Australia delays controversial agriculture visa

Photo: elenathewise/123RF via RNZ

CANBERRA, 18 SEPTEMBER 2018 (RNZ PACIFIC/AUST OPPOSITION) – Australia’s government has delayed the announcement of a new agriculture visa, which Pacific leaders feared could have spelled the end of two workers’ visas unique for the region.

Canberra has been signalling it will introduce a new visa to fill labour gaps in agricultural sectors, which would likely be open to people from Asian countries or anyone from anywhere.

But that’s prompted concerns that two already-existing visas, which allow for Pacific Islanders to work in Australia, would be killed by such a scheme.

Australia’s Assistant Minister for the Pacific, Anne Ruston, now says the visa is “still very much in development,” and Australia’s commitment to labour mobility in the region remains a “number one priority.”

Stephen Howes, from the Australian National University, says any removal of Pacific benefits would likely harm relations.

“You know Australia’s developed something called the step-up strategy in the Pacific and at the heart of that strategy is labour mobility. It’s meant to be something we can offer the Pacific that China can’t. So from a foreign policy perspective this new visa would be disastrous and it would really shred Australia’s credibility in the Pacific,” Stephen Howes said.

Meanwhile, the decision to delay a proposed new agricultural visa because of its potential to undermine existing programmes with Australia’s Pacific neighbours highlights the ongoing chaos and division within the Morrison Government says Australian opposition.

The Assistant Minister for International Development the Pacific Anne Ruston has admitted “the devil is in the detail” and further work is now needed to ensure the new visa does not undermine existing schemes for workers from the Pacific and Timor-Leste.

The Morrison Government was reportedly preparing to announce the new agricultural visa as early as today so the Nationals Leader “has something to announce” in a desperate attempt to give him a much needed win.

The fact the Morrison Government only realised at the last minute the damage a rushed announcement could have caused in the region is extremely concerning, and is further evidence of a Government simply not on top of the detail, or up to the job.

Australia’s relations with our Pacific neighbours are too important to be held hostage to divisions between the Liberals and Nationals or to decisions designed to prop up the ailing leadership of McCormack.

Since 2012 the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) has brought more than 25,000 workers from Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste to Australia for up to six months to pick fruit and vegetables.

In addition, the recently established Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) allows workers from Pacific island states to access low and semi-skilled temporary work opportunities here, in sectors including agriculture and processing, for up to three years.

Just this month the newly appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs announced with great fanfare at the Pacific Islands Forum the expansion of this scheme to an additional three Pacific island countries.

These existing, successful schemes have been hailed by the Government as a “win-win for Australia and for Pacific island countries” that promote economic development and deepen ties between Australia and Pacific island states and are an important part of Australia’s engagement with the Pacific.

These schemes promote development in the Pacific by providing a much needed source of income for many families, teach new, transferable skills, and importantly do not displace Australian jobs as they require labour market testing to ensure local workers are given the first shot at local jobs.

Sadly, as we saw with the backpackers tax debacle, the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Governments fail to undertake due diligence when it comes to developing policies to address agricultural workforce shortages.

At a time when Australia’s commitment to the region is being openly questioned by many Pacific Island states because of the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Government’s failure on climate change, it must ensure any new category of agricultural visa takes account of the potential consequences for the existing Pacific schemes…

More Stories