Topic: Food security
ARLIE FELTON-TAYLOR: Well, all these questions around arrangements for the workforce are being directed at the Federal Government. Let's get the latest from Canberra. This morning, state and territory Ag ministers met to discuss challenges for the sector as the pandemic unfolds. Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud says governments are working together to address industry's concerns. Chief among them, of course, a potential shortage of workers.
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: We are very close to making some announcements around changes to visa arrangements, to extend those and the conditions that currently exist for, whether they be the Pacific Islanders, the seasonal workers, or the holidaymaker, which are the backpackers. We've got to understand there's over 140,000 backpackers in the country at the moment, and over 7000 Pacific Island workers with their visas. So there is a workforce that is here and it's about making sure that we continue to provide continuity to our producers.
KATH SULLIVAN: Is there any sense of the number or the shortfall of workers that the industry needs at the moment?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, this is the challenge and one that when I was last Agriculture Minister put $1.9 million into doing a workforce study, and that's currently already started. And that's the challenge that we've got. If we're going to go to the Immigration Minister to ask for changes to our visa arrangements or even ask for an ag visa, you've got to have the data and science to be able to demonstrate to him or her that there's a need.
KATH SULLIVAN: You talk about those measures you took when you were last Agriculture Minister. That's when you promised an agriculture-specific visa for the industry. Do you think that would have helped the sector out now if we had such a thing in place?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, whether it's that or whether it's whatever you want to call it, I don't think anyone particularly cares. But when I'm prosecuting the case, and in fact, obviously, there was public reports of a very fierce fight in Cabinet. Unfortunately, one of my Cabinet colleagues back then leaked a fight that I had trying to get one of these visas up, was that I needed more science. I needed the data. And that's where I need farmers to help and I need industry to help to be able to provide me with that data, to be able to prosecute a cogent argument about a need for some mechanisms to support agriculture with labour supply that is consistent for their needs.
KATH SULLIVAN: David Littleproud, we've got a situation on our hands at the moment where there is concern about a shortage of workers, but it also looks like Australia is looking - in fact, the globe - is looking down the barrel of recession. Presumably, we're about to see a lot more unemployed people. Could they fill the void in terms of helping out the horticulture sector?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, there's an opportunity for that - for dislocated people who've lost their jobs. But you've got to appreciate that many of those will be in metropolitan Australia. Now, will a worker in the hospitality industry want to go and pick oranges in Gayndah in Queensland, or go to the Northern Territory when they have family and they have commitments in metropolitan Australia for a six to eight-week period? We have to be pragmatic about the practical reality of people and how they'll act in this.
So, there's already work being done by Michaelia Cash, whether there be opportunities for people in the agriculture sector, and I would encourage them to do that. In fact, they would have a far greater lifestyle living in regional Australia than they will in metropolitan Australia, and to pursue agricultural occupations. But we've got to be pragmatic about this. Farmers need to get their produce off the paddock when it's ripe and they can't wait. So, I can't sit there and hope that people from Melbourne might travel up to Gayndah and pick fruit for a little while. You have to be pragmatic about this and that's why we'll look at any solution we can. But the most acute response that we can give is to tweak our visa arrangements now.
KATH SULLIVAN: So, how soon might we see those changes to the visas?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, obviously that's imminent. The Immigration Minister and I are having conversations with the Prime Minister, and in fact we are working through some of the details as we speak.
KATH SULLIVAN: Okay.
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So we don't intend to wait, but there will be announcements very, very soon.
KATH SULLIVAN: You've had an interesting relationship with the supermarkets in the past. We're now seeing buses from metropolitan areas head out into regional areas, looking to wipe the shelves clean. Is there a role for Government to intervene at this point?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, this is abhorrent behaviour. I mean, the reality is, is these people have been reported to go out on buses, cleaned out supermarkets in regional centres and then coming back and putting it up online, selling it at exorbitant prices. So I'm saying to eBay: you have a social responsibility now to go and pull those people's sites down, not to allow them to sell hand sanitiser for $90 a bottle or whatever it may be. You have a responsibility to stop that. You have the power to do it. And the Australian public also have the power to blow these people's business model up and not buy it. The reality is if people shop normally, then all these goods will be on your shelf every day. But when people rush to supermarkets and they are forced to have to stock shelves and feed 50 million people, instead of 25, all within a 24-hour period, you can understand the strain on the supply chains.
So, all we're asking from the Australian public is one thing: common sense. Show some god damn common sense and just go about your life normally. Go into the shops, get what you need. You do not need to go and hoard any meat, any toilet paper, any hand sanitiser. There are supplies on their way. The supply chains are secure. All this takes is for you to show some common sense and support the supermarkets. Yes, while I have danced with them a few times - and will again if needed - I have to say they have shown leadership on this matter and I congratulate them for that, and I'll continue to support them on this because this is an important aspect of the nation's security, of keeping some calm on this. But everyone has a role to play, and not just governments. People need to show some common sense and just do the right thing. And eBay needs to do the right thing and pull these sites down from these parasites.