For almost three years, the federal government sought no bureaucratic advice regarding a major policy commitment to introduce a visa for farm workers, despite the National Party insisting it was one of its top priorities.
- The Agriculture Minister was not briefed on development of a farm worker visa from 2018 until June this year
- No policy work was done since the Prime Minister’s 2018 promise until Nationals forced action during UK trade negotiations
- Minister David Littleproud says the agriculture visa will be established by the end of the year.
Instead, just days before the visa was announced on the sidelines of a post-Brexit free trade agreement (FTA) with the United Kingdom, a departmental briefing on the establishment of an agriculture visa was provided to Agriculture Minister David Littleproud.
That briefing took place the day after Prime Minister Scott Morrison left Australia for the UK.
It has since emerged this was the first briefing on an agriculture visa to the Agriculture Minister since September 11, 2018.
Since the June announcement, few details have emerged about how the visa might work, with Mr Littleproud insisting it would be operational before the end of this year.
No action until trade negotiations forced hand
The policy has been a point of tension within the Coalition in recent years.
The Prime Minister in October 2018 vowed to establish an agriculture visa, which the sector has long wanted to guarantee a harvest workforce to pick fruit and vegetables.
The former deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, and Mr Littleproud have also repeatedly said it was a priority, yet internally some Liberal politicians fought against the proposal.
But the National party seized on the UK trade negotiations to pressure the Prime Minister to commit to the visa.
As part of the free trade deal, Britons are no longer required to spend 88 days on Australian farms to extend their visas, removing around 10,000 backpackers from the farm workforce.
In return for the Nationals support for that deal, which will need to pass the Australian Parliament to come into force, Mr Littleproud sought a guarantee from the Prime Minister to introduce the agriculture visa.
“When the Prime Minister made a promise to myself and the National party that he would deliver an agricultural visa he will do it, he is a man of his word,” Mr Littleproud told the ABC.
In answers provided to the Senate, the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment confirmed a brief was provided to Mr Littleproud on the visa on June 11, 2021.
Mr Morrison left for the UK on June 10.
In the information given to the Senate, there was no date for providing formal advice to the Department of Home Affairs.
“The department regularly engages with the Department of Home Affairs on visa and migration matters relevant to the agricultural sector both through formal and informal mechanisms,” it said.
Labor’s agriculture spokeswoman, Julie Collins, said it was “incredible” to think the government had not completed any work on a potential visa, since Mr Morrison first committed to the idea in 2018.
“The government made an announcement in 2018, and then almost three years later didn’t do anything until the UK trade deal, when it was making a decision that would adversely affect farmers,” she said.
“What we’ve seen is years of inaction from the government with no work being done.
“If the work had been done over that almost three years, we’d have more detail now on what that ag visa looks like. Instead, now the government is scrambling to do the work it should have done in the last few years,”
But Mr Littleproud said he’d consulted widely with the farm industry about the need for a visa.
He said ministers should “not get caught up in the bureaucracy and listen to the boffins in Canberra, but actually listen to the people in the machinery sheds around the horticulture industry, in the meat processing plants listening to the owners”.