Premier Daniel Andrews has dashed farmers' hopes of a last-minute plan to fly in significant numbers of seasonal workers and salvage what industry leaders say is a harvest season verging on crisis.
Mr Andrews ruled out an on-farm quarantine model for workers that has been introduced in other states on Tuesday and admitted Victoria would only be able to bring in a fraction of the 25,000 seasonal workers required.
Premier Daniel Andrews admitted Victoria was struggling to land on a quarantine model for workers.Credit:Joe Armao
The decision triggered criticism from industry groups who said the Victorian government had ignored their practical proposals to bring in workers and support Victoria's $8.5 billion horticulture sector.
The Premier's comments come as Victorian apple and pear growers prepare to harvest their crops next week, while stone fruit picking began in November and will run through to March.
On December 11 Mr Andrews used a press conference after a national cabinet meeting to outline the seasonal worker shortfall as an urgent priority and flagged tapping into a resource of 22,000 pre-approved workers from Pacific Island nations to work on farms.
NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory brought in about 1000 workers on charter flights who worked on farms while completing their 14-day quarantine last year, a system that federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has implored Victoria to replicate.
However, Mr Andrews ruled out using that model for the first time on Tuesday, saying Victoria did not have as many remote locations as other states.
"I think that the tyranny of distance in some parts of the country works really well, and you can have, perhaps, greater confidence that on-farm quarantine is in fact a quarantine away from people," he said.
"We don't think that necessarily works here. We think hotel quarantine is what has to happen.”
Beyond allowing 1120 Australians per week to fly into the state since early December, Victoria has been sluggish on quarantine arrangements since hotel quarantine lapses sparked the state's second wave of coronavirus.
Unimpressed with Victoria: federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
The state's lack of a plan to support the agriculture sector has frustrated industry and the federal government. On Tuesday, Mr Andrews said this year Victoria would not be able to fly in a significant number of international students, a sector that contributes $8 billion to the state.
The state government has sought to attract local students, migrants and grey nomads to help fill some of the shortages left by the absence of foreign workers, though labour shortages remain.
Mr Littleproud, who has repeatedly criticised Mr Andrews in the media in recent weeks, again lambasted the Premier for flagging an announcement on seasonal workers "soon".
"He has ignored industry attempts to engage on this issue and now Victorian farmers are paying the price for Dan Andrews' inaction," the Agriculture Minister said.
Victorian Farmers Federation president Emma Germano said her group had sent ‘letter after letter’ to the state government.Credit:Simon Schluter
Victorian Farmers Federation president Emma Germano also lashed out at Mr Andrews, saying the government had overseen quarantine for tennis players while local growers were unable to hire migrant workers.
"Clearly he was able to work up a quarantine arrangement for the Australian Open," she said.
Ms Germano said the federation had sent "letter after letter" to the state government with proposals and requesting the worker shortfall be addressed.
She said farmers were willing to pay up to $2500 per worker for their quarantine costs. The sector fears the absence of a foreign worker quarantine scheme in Victoria could have long-term consequences for the state's farming sector.
"The problem is not going to go away any time soon because we know the international borders are not going to be reopening."
Last year, the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance and Aspen Medical put forward a proposal for a quarantine facility in Mildura to host Pacific Island workers.
But on Tuesday, the alliance's chief executive, Michael Rogers, said the sector was willing to discuss any "quarantine pathway" that would allow Pacific Island workers to return to Victorian farms.
"We don’t understand what the blockage is in Victoria," he said. "What will it take for the Victorian government to support industry and work out a quarantine pathway?"
Mr Andrews said he was liaising with other state and territory leaders on the possibility of sharing quarantine arrangements for overseas workers, but it was "quite a complex matter".
"And whomever you bring in, in whatever numbers, it has to be done safely," he said.
He added that the federal government could tweak JobSeeker payments to better incentivise unemployed Australians to work on farms.
Independent Mildura MP Ali Cupper, whose electorate contains a number of horticultural industries dependent on seasonal workers, urged the state and federal governments to find common ground to resolve the issue.
She warned farmers faced a "huge economic hit" if foreign workers were barred from Victoria.
"One thing the federal government could do is provide healthcare professionals to travel to Vanuatu to conduct COVID-19 tests on potential travellers to Australia," Ms Cupper said.
"This would give the Victorian government more safety assurances around the seasonal workers coming into the state, given the rate of testing in Vanuatu is relatively low."
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