A disaster-hit grower who hosted Agriculture Minister Mark Furner on his flattened banana farm says the MP’s claims he was unaware of requests for wage subsidies are wrong.
- Disaster-stricken banana farmers told state Ag Minister Mark Furner they wanted wage relief
- Representatives campaigned for a Qantas-style JobKeeper wage subsidy, to keep irreplaceable workers until crops recover
- Mr Furner said he wasn’t aware of the subsidy call, but office confirms receipt of March 8 letter
Speaking at a strawberry farm near the Sunshine Coast on Wednesday, Mr Furner told the Country Hour he had not heard the call for wage subsidies from growers.
“I haven’t heard that from the Australian Banana Growers’ Association, but [I am] willing to have a dialogue with them on those sorts of initiatives,” he said.
But Innisfail district grower Bernie Devaney, who lost 95 per cent of his crop on March 1 in freak winds associated with Cyclone Niran, said that statement was wrong.
“He came onto our farm here with a contingent of people,” Mr Devaney said.
Mr Devaney said at an earlier meeting with federal minister David Littleproud a wage subsidy was also discussed.
“Fifty per cent of your cost is wages. The most important thing for us on this farm was trying to access a wage subsidy similar to what was given after Larry and after Yasi,” he said.
Growers’ council ‘baffled’
A letter sent from the Australian Banana Growers’ Council (ABGC) dated March 8 has been provided to the ABC, in which chairman Stephen Lowe requests wage assistance be offered.
“The ABGC is also hopeful of working further with the government to provide some form of wage subsidy assistance to these worst-affected growers in order to assist them to retain workers, which are already in critically short supply due to COVID,” the letter reads.
An ABGC spokeswoman said it was “baffled” by the claim Mr Furner made that he had not heard the calls for action on a wage subsidy.
The spokeswoman pointed to phone calls from chief executive Jim Pekin, media releases and interviews in addition to public calls to Mr Littleproud for the same assistance.
In a statement, a spokesman for Mr Furner confirmed the minister’s office received the ABGC letter in March seeking support for growers in the wake of Cyclone Niran.
The statement said Mr Furner’s office responded, advising that the state government was working with the Commonwealth to activate Category C assistance under the joint federal-state disaster recovery funding arrangements, and noted the council was working with appropriate agencies on the matter of wage subsidies.
Wage scheme publicised
Mr Devaney said ABGC chairman Mr Lowe appeared on Channel 10 soon after the destruction, during which he called for a scheme similar to that offered to Qantas to retain JobKeeper access.
“[Qantas help] was sort of announced prior to Stephen [Lowe] going on national television. That was his main thrust point, to say, ‘What we’re chasing is a wage subsidy similar to what the government’s going to provide for Qantas with long-haul pilots,'” he said.
In a statement, Federal Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud said the issue of a wage subsidy, in preference to grants, was raised with him personally when he visited the affected farmers.
Mr Littleproud said he explained that Disaster Recovery Arrangements did not cover such support, but he had requested the primary support payment be lifted from $25,000 to $75,000.
A decision on the Queensland premier’s request for $75,000 grants is awaiting approval by the Prime Minister.