Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 9 May 2018
Page: 3518


Mr PERRETT (MoretonOpposition Whip) (18:11): I rise to speak on the Treasury Laws Amendment (Working Holiday Maker Employer Register) Bill 2017, and I'll say from the start that Labor opposes this bill. Whilst I acknowledge the contribution of the member for Hinkler and the personal interaction that we've had on this particular topic—I've got a big toe in his community and I work in his community. I acknowledge that, on a personal basis, we have worked well on this. But I don't think we'll ever celebrate governments cracking down on people who are breaking the law. That's like giving people a pat on the back for breathing. Governments should always punish people who break the law.

This bill before the parliament essentially introduces changes to the backpacker tax from the package that passed parliament back in 2016. I think it's important to view this next instalment in the context of the entire backpacker tax fiasco, which sounds like a holiday novel. Sadly, it's something presided over by the Turnbull government, and it's been a disaster from the beginning, with the backpacker tax first appearing in 2015, announced by the then-Abbott government in the 2015 budget. Since then, the government's got a new leader but old ideas. It's still cuts, cuts and more cuts—cuts to education for every kid, totalling $17 billion, right across Australia, including $15 million from schools in Moreton; cuts to higher education and universities, such as $92 million from Griffith University, of which the Nathan campus is in my electorate, and TAFE, include $270 million in additional cuts announced last night; cuts to hospitals, including over $3 million from QEII, which is in Moreton; and cuts to Medicare totalling $2.2 billion. Thanks to the freezing of the Medicare rebate, everyone will be paying more to see a GP at a time when wages are stagnant. There are also proposed cuts to Queensland's share of GST funding, potentially ripping $1.5 billion from the state's economy, and the proposed cutting of the energy supplement, taking $375 every year out of the pockets of pensioners.

In the 2015 budget announcement, the then Abbott government proposed a 32.5 per cent tax on backpackers. There was failed negotiation after failed negotiation, and, on the last sitting day of 2016, it was jammed through in a secret deal with the Greens political party. Yes—the coalition doing a deal with the Greens political party! The shadow Treasurer, the member for McMahon, described it as a special mix of arrogance and incompetence from the government of the day. Labor, responsibly, had offered the government many different compromises to stop the outrageous 32.5 per cent slug on the industry, which would obviously be passed on. We offered 10.5 per cent or even, in the spirit of compromise, 13 per cent.

What did the Treasurer say? 'Oh, no, they'd both be far too expensive.' What did Treasurer Morrison do? It's quite astounding. He did a deal with the Greens political party to water down superannuation measures and to spend $100 million extra on Landcare. I love Landcare; it does great work; I understand that. But this deal, the Morrison deal, ended up costing the budget more money than doing a deal on 13 per cent would have or doing a deal on 10 per cent would have. It takes that special mixture of arrogance and incompetence to get a deal that has a higher tax rate while making less money for the budget bottom line.

This is a budget that used to be at emergency levels of debt. Do you remember that, Deputy Speaker? Remember that old debt-and-deficit truck? Remember the pictures of Mr Turnbull out in front of the debt-and-deficit truck? Where is that truck? Is it locked in a bunker somewhere, its diesel engine ticking over, chugging away, collecting parking fines in a parking lot somewhere—fines that my grandchildren's children will have to pay off? No.

Anyway, back to the backpacker tax: this hapless coalition government managed to negotiate a deal that was worse for taxpayers, worse for farmers and worse for the tourism sector, a trifecta of trip-ups. So what is there left to do—make it worse for the workers too? It's an idea that this coalition government is never too afraid to tackle: making life worse for workers, making life worse for ordinary Australians. When it comes to properly funding education, when it comes to funding health or infrastructure, it goes missing. But, when it comes to bashing workers, it turns up in droves. We've seen negotiation after negotiation, and this floundering Turnbull government yet again wants to remove an avenue for the protection of workers and something that provides greater transparency.

The coalition are seeking to deny working holiday-makers something they promised: a public register that allows visa holders to review who is registered for the program. This register ensures, before they apply for work, that they are paid appropriately. It ensures that they can have greater protections, given the cases of abuse and exploitation in this area. As I mentioned at the start of my speech, I have a particular interest because I have in my electorate a significant Taiwanese community and Korean community, and many of their friends or relatives come and work on Australian farms. Because of that, I went for a visit to Bundaberg and the Lockyer Valley with representatives from the Taiwanese community to find out how people were being treated. I'll come back to that in a little while.

The backpacker tax package that passed parliament in 2016 allowed visa holders to check the public register to see if a business was registered for employing working holiday-makers. This amendment, outlined in this bill, is part of a deal that secured Senator Leyonhjelm's support for the original package—yet another deal from this government, which is willing to sell out to anyone for almost any price to get something through the Senate. It needs to read some negotiating books.

There absolutely needs to be a better process for ensuring that greater protections and information are in place for working holiday-makers. Why? It is not just because it's the right thing to do. That's a pretty good start. But we need to do it because these backpackers become our de facto ambassadors forever. If they have a horrible experience here in Australia, they will tell the world. They will tell their home. They will tell everyone that they meet what happened to them in Australia. That's why we need backpackers to do something productive, get paid and have a good time but also be great ambassadors for us.

This bill removes these protections. It removes the ability of backpackers to check the register and leaves them in the dark again. Unsurprisingly, the Turnbull government is prioritising—guess what?—big business over workers. So now the coalition is revisiting the dark days of the backpacker tax fiasco. This hillbilly-harbourside alliance is back in town.

Mr Chester: That was solid!

Mr PERRETT: You liked that one, Member for Gippsland? The impact of fewer backpackers working in Australia has dire consequences for our horticulture growers. I know this because the Brisbane Markets, where a lot of this produce ends up, are in my electorate, and I've had feedback from several growers about some of the concerns they have, as I also had on my visit to the Lockyer Valley and Bundaberg. Growers face the prospect of seeing their fruit rot on their trees if they don't have anyone to pick it. The uncertainty that the Turnbull government continues to create has caused unnecessary stress for farmers, whose very livelihoods are at stake, especially—I am informed by my colleagues—in Tasmania but also in the north-west of Western Australia and some of the more remote parts of Queensland and no doubt everywhere in between.

Sadly, the Turnbull government, and particularly dumped former Deputy Prime Minister Joyce, handled this issue very badly. He is not a great negotiator. He failed to fully consult with stakeholders or to do any modelling when he put forward proposals to tax backpackers. When this went on, we saw that the Nationals—that once-great party of the bush and the home town I grew up in—completely ignored their constituents, the growers. The premise of any proposals completely ignored the fact that backpackers who come to Australia to work, usually then spend the money they earn in Australia and—guess what—often spend it in the bush. If you're out in St George picking grapes, you stay in St George and spend it in the pubs there and in accommodation there. It is Australian businesses that benefit from these backpackers' holidays, and all the goods and services sold to them—the holiday products, the alcohol, the food, the tourist experiences—attract GST, support a lot of small businesses and are good for our economy.

While I mention the GST, I again appeal to Prime Minister Turnbull and to all of the Queensland Liberal National Party MPs and senators to drop any plans to slash Queensland's fair share of the GST, which is flagged as making our state's economy $1.5 billion worse off. That would be the equivalent of losing 5,000 teachers, 5,000 nurses, 3,000 police officers and 1,135 firefighters. It's clear that Prime Minister Turnbull and the LNP government don't care about frontline services in the Sunshine State.

Before us today, we have the Liberal government and their very muted National Party coalition partners revisiting this backpacker tax policy area. In 2016-17, a total of 211,011 subclass 417 and subclass 462 working holiday-maker visas were granted. That's a 1.7 per cent reduction compared to 2015-16, which in itself saw a 5.4 per cent reduction from the preceding year. So there was a one per cent reduction in first working holiday visa grants, subclass 417, to 157,858, and a six per cent reduction in the second holiday working visa grants, down to 34,097—red flags for any minister, surely, whether it be the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources or the Minister for Home Affairs.

In 2016-17, the top five countries for first working holiday visa grants were: the UK, down 4.5 per cent; Germany, down 0.9 per cent; France, actually, up 5.5 per cent; South Korea, up 3.8 per cent; and Taiwan, down 3.3 per cent. In 2016-17, the top five countries for that second working holiday visa were: the UK, down 3.3 per cent; Taiwan down 0.3 per cent; South Korea, down 6.8 per cent; France, down 6.1 per cent; and Japan, down 1.9 per cent. Not a good tale at all. To apply for a working holiday visa, you must have a valid passport from a country that's involved in the working holiday program. Not every country that we have diplomatic relations with is able to access this scheme.

Much of Australia's large Taiwanese diaspora lives in my electorate of Moreton, which also has a significant Korean population. As I just mentioned, Taiwan is one of the top five sources of working holiday visas, both first and second. A few years ago, due to the stories I was hearing about the Taiwanese using this visa scheme being exploited, I travelled north to Bundaberg with Ken Lai, who was the then director general of Brisbane's Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. We also visited the Lockyer Valley and caught up with many of the backpackers working and picking on farms. We went out to the farms, mainly Bundaberg and the area's tomato farms, but also a few other crops down in the Lockyer Valley. We met the young backpackers, we went out for dinner with them and we chatted to them about the hourly rates and the potential for exploitation in this industry—particularly, when being paid piecemeal rates under the horticultural award. Sadly, the evidence I heard made me realise that there are unscrupulous operators, and that—and I'll say this to support the member for Hinkler—often it's actually a middle person rather than the grower who's actually doing the exploiting. Sometimes it is a fellow countryman of the Taiwanese and Koreans, and they take advantage of these optimistic, fun-loving, usually young backpackers.

The Fair Work Ombudsman recently released a report into the wages and conditions of people working under the working holiday visa program, and they'd received nearly 2,000 requests for assistance from visa holders in 2016 and recovered $3 million owed to these visa holders—so about $1,500 each. When this program was expanded a decade ago, it introduced an option for young visa holders to extend their stay. If they did it in regional Australia, they got an extra 88 days. That made them more open to being abused, particularly people from Asian countries like Korea and Taiwan. They didn't understand the workplace rights of Australia and so there was more likelihood that they could be duped or abused. That is not what the program was set up for. Unfortunately, it's sometimes hard to get information about workplace rights into the hands of working holiday-backpackers in their language. Sadly, sometimes they go straight from the airport, into the middleman's van and then off to the agricultural areas. It's hard to get them the information.

We know the facts. We've had review after review. We can't just hope for the best; we need to have tighter scrutiny and increased transparency. Prime Minister Abbott's 2015 budget package allowed the date of effect of an employer's registration to be made publicly available on the Australian Businesses Register so at least visa holders could check that public register to see if a business was registered. Sadly, this bill removes the requirement for the public listing of the business on the Australian Business Register, which was a bit of transparency that would help catch the rogues. As we know, you have to enforce it for the cowboys, not for those that want to do good. This bill will remove the ability of working holiday-makers to look up those details. It erodes the ability for greater protection. As I mentioned here today, it's an industry rife with significant cases of exploitation and, as such, Labor opposes this bill.