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Tuesday, 29 November 2016
Page: 4731

Ms SHARKIE (Mayo) (13:10): I rise to support the passage of this bill, the Income Tax Rates Amendment (Working Holiday Maker Reform) Bill 2016 (No. 2). For too long this issue has dragged on while our farmers across Australia have faced uncertainty. In recent days the government has negotiated in good faith with me and my Senate colleague, Nick Xenophon, and I thank them for their support. This issue is particularly relevant to me. My electorate has an incredible amount of horticulture and viticulture. We have cherries, we have apples, we have pears. I have seven wine regions. I have strawberries, I have blueberries, I have raspberries. The sector is a major employer, with major investment in my region. Myself, family and friends of mine—we have all done seasonal fruit picking. It is a big part of our lives.

In recent weeks I have worked with the government to develop a seasonal workers incentives trial, which will begin in July next year. This trial will go for two years. It will allow for up to 6,000 Australian job seekers to do seasonal work without losing Newstart or youth allowance. It will not affect their income payments at all. Currently, people on Newstart can be hit with up to a 50c-in-a-dollar loss once they earn over $104 a fortnight. This is a huge disincentive for Newstart recipients to enter seasonal picking work, as they are taking a huge cut in their payment for what could amount to six weeks of employment.

Given that dealing with Centrelink is also arduous at the best of times, the requirement to reapply, should they earn too much and lose their benefits, is often reason enough for Australians to ignore seasonal farm work. The scheme will provide incentives to employment providers, including jobactive and Transition to Work, which works with young people and disability employment services that specialise in supporting people with a disability into employment. This will place participants in seasonal work. In my negotiations with the government, this was a key point in ensuring that we had employment providers as that connection between unemployed people and farmers. Employment providers will be eligible for incentives for up to six weeks while they support people into seasonal work. I firmly believe that, for the scheme to work, the employment providers need to be there as part of it.

Participants in this trial will also be eligible for a living-away-from-home allowance of up to $300 if they find employment that is more than 120 kilometres away from home. This will create a further incentive for participants to enter the trial. I believe that it will give an opportunity for unemployed people living in more metro areas, who perhaps have never even been on a farm, to look up to the hills in my electorate and to look out onto the plains and try working in this area. I also believe that this will support many locals who are unemployed in the regions to take on this work. This scheme, as I said, will remove the disincentive for unemployed people to seek seasonal work where there are genuine labour shortages—and that is why we have backpackers. I am confident that this trial will be successful in encouraging unemployed Australians onto the farm and in creating a bridge into agriculture work.

It is my hope that many of those people who take up this scheme will get the opportunity to stay on farms and, ultimately, will no longer need their income support payments. I think that is really critical because many farmers that I have talked to—and I have been working with farmers right through the campaign and since being a member—tell me that they are really keen to employ Australians for ongoing work, not just for the harvest. This is the $30 million commitment by government. Again, I thank government for taking a look at this and ensuring that farmers have a deeper and wider pool from which to draw labour.

With the greatest respect to Labor and the Greens, I would like to point out that the delay of the implementation of this backpacker tax is hurting regional Australia. I have spoken to many horticulturalists in my electorate. The pain that has been caused to farmers due to the uncertainty over this issue is immense. How many of these farmers that are going to be affected are in seats held by Labor? I am not sure, but I can tell you that I have scores and scores of farmers who are affected in my electorate. The delay in action has caused more problems than you could imagine. This is not an issue to play politics with. This affects people's livelihoods and it affects jobs in regional communities.

I do support the new tax rate of 15 per cent, just as I did also support the 19 per cent tax rate. What we have to remember is that this is same tax rate that is applied to the Seasonal Worker Program available to Pacific islanders, so I think that it is a good landing point. It is quite absurd that we would have the idea of a 10.5 per cent tax rate. We would be giving a better rate to Scandinavians, to Norwegians and to people from England who are coming over than we would give to our nearest neighbours, the Pacific islanders, and it would be a better tax rate than we would be giving to Australians working full time in horticulture. It makes no sense to me. I believe many backpackers will continue to come to Australia. Tax is higher than in New Zealand; that is granted. However, our wages are higher too.

What I cannot stand, though, is that we have spent hours and hours debating this. In the meantime, I have farmers waiting on the edge of their tractor seats and wondering what is going to happen as the cherries in my electorate are getting ready to be picked. My deepest concern is that we will have tonnes of fruit left on the trees, simply because we will not have a workforce to pick it, this year or next year. In my electorate of Mayo, this will have a significant effect on us.

We have already been through enough. Throughout September and October, we lost millions of dollars worth of produce because of the storms that we had. This issue has dragged on for too long, and my deepest hope is that it will finally be resolved this week. The damage has already been done to this year's fruit-picking season, and that cannot be changed, but I wish more members in this House would deeply consider the impact of delaying and politicking on this issue and the damage it is doing in regional Australia. While nothing can be done this year, it is my hope that the Nick Xenophon Team's seasonal work strategy, which is supported by government, will provide a long-term benefit to Australian farms, Australian jobs, and Australian people. I, again, thank the government for their negotiations. I plead to this parliament, please do not play politics with regional Australia. We do not deserve this. Get this through the parliament and let's give certainty to our farmers.