Matters of Public Importance - Agriculture

The federal government has failed Australian agriculture on a number of fronts over its eight long years.

Just overnight we were reminded of one of those failures, the biosecurity failure of the Ruby Princess fiasco.

Then there is this disastrous oversight of our chronic agriculture workforce shortages and its failure to act on the National Agricultural Workforce Strategy, which was handed to the government in October 2020.

Of course, there is the ongoing failure to address the impacts of climate change on Australian agriculture.

Let's start with biosecurity. Australia's biosecurity system underpins more than $65 billion in agricultural production, $53 billion in agriculture exports, $42 billion in relation to the country's inbound tourism and 1.6 million Australian jobs across the supply chain, so getting biosecurity right is of critical importance.

But there are currently three reports on the public record highlighting the Morrison government's comprehensive mismanagement of biosecurity.

The Inspector-General of Biosecurity, in her review report of 2020-21, concluded that Australia's biosecurity system is not strong enough to cope with expected risks over the next five years—crickets from the government.

Then there's the Auditor-General's report into Australia's biosecurity regime.

This report highlights key areas of concern around compliance and failure to enforce penalties—crickets.

And now, just this week, another report by the Inspector-General of Biosecurity in relation to the Ruby Princess cruise ship. This report details the federal government's 'crucial error' of not interviewing passengers.

But the failure goes beyond human error.

The Inspector-General was crystal clear that pre-existing shortcomings contributed to this biosecurity failure that unleashed COVID upon Australia.

Let's be clear: the Morrison government's failure to contain the biosecurity threat of the Ruby Princess resulted in preventable deaths in my state.

Tasmania's first three coronavirus fatalities were passengers aboard the Ruby Princess who were permitted to disembark in Sydney and then come home.

At least 11 deaths were linked to this outbreak, which occurred upon their admission to Tasmania's North West Regional Hospital. These deaths did not need to happen. They were preventable.

The Ruby Princess debacle occurred relatively early.

We accept that we were all still learning how to deal with the pandemic.

But it should have set off the alarm bells for the government on the importance of quarantine.

It should have had the Prime Minister scrambling to establish fit-for-purpose national quarantine where the virus could be contained, instead of relying on motels and hotels.

We send animals to federally controlled quarantine centres to keep our primary industries safe, yet this government thinks a lesser standard is acceptable for a virus that kills Australians.

I want to come to the issue of the agricultural workforce, which ranks as one of the government's biggest blunders.

Australian farmers are coming into their second summer under this pandemic.

You'd have thought that after the debacle of last year the government would have sorted out workforce issues, but once again we face the prospect of workforce shortages, produce rotting on the ground and higher prices in the supermarkets.

How can it be that for the second year running the government has allowed this to occur?

Last year, the minister boasted of 25,000 pre-vetted Pacific workers who would help address labour shortages, but in June he had to admit that fewer than 7,000 had made it to Australia.

That's the story of this government: go big on the announcement but go small on the delivery.

And what about the agriculture worker visas, which have long been the Holy Grail of the Nationals' Monty Python show?

Instead of getting serious about developing policies that encourage local employment, addressing working conditions, job security, wages, regional amenities and access to services, this minister and this government always go for the easy option: 'Let's just fly them in.'

But they can't even get that right. Overseas workers can't come in, because the government and the Prime Minister failed to do their two jobs—to deliver national quarantine and to roll out vaccines.

And the government has not explained how it intends to protect overseas workers on visas.

I'd like to talk about climate change, but it looks like I'm running out of time.

This government needs to get serious about climate change as an agricultural issue, because it affects farmers and regional communities much more than it affects those in the inner city.

It's an issue that affects my community.