House debates

Thursday, 4 February 2021


Agriculture Industry: Employment

4:55 pm

Photo of Damian DrumDamian Drum (Nicholls, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We have this opportunity to bring to the forefront of the mainstream press the disaster going on within the fruit industry at the moment. Right now, we have fruit that is literally rotting and falling from the trees because we simply cannot get the workers that we need into Victoria. This is simply because the Victorian government hasn't wanted to act in this area.

Other states have been able to liaise and work with the federal government to bring overseas workers in. We've had about 10 months of warnings from the industry, from local members, from local farmers and from the VFF. The NFF have made it abundantly clear to Daniel Andrews and his Labor government in Victoria that we had a serious issue coming to hit us in around January and February of this year—and in March and April. National cabinet has put this on the agenda.

The Prime Minister raised this with the Premier of Victoria. Following that, on 11 December, we had the Premier of Victoria go public with the concept that, yes, he needed to get in 15,000 to 20,000 workers if he was going to avert this disaster. What has he done since then? He's done absolutely nothing. It's been the greatest act of inaction that I've ever seen from public leadership, and the cost of it is going to be immense. Right now, farmers are actually picking their own fruit because they can't get others to come in. What they have to do is leave a certain amount of fruit on the tree, so they're picking the very best of what they can and leaving fruit that's actually high quality but is not as good as the rest. So they pick the very, very best and they move on to the next tree, leaving perfectly good fruit, incredibly valuable fruit, on the tree to rot and fall on the ground.

As an aside—an area that I hadn't thought of—we are having this incredible quest in the Goulburn Valley to stay on top of Queensland fruit fly. Queensland fruit fly will spread, but if anyone lets their fruit rot on the ground—even in a small orchard in the city, let alone thousands of tonnes of fruit rotting on the grounds in the orchards—it's going to create a near impossible problem for us in future years to get back on top of Queensland fruit fly.

We are effectively talking about 50 per cent of all of Victoria's fruit being harvested from the Goulburn Valley, and we've always known that we have this unhealthy reliance on overseas workers to get the fruit off. So we put in place a whole range of incentives that, hopefully, might attract a few more Australians to do this work, even though deep down those of us who live in the area knew this wouldn't be very successful. Our predictions were about right; it wasn't very successful. All of a sudden the reality hits, and, again, the Victorian government refused to act.

What we have now is the announcement last week that they're going to bring in 1,500 and, from the question in the parliament this week, they're not even sure in which month. It's likely to be around the middle of the year, at best, that they get these 1,500—not 15,000, but 1,500—workers in, when this disaster will all be finished.

It is quite unbelievable to think that we have been able to work cohesively with Queensland, where they have brought workers in from the Pacific islands. They are going to put them on farm so that they can quarantine on farm. They are bringing people in from countries that are clear of the virus and putting them on farm to quarantine while they can get the crops off. The Northern Territory have brought Pacific islanders in to help with the mango harvest. They put them into Howard Springs to ensure that they could quarantine there, and then they're bringing them onto the farms to work. The federal government has done everything it possibly can to facilitate those states that have wanted to actually work with the government to get something done about this problem. The Victorian government simply won't pick up the phone on this issue. They are simply putting their heads under the doona and hoping this problem goes away.

The member for Tasmania, Julie Collins, who is the shadow minister for agriculture, rose this week to somehow or other try to blame the federal government for this incredible disaster. All I can say is that Julie Collins also hasn't actually rung any of the federal ministers to try to alleviate this problem.

House adjourned at 17:01