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Pacific agricultural visa controversy reignites as Australia dithers

Australia's seasonal worker program, highly valued in PNG & the Pacific, under threat as politicians dither


Read here the complete story of the background to this imbroglio

CANBERRA - After a period of relative quiet, reporting on the agricultural visa proposal has picked up again.

Nationals leader and deputy prime minister Michael McCormack was asked about it on Sky last weekend. On 8 October, Matt Coughlan of AAP reported McCormack as saying, “We’ll be addressing that as a government. We’ll be coming up with a plan to solve the problem and we’ll be doing that very soon”.

That sounded positive for the ag visa, as was the title of Coughlan’s article ‘Foreign farm worker scheme edging closer’ but in fact the article continued in a more negative vein:

“Hopes of an agricultural visa are fading after tensions within the Coalition over the issue. Immigration minister David Coleman is in charge of looking for a solution, with one potential option being extending existing seasonal worker programs.”

The ABC’s Stephen Dziedzic was also negative. He suggested on Twitter that McCormack seemed “to hedge slightly when asked if the Coalition will unveil an agriculture visa before summer- ‘Well, let’s hope so. Absolutely. Because we need to work on it. Scott Morrison is fully cognisant of the fact we have a shortfall of workers’ [on Sky]”.

The ABC has had another go on the issue with detailed reports on 9 October on PM and ABC Rural. Some farmers (including Ian Quinn, the mango farmer and ag visa protagonist) and farmer groups (AusVeg) called for a new visa.

Farmer Andrew Bulmer called for workers for three years: something that is actually now possible under the Pacific Labour Scheme.

A lot of the farmers’ complaints are about the paperwork associated with the seasonal worker program (SWP).  But it’s important to remember that any new ag visa will come with the same terms and conditions as the SWP. There’s no way around that.

The other complaint is that the SWP is too small. But it is growing at almost 40% a year.  And further reforms could lead to further growth.

Citrus Australia CEO Ben Cant sounded a cautionary note. He said he feared the government had not consulted with industry enough.

“I’m concerned that what’s transpiring is short-term politics… coming up with a quick win for politics to demonstrate they’re satisfying growers’ needs,” Mr Cant said. “I’m worried something will be released half-baked. We need to have good industry consultation so we don’t ruin one program to initiate another.”

Reporter Clint Jasper on the ABC’s PM program concluded that “the government maintains that a new visa will be delivered by the end of the year.” I don’t think that’s quite it.

The government, it seems to me, has undertaken to do something by the end of the year (or perhaps earlier) but it is not clear what. As discussed below there seem to be three options on the table: a new visa, changes to the backpacker visa, and reforms to the SWP.

Meanwhile, the Pacific Labor Mobility Annual Meeting is underway in Honiara, an annual conference that Australia and New Zealand promised to hold as one of its PACER Plus [free-trade agreement] commitments in response to Pacific demands for greater labour mobility.

Policy coherence, anyone?


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