Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Regional Banking Taskforce, Employment
Before I get on with what I wanted to speak on, I just want to refer to Senator O'Neill's contribution tonight. I want to thank her for raising the importance of the Regional Banking Taskforce, and why this government has implemented it. She highlighted tonight the closure of banks in regional areas. Let's not forget which government privatised the Commonwealth Bank, which started the snowball of closing banks in regional areas. So thank you, Senator O'Neill, and I hope you look forward to the results of the Regional Banking Taskforce, which I am co-chair of, which is actually looking at solutions to a problem which was of Labor's making.
I'll move on, because I want to talk about the situation we have in regional Australia as we approach—after years of drought and of mouse plagues—thankfully, one of the best harvest seasons in years. La Nina's keeping away and is at bay for the moment. But we are still facing a worker shortage. The scale of the shortage can be illustrated by looking at just the holiday worker visas, which have dropped by about 100,000 from pre-COVID days. Once upon a time, we relied on those on working holiday visas to come and help us with our harvests, for horticulture and for broadacre farming. Even in the meat industry we rely on seasonal workers and the Pacific labour force.
As much as people say, 'Just get Australians to do the job,' farmers have advertised; farmers have sought Australians to do the job. And Australians aren't taking up the job—for whatever reason. I'm not pointing the finger of blame at Australians. What I am saying, however, is: we are dependent on that workforce.
So our government has taken action. Our government has implemented the agriculture workforce visa. This has been welcomed by a huge range of people: the National Farmers Federation, the National Irrigators Council, the NSW Farmers Horticulture Committee, the Victorian Farmers Federation, AUSVEG, Growcom, Berries Australia, the Australian Forest Products Association—and the list goes on. But guess who hasn't welcomed the government's action here? Labor and the unions. Funny that! I refer to the comments of ACTU President Michele O'Neil, who said:
The new visa program is not based on any independent verification of the need for short term visa workers …
Really? A hundred thousand fewer workers in the agriculture workforce because we don't have holiday-maker seasonal workers, thanks to COVID—what more proof do you need?
And there are other criticisms being made by those opposite. One of the other furphies that they like to peddle is that the government is somehow allowing these workers to be exploited. Well, we're not allowing them to be exploited. Pacific workers, for example, are employed under the same industry awards, agreements and legislation as Australian workers. That means they're entitled to the same minimum rates of pay and conditions, and those are meant to be enforced by government. But let me bring to our attention the fact that the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs, Alex Hawke, is due to move new amendments very soon that will create new offences and increase penalties significantly on employers who do the wrong thing, to protect those migrant workers. I am calling on the Labor Party to support those amendments and to support migrant workers, seasonal workers, Pacific labour workers and working holiday-makers so that we can continue to have a strong and vibrant agricultural sector. That's because this is far too important.
The modern labour union movement doesn't really care about the rights of workers. They're just looking for an opportunity to point score against the government. So the campaign against the ag worker visa by the unions and by Labor just leaves a bad taste in the mouth of regional Australians, who need workers because we need this harvest to be as good as it can be. To do that, we need to get it off the fields.