ABC NT COUNTRY HOUR WITH DAN FITZGERALD
THURSDAY, 16 JULY 2020
SUBJECTS: NT agriculture industry; seasonal workers.
DANIEL FITZGERALD, HOST: As I mentioned across the Top End mangoes are starting to flower giving farmers a glimpse into what the harvest ahead might look like. But one of the big questions that’s on a lot of mango growers minds at the moment is how to find enough labor to pick their crops. The usual sources of mango pickers is not readily available this year. Workers from the Pacific and Timor-Leste with the Seasonal Worker Programme, they can’t get into the country because of coronavirus border restrictions and huge numbers of backpackers have all left Australia since the pandemic hit. Member for Solomon Luke Gosling joined me a short time ago. I asked him at this stage how he thought mango growers are planning to get their crops off.
LUKE GOSLING OAM MP, FEDERAL MEMBER FOR SOLOMON: I’ve been speaking to a lot of mango growers over the last couple of weeks and they are very concerned about their ability to get this mango crop off the trees and time is not our friend. It’s only a matter of weeks before these crops should be picked and packed for sale and it’s not looking good at all, as far as workforce to do that picking goes. They will be calling on friends and family because really, thousands of pickers are needed to get this crop off, so it’s not looking good at all at the moment.
FITZGERALD: Figures released today show unemployment rose to 7.4 percent in June. Why can’t we get unemployed Australians out there and picking mangoes?¬¬
GOSLING: Well the NT Farmers Association and others are doing a great job in getting the word out that this employment is available. Obviously there would be more people able to come from interstate but for good reasons, we’ve closed the NT borders to certain jurisdictions that are hot spots so that’s made the situation more difficult. We would also normally have backpackers but there’s been about 50,000 backpackers leave Australia in recent months so that source of farm labor has dried up. There are countries like Timor Leste that have trained pickers that are prepared to come and help get these crop off the trees. So we’re hoping that the Federal Government can support that, so there is a really strict isolation process for any such workers coming in, so that they can help to get this crop off the trees. Now this crop was worth, in the last season, $100 million to the Northern Territory economy, so we really hope that the Federal Government can work with the NT Government to come up with some solutions.
FITZGERALD: Bringing in workers from places like Timor Leste, do you think that can be done safely at this time?
GOSLING: Timor-Leste like the Top End has been able to really prevent community transmission which has been really important for them. Obviously the Chief Health Officer would need to be satisfied that this could be done in a safe way. There’s obviously an ability to use a facility like the Howard Springs Camp to isolate a workforce for the appropriate time period before they went and worked on a farm to get this crop off. Now whether that can be done safely is a decision for the Chief Health Officer but I think the Federal Government needs to be looking at that and any other process to help to get workforce to these farms to get this crop off the trees.
FITZGERALD: Do you think this would pass the pub test? Do you think the general public want people coming in from overseas right now?
GOSLING: We’ll see if there’s a safe way of doing it. I think we need to be guided by the health officials and by the science, but if there is a safe way to do it I think more and more people are understanding that life must go on. We need to take all the precautions that the advice says we need to take. Like people coming from jurisdictions outside of the Northern Territory there would be a need for isolation. I just think that there needs to be an assessment of whether this can be done safely. The federal minister tells me that he’s aware of the shortage of pickers at this time and they are looking at the Timor-Leste option, but again that would only provide about 600 of the more than 5000 workers that are needed. So obviously the Federal Government working with the NT Government on solutions, whether that be facilitating people to come from interstate, from safe areas interstate, that would also be helpful. Helping the NT with the cost of isolation of workers would obviously be very helpful as well. And Minister Littleproud tells me he is engaged in those discussions at the moment and I encourage them to see whether it can be done safely as soon as possible because in a matter of a month or so, we’re going to need workers picking that crop so that $100 million dollars of our beautiful Top End mangoes aren’t left to rot. It’s got to be done safely but it’s got to be done.
FITZGERALD: I imagine this is something that not only needs Federal Government approval but the tick of approval from the NT Government. Have they voiced any approval for a plan to get workers in from Pacific or Timor-Leste?
GOSLING: I understand that the Northern Territory Government is working on this issue as are NT Farmers with the Federal Government. I’m just adding my voice, in a bipartisan way, to say let’s look at this closely and carefully, but quickly, because the mango farmers have not got long until that fruit is ready for picking. We can do this in a safe way. But I think more broadly, the community is starting to understand more that this could go on for some time and we can get it right. In the past when we were evacuating people out of China, the Howard Springs camp was utilised for isolation before those Australians headed back to the states and territories that they were from. It’s ready to be used with the Federal Government’s support. We can be leading the way nationally in providing a way to safely isolate people, whether they come from other states and territories or from regional neighbours with very low rates of COVID-19, so that business can continue because we’re going to need to do that. We’re going to need to continue to do business and bring money into the Northern Territory economy, so I encourage in a bipartisan way for Minister Littleproud to work with the NT Government, to work with NT Farmers, to work with the National Farmers’ Federation, so that we can make sure that agriculture remains a growing and absolutely essential part of not only our economy but our food security going forward.
FITZGERALD: Thanks for your time on the Country Hour today.
GOSLING: Thanks very much.