and said that they would be prepared to move next week or next month and undertake this work if only they were assured of permanent residency or at least had a realistic pathway.
To be clear, my personal view is that it's well past time in this country that SHEV and TPV holders, as genuine refugees, should simply be granted permanency, subject to the health and character checks. This farce has gone long enough—dragging these people out when it's convenient for the minister to beat up on boat people and then putting them back into the cupboard till next time, as if they're not human and as if they don't have families and the right to build a life—and that after a decade here and multiple assessments that they are genuine refugees who can't safely return home, they shouldn't have to abandon their lives and jobs in the city or elsewhere and go and pick fruit just to prove that they should be allowed to stay. But resolution of these broader questions is outside the scope of this inquiry. In any event, I expect the government MPs—and I know, privately, some of them agree with me—would be politically constrained from resolving it, because it suits the government to beat up on refugees some weeks.
Instead, this inquiry threw up the opportunity for a creative bipartisan solution and a response that would at least help some of these people while meeting critical labour shortages in regional Australia, and give some more incentives for these people to go and do this work and make the farmers happy. There are farmers groups that support this. Public comments in support of a creative solution were made by government members during the hearings and then in the media afterwards, but the committee's final report falls short of a courageous recommendation for change. It is a pity that the committee failed to make strong clear recommendations like they did for numerous other temporary migrant groups to incentivise them to take up regional agriculture work. We could do it for working holiday-makers, international students, temporary skilled migrants and many more. But when it comes to genuine refugees, people who have nowhere else to go safely and live, so politicised has the word refugee become and so cowed and confused are government MPs, that they wimp out. They can't bring themselves to apply exactly the same policy logic to refugees—let alone a bit of humanity!
The committee's findings and recommendations do at least represent a small step—a baby step, if you like—in the right direction. I do thank the chair and government members for listening patiently to my rantings and ramblings along the way and, I think it's fair to say, shifting some of the recommendations quite significantly from where they were. I've had the Refugee Council message me and say thank you for at least where we got to. But, pending a broader resolution of the issues facing SHEV and TPV holders, I encourage the government to not just take up the words, which were a battle we could negotiate and not get in trouble with the minister's talking points, but take up the spirit of the recommendations, and provide some stronger incentives and a more realistic pathway to permanency for these 17,000 people. These genuine refugees have been in our country for a decade.
I also understand that this could be of immediate practical benefit to the agricultural industry and regional Australia. This was a potential win-win. It wasn't going to suit everyone—it wasn't going to encourage people who've set up businesses and are employing people to go pick fruit to prove their commitment to the country—but it would have helped some of these people. About 80 per cent of them are men, perfectly capable of doing difficult agricultural work, and willing to do so.
In particular, in closing, I encourage my parliamentary colleagues from the National Party to find their voice on this issue; to back the farmers and the refugees; and to have the guts to say in public, to the minister and in the parliament what they say to me in private. I've met with many of them, I've called them and I've texted them—'Yeah, we agree with you, but, you know.' Well, what? Actually speak up. Do your job. Represent regional Australia. Solve this problem and solve my problem in the city and show some creativity with some bipartisanship. The government should be about delivery and actually doing things, making people's lives better, not just making announcements. I won't recount or attribute the private conversations, but I know there are many government members who want to do more and know they should do more on this issue. I encourage them to stand up and actually make some change.
I want to follow on from the member for Bruce, who I have to say, having watched him and read some of the Hansard, puts a lot of thought and consideration into these issues and, importantly, in terms of this contribution, speaks with a great deal of passion—rightly so—about this issue. I want to welcome his contributions in terms of this debate and thank him for his work in regard to the inquiry.
He is absolutely right in bringing a spotlight to the National Party in this because the National Party has a big interest in this and they do, as the member for Bruce rightly suggested, need to speak up on this. In particular, the National Party's claims that they represent rural interests; want the agriculture sector to do better; and, on top of that, back in the National Farmers Federation's ambition that we as a nation be able to generate $100 billion out of agriculture are not going to be something achieved miraculously or by magic. It takes a lot of people to achieve this. By people, I mean not just the businesses that are run there but also the people who work within them, the labour that is required to make all this happen. This is a very ambition target, $100 billion by 2030, that the National Farmers Federation put forward and that the government has backed, and yet the Liberal-National government have simply no plan to address agriculture workforce shortages that exist and have been worsened through the course of the pandemic.
The Nationals themselves are quite silent on this. They might, as the member for Bruce indicated, make all these private or off the record views known to certainly Labor about how they think this needs to be addressed, but they're not doing anything publicly on it. Certainly the Liberal-National government don't have a plan to stop the spread of exploitation of backpackers, and the slavery like conditions in some cases, that have become all too common across Australia. For example, the horticultural industry in our nation is crying out for the Liberal-National government to provide a durable solution to labour shortages because they're acutely aware that rogue operators and labour hire firms are exploiting people, particularly in regional Australia, where it's thought that out of sight is out of mind. The minister scrambled at the eleventh hour to get together a half-baked code that was first rejected by the states' chief medical officers, couldn't attract the unanimous support of the states and doesn't work for farmers.
In this report, the committee recommended:
… that the Government consider additional concessions to SHEV and TPV holders who undertake at least one year of agricultural or horticultural work in a regional area, and are prepared to settle in a regional areas …
This is a timely recommendation when we consider the current state of the agricultural workforce. My only question is: how many reports, committees and meetings does the Liberal-National government need to get off its hands and start delivering real solutions for Australian farmers? I suspect this is a question that is being posed not just by me; it is also being posed by the agriculture sector.
As I said, the Liberal-National government simply has no plan to address these shortages. It's also a great surprise to me that not only do they have no plan but, when I read estimates—for example, when the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, ABARES, appeared—the government doesn't even track the shortages through its own bodies. In reading the Hansard, I was stunned that, when ABARES was asked this by the committee back in October. They apparently released a labour survey on 17 September. It didn't provide estimates of shortages or gaps; it provided an estimate of labour use through the year. In relation to the labour workforce shortages, they claimed: 'The gap is a difficult thing to measure.' When farmers are worried and say that product—for example, fruit—is just going to rot on trees, I can't believe, and I think a lot of Australians would find it hard to believe, that there's no ability to determine how many people are actually needed to get the job done on Australian farms.
On top of that, it would be remiss of me not to reflect on the fact that a lot of governments, including state governments, have been thinking a lot about attracting people to regional areas to assist with the workforce needs of the agriculture sector. I'm particularly mindful that, through AGMIN, which brings together ministers from across the country, state ministers have been recommending some pretty good ideas to the government about what needs to be done to attract more labour into the agriculture sector during this time of pandemic. These ideas have simply been ignored or have not been responded to in a timely way by the agriculture minister.
There is a pattern to this minister. He loves making announcements. He loves rattling off dollar figures. He loves being able to suggest that there is a plan in place. But the delivery is the test, and this minister, in particular, is all talk and no action whatsoever in this sector. I think he is being found out more and more for that. When you raise issues, as the member for Bendigo did during consideration in detail, when she raised concerns about exploitation, he gets into a huff about that. He gets into a huff about any suggestion that there's exploitation. No-one's suggesting that the entire sector embraces this. In fact, the sector rightly wants to stamp this out. They want to stamp out the rogue operators and the bad and dodgy labour hire firms because they understand that Australians would rightly be shocked and appalled if the food on their tables or the food in their kids' lunch boxes had been picked by exploited backpackers working on Australian farms. If the exploitation we read or hear about is what is happening under the Liberal-National government, through their legal visa program, imagine what's taking place under the cover of the dodginess of illegal operators. It's not enough for the agriculture minister to come into budget consideration in detail and beat his chest and give us the big drama act about how offended he is that there is a suggestion of exploitation. People know it's out there, and it has to be dealt with, because local farmers are the victims of the Morrison government's failures too. They're being faced with these shortages, as well as with the risk of hiring illegal workers.
As I said before, our horticultural industry is crying out for some sort of leadership on this front, because they know what impact this is having on them. During a global pandemic and the first recession in three decades, fruit and vegetables cannot and must not be left to rot on farms across Australia. But, after seven years of being in power, this Liberal-National government still doesn't have a plan for important parts of our economy—specifically, agriculture. So, absolutely, we do need to see better.
By the end of October, we'd seen the launch of the National Agricultural Labour Advisory Committee. They launched this last year, well before COVID. It was tasked to create a strategy for the ag workforce. Despite the increased pressure, particularly on horticultural farmers, the government pushed back the deadline, from July to the end of October, and at the end of that month we saw nothing more than a literature review. As I said, we saw AGMIN tasked with the creation of an agricultural workers code to be presented to and agreed upon by national cabinet. The minister scrambled at the eleventh hour to get together a half-baked code, which was first rejected by the state chief medical officers. Our federal agricultural minister couldn't even attract the unanimous support of the states, and now farmers are still waiting.
As always, this mob can't get it together. They can be there for the press conference and the announcement and to draft the media release, but not for the solution. The strategy, the code, themselves—all are a flop. I certainly hope the government starts to listen to state counterparts, the recommendation from the Joint Standing Committee on Migration and, indeed, the farmers who want to see the delivery of meaningful solutions to the workforce shortages affecting the sector. We definitely need to see better and we definitely need a minister that can deliver. We don't need the delivery of more announcements. We don't need more media stunts. We need tangible results, and we are not going to get them out of this agricultural minister.
I want to kick off by giving the House an anecdote from a recent trip out to a mango farm with the former shadow minister for agriculture. When we spoke with mango farmers, the same grievances that had been made exactly four years earlier were being discussed by those farmers. I think it's important for those listening today to hear that in order to appreciate the context that we're dealing with. This government is in its eighth year. The Nationals are part of this government. Four years with absolutely no action for those mango farmers left them in a situation, when COVID hit, where they didn't have anyone to pick their crop. Farmers are still waiting. I join with the shadow member for agriculture, the member for Chifley, in saying that we need to see some more action out of the minister for agriculture. We really do. It's not good enough for him to get up in question time and flap his gums, saying things that are vaguely relevant to the question asked or talking about what commitments have been made, when there has been little to no follow through.
Turning to the Working Holiday Maker program, I'm pleased to speak to this important issue once again. I did speak to it following the release of the inquiry's interim report, and I'm speaking again because it's incredibly important to the highly valuable sectors of our economy, like tourism, health care and, of course, agriculture. This was a timely inquiry, given COVID-19's effect on disrupting the access of our farmers and our other industries to the workforce. There was also an important question about the possibility of the Australians that have become unemployed during COVID-19 filling those labour shortages. That's something that I'm very supportive of, and that was covered by this inquiry and its report. I also want to acknowledge the commentary made previously by the member for Bruce. He is certainly a passionate advocate for those who want to work. Another important question is whether existing visa criteria and conditions related to working holiday-makers are still adequate and appropriate to address the purpose of this program. For our regions—and I come from one of those regions, from the Top End of Australia—it's absolutely vital to find ways for this Working Holiday Maker program to support economic recovery in parts of our country like the Top End. I won't go through all the policy recommendations in the report, but I will highlight a couple that are particularly relevant for my electorate.
As well as those recommendations, I also want to note that the interim report had recommended that the government develop a 'Have a Gap Year at Home' campaign. I've spoken about that in the past. I very much encourage young Australians, if they find themselves without work or wanting to have a break before continuing on to studies, to get out into regional Australia and have a crack at some of the work that's available out there. You'll be surprised at how much you will enjoy it. I believe that working out in regional Australia can bring character to young Australians. It's a character-building experience when you see a bit of our magnificent country that you might not otherwise see if you spend your life confined to the suburbs of our major cities.
Strengthening this sentiment in younger Australians will I believe teach them resilience, discipline and a little bit more of the social cohesion that we will need more and more of into the future. Our nation will be faced with greater challenges than COVID into the future. The only way that we're going to be able to meet those challenges is through the character-building that will come from not just the example that I've given but a deeper appreciation of the need for social cohesion in our country—that we support each other in the ways that we have always talked about as Australians when met with challenges.
Some implications for the Northern Territory—
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 16:57 to 17:22
The Northern Territory implications is where I left off. I'm very supportive of a few of the recommendations and, in particular, recommendation 4 from the report, which recommends the government:
… review the definition of 'regional' for the purposes of migration with a view to providing a new tiered definition that recognises:
From our perspective in Darwin and the Top End, I remember when they said that all of a sudden the greater Gold Coast area was regional and potentially could go into a different category. The effect on us in Darwin was that many of our skilled restaurant workers, chefs and so forth then headed for the Gold Coast. That is not really supporting regional Australia in my view, so I welcome that recommendation. Smaller state capital cities like Darwin are different from Sydney and Melbourne, and in important ways we play a very special but different role in our nation's economy and security.
I'm also glad that recommendation 8's implementation would extend the northern Australia visa provision, allowing work in hospitality, tourism and other industries to apply in all regional, rural and remote areas. This is vitally important to our NT growers. As I speak, hundreds of workers from Vanuatu are literally saving the mango harvest in the Northern Territory, which is valued at over $128 million. They're so industrious and helpful that they'll move onto new farms and new crops and make a great contribution. They'll then take some of the fruits of their endeavours back home. To give you an idea of how great the demand for agricultural producers in the NT is, the local mango industry footed the half-a-million-dollar bill to charter these Vanuatu workers to Darwin. That's how important the workforce is. I take this opportunity to say to those workers, our Pacific friends and neighbours: thank you. On behalf of all Territorians, tangkiu tumas.
Programs like the Seasonal Worker Program and the Pacific Labour Scheme are popular among all stakeholders. In the first instance, Australian farmers need practical solutions to chronic skill labour shortages, particularly in agriculture. Earlier I relayed the somewhat disappointing story of when I recently visited a mango farm with the shadow minister for agriculture. Four years earlier we had visited the same farm, when they had complained about the same workforce issues, and nothing has been done in four years.
This report is timely, with COVID making the workforce issue even more critical. We need to look at what we can do to fix it, but it would be good to see some action. I'm also proud to have been involved in helping to facilitate the discussions between the government of Timor-Leste and the government of the Northern Territory. In the Northern Territory, we had seasonal workers from Timor-Leste, and we look forward to them returning. They're very welcome. They're great people. They're great workers. We must have more focus on this area. I know, Deputy Speaker Rick Wilson, that this is something that you're passionate about as well.
I'm very pleased to be speaking on the Joint Standing Committee on Migration's final report of the inquiry into the Working Holiday Maker program. The committee was tasked with inquiring into the Working Holiday Maker program. It's a reciprocal program of 45 years standing and one which is an important component of Australia's migration program.
The Working Holiday Maker program usually sees about 200,000 young people from 44 countries that we have bilateral agreements with come to Australia to do some work and largely enjoy an Australian experience in travelling and learning about Australia, its culture and its people. At the same time, these young people also fill skill shortages largely in the horticulture and agriculture sectors but also in the tourist and hospitality sectors. The travel restrictions on the global movement of people resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic year has placed immense pressure on regional Australia. The inquiry heard evidence from a cross-section of stakeholders—some 90 submissions—who impressed on our committee a sense of urgency in addressing the labour shortages across Australia, especially in the horticulture and agriculture industries, which traditionally have had great difficulty attracting Australians to fill these positions and as such have relied heavily on the Working Holiday Maker program.
The migration committee's terms of reference sought to examine the purposes of the program, to look at the value of the program to the Australian economy, especially in the horticulture, tourism, healthcare and agriculture sectors, to examine the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on the program, both nationally and internationally, and to look at the potential economic impact on regional economies from a disruption to the Working Holiday Maker program and to see if there were indeed any capacity for Australians made unemployed by COVID-19 to fill the labour shortages. The committee also looked at the existing visa conditions and criteria of the program to see if they were still adequate, especially within the context of cultural exchange, and also to look at how they may impact on the creation of job opportunities for Australians.
I want to make the point that COVID-19 also impacted on the ability of the migration committee itself to travel across the country in order to take evidence. Like many other committees, we had to resort to conducting our public hearings via teleconference. There were over 12 public hearings and some 30 hours of evidence taken by teleconference. At times it was challenging, and I want to thank all the witnesses for their patience and for their contributions. But we are thankful the capacity was there for the committee to continue its work, and I do want to thank all those who gave evidence.
The submissions were comprehensive and constructive. We heard from many stakeholders. They were honest and stark in their testimonies and assessments, and from a large number of them came an urgent call to address the labour shortage in regional Australia as farmers, tourist operators, hospitality owners and others struggle to recruit unemployed Australians. The committee has made 14 recommendations that seek to address issues around flexibility for the Working Holiday visa subclass 417 and the Work and Holiday subclass 462 visa holders. We also recommended that the government review the definition of 'regional' for the purposes of migration to look at increasing the working holidaymaker upper age limit to 35 years of age from the existing 30 years where bilateral negotiations yield reciprocal agreements for Australians, and to also consider expanding the program to new countries. These recommendations respond to a recognition that the Working Holiday Maker Program is important to Australia both in helping out where there are seasonal labour shortages and in adding value to our tourist sector. It is estimated the program is worth some $3.1 billion annually to the Australian economy, especially in rural areas.
The committee maintained a strong focus and interest in looking at how we could encourage unemployed Australians to take up work in regional and remote Australia. We heard evidence that there were many impediments to this, ranging from a reluctance to move into the regions, especially from the big city centres, mainly because this kind of employment is seasonal and not necessarily viewed as a desirable employment or career option because it's not by nature secure or long-term. Even in cases where there were more secure opportunities, distance and difficulty relocating and availability and cost of accommodation were major issues. So too was the view that this kind of work was potentially viewed as exploitative with low wages and inadequate conditions. Sufficient evidence was also received about negative experiences that many working holidaymakers have had. The committee took this evidence of accounts of exploitation and bad behaviour by some employers very seriously. This is evidence which is detrimental to the reputation of the Working Holiday Maker Program. In order to address this, the committee recommended that the government expediate the implementation of the recommendations of the report of the Migrant Workers' Taskforce.
In addition, we recommended that the development of an app to augment the recommendation that a hotline be established where working holidaymakers can access all the advice regarding their work rights and to talk about any workplace exploitation concerns they may have. To this, the committee also recommended the Fair Work Ombudsman develop an embassy liaison group to liaise on a regular basis about workplace issues raised with embassies by their citizens. Embassies are an obvious source of information because they are likely to get feedback from their citizens about their working holidaymaker experiences in Australia. It makes absolute sense that there are formal channels of communication where issues can be addressed and resolved in a manner that protects the integrity of the Working Holiday Maker Program as well as protecting the rights of the working holidaymakers, ensuring as best we can that their experience of staying in Australia is a positive one.
Given the extent of the labour shortage resulting from COVID-19, the committee sought to encourage all available people in Australia to take up work in agriculture and horticulture. This included a focus on those who are currently on temporary visas. As foreshadowed in the interim report, the Refugee Council of Australia, in its submission, proposed putting in place special arrangements to encourage those on protection visas and the Safe Haven Enterprise visas holders to undertake work in these areas. Although there were no legislative barriers to SHEV and TPV holders working in regional industries facing labour shortages, and many were keen to take up jobs in regional areas, there were other issues that created a disincentive, and these were largely due to the uncertainty around their futures and the uncertainty about the prospects of being granted clear pathways to permanent residency. We heard from the Hazara coordination groups specifically about these issues, and I want to support the additional comments made by my colleague the member for Bruce and support the proposal put forward by the Refugee Council of Australia to offer permanent residency to SHEV and TPV holders who undertook a year of work in a regional area in industries suffering critical labour shortages.
The committee, in recommendation 14, took steps to address some of the issues that were raised with us. We recommended:
… that the Government consider additional concessions to SHEV and TPV holders who undertake at least one year of agricultural or horticultural work in a regional area, and are prepared to settle in a regional areas, such as:
Subsidised VET training courses for skilled occupations experiencing chronic skills shortages …; and
Other incentives that assist SHEV and TPV holders to meet requirements under a range of available visas, including the skilled migration scheme
Although this was not necessarily what the Refugee Council or SHEV and TPV holders had hoped and argued for, it is a welcomed start to a discussion we must have as a country in relation to the 17,400 SHEV and TPV holders in Australia at the moment who have been here for up to 10 years. These are genuine refugees. They have a strong desire to live here amongst us. They are capable and willing. We should move to resolve their visa status to put an end to their uncertainty and give them realistic opportunities to become permanent residents.
In the time left, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all of my colleagues who are members of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, particularly the chair, the member for Berowra. I want to thank the secretariat for the amazing work that they have done in assisting us during what has been a difficult period, this COVID-19 period. I recommend the report to the House.