As National Cabinet prepares to meet, farmers have accused some state premiers of ‘arrogance’ over border arrangements, saying they seem to have forgotten that growing food and fibre is essential to public health.
The National Farmers’ Federation is calling on National Cabinet to recommit to the National Agriculture Workers Code and focus on quarantine solutions for ag workers as a bumper grain harvest looms.
“This week the hard border imposed by the Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk on entrants from NSW, has left many farmers wondering exactly what country they are in living in,” NFF CEO Tony Mahar said.
“Our agricultural supply chains don’t operate within state borders. In communities like Mungindi essential services exist across state borders. Many farmers operate multiple landholdings, close in proximity, but in two states.”
Victorian farmers were maddened this week by Premier Daniel Andrews’ dismissal of the seriousness of agriculture’s workforce shortages and the need to develop quarantine solutions for the safe arrival of overseas workers.
Mr Mahar said farmers absolutely understood the unprecedented circumstances the nation was confronting and as a first priority, were committed to keeping their communities safe.
“However, we’d like to think, now 18 months on in the pandemic, that state governments were smart enough to put the necessary protections in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 while at the same time ensure the essential business of agriculture could continue to operate.
“Premiers must rise above petty differences with their state peers and work together towards a swift, safe approach to borders that allows farmers and agricultural workers to move as required.”
Mr Mahar said the absurdity of the situation was borne out on the NSW-Queensland border this week.
“Farmers were led to believe that if they had a ‘Z Pass’ and their first jab, they could enter Queensland for business purposes. The reality saw farmers getting turned back at the border with no rhyme or reason.
“Even the NSW postie was prevented from delivering mail to Queensland farmers, serviced by a NSW post office.”
Mr Mahar said grain growers were on the cusp of a potentially once in a lifetime harvest but were highly anxious about the impact of erratic border restrictions on the already inadequate harvest workforce.
“The grain harvest starts in Queensland at the end of September and winds its way down south. Harvest contractors follow the work down. A disaster situation will occur if the limited number of harvest workers are stopped from moving back and forth across the border and or prevented from doing so in a timely fashion.
“A sensible and basic step forward would be for states like Queensland to adopt the national Agricultural Workers Code, agreed to by the majority of states through National Cabinet. The irony is the Queensland Government has demonstrated they can work with industry via the state farming organisation AgForce to address some of the challenges farmers in that state face and this is welcomed, but we cant have the basic collaboration across state borders undermine this work.
“It’s a shameful display of arrogance for a handful of states to think they’re above a basic set of rules that ensure we can keep our food system operating.”
Farmers are also concerned that the blinkered approach taken by state premiers, could derail the operation of the long-await Agriculture Visa, announced by the Federal Government this week.
“On Monday, farmers finally saw light at the end of the tunnel for their chronic workforce shortages, with Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud’s announcement of a bespoke visa to meet the skills deficit of the sector, as called for by the NFF for more than five years.
“The onus now rests with the states to approve quarantine arrangements and to commit to the consideration of technology such as rapid antigen testing that will allow workers to come to Australia for the sole purpose of farm work.
“To date, inertia from almost every state and territory government has prevented many approved and ready workers from making the trip.
“If states fail to do this, then the Ag Visa will be utterly useless to farmers this year, at a time when it is so badly needed.
“Throughout the pandemic, agriculture has continued to be the engine room of the economy. Farmers have not missed a beat in keeping supermarket shelves stocked in support of all Australians.
“Failure by the states to work together on a safe and pragmatic process for the cross-border movement needed to ensure food and fibre production can continue, will be nothing less than a sign of contempt for our farmers and regional communities,” Mr Mahar said.