Monday, 15 February 2021
Private Members' Business
That this House:
(1) notes that:
(a) horticulture is essential to the Australian economy and is critical for the nation's food security;
(b) the gross value of horticultural production in Australia was forecast by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) to be $12.6 billion in 2020-21, of which the value of fruit and tree nut production was forecast to be $5.3 billion; and
(c) the Victorian Goulburn Valley region produces almost 50 per cent of the value of Victoria's fruits, excluding grapes, worth $337 million;
(2) recognises that:
(a) ABARES estimated in the 2019 peak harvest months from February onwards that there were 63,300 overseas workers in Australia; and
(b) international travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic has left a massive shortfall in available labour for fruit growers;
(3) acknowledges that:
(a) the Government developed a pathway for 20,000 Pacific Islanders to be available for seasonal work; and
(4) condemns the Victorian Government for its delay in delivering a means for Victorian producers to access Pacific Island workers while fruit goes unpicked and vegetables are ploughed into the ground.
The horticulture industry in Victoria is facing an unbelievable crisis on the back of the total inaction from the Daniel Andrews government in Victoria. Unpicked fruit is now being left by the pickers—fruit that would be picked each and every year. The farmers are now having to go through the heartbreaking role of going into the orchards, picking their very best fruit and leaving 20 to 30 per cent of perfectly good fruit on the trees because they have been unable to get the labour force they need.
On 11 December, after some heated questioning at the national cabinet, Daniel Andrews faced the media and acknowledged that he had a role and a responsibility to bring 15,000 to 20,000 workers into Victoria. He acknowledged that this was his responsibility, and he acknowledged that other states had already moved in this area. He acknowledged that the Northern Territory had already brought in mango pickers from the Pacific islands, where they were free of the virus. He then acknowledged that Queensland had brought in pickers from the Pacific islands and put them into quarantine, on farm protocol. That state and that territory were able to put in place the pickers they needed, and the federal government facilitated all the way through. All the way through, that state and that territory—both Labor governments, by the way—were able to get the assistance they needed with a very quick phone call. We effectively had the federal government stamping the visas and allowing these people to come in, but the guidelines and the protocols for the movements of the pickers were put in place by the states. The pickers were sourced by the states. This is the states' responsibility.
Ms Collins interjecting—
Why on earth would the member for Franklin want to come in and somehow or other start being untruthful about this? The quarantine process is put in place purely by the states. We have told Victoria—and Daniel Andrews has acknowledged this—that it is their responsibility to get these pickers into Victoria. So Daniel Andrews has now made a decision to bring in 1,500 pickers. We didn't make that decision; he made the decision to bring in 1,500 workers. Daniel Andrews has put in place a time line that will probably run post the end of the financial year, when all of the fruit will have already dropped on the ground and rotted.
Normally inaction is a course taken by the bureaucracy and the departments who don't want to do anything different to what has already been done. Normally it's a safe pair of hands just to do nothing. But doing nothing in this area has been incredibly damaging. It is going to cost $350 million minimum—that is the cost that they are putting on the farms. Not only that; there is the opportunity of creating a Queensland fruit fly phenomenon that they'll never be able to get back on top of. Normally a few fruit falling on the ground in backyard orchards in the towns creates a huge problem for getting on top of Queensland fruit fly. But to have literally thousands of tonnes lying on the ground around the orchards is going to create an absolute haven for Queensland fruit fly and create serious problems into the future because we've been unable to get this fruit off the trees.
It is one thing for a government to have a gigantic failure. I understand it. They're absolutely scared senseless that they're going to bring the virus into Victoria. I get that. But they showed that they could do it for the tennis championships. To bring the Australian Open and to make it work, they've taken huge risks, and it looks like they may get through this. But, if they can take huge risks for a tennis tournament, surely they can take lesser risks, because they're not bringing these pickers in from countries that are rife with the virus; they're bringing these pickers in from areas that are clean. They have proven that they can take these risks for the Australian Open, but they've also proven that they will not take any risks for the people of the horticultural industry, and it's a disgrace.
I am still in disbelief that this motion even appears on the Notice Paper. Here again is the federal government trying to walk away from its responsibilities like it does all of the time. I mean, really: what is the point of you being in government? You're responsible for quarantine, you're responsible for the Seasonal Worker Program and you haven't done either in this case. Yes, there's fruit rotting—absolutely. There has been at least $45 million to date. I've been up to see some farmers in my home state, and they're having the same issue. They have dumped fruit because they haven't been able to get workers. It is happening all over the country because your government didn't do its job, because the minister didn't do his job.
The National Agricultural Workforce Strategy has been sitting on the minister's desk since October. What has he done? Absolutely nothing. That's what he's done. It's disgraceful that the farmers, after what they went through last year with droughts and fires, now have got the good weather and a bumper crop but now can't pick it, because your government didn't do its job. And you want to come in here and blame premiers? That is just outrageous. It is outrageous that you are trying to blame state premiers when you didn't do your job as a government, because that's exactly what's happened here.
The federal government is responsible for quarantine. The federal government is responsible for seasonal workers. Queensland is going to be in a similar position in weeks because they still don't have enough workers either. This is your government that hasn't done its job. The minister came out and he said he had all these workers lined up and he was going to do this workforce strategy, and we have nothing. We have nothing because your government didn't do its job in quarantine and still isn't doing its job in quarantine. Your government hasn't done its job in terms of the Seasonal Worker Program. You have not done your job.
We have farmers who are just beside themselves with their bumper crop that they thought would turn it around after everything that's happened to them. After everything they've been through, finally they get a bumper crop and they don't have the workers to get it off, and that is your government's fault. It is not the state and territory governments' fault.
A government member interjecting—
That is outrageous, Deputy Speaker. He should withdraw that comment. Seriously. I am telling the truth: the seasonal worker program is your responsibility and you are responsible for quarantine.
What we see from this government is continually trying to blame the states for their job. Last time I checked the Constitution, they are responsible for quarantine. Last time I checked, they run the Seasonal Worker Program. That is the point.
A government member interjecting—
No, the farmers know I'm not wrong. I can tell you that. When I've was talking to them in my home state last week, they knew your government hadn't done its job. They know the government is still sitting on the National Workforce Strategy. It was given to the minister. Consultations closed in August last year, and it's been on his desk since October, sitting there. The government hasn't done its job.
A government member interjecting —
It's on your government website, you know. It's actually on your own website. It is just outrageous that they come into this place and try to blame state premiers because they didn't do their job. Instead, perhaps they could actually show some empathy for what is happening on the farms around Australia, for the farmers.
You pretend that you support the farmers, you pretend you are the farmers' friend, but you don't do anything to help them—absolutely nothing. To date, $45 million of fruit and vegetables has gone to rot on farms because they haven't been able to get the produce off. They haven't been able to get the produce off because your government hasn't done its job. That is absolutely what has happened here. I cannot believe that you would put a motion like this, trying to blame one state premier for an issue in one state, when this is a nationwide issue. It is happening all around the country. Your government was supposed to coordinate a response and said it would and it did not. It has not done its job.
I cannot believe that those opposite would come in here and make these outrageous statements. Where is the empathy for all the hard work that has happened on the farms? Where is the empathy for all the families and friends I know that have gone in to help the farmers pick their crop and for all the local employment programs, where people are actually trying to get people trained to get this produce out of the farms and onto the tables and into the supermarkets around Australia? I'm standing with the farmers; it's a shame the government didn't.
I rise to offer my support to this motion moved by the member for Nicholls. Along with Nicholls, my electorate of Mallee is a leading producer of horticultural products. The north-west and South Australian region, which almost entirely encompasses Mallee, produces 100 per cent of the almonds grown in Victoria, with a gross value of over $480 million in 2019. We also produce 99 per cent of Victoria's table grapes, valued at $347 million; 98 per cent of Victoria's oranges, valued at $66 million; and 62 per cent of Victoria's nectarines, valued at $59 million.
Many of the horticultural products produced in Mallee and around the country are highly labour intensive, and the sector is dependent on overseas workers to get their products to our plates. Growers in both Mallee and Nicholls as well as many other regions in Australia are currently staring down the barrel of massive losses due to a lack of workers. I've spoken to several growers who are worried that their fruit is going to fall to the ground. Many have already made the heartbreaking decision to plough their entire crop into the ground. One such farmer in Lake Boga, in my electorate, is Ian McAlister, who aimed to pull off a fabulous crop but is down 25 to 30 workers. Shockingly, he had to plough in his entire peach crop valued at $300,000.
Recently I met with young innovators and farmers, Dean Morpeth and Mick Young, creators of SHARP Fruit, in Woorinen, at their packing sheds. I was so impressed with their set-up and the workers who were packing the most beautiful fruit. They are currently over 20 workers short. Normally they would employ well over 60 people but this year they are down to just 40. They've had to shut down an entire packing line. This is lost revenue for the entire district. If producers can't sell their fruit and it can't be packed and sent in a timely manner, they lose it. This has a flow-on effect for all of our towns—the cafes and the other businesses. Mick and Dean expect next year to be worse if international borders don't open, as more people on working holiday-maker visas are forced to return to their home countries. I've also met with Darren Minter of Minter Magic, in Iraak. Minter Magic is famous for asparagus. I can tell you firsthand the asparagus is amazing. But asparagus is incredibly labour intensive also. Darren can see the writing on the wall and so is transitioning away from asparagus and into less labour-intensive crops, such as almonds.
These decisions are facing many producers around the country. A report by consultancy firm EY released in September last year painted a grim picture of expected workforce shortages. The analysis showed that industry could expect a shortfall of up to 26,000 workers between June 2020 and December 2021. This translates to a net gap of 20 per cent to 33 per cent over an 18-month period. Consequently, the horticulture industry has suffered greatly.
In August 2020 the Commonwealth and state governments, through the national cabinet, entered into an agreement to restart the Seasonal Worker Program. As mentioned in the terms of this motion, the Commonwealth has worked with partner nations to develop a pool of 20,000 pre-vetted work-ready Pacific Islanders who are eager to come to Australia to help with the harvests around the nation. It is the responsibility of each state and territory government to put in place arrangements for managing the arrival of workers, consistent with their respective public health orders and within their caps on international arrivals.
Unfortunately for the horticulture industry in Victoria, the Andrews Labor government has failed to implement adequate quarantine measures in a timely manner and therefore to provide workers to farms. While the Andrews government has entered an agreement with the Tasmanian government to quarantine 1,500 seasonal workers in Tasmania, this measure does not meet the demand for Victoria's growers and comes too late for too many. Clearly COVID-19 has made it more difficult to find workers, but these challenges have existed for many years, prior to the pandemic, and will persist into the future.
Providing growers with better access to legal, sustainable sources of low- and semi-skilled workers for seasonal work is something I am passionate about. That's why I recently produced a policy document on seasonal workforce to take to the Nationals policy committee. The COVID-19 pandemic provides the perfect opportunity to act on this urgent issue in order to secure the future of this vibrant industry.
I'd like to thank the member for moving this motion on the horticulture industry, because it gives me an opportunity to talk about horticulture in the area I live in, which of course is Greater Sydney. I doubt that many people know this, but agricultural production in the Greater Sydney region is valued at about $1 billion, compared with the state's $16 billion. So, it is actually an incredibly large part of the food production for the region. In fact, 20 per cent of the fresh food that goes into the CBD is grown in the Sydney basin, including in the member's own seat of Nicholls. It really is quite incredible.
But we can't conclude that this situation will continue, because the planning that the New South Wales government has introduced allows so much of our really good-quality agricultural farmland to be concreted over and turned into urban sprawl. If the current trend continues, in the next decades we're likely to see the 20 per cent of fresh food that is going into Sydney from local farmland go down to five per cent. That is a significant shift, and going the wrong way, given the changing nature of our climate and the kinds of circumstances that will impact our food supply chains locally—bushfires, changing climate, overseas disruption et cetera.
We should be looking at what several other countries around the world are looking at: how we reduce our food miles and fragment our supply chains so that there are a variety of sources of food quite close to where we live. I know that a number of organisations in Western Sydney, including a range of businesses, are working on just that. I want to point out that there's a really great project coming our way, courtesy of the New South Wales state government. I don't always praise the New South Wales state government, but the Western Sydney Aerotropolis research centre for agribusiness is actually a very good idea—a world-class research and innovation centre proposed for the precinct, focused entirely on agribusiness, at the Western Sydney Aerotropolis, which will tap into the region's history of food production—and we have quite an extensive one. We also have quite a history in food processing. In fact, Western Sydney is the largest food processor in Australia. So, we are very much about food; it's just that we don't always realise it.
The plan will be on exhibition until 28 February. It outlines a vision for 10 precincts surrounding the airport. This is a really great project. The University of Western Sydney is well and truly involved in this, as are the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries facility the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute, Richmond High School and Richmond TAFE at Hawkesbury. So, we will be seeing some really high-tech work done in the Western Sydney region, and that's an incredibly important thing.
The world faces a really interesting dilemma when it comes to food production. It's estimated that by 2050 we won't be feeding the 7.5 billion people we're feeding now; we'll be feeding 10 billion. It's estimated that over the next four decades we'll have to produce the same amount of food that farmers all around the world produced in 8,000 years. There will need to be a massive increase in the amount of food that's produced on the land we currently have and with the water resources we currently have while we deal with climate change and while we deal with that fact that whole areas that we currently farm will become less viable. We are facing quite a serious dilemma. In fact, there are many reports now that say that famine will be the issue of the 21st century, and there's no doubt that is right. We can see that beginning to happen now. We can already see the rise of famine across the world due to changing climate. Australia should be in an extraordinary position to contribute. When you talk to our farmers, there is the research being done on farms, the improvement of soil and the use of drone technology. The work that our farmers are doing to improve productivity is quite incredible.
I want to point out just how far it can go. I will talk briefly about the Netherlands. The Netherlands has half the land mass of Tasmania and it has 1,300 inhabitants per square mile. It has no land big enough for large-scale agriculture—none at all—and yet it's the globe's No. 2 exporter of food, measured by value, second only to the United States. It's quite extraordinary and it— (Time expired)
In rising in support of the motion, I take this opportunity to congratulate the member for Nicholls for bringing this issue to the attention of this place. It's important that we understand clearly the challenge Australia's horticultural producers are facing as we move through this very intense harvest period that begins, particularly in terms of southern Australia, around February and runs all the way through June, particularly as it relates to citrus. I stand in support because, as you know, Deputy Speaker Gillespie, I represent the great people of the Riverland in South Australia. Barker is an agricultural powerhouse. While there is horticulture throughout the electorate, much of it is heavily mechanised. The labour-intensive horticultural effort finds itself, if you like, concentrated in the Riverland around sectors like stone fruit, but principally citrus. As ingenious as man is, no man has been able to effectively invent a machine that can, via means of mechanical operation, harvest a citrus tree. What it requires, if anyone wants to know, is moving relatively light, yet still somewhat heavy, aluminium ladders and literally picking fruit by fruit by fruit. That harvest—
Honourable members interjecting—
I have to tell you, colleagues, I've done a bit of it, but, given my shape, I probably should do a lot more of it! We have such a substantial citrus industry in South Australia and across the nation that our need for harvest pickers through that March to June period is gargantuan. We're talking about thousands of people. There isn't one Australian producer who doesn't want to see Australians picking this fruit. Someone may come into this place and suggest this is a crisis that has been borne of COVID-19. No; it has simply been exacerbated by the settings. For a very long time, we've been unsuccessful in motivating Australians to travel and undertake this seasonal work. With a lot of the measures we've adopted, and this is irrespective of the government privileged to be in charge of the Treasury benches, it is effectively the equivalent of putting different forms of bandaids on a bullet wound. COVID has made this so much worse. It's made it worse because, as ABARES tells us, at any point in time we have over 63,000 backpackers in the country, many of whom do 88 days of work in regional communities to effectively earn the right for an additional period in Australia. Of course on account of the pandemic we don't have the privilege of working holiday makers coming to Australia. I don't want to alarm colleagues but it is real, we are seeing citrus producers, who pour all their input into growing oranges, limes and lemons—using expensive water, expensive inputs like pesticides, expensive inputs like fertiliser—getting their fruit to the point where they're now very anxious about getting people into the country to pick the fruit.
Our government has 25,000 willing workers in the Pacific Islands ready to come and do that work today. Before those opposite say this is a partisan attack on state governments, I have got to tell you, my call-out is to all state governments—Liberal and Labor—including my own state Liberal government in South Australia, look to what Annastacia Palaszczuk has done, allow on-farm quarantine. Allow these workers to come on farm, quarantine and work for two weeks and then go about making life easier for Australian producers. I don't want to see that fruit rotting on the tree. I don't want to see Aussie fruit prices in supermarkets going up because we didn't get the fruit off.
I would like to thank the member for Nicholls for bringing this motion. It is an incredible opportunity for me to talk about the benefits and the great the virtues of the Macarthur electorate. The Macarthur electorate is named after John and Elizabeth Macarthur, widely known as the founders of the Australian wool industry, but in fact they were the founders of the Australian horticulture industry. Camden Park, their property, still exists. It is part of the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute which surrounds Camden Park. Camden Park is still owned by the descendants of John and Elizabeth Macarthur. John Macarthur and Edwina Macarthur Stanham still live there. On that property are the remnants of the founding of the Australian horticulture industry. There are the grapevines. There are orchards which demonstrate where Australian agriculture and horticulture first started.
It's interesting that the reasons for the beginning of that horticultural industry then are similar to the situation we find ourselves in now, in that we have difficulty accessing markets, difficulty accessing foods that we want so we have to grow them ourselves. So it is very opportune that this motion is being moved. I think that John and Elizabeth Macarthur would be very upset if they saw what had happened to much of the agricultural land around their original property, which has now succumbed, unfortunately, to urban sprawl, because governments have decided that this urban sprawl, these houses, are much more valuable than the agricultural land that they're built on. It is a shame to see that some of the orchards that were there in my childhood are now houses for what is effectively urban sprawl. There are still, however, a large number of Macarthur residents who work in the agricultural and horticultural sector and we still have a number of large farms in the area. As I've mentioned, the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute is, at least partly, in my electorate of Macarthur.
As a society there are many lessons that we have learnt from the pandemic—which is still ongoing. One of those was that we should plan adequately for any eventuality and we should plan our workforce adequately. Unfortunately, this is something that the federal government hasn't learnt. We haven't had cooperation in getting a workforce to our agricultural and horticultural sector like we should of, and we're paying the price for that in lack of people to pick our fruit and to till our soils. This could have been planned for much more adequately had the government sought to work cooperatively with the state governments around the country. From Tasmania to the Northern Territory, to Queensland, to Western Australia it could have been done much, much better. Our horticultural products are the best in the world.
I look forward, with great excitement, to the developments around the aerotropolis of Western Sydney Airport with our high value agricultural products being able to get to markets around the world due to the access to the airport.
Unfortunately, the transport around the airport has not been developed adequately—particularly from the south, where most of the agricultural land is. That will further limit our ability to get our high-value products to the rest of the world. I'm a great believer that, as a country, we should make and produce things. Support should not just be for our manufacturing industry but of course in our agricultural sector. We have huge ability to produce agricultural and horticultural products in our country. In my electorate of Macarthur we have some of the best food-processing companies in Australia and yet they're being denied adequate support, denied an adequate workforce and denied the ability to get those products to the rest of the world.
I think it's bizarre that the National Party are presenting motions like this, when they themselves have done very little in their electorates to promote Australian horticulture and getting our high-value products to the rest of the world. I commend the member for bringing this motion, but I'd like to see the National Party and his government do more to promote Australia's fantastic horticultural products to the rest of the world. Thank you.
Today I would like to speak on how the Morrison government is committed to making sure that Australia's agricultural sector has the workers it needs.
Right from the beginning of this pandemic, the Morrison government has acted to make sure that our farmers are supported. We have acted to make sure that our agricultural sector can continue to operate in a safe way. Firstly, this government extended visas for overseas workers. These workers supplement our highly skilled Australian farmers. Secondly, we provided incentives for Australians to move to the bush to work in the agricultural sector. We recommenced the Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme and this government put in place the National Agricultural Workers Code to facilitate the movement of agricultural workers.
All this was done early on to make sure that this sector could continue to operate. In March, this government sat down with each of the states. We said that we needed to develop a plan to make sure that our agricultural sector keeps moving. In August we said that we wanted to see more Aussies working in the regions, while still relying on Pacific and seasonal workers. We pre-vetted 25,000 men and women from 10 Pacific nations to give our farmers the boost that they needed. The federal government was ready.
However, at national cabinet the states said that they wanted to run their own quarantine arrangements. They wanted to do that and they told the federal government no. Daniel Andrews, who has continually failed Victoria and Victorians time and time again, now says that maybe the federal government should be running the quarantine program. I find this to be a bit rich after he told us no several times. Andrews wants to continue doing everything himself. Aspen Health, an internationally recognised organisation, put a proposal to the Victorian government, saying, 'We have a plan to take over hotel quarantine and to help Victoria's farmers.' The Andrews government did nothing for six months. Only in January did Andrews come up with arrangements to support farmers. The arrangements were light on detail and relied heavily on Tasmania.
I am so pleased to have seen flights arrive in the Northern Territory, Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania to help farmers and the meat-processing sector. Victoria is the only state not to bring in a single worker. Daniel Andrews is letting Victoria down again.
Australia's second largest state, thanks to Premier Andrews, is being outperformed by our smallest jurisdiction. The Northern Territory has put in place arrangements to see workers start on 5 August. They are leading the way. I believe that the Premier of Victoria should be looking out for the interests of all Victorians, so I ask: why are regional Victorians being left in the lurch? Regional Australia is the engine room of Australia's economy, but Premier Andrews refuses to provide the grease to rev the sector up.
Our farmers are tired of waiting on Premier Andrews. We need action from a premier that is hell-bent on locking up Victoria. Our farmers deserve better, Victorians deserve better and Australia deserves better.
I can't agree with the previous speaker; I consider the Victorian Premier better than a comedy hour! Watch him; he's in fantasyland. It's fascinating. I enjoy him immensely. There is a bloke that does not live in the same world as the rest of Australia.
There were 220,000 backpackers in Australia when COVID hit. Half of those, according to the ABS, were employed in agriculture. When I say in agriculture, I refer to how one of my parliamentary chiefs of staff said they had hotels in Hughenden, and their backpackers were classed as rural employees. Of course, in a very real sense, they are. That's a cattle area and, when the cattle people come to town, they stay overnight, so in a very real sense they're employees. According to statistics, by June of this year there will be no backpackers at all in Australia, so where do we get 50,000 workers from? I truly don't know.
The hotel in Atherton—and I stay there because I enjoy all the partying of all the backpackers—had 92 backpackers stay there, but every farmer who's short of a worker just rings up the BV, or the Barron Valley, as it's called, and they will get workers out on the farm. That hotel has pioneered backpacker accommodation and backpackers as a source of workers in the area. Also, they are young people and they create an atmosphere. They swim in the big pool right in the centre of Cairns, and it's really great fun for young people.
I think this crisis has brought an issue to a head. Up until last year, I reckon everyone had the freedom that, if they didn't want to work, they didn't have to work. Well, yes, you have the right not to work, but you have no right to take money off the people that are working. If a bloke wants to lounge around all day, watching the television, he doesn't take work off some poor beggar that has to get up at 7.30 in the morning, spend an hour or half an hour getting to work and half an hour getting home in the afternoon. He should not be paying for you to sit at home all day and watch the television. We're looking at about 20 per cent of the Australian work force fitting into that category. They're hiding among the disabled. They're hiding in the university and education sector. They're hiding all over the place. If you compare the people that were working—my generation, but even the generation below me—with the people that are working now, there's a hell of a lot of them just simply hiding out. Disability is one of the great places to hide out. I think we've arrived at that point.
Where I find the Premier of Victoria absolutely fascinating—they put people in quarantine in the centre of a city. The last place on the planet that you put people is in the centre of a rabbit warren city! Of course our government in Queensland has done exactly the same thing, so—surprise, surprise!—we've got an outbreak.
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
I have finished what I needed to say.
Sitting suspended from 18:20 to 18 : 30