By Jess Baker
Representatives of Queensland’s horticulture and agriculture sector have thanked the state government for its support in boosting farm labour, while simultaneously condemning the federal government for its inability to do the same.
Minister for Agricultural Industry Development and Fisheries and Minister for Rural Communities Mark Furner announced last week that almost 3000 workers had arrived from Pacific Island nations to work on Queensland farms and related businesses.
“We have already brought in more than 2900 with more on the way,” Minister Furner said.
“Most of these workers have quarantined on-farm so they can work during their quarantine period, while others have used hotel quarantine when capacity is available without taking away capacity for returning Australians.”
The announcement came less than one week after changes to the Working Holiday Maker program took effect on 1 July 2021.
The changes, announced on 22 June 2021 by Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, saw visa holders working in tourism and hospitality in northern, remote and very remote parts of Australia made eligible to extend their visas two or three years without completing farm work.
AgForce and the National Farmers’ Federation said the changes threatened to put further strain on Queensland’s horticulture sector, which was already 9000 workers short.
AgForce CEO Michael Guerin thanked Minister Furner for his “ongoing commitment to ease the farm labour shortage”, and urged Minister Hawke to reconsider his decision on Working Holiday Maker visas and support the state’s agriculture industry.
“We would like to thank Minister Furner for his proactivity in sourcing labour for our farmers and encourage a continued and concerted effort to help keep our industry afloat,” Mr Guerin said.
“There have always been challenges in finding and retaining ag labour in rural and remote areas, and this shortage has been made much worse by the Covid pandemic and travel restrictions.”
Mr Guerin asked Minister Hawke to review his decision immediately and to be more transparent moving forward.
National Farmers’ Federation CEO Tony Mahar said the federal government should take its lead from the state government with regard to supporting agriculture.
“We applaud the state government for its ongoing commitment to bolstering our industry with farm workers, despite the Covid pandemic,” Mr Mahar said.
“However the same cannot be said federally, and it’s time that changed.”
Mr Mahar urged Minister Hawke to start engaging with industry in the establishment of an Ag Visa, which has been promised by the federal government.
“The industry is not being brought into the development of the visa to date and Minister Hawke appears to be continuing his style of not talking to industry on matters that impact them significantly,” Mr Mahar said.
“If this continues he will end up developing up a regime that suits government but is a disaster for industry which would be a terrible outcome.”
Granite Belt Growers Association President Angus Ferrier said it was crucial all three levels of government – local, state and federal – work together to address Queensland’s shortage of farm workers.
He said that while workers from Pacific Island nations were readily available, governments and farmers should not give up on encouraging Australians to pitch in and help.
“It’s really important that we continue on to incentivise Aussies to come out and give it a go,” Mr Ferrier said.
“There have been recently announced changes to the Back to Work program, which is a state government initiative, so we’re still really keen to see Aussies come and give our industry a go and see how much we have to offer.”
Mr Ferrier said farmers also need the federal government to roll out the new Ag Visa as quickly as possible.