Opinion

Labor's 'Ag Visa' policy affects all Australians

By Fiona Simson, National Farmers Federation President
May 10 2022 - 4:00am

COMMENT

Increasing wages would simply mean fewer Aussie farmers, and more imported produce on our supermarket shelves. It's rapidly fuelling Australia's cost of living crisis. Left unchecked, it will increase the number of Australians who can no longer afford to choose fresh fruit and veg.

Buried in the depths of Labor's Pacific Plan was a bitter pill for farmers. The 'Ag Visa' - needed to address agriculture's crippling workforce crisis and help farmers put food on supermarket shelves - would be scrapped.

Despite claiming to support the Ag Visa, a Labor Government would simply peel off the label, and stick it onto an existing scheme targeting Pacific nations.

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The decision is naive by Labor - who had promised farmers less than two weeks ago a solution 'better' than the Ag Visa. It also comes during a week when regional job vacancies tallied 84,000, an almost doubling since 2019 and in the shadow of record unemployment figures.

As the farm workforce crisis drags on, it's not just farmers who are left to foot the bill but cash-strapped consumers too. The latest frightening inflation data shows food prices posting their fastest gains in more than a decade - led by fruit and vegetables with gains of 6.6 per cent and 5pc respectively.

Labor is correct - a program linking Pacific workers to Aussie farm jobs is a great idea, and one the farm sector firmly supports.

It's such a good idea in fact that Australia already runs two of them, one for more than 10 years. These programs are valued by both farmers and Pacific workers, who earn vastly more than they would back home, enabling them to support their family's economic development and wellbeing.

The point of the Ag Visa was to complement existing schemes, not duplicate them. In fact, it was meant to take what our existing Pacific schemes do well - things like protecting workers and curtailing rogue operators - and extend these safeguards to workers from other countries. As good as they are, the Pacific schemes just don't work for every type of farm and every commodity. The Ag Visa would also increase the pool of available workers, skills, backgrounds and experiences.

Australia's farm labour crisis isn't going away. As the farm sector continues to grow, it becomes harder for farmers to access the workers they need to plant and harvest crops and care for their livestock. It's an issue common to much of the developed world, where sufficient numbers of domestic workers are no longer willing to tackle the demands of farm work.

I often hear critics say we should 'just pay more'. But they forget that as farmers, we don't set the prices we receive. Instead, we're paid according to global prices - kept artificially low by generous farm subsidies which don't exist here in Australia. Increasing wages would simply mean fewer Aussie farmers, and more imported produce on our supermarket shelves.

It's a problem that started within the farm sector and is now rapidly fuelling Australia's cost of living crisis. Left unchecked, it will increase the number of Australians who can no longer afford to choose fresh fruit and veg.

Neither side of politics has articulated a plan that would bring this crisis to heel. Industry has been calling for a suite of measures to attract and train Australians, as well as broaden the global reach of the Ag Visa.

We are still seeking a more ambitious plan from the Coalition, but in choosing to abolish rather than broaden the Ag Visa - Labor has set the bar hopelessly low.

The politics of the Pacific has upended what should be a productive partnership between industry and the ALP on this issue. Both want to see an end to the dodgy operators who continue to haunt the industry. Both want to see workers on a pathway to permanent residency. And both are committed to growth in Australia's farm sector.

The Ag Visa could have delivered each of these outcomes. But rather than pursue real solutions, Labor has chosen political expediency - denying access to essential workers in an attempt to exploit Scott Morrison's political vulnerability on the Pacific. They've conflated two crises and solved neither in the process.

If successful at the election, an Albanese Government will have to revisit this policy to avoid burdening every Australian with higher food prices. The real-world impacts are too serious for politics to win the day.

*Fiona Simson is the president of the National Farmers Federation and a Liverpool Plains, NSW, farmer.

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