Frustration over how to get more fruit and vegetable pickers on Australian farms has boiled over today, with some state agriculture ministers accusing their federal counterpart of avoiding the issue.
Key points:

  • A meeting between state and federal agriculture ministers is being held today
  • Ahead of the meeting some state ministers wrote to the Federal minister, with that letter obtained by the ABC
  • The letter calls for urgent action on farm labour shortages, ahead of summer harvest

Four state agriculture ministers have written to the Federal Minister for Agriculture, David Littleproud, ahead of today’s Agriculture Ministers Meeting (AGMIN), saying farm labour shortages, trade issues with China and climate change were left off the agenda.
“We strongly insist that a full agenda be set to discuss these critical issues, and that you commit to holding more regular meetings next year after just two were held this year,” the letter, which was obtained by the ABC, states.
“The one and only item you have proposed that we discuss is that of a time limit on the existence of a regular meeting of Australian agriculture ministers.
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“This is certainly not the most pressing matter facing Australian agriculture.”
The letter is signed by New South Wales agriculture minister Adam Marshall, as well as three Labor ministers Jaclyn Symes in Victoria, Alannah MacTiernan in Western Australia and Mark Furner in Queensland.
“This approach from the Commonwealth comes as farmers across Australia face the unprecedented challenge of finding enough seasonal workers for harvest; an escalating trade war with China affecting Australian beef, barley, seafood and wine; and ongoing recovery from bushfires and drought,” the letter states.
Littleproud hits back
Mr Littleproud hit back at the ministers, arguing the states could solve the issue of labour shortages themselves, by letting in pre-vetted visa-ready workers from 10 Pacific Island nations.
He said the Federal Government had “rubber stamped” up to 22,000 workers, but it was the responsibility of the states to now allow them in.
“The only impediment are the states,” Mr Littleproud told the ABC.
“The states are the ones that imposed the caps on people that come in from overseas, and they are the ones that wanted that [quarantine] responsibility.
“They have to work with industry to bring people in, and making sure they have the quarantine plans, because they wanted to own it,” he said.
Victorian minister Jaclyn Symes.(ABC Gippsland: Sarah Maunder)
When asked if the Federal Government was prepared to foot some of the bill for quarantine and travel costs which can cost up to $8000 per worker Mr Littleproud said “no”.
“The business model of the states is to blame Canberra and ask for more money,” he said.
“The premiers are on the record in national Cabinet saying they want to own this [quarantine] and pay for it, and it’s their job.”
Mr Littleproud pointed to Tasmania as an example of a state that had been proactive in getting Pacific Island workers into the state efficiently, without relying on the Federal Government for help.
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Workers arrive
Seasonal workers Able George and Reddington Lini sit outside their temporary home at a sweet potato farm near Bundaberg.(ABC Wide Bay: Brad Marsellos)
A planeload of 150 workers from Timor Leste flew into Hobart overnight, and the state is expecting 650 more workers this month, after the Tasmanian Government agreed to foot the bill for hotel quarantine.
The workers and farmers share the cost of the chartered planes to get them there, which can cost about $1,500 per person.
In Queensland, workers are able to fly in and quarantine on farm, at the cost of labour hire contractors rather than the State Government.
The ABC understands some ministers are also lobbying the Federal Government to let people who are receiving Jobseeker payments to continue to get that money, even if they are working in low paying farm jobs.
As a way to incentivise more Australians to fill the labour gap.
West Australian agriculture minister Alannah MacTiernan said she was frustrated the Federal Government was yet to consider the proposal.
“We think that that it’s not in fact, going to cost any additional money,” Ms MacTiernan said.
“(If) we don’t do it we simply aren’t going to get the people out there doing the job.
“And who knows, it might be the thing that eventually inspires people this might be a long-term alternative for me.”
Western Australia’s Minister for Agriculture Alannah MacTiernan is among four state ministers writing to the Federal Government to address urgent labour shortage problems.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)
Federal Labor weighs in
Federal Labor agriculture spokesperson, Ed Husic who was not in the meeting called on the Federal Government to consider the idea.
“I think there’s a lot that would be a lot of people would want to see something that is concrete and tangible that gets more people out into the regions to help,” he said.
“On paper, it looks like it’s a solid idea. But I respect the fact that there are a number of government bodies that need to get their act together on this.
“I would rather err on the side of ‘let’s make things happen’.
“I think we’re seeing increasingly that state and territory agriculture ministers, regardless of their political background, are getting frustrated at the pace at which AGMIN is dealing with big issues. I think they’ve spoken up today,” Mr Husic said.