Comment

Horticulture a pawn in Pacific workforce power play

By Richard Shannon, Growcom Acting Ceo
May 15 2022 - 12:00am
Pacific workforce could come at a cost

Every government needs to make compromises and difficult trade-offs as they pursue multiple objectives, some of which will come in direct conflict with each other.

At the state level, if you look at a budget, greater investment in health must come at the cost of education or another portfolio. With local government, fixing pot holes might come at the expense of waste collection services.

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The same will be true for whoever forms the next federal government, where some of the competing interests and objectives may be less obvious to the casual observer.

One important emerging yet underappreciated conflict is between maintaining Australian influence in the Pacific region and both the cost of fresh produce domestically and our ability to compete in export markets.

The wages sent back to Pacific nations by their citizens working overseas, including by those on Australian farms, are one of the largest sources of income for many island nations, right up there with tourism.

It makes sense then that Pacific nations would seek to maximise this source of income, including by leveraging their strategic geopolitical value to maintain or expand their position as supplier of choice in the Australian agricultural labour market.

We can speculate that lobbying by Pacific nations likely partially explains why the Foreign Minister was slow to sign up south east Asian nations to the new Australian Agriculture Visa, and also why the ALP announcement of their proposed agriculture stream within existing Pacific labour programs was made not as part of a cohesive agriculture platform but instead buried among their commitments to the Pacific.

While recruiting workers from the Pacific to supplement the domestic workforce has been the agreed priority of government and industry, our near neighbours would clearly prefer we went a step further and made it an exclusive arrangement.

Should that occur, and without putting too fine a point on it, the cost of pushing back on Chinese influence in the region could well be higher prices for fresh fruits and vegetables in local supermarkets and a harder task for Australian producers in competitive export markets.

In a world where we need as many friends as possible, and where greater exports remain the most important way for the Australian and Queensland horticulture industry to grow, Growcom recommends the next federal government avoids putting all its eggs in the one basket when it comes to securing our seasonal workforce.

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