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  • Written by David Littleproud MP



The Australian Government today are taking further steps to secure the food security of this nation. We’re going to support Australian agriculture both at the farm gate and in agricultural processing. Today we’re extending the term in which visa holders under the holiday worker program, under the pacific islander program and under the seasonal worker program can now extend their visas by 12 months to support Australian agriculture. We’re also removing the six-month exemption on employee to allow more flexibility in the agricultural employment workforce. This is a critical time for our food security in our nation but also continuing to keep our export markets open. This is an important step, we’ve listened to farmers, but we’ve also ensured that we’re doing this in a responsible way that meets health requirements. Yesterday National Cabinet made it very clear that those backpackers, those visa holders under these three cohorts will not be able to start work unless they have self-isolated for 14 days. There is a duty of responsibility farmers, of industry, and these visa holders to ensure they live up to that as they move from region to region and state to state. We will work with state authorities to ensure that that is being policed, and any visa holder that does not adhere to those rules and other social distancing laws that have been put in place, they will lose their visa and they will be sent home. We are giving them the opportunity to stay in this country and be part of not only getting us through the Covid-19, but also recovering. So it’s an important step.

 

Farmers will also have the responsibility and so too will industry in terms of continuing to market test. There are a number of Australians right around the country that have lost jobs as a result of coronavirus. We’re saying to them that we would like to see Australians engage in agriculture, not just in the short term but in the longer term as well, and so we’re saying to the agricultural sector, both at the farm gate and in the processing sector, that you must also market test for any new jobs that come up. And we’re also saying that the accommodation of these workers as they move around the country is imperative. It’s imperative that we work with state and local governments in ensuring that they have adequate and healthy living environments in which coronavirus will not spread.

 

So we are continuing to work along that. And again, any visa holder that does not live up to those expectations, those requirements will lose their visa. But this is an important step, a pragmatic step in ensuring we understand that while there are many Australians who have lost their jobs around the country, not all of them can practically get to where the produce needs to be picked, to where it’s being processed. So we need to understand that farmers and the agricultural sector do not have the luxury of sitting and waiting, waiting for Australians to turn up some thousands of kilometres away to help them out. And it’s important for our national security through food security that we continue to keep that continuity of supply through to supermarkets and also our international reputation of continuing to get our produce, the best produce, around the world as quickly as we can.

 

These are pragmatic steps and we’re working quickly and efficiently with all state authorities to make sure that we can implement this as quickly as we can. There is a pressure point, as we sit at the moment, particularly in the citrus industry, that we can get these workers into these parts of the country, particularly regional parts of the country. But as I say to every other regional Australian out there: we are taking the steps to allow this to happen in a safe environment, we are making sure that the protocols that we are putting in place, that we work with NFF, will keep you safe in regional Australia. Please do not panic. The fact that you will see an influx of workers from other nations into your country to come and continue the agricultural supply chain is an important one and we are doing it with protocols that will keep you safe.

 

So I say to everybody: these are practical steps, that we work with state and also industry officials to ensure that we get the balance right, we keep our food security here that is second to none anywhere in the world, and we should be damn proud of every Australian farmer that is calmly and methodically going about their business about supplying those supermarkets out there that you enjoy every day. Can I say to the industry as well, the NFF in particular Fiona Simpson, who has been very proactive and collaborative both with me and the state Ministers in getting to this point, to getting to this juncture to ensure that we have this food security that underpins our nation’s security.

 

Any questions?

 

QUESTION: How are you going to know that people have self-isolated properly for the 14 days before they move into another region?

 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So, any visa holder will have to register on the Australia.gov.au website, and obviously that allows us to keep a close eye on where they are. We’re also working with state officials to ensure that as they move into those communities, and industry themselves, and I think you’ve got to understand that industry has been forward-leaning in this. In the meat processing sector they’ve been very proactive in ensuring that they have that continuity of supply. And I understand these are extraordinary circumstances that we just normally can’t send workers from around the country and around the world into, as we normally have. We have to take precautionary measures and we are saying to state and local enforcement agencies that if any visa holder is seen to have done the wrong thing, then they are to report it to Home Affairs and they will lose their visa. It’s as simple as that, but we will be keeping a registration. There’s an onus of responsibility also on the producer to ensure that they are working back with state work health and safety departments and law enforcement agencies to ensure that there is an onus of responsibility on all parties here, not just the visa holder.

 

QUESTION: Will you be doing spot checks on things like backpacker hostels?

 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well in fact the Chief Medical Officer of the Commonwealth and also from around the country, those that represent the states, are now working on a protocol for accommodation for backpackers. And we’re going to work pragmatically with industry and local governments. Because as you’d appreciate, there’s a number of facilities out there in regional Australia, caravan parks and the like, and even motels, that don’t have the patronage they did before, so we’re going to work pragmatically with them to ensure that we can provide that continuity and that safety around the accommodation for these visa holders. This is an important aspect to give confidence to those people in regional Australia who in some respects have seen themselves somewhat isolated from the effects of coronavirus. But if we do not take these precautionary steps we risk them, in a place where they don’t have the health facilities that those in metropolitan Australia enjoy.

 

QUESTION: Doesn’t there need to be temperature testing or some form of testing before people move into different regions?

 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well obviously the 14 days’ self-isolation before you commence moving from one region to another is an important step. We’ll take the advice of the Chief Medical Officers and that’s the most important thing we can do, and that’s got us to where we are now. We’re starting to see the curve flatten because we’ve listened to some of the best medical advice in the world, and we’ll continue to do that and we’ll be guided by that and the guidance that we were given by the Chief Medical Officers from around the country was that 14 days’ isolation was the best method in which to undertake that, and then couple that with appropriate accommodation.

 

QUESTION: This has taken quite a long time to get off the ground. Producers have been on about this quite heavily for the last couple of weeks. Is the delay due to the fact of political sensitivities about being seen to create jobs for foreign workers when so many Australians are losing theirs?

 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: It’s about keeping every Australian safe. This is a complex situation, this isn’t business as usual. We are faced with a situation whereby we are moving large numbers of population around the country into some regional areas that don’t have the health facilities that people in metropolitan Australia enjoy. We have a responsibility as a Federal Government to keep our people safe and to ensure that we work off the best medical advice to do that. That’s what we have predicated this decision on in making sure we can give those in regional Australia the confidence, we can give the agricultural sector both at the farm gate and in the processing of agricultural products the confidence to understand there is safety for them as well. Because we need that continuity of supply chain for each and every one of us, so that’s why we have calmly and methodically worked through this with the best medical advice, working with states, because we have to appreciate states have jurisdictional rights that we need to respect as well. So it’s been a complex area, but I’m glad to say that industry, State and Federal Governments have worked together to get to this point at a juncture that will give our primary producers, right when they need it now, to be able to get their produce out of the paddock.

 

QUESTION: And will you be allowing backpackers to move interstate?

QUESTION: [Indistinct] confident that the Government is doing enough to help casual workers, especially those who may fall through the cracks of the JobKeeper program?

 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, what we saw this week, a $1.3 billion investment in our nation and the most important part of our nation, precious human capital, the Australian people, in making sure that we invest in them and the businesses that will get us out of coronavirus quicker, in keeping them connected, is one of the most significant investments any government has ever made in our nation’s history, and hopefully will ever have to make in getting us through this. We are continuing to work and make sure that every part of the economy that is impacted by this is supported, whether that be JobKeeper, JobSeeker, and now, obviously we would encourage them to travel around the country as well and be part of the agricultural sector. But we understand that that’s not practical for many people as a lot of this production takes place in far-flung regional areas where farmers can’t wait for Australians to turn up. So this has been one of the most comprehensive responses to one of the biggest crises this country has seen in its modern history. And I think we’ll continue to be agile, we’ll continue to make sure that our policy settings reflect that and continue to make sure we do that, predicated off the best health advice. Because again we are fighting this on two fronts: on a medical front, on a health front and on an economic front. But our primary responsibility is that health front and we will not say sorry for that because our job is to keep every Australian as safe as we possibly can.

 

QUESTION: Will you allow backpackers to move between regions and between states? Because usually what happens is they follow a trail, they finish in one state, they move to another as you know very well. Will that be possible?

 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: It will, between regions. But again, the self-isolation rules that the Chief Medical Officers from around the country have advised us…

 

QUESTION: [Interrupts] Between states?

 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Between states, I’ll get to that. So, we’ll continue to make sure between regions they can do that with the 14 days isolation, and then between the states. Obviously each state has their own jurisdiction and we’ve worked with the states. In fact yesterday I met with all the Ag Ministers from around the country to ensure that we have the continuity of supply of agricultural workforce, and they will make sure so long as their protocols are met, the 14 days’ isolation, in fact those states that have locked themselves off, particularly Queensland, if they are able to prove that and get a permit to cross the border, self-isolate, then they will be looking to work towards ensuring the flow of the labour right across the country.

 

QUESTION: And just to clarify, they would have to self-isolate before they move?

 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: They’ll have to self-isolate before they start work. So we’re expecting them to get to the community, to be there and the primary producer, the state and local governments work together to provide the accommodation, the environment, whether that be on farm or whether that be in an accommodation that is suitable for them to self-isolate from the community for 14 days.

 

QUESTION: So, once they arrive in that community?

 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: That is the expectation that they live up to. If they do not live up to that and officials find that they are in breach of that or any other social distancing rules, they’ll be sent home. We’re giving them the opportunity to stay and enjoy our country and be part of something very important to our nation’s future. But they also have responsibilities, as do farmers, as does industry, as do Federal and State Governments.

 

QUESTION:   Is the extension of visas for Pacific workers in both visa categories, agriculture and aged care, a reflection of how important they are to the workforce?

 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Totally. I mean, agriculture is what is underpinning our nation’s security along with health at the moment. If we do not have a secure food supply then we will see social discord right across the nation. But Australians can take great comfort that we produce enough food for 75 million people, we’re a nation of 25 million people, so we’re going to continue to export. And people shouldn’t be frightened of the fact that during coronavirus farmers are going to continue to export our products around the world. It’s showcasing us not only as the best food and fibre in the world but also having one of the most reliable supply chains in the world. So, health is also the other aspect that underpins our nation’s security, and I think the fact that we have continued to invest over $3, $4 billion into the health system during this crisis to ensure that we can match and keep up with the spread of coronavirus but also continue business as usual for those people that might find themselves ill in this country is a reflection of our nation, of our economy and the stewardship of that by State and Federal Governments.

 

QUESTION: Has the first freight flight taken off under the Federal Government’s new export scheme and if so what are the details?

 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I don’t have those details. The Trade Minister is responsible for that program, but it is one that reflects the significance of the export of agricultural products, a $110 million investment in air freight subsidies alone is a reflection of the fact that we’ve seen a severe reduction in passenger flights which is where a lot of the cargo was sitting under. We’ve coupled that with another $50 million to also support export marketing, so we’re not taking our foot off the accelerator in terms of agricultural exports. We’re proud of that and Australians should be proud of the fact that we can not only give them comfort in food supply but we’re also being able to continue to make money for our agricultural sector and our nation by exporting our produce around the world.

 

QUESTION: African Swine Fever has taken hold in PNG, how concerned are you that it will get into Australia from there?

 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Very concerned, in fact we’ve continued to work and I’ve asked the department to brief me with respect to any further measures we would be required to undertake to secure our borders even further. I’m also saying to the industry, to each pork producer out there, your biosecurity is just as important as our nation’s biosecurity. Locking down your facilities and making sure only essential employees are on your site is so imperative to the spread of this disease. We are fortunate enough not to have it in this country and we will continue to invest whatever it takes to ensure we try and keep this out. We’ve already put $66.6 million into preventing African Swine Fever getting into Australia and we’ll continue to do more. In fact I’ve had briefings from, after the last review to ensure that if there is any further work that the Australian Government needs to undertake, we will do it, We have invested the right amount of money, I’m advised but if more is needed we will obviously look at that and look at that quickly.

 

QUESTION: On the mercy flights, can you give us a bit more detail about those and how much the government will be subsidising those, how much passengers will have to pay?

 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look that’s a matter for the Foreign Minister, the Foreign Minister obviously working that out in conjunction with the Deputy Prime Minister as the Transport Minister and airlines. We’ve got to work through where a lot of these people are scattered around the world so I think those are details the Foreign Minister will obviously work through and has been diligently working through tirelessly finding with our international posts around the world, trying to help Australians get back to Australia as quick as we can. I just say to them, please be patient this is complex and the Australian Government is working across a number of nations where the Foreign Minister has to try and coordinate and work with airlines and the Transport Minister to get this right, so that work is being undertaken, the Foreign Minister is definitely working meticulously and feverously to get that sorted.

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