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Monday, 17 October 2016
Page: 2129


Ms SHARKIE (Mayo) (18:20): In the electorate of Mayo—from the base of the Barossa in Eden Valley, through the Adelaide Hills and across to the Lower Lakes, down the Fleurieu Peninsula to Kangaroo Island—we are fortunate to have the best pears, cherries, apples, strawberries, grapes, beef cattle, lamb, dairy and honey. We grow it all. And farmers across the electorate of Mayo rely heavily on backpackers to help get our amazing fresh produce to domestic and export markets.

In 2015, the federal government announced it was going to increase the tax on all money earned by backpackers to 32.5 per cent, as this House well knows. One can only wonder what the Nationals were doing when this decision was made. And I had always thought that the National Party's core constituency were farmers and the rural landscape. So I was incredibly disappointed, as a person who represents a very large and diverse rural community, that this was on the table.

This backpacker tax is not only very bad for farmers; it is also very bad for the Australian economy and for the coffers of the Australian Taxation Office. Backpackers spend almost all of the money that they earn in a region within that region. They help not only the farmers but also the broader community and economy when they spend their tourist dollar in shops, hotels and caravan parks across the country. And when the backpacker tax in Australia gets too high, the backpackers simply go elsewhere—and we have seen that this season.

The government has since backtracked on the backpacker tax, and their current plan is to reduce it from 32.5 per cent to 19 per cent. However, this is still significantly higher than the 11.95 per cent in New Zealand for earnings up to $14,000. I feel that, for this season, it is too little too late.

Thousands of backpackers have already changed their summer holiday plans and are now going to places such as Canada and New Zealand. The lack of policy vision and consistency is going to play absolute havoc with the fruit and vegetable harvests this year in my community. Farmers in my electorate and beyond are going to struggle to find enough hands to pick the fruit. All of this is because of this tax.

We have high youth unemployment in Australia. In some parts of South Australia, including within some parts of my electorate, it is as high 17 per cent. Youth employment never properly recovered after the global financial crisis. So many traditional jobs, like manufacturing in urban and regional centres, simply do not exist in significant numbers anymore.

High quality agricultural products are one of Australia's major international advantages. Population growth is projected to be almost 10 billion by 2050. As the middle classes of our nearest neighbours in Asia become more affluent and their demand for high-quality produce even greater, we have the potential to be the high-quality food bowl of the world. This a huge opportunity for Australia and our country's prosperity—if only we invest in agriculture to grow the sector and adopt the most creative and innovative techniques and technology.

Yet agriculture in Australia is being held back, and this tax is just one example. Increasingly, farmers are struggling to get the temporary or permanent employees to work the farms and bring in the harvest. And the farming workforce is getting older and older. In 2011 the median age of farmers was 53 years, compared with 40 for other occupations. I have all the respect in the world for our farmers. Just yesterday I was milking by hand at the Meadows Country Fair—in the rain, on a Sunday afternoon. It was a competition but it was incredibly hard work.

Mr Bowen: How'd you go?

Mr Fitzgibbon: Gold?

Ms SHARKIE: No, I didn't win. But I did okay. I have room for improvement! This sector must be supported, and labour is one of the most critical issues. The increasing scarcity of farm labour may well threaten the long-term viability of the family farm, the farming way of life and the whole industry. However, within every threat is an opportunity. And it is with this in mind that Senator Xenophon and I have renewed our call to allow job seekers to work up to eight weeks on seasonal farm work and earn up to $5,000 without any penalty. Currently, Newstart allowance recipients can be hit with a reduction of 50 cents in the dollar for any money they earn over $104 a fortnight. If you earn enough to lose your payments altogether, it is particularly hard to get them back. When the work is often temporary, this barrier is too high, particularly for those who have never tried working in this industry before. So we feel that we should also include the jobactive providers in a seasonal employment strategy so that providers can find the best local Australian farm workers to work on their land. There is always the potential for temporary work to turn into a continuing job. And we may help renew the farming sector so that, when baby-boomer farmers do eventually retire, a life on the land continues to be a viable proposition for many Australians.

We know that many farmers and young job seekers are keen to give this idea a go. This very summer, there will be a massive labour shortage because too many backpackers have been scared away. Who knows how much long-term damage has been done to the Australian agriculture sector as a result. If we do not get creative about using the job seekers we have right here in Australia, there may be thousands of tonnes of fruit left rotting on the ground this summer. So I will do all I can to ensure that creative ideas to address labour shortages in this harvest and the harvests of the future are put out to the parliament and the public. I do support this legislation, although I have great reservations about its process, the outcomes and how it will affect my community of Mayo. But I cannot disagree with this motion, knowing farmers would have an even more difficult time getting the right labour for their farms.