Interview with Steve Price, Australia Today

27 June 2022

Radio transcript
Prepared: Monday 27 June 2022
Title: Steve Price interview with Minister Murray Watt
Description: Steve Price interview with Minister Murray Watt discussing the proposed increase in pensioner working hours and the agriculture workforce.
Channel: External source 
Date Broadcast: 27 June 2022 
Time Broadcast: 9:59am - 10:08am

STEVE PRICE: The Opposition Leader has unveiled a plan to get pensioners back into work to help businesses who are crying out for more staff. Under the proposal, the earning threshold for older Aussies who want to work more could be lifted. Peter Dutton says it needs to happen as soon as possible.

PETER DUTTON: All I’m asking is that the government consider it, because I don’t think it can wait until September. I think there are a lot of businesses at the moment that are screaming out for workers and a lot of pensioners who are prepared to go to work tomorrow.

STEVE PRICE: You just wonder, Peter Dutton was in the Morrison government a few weeks ago, if he thought getting pensioners back to work was a good idea, why didn’t they do it when they were running the country. Murray Watt is the Agriculture and Emergency Management Minister, he joins us on the line. Minister, that’s a reasonable question to be put to Mr Dutton: if you thought it was such a great idea or think it is now, why didn’t you do it?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, I think that’s right, Steve. I was actually thinking the same thing before you said it. And we see this over and over again from the Opposition. They’ve got all sorts of bright ideas – whether it be about that or agricultural workforce or anything else – that they didn’t do in the nine years they were in office.

But, look, you know we’ll have a look at any good idea and, clearly, the country has a massive labour shortage. So we’re planning to have a jobs and skills summit in a couple of months’ time with employers, with unions, with government leaders, community leaders. And I think we need to have a look at anything that can help us solve the labour shortages that the country is going through at the moment.

STEVE PRICE: Tyson Cattle – an appropriate name for someone who is in charge of AUSVEG, which is very amusing –

MURRAY WATT: I’ve met Tyson. It’s a great name for a bloke running a vegetable organisation, isn’t it?

STEVE PRICE: He’s keen on the ag visa. You’re not so keen, your government, if that’s correctly reported. Instead, you think the Pacific Labour Scheme is going to help meet worker demand. What’s your problem with the ag visa?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I suppose the starting point, Steve, is, again, just acknowledging we get that farmers are screaming out for workers. And it’s not a new problem. This has been a problem for years. And it’s obviously got worse during Covid. Really, our two issues with the ag visa what the former government put up, first of all, was that we didn’t think that it had strong enough protections against exploitation of workers in the industry. Unfortunately while most farmers do a great job of looking after their workers, we have obviously seen too many rogue operators. We’ve all seen the stories about backpackers getting exploited, and other people as well. And we didn’t think that the ag visa had strong enough protections to prevent that from happening.

But the other reason we had concerns about the ag visa is that it just didn’t work. David Littleproud, the former Agriculture Minister, went around for a couple of years promising farmers that he’d bring in this ag visa and all these workers would materialise. And a couple of years on, it didn’t deliver a single worker. So in contrast to that, you know, what we’ve said and what we went to the election with was that we would expand and strengthen the Pacific Labour Scheme, which has been a really successful source of farm labour in our country for a number of years.

The former government didn’t take advantage of that to its full extent. There’s actually over 50,000 Pacific workers who are vetted as ready to work in Australia. So for the life of me, I can’t understand why we didn’t make use of that. So, yeah, we think that’s the better solution, because it’s got a proven record of working.

But I’ve said as I say to Tyson, to farm groups and to unions that if people have got other ideas about how we solve this crisis, then I’m more than happy to work with people, because it needs to be fixed.

STEVE PRICE: I saw some rather odd commentary from a bloke who grows avocados and bananas at Coffs. He said while Pacific workers were great for citrus and other more physically demanding harvests, less suited to pick things like strawberries and blueberries. What does that actually mean? I mean, I haven’t used the guy’s name deliberately, but is he trying to suggest that they’re too big and strong to bend over and pick fruit off the ground?

MURRAY WATT: I think that must be the suggestion. And I’ve actually heard this now from a number of different farm groups. And I don’t know whether it’s true or whether it’s just a misconception, Steve. But, what I do know is that, as I say, there’s over 50,000 workers there ready to go. And I think they could be really useful in a variety of ways with our farm labour. And, as I say, you know, if there are issues that, you know, we need people with different skill levels or different types of experience than what we can make use of from our Pacific neighbours, then, of course, we’ll have a look at it. But this seems to be a good idea to me. It’s what we went to the election with, and that’s what we’re cracking on with.

STEVE PRICE: It seems also that post-Covid – yes, we’ve still got Covid around and obviously and tragically people are still dying – but with borders now open surely backpacker numbers and foreign student numbers but backpacker numbers, in particular, Minister, they must be coming back in some number, are they not?

MURRAY WATT: Well, it’s interesting, Steve, you’d think that. But the figures that I’ve seen show that they haven’t really rebounded in the way that you’d expect. I don’t know whether it’s because we’re in the northern summer and they’re waiting till Christmas when it gets a bit cold in Europe before they want to come out here. But that is something we need to take a look at to see what more we can do.

Obviously, backpackers have played a really big role in our horticulture industry in particular and other farm sectors. And if there are some barriers to people coming back, then we need to have a look at why.

STEVE PRICE: Peter Dutton’s out this morning talking to the breakfast TVs. He did make this comment about pensioner workforce, and I’d like to get your reaction, if I can.

PETER DUTTON: The previous government obviously made a decision not to do it, largely I suspect because the prevailing economic conditions and labour market aren’t what they are today. We’re talking about a high inflationary environment. We’re talking about higher interest rates. We’re talking about a very tight labour market. And it’s not just in tourism and hospitality, retail, agriculture, but also aged care.

I think we’ve got a ready workforce of people who might choose to work, and that’s what we’re talking about here. If you’re a pensioner, an aged pensioner or a veteran on a pension and you choose to work then my judgement is that there are businesses who desperately need you to fill those shifts, but also that you shouldn’t be taxed out of consideration. And at the moment the threshold is $300. We propose it goes to $600. If the government wants to push it beyond that, we’d be very supportive. But it will allow an immediate surge and supply of workers into the economy at a time when we desperately need it.

STEVE PRICE: I presume your government would be looking at that. I mean, there’d be no reason not to let pensioners come back and work, would there?

MURRAY WATT: No, we will be having a look at that, Steve. And leaving aside the issue that the previous government could have done this if they thought it was a good idea. I mean, you know, it’s a bit rich to be saying that this is a problem that’s only happened in the last couple of months. We’ve had these sort of workforce problems for years now, even before Covid. And it obviously got worse through Covid when borders closed.

But, you know, we’re not going to be like the last mob; we’re not just going to dismiss ideas just because they come from the other side. We’ll have a good look at this. And, you know, obviously, there’d be a cost to the taxpayer if we’re talking about altering pension arrangements, and you want to make sure you spend money wisely. But I think this is something we should take a good look at, and we’ll certainly be doing that.

STEVE PRICE: Just before you go – and I appreciate you giving us so much time – the PM on his way out of the country yesterday said he’s going to put a referendum to enshrine a First Nations voice to parliament in this term even if the Liberal National Party don’t formally support it. Do you think first what we need to do, Murray, is explain to average Australians who are, you know, busy trying to survive at the moment with all sorts of dramas around, you know, inflation and cost of living, what that actually is, that voice, and how it would work?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I definitely think that some sort of education campaign is needed, Steve, because I recognise that it’s an issue that a lot of people haven’t heard much about. And that would certainly be part of what the government would need to do running into the – into a referendum.

I think there is a bit of a misunderstanding out there about what the voice to parliament is. It’s not a third chamber of parliament, which is what some of our political opponents have said. It doesn’t give Indigenous people some sort of veto power over laws. All it really does is gives them a place at the table to talk about what they feel should happen to the country and what they feel should happen to them.

And, you know, I think we’re incredibly lucky as a country to have the world’s oldest living civilisation and community in our Indigenous people, and I think we should make use of it and give them an opportunity to talk about their rights going forward.

STEVE PRICE: Always a pleasure to catch up. Thanks. Have a good week.

MURRAY WATT: Good on you, Steve.

STEVE PRICE: That is the Minister for Agriculture and Emergency Management Murray Watt, who’s always very willing to come on the program. We appreciate it very much.