Ag visa damaged Solomon Islands relations before China deal: Solomons diplomat

Jamieson Murphy
By Jamieson Murphy
Updated May 10 2022 - 6:21am, first published 6:00am
RELATION DAMAGED: Barnaby Joyce says the Solomon Islands High Commissioner was "clutching at straws".

THE Solomon Islands' top diplomat is "clutching at straws" to suggest Australia's new agriculture visa contributed to the fraying relations between the two countries - and the Pacific nation's subsequent security deal with China - the Deputy Prime Minister says.

Solomon Islands High Commissioner Robert Sisilo said the new ag visa that targeted workers from South East Asian would eat away at the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme, which was extremely important to the island nation's economy.

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"With the new ag visa and farmers recruiting from mainly Asian countries, that might undermine our scheme and reduce our numbers," Mr Sisilo said.

"We have 3000 workers [in the scheme], but we want more. They are sending back a lot of remittances, which is also helping people at home, especially during this time of COVID-19.

"Thousands are looking for jobs every year, as they finish school, but there are very few jobs around. This is where the Australian Pacific Labour Scheme has been very useful in creating jobs."

So far, only Vietnam has agreed to sign up to the ag visa and the first lot of workers are still months away from arriving. But Mr Sisilo said if Australia wanted to repair its relationship with the Solomons, it should start with scrapping the visa.

Barnaby Joyce said the High Commissioner was "totally clutching at straws".

"To be quite frank, it's totally ridiculous... there is never ever going to be any question about Pacific Islanders coming," the Deputy Prime Minister said.

"The issue we have is we can't get enough labourers. If the Pacific Island scheme could do all we required, we wouldn't need the ag visa."

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When the government announced the ag visa at the end of 2021, Labor flagged concerns it could damage relations with Pacific nations and compromise the soft diplomacy the PALM scheme provided.

At the time, Labor Senator Tim Ayres raised the issue in a Senate estimates hearing and said the scheme was a key part of the nation's diplomatic strategy for the Pacific Islands.

"We were concerned then and we've delivered a policy answer now," Senator Ayres said.

"That's why the announcement we've made focuses on a reformed Pacific labour scheme, which does the right thing by our international relations and delivers for the agriculture sector at the same time."

Labor has promised to cover the up-front of bringing over Pacific workers and create a four-year ag visa, which targets the island nations instead of South East Asia.

The reforms would also make it easier for Pacific workers to fill labour shortages by allowing participants of the Pacific Labour Scheme to bring in family members to live and work in Australia, then engage them to stay by promoting permanent residency on a new Pacific Engagement Visa.

Jamieson Murphy

Jamieson Murphy

National Rural Affairs reporter

National Rural Affairs reporter, focusing on rural politics and issues. Whisper g'day mate to me at jamieson.murphy@austcommunitymedia.com.au

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