Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News
SKY NEWS - SUNDAY AGENDA
SUNDAY, 4 SEPTEMBER 2022
SUBJECTS: Jobs and Skills Summit; enterprise agreements; ministerial code; plan to grow
agricultural workforce; tripartite agriculture working group; visas.
KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: I'm joined live now by the Agriculture Minister, Murray Watt. Thanks very
much for your time. Let's start with this letter by Tony Burke to the Fair Work Commission president saying
that enterprise bargaining agreements should not be ended at the request of employers. You heard what
Michaelia Cash said there; this is, in her view, one of the most concerning things she's seen from the
Government in its first 100 days, what's your response?
MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: Good morning
Kieran. I mean, I think we have to take anything that Michaelia Cash says about industrial relations with a
grain of salt, given it was her office who leaked the police raid on the AWU offices when she was the IR
minister. So as I say, I think you know, let's just take it with a grain of salt when we hear from Michaelia
Cash. In terms of this letter, I think this is a bit of a beat up. I mean, I've heard Tony Burke talk about the
need to regulate the termination of bargaining periods now for quite some time, even before we were in
office. So I think these claims that it's linked to any particular dispute are a bit overblown.
GILBERT: Can you see why Dominic Perrottet and the New South Wales Government might be of that
view, given it's happening right in the middle of an IR row that they've got, a high profile one in New South
Wales with the train union?
WATT: Yeah look, that is obviously a concerning dispute And I can understand why the New South Wales
Government might be a bit sensitive about these issues. But as I say, all Tony Burke was doing was
wrapping up the outcomes of the Jobs and Skills Summit, which happened to be in the middle of this
dispute. But as I say, I've heard him, many times, talk about the need to regulate this because there have
been instances where it's been abused by employers. So I think the timing is just coincidental. It's
reflecting- this letter is just reflecting a long-standing belief that we have had and something that Tony has
been talking about both prior to and since the election.
GILBERT: Before we move on, I'll get your thoughts again on what Michaelia Cash said on those share
disclosures. The fact that the ministerial code says ministers can't own shares, three of your colleagues
did up until recently, Tim Ayres has got rid of all of his, two other ministers haven't. Is this sloppy at best
two months after the code was announced?
WATT: Well the code has only been enforced for a shorter period of time than that Kieran, but my
understanding is that all the ministers involved have taken active steps to divest themselves of their
shares. Two of the ministers, the situation is a little bit complex in terms of who the ownership can be of
those shares, and what the status of those shares at the moment, but my understanding is that they are
actively trying to dispose of those shares, as they are required to do under the code.
GILBERT: And your reaction to what Michaelia Cash said, that Australians should be worried given
Anthony Albanese said there's nothing here of concern to him?
WATT: Well, as I say, my understanding is that the ministers are doing what they're required to do, which
is to dispose of those shares. You know, they have taken all steps is my understanding. Sometimes
you've got to have a buyer of shares to have a sale. And I know that they're really trying very hard to get
rid of them as quickly as they possibly can So they can comply with the code.
GILBERT: On to the outcomes of the summit in agriculture, you've announced this working group with
representatives of agriculture, unions and and governments. What do you say to the criticism that this is
just kicking the can down the road for agriculture?
WATT: Well, I don't think that is a correct characterisation of this, Kieran. And for starters, I mean, the
mere fact that we've been able to get the National Farmers' Federation and some of their members in the
same room as the agriculture unions is a huge step forward. It's something that the former Government
couldn't do and wouldn't do. They didn't even try to bring the different parties together to solve some of
these problems that emerged on their watch. These issues around agriculture workforce shortages aren't
new things. They're not things that have arisen just since the election. They've been around for years. And
unfortunately, the former Government was unable to resolve them because they were unable and
unwilling to work with all the parties. So that working group that we've established, under what is really a
historic agreement between all the parties in agriculture, we'll be able to take a good look at some of these
issues in the future. But let's not forget that the Summit has already come up with some fantastic
outcomes for the agriculture sector and for rural Australia. The increase in the migration cap will have
great benefit for rural Australia and agriculture, especially the fact that we have increased the migration
cap specifically for rural and regional Australia. The fast-tracking of visa processing that we've announced,
with Minister Giles and Minister O'Neil committing 500 extra public servants to clear the backlog of visas.
When we inherited office, we inherited nearly 1 million visas that had not been processed, and we're going
to be getting through that, benefiting agriculture.
GILBERT: Sure. Also the increase in the migration levels, how much would be going into agriculture? My
read on this in terms of the skill migration is that it would be about 9000, is that right? Because at the
moment the Farmers' Federation says the gap in terms of paddock to plate workforce is 172,000.
WATT: Yeah, and look, there are different figures that are going around as to what the shortage is, but
there's no doubt there's a massive shortage in our agricultural workforce. It's not just that increase though
in those migration visas, Kieran, that will benefit from agriculture though, we're talking about an increase in
the overall migration cap of 35,000 - so it's actually going to go up to 195,000. And we're looking at an
increase of 9000 visas specifically for the regions, which is a total of 34,000. So that will make big inroads,
as will the increase in TAFE places that we've committed to. Because of course, we do want to make sure
that we're encouraging locals to take up careers in agriculture, and providing them with the skills that are
needed to do so. So there's a range of measures that we've committed to that will start right now that will
have immediate benefit for agriculture, as we then work on some of the more long-term issues through
that tripartite working group.
GILBERT: The former Government's copped a lot of flack on a range of fronts, but one thing they did do
and deliver for the ag sector was the ag visa. The former minister, your shadow, David Littleproud, says
the NFF are 'cowards' for not standing up for that reform, why don't you try and pull every lever possible,
including having an ag visa?
WATT: Well I'll probably have to pick you up there a little bit, Kieran, I mean, you're right that the
Government announced an ag visa, but they never delivered it. And this is the problem, is that for all of
the talk from David Littleproud, and others in his Government, that they would deliver an ag visa and lots
of workers, they didn't deliver a single worker as a result of that ag visa and that partially because they
were dividedGILBERT: Vietnam had signed up though?
WATT: Vietnam had signed up, and we've said that we would honour that because it's a concluded
agreement, but not one worker actually came here. And that was partly because the Government itself
was divided on that, you had David Littleproud for it, you had Marise Payne and other Ministers against it.
So it's no wonder it didn't work. I mean, what we've said we will do is deliver things that will actually deliver
workers; expanding and strengthening the PALM scheme - the Pacific labour scheme - which has been a
successful source of labour for our farms over many years. We want to expand that and bring more
people here. We do want to invest more in training Australians for local careers, and we want to increase
the migration cap. So we think those are practical steps which will actually deliver rather than just more
talk, which is what we always got from David Littleproud. As for his comments about the NFF, I think that's
GILBERT: But when you look at the gaps, you've got 70,000- you can comment further on that in a
moment- but I just want to know, where do you fill this gap? Because if it's around 170,000 - the hole in
the workforce - and the Pacific program, that's not going to feel the 170,000 either, so I go back to that
point, don't you need to be pulling every lever possible? How many workers will you be bringing in with the
Pacific program, for example?
WATT: Well in addition to those who are already here, the current estimates are that there's about 40,000
Pacific Island workers who are vetted and ready to come here. So we want to get as many of them in as
we can, as quickly as possible. As I say, we've already committed to increasing the migration cap,
whether it be for the whole country or regional Australia. We're fast-tracking the processing of visas for
people who are still waiting for their visas to be approved. And we're going to be speeding up the delivery
of those training places. So, you know, we think that those things will make a very big difference. But the
reality is, Kieran, that agriculture is not the only industry with a massive worker shortage. This is what
happens when you have a government that doesn't invest in training, that allows visa applications to just
back up and back up. And we are doing everything we possibly can to speed that up.
GILBERT: Do you agree with Dan Walton, the AWU national secretary who says that unfortunately - on
the ag visa issue, he was talking at a Senate committee earlier in the year - he says exploitation is now a
core part of many farmers' business model. He says the visa is dangerous and would pave the way for
even more exploitation. Do you agree with him on that, is that why you don't want it in place?
WATT: Well the sad fact is that there has been exploitation of some workers in some agriculture
industries with some agriculture employers, and that's why another important step that we've taken
forward is to strengthen the protections of workers, whether it be in agriculture or other industries. We
went to the election saying that we would deliver a national labour hire licensing regime which will really
try to stamp out the rogue operators in the system. Along with a range of other reforms to tighten those
protections. Because when I speak to farmers, they want their industry being seen in the best positive
light, and they are let down by the people who do the wrong thing and give the industry a bad name. And I
think, as I say, I think that we can deliver a system which is good for farmers, good for rural communities
and good for workers in the system. That's what we should all be working towards and it's a bit of a shame
that the Opposition just wants to sit on the sidelines and throw rocks.
GILBERT: Almost out of time, less than a minute left, but are we all going to have to pay higher prices
now for the goods and the food we eat, because a lot of farmers are reducing their output because they
can't get the workers?
WATT: Yeah look, there's no doubt that the shortage of agricultural workers that we've seen over the last
couple of years has contributed to those higher fruit and vegetable costs at the checkout. There's other
factors as well, whether it be global factors or the floods that we saw in Australia which wiped out crops as
well. That's why it's in all of our interest to try to tackle this agriculture workforce shortage. It's something
the last Government should have done and should have tried harder. And it's something we're certainly
trying very hard. I'm very confident that these new measures that will flow from the Summit, which will start
now we'll make a difference. And of course, this working group has the opportunity to cooperatively come
up with solutions for the future.
GILBERT: Agriculture Minister Murray Watt, thanks and all the best for Father's Day, appreciate it.
WATT: You too, Kieran, have a good day.