SUBJECTS: Agricultural visa and workforce shortages, Backpacker Tax, climate change, Australia’s international relations, Scott Morrison, Mandatory Dairy Code, Melbourne Cup.
TIM SHAW: The Federal Government is scrambling. They’ve announced changes to backpacker visas and the Seasonal Worker Program in a bid to address worker shortages on our farms. Now we had the backpacker tax, we’ve had flip flops all left, right and centre and the wheels on the bus go round and round including on strawberry farms in Queensland with Prime Minister Scott Morrison out there. It’s not Bill Shorten’s bus, it is Scomo’s bus. To reflect on that and the issues affecting regional and rural Australia is the Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Shadow Minister for Rural and Regional Australia and the Member for the great seat of Hunter - Joel Fitzgibbon is on the line. Mr Fitzgibbon, welcome back to 2CC Breakfast.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: That’s a very fine introduction Tim, thank you.
SHAW: Well you see the great seat of Hunter, that’s where the real workers are and they’ve been working hard for decades. Tell us why there is a shortage of farm workers Joel Fitzgibbon.
FITZGIBBON: It’s a problem which has been with us for a long time Tim but in particular it has grown as a challenge over the last few years. It is obviously very, very complex. Usually when you have a supply and demand curve when the supply is short the price goes and the supply increases but it doesn’t seem to be happening in this particular labour market. Of course it is a difficult market, picking in the heat in remote places of our country isn’t always the most attractive job one sees or looks for but we have to have the wit and have to take a whole of government approach to this problem and come up with some real and meaningful solutions. We can’t be flip flopping all over the place announcing policies on the run as the Prime Minister has done over the course of the last few months.
SHAW: Alright, if you were the Minister responsible today, what would Labor do?
FITZGIBBON: Well we wouldn’t be making announcements on the run and we wouldn’t be having our focus entirely on foreign labour. We have to get past this mindset that dictates every time we have a labour market shortage we seek to import overseas workers, particularly in this sector where we see constantly workers being exploited and underpaid on a regular basis. That’s another issue within this broader challenge we have to tackle.
SHAW: That Backpacker Tax knocked it around a bit didn’t it?
FITZGIBBON: Well the Backpacker Tax came at the worst possible time. We had no tax on backpackers in this country and just as this labour market challenge was emerging and growing worse, the Treasurer of the day, Scott Morrison decided he would introduce a 32 per cent Backpacker Tax for the first time and he decided he would tax backpackers on the first dollar they earned, denying them any tax free threshold. So, at a time when we already had a big challenge that of course exacerbated the problem. So this is what happens when you get revenue grabbing tactics and this is what happens when you allow the problem to fester because it’s a problem which can’t be fixed overnight Tim. The Prime Minister announced some things yesterday that can do no harm, in fact they will probably help but he said they will have an immediate effect. Of course they will not. Allowing someone to stay here for three years rather than two is not going to cause a backpacker in London to come Australia tomorrow.
FITZGIBBON: These things take a long time to sort out into those international communities and there is a significant lag effect so nothing he said yesterday will address the problem in the immediate and of course this Government is now in its sixth year of office.
SHAW: A couple of things that I have observed a high level of bipartisanship particularly from you on trying to get through- we’ve had the Drought summit, we have had the big announcement of that $5 billion the draw down, a 100 million bucks a year. That infrastructure investment will be really, really important. But you and I both know we live in a country, you know, of droughts and flooding rains. There needs to be that balance. Is the National Farmers’ Federation on track and are they lobbying the right way and putting – if you again were the Minister being lobbied by the NFF, is everyone starting to make sense about what we need to do to drought-proof Australia and do our best to provide that back up when farmers really need it?
FITZGIBBON: It certainly has changed in the five years I have been in the portfolio Tim. Four years ago you would rarely hear, if at all, the NFF or any other farm leadership groups acknowledging the importance of addressing climate change, both carbon mitigation but also adaptation on farms and I think only the minority of farmers were prepared to do so but today the NFF has been quite vocal acknowledging climate change is a problem and demanding it be addressed and I think the majority of farmers now recognise that the climate is changing in challenging ways and they have to adapt and change their farming practices and better prepare for drought so there has been a shift. The place where there hasn’t been a shift, despite my offers of bipartisanship, is within this Government where we still don’t have any real acknowledgement of climate change, we have no action on climate change and we have no specific programs to help more farmers take up world’s best science-based, best farming practices.
SHAW: Alright the Government lost its majority with the swearing in of Professor Kerryn Phelps yesterday in the seat of Wentworth. What’s Labor going to do in the next sitting? Are you wanting to put pressure on the Government to be able to get those cross benchers to support immediate Labor policy? If that was the case, what are you pushing for in the next sitting?
FITZGIBBON: I think the responsible thing to do when no major party holds an absolute majority is to allow the Parliament and the House of Representatives to express its will. To allow the House of Representatives to work like the founding fathers expecting it to work and have it to determine the outcome, not the major party determine the outcome. We will be pursuing our significant reform agenda and testing it on the floor of the House and inviting the six cross benchers to come with us. For example it’s very clear to me that on the phase out of the live sheep export sector, a majority of MPs in the House are likely to support that move and we would like to be given the opportunity. The problem is Tim that the rules of the House to get these matters before the House, you have to have an absolute majority and Labor is starting on 69 votes and even with six cross benchers only gets us to 75 so you have got to be able to get the matters on the floor of the house to vote on them. We can win a simple majority vote potentially but we can never find the 76. So we are going to ask the Government given it is in minority to give the Parliament additional opportunities to express its will and to express its numbers on the floor of the House of Representatives.
SHAW: I want to ask you about this Mandatory Dairy Code. What should this code look like? The Government is beginning that consultation. Gee, haven’t the dairy farmers been knocked around Joel Fitzgibbon?
FITZGIBBON: They certainly have and the Government had to be dragged screaming to this mandatory code in fact they resisted it all the way but it was only when the ACCC, which is fairly economically dry, recommended we have a mandatory code that it was left no choice now but to embrace it. Look it’s got to deal with the behaviour between the parties. Obviously it will be in this case between the processors and the dairy farmers and of course it has got to be designed to address the imbalance of market power. In that bargaining relationship, the farmers are the very, very small player. It needs to be done in consultation with all the players, it needs to be done properly to be given a chance to work properly. We have to do more to help our dairy farmers.
SHAW: First visit of an Australian Foreign Minister to China, Minister Payne will be heading up to Beijing ahead of that Import Expo. This is an important move. How do you describe Australia’s relationship with China presently?
FITZGIBBON: Well Tim, if you had suggested with me five years ago there would be an almost three year period where we effectively didn’t haven’t have diplomatic