The NT is facing a critical crunch point in the mango crisis

01 September 2020

SENATE ADJOURNMENT SPEECH - Northern Territory: Agriculture Industry - Tuesday, 1 September 2020


Senator McCARTHY (Northern Territory—Deputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (20:16): I rise to speak about the crisis facing Northern Territory mango farmers as we face a critical crunch point in securing enough workers for the imminent mango season. The mango season begins in earnest right at the end of this month—not far away—and worker shortages have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is limiting national and international travel. The NT mango harvest is worth $125 million to the NT economy, and plant based industries combined are worth $355 million. That means melons, grapes, vegetables and other crops are also impacted by these shortages in the Northern Territory and in other jurisdictions across the country.

The Territory is mango proud and we're mango mad. We are the country's largest grower of mangoes, producing around 52 per cent of the national mango crop. The NT mango harvest equates to approximately 40,000 tonnes of mangoes, covering approximately 635,000 hectares. To harvest this huge lot of mangoes requires between 2,200 and 2,500 workers for the picking season. Australian agriculture has always used seasonal workers and overseas workers. Backpackers are often required to do 88 days in regional Australia. But, with around 60,000 fewer backpackers this year, we are facing a crisis that requires urgent attention and innovative solutions that bring together multiple jurisdictions and farmers associations.

Of course, this is not a new issue; it's just an issue exacerbated by COVID-19. The National Farmers Federation warned the Morrison government pre-COVID, saying:
… agriculture's workforce deficit is one of the largest constraints to our sector's productivity growth and we need solutions for agriculture to reach its potential of being a $100 billion industry by 2030.

I acknowledge the work of Labor's federal shadow agriculture minister, the Hon. Joel Fitzgibbon MP, for his advocacy on this matter and for standing up for producers at this time. I also want to acknowledge the Northern Territory government's Minister for Primary Industry and Resources, the Hon. Paul Kirby MLA. Minister Kirby has been an active participant in cooperative efforts by Labor members across jurisdictions to advocate for the agriculture industry and, in particular, agriculture workers.

The Northern Territory has worked with NT Farmers and the Australian government on a deal to bring Vanuatu workers to the NT through the Seasonal Worker Program COVID-19 pilot. This has been a complex process and final details are being worked through. Workers from Vanuatu are important. They come here every year and they will help fill the gap, but more certainly needs to be done. The NT Department of Primary Industry and Resources and NT Farmers are also working hard on ongoing recruitment of Australian workers through targeted promotion.

In particular, I would like to especially acknowledge the CEO of NT Farmers, Paul Burke. In fact, Paul Burke has some innovative ideas. One of them is to look at year 12 students across the country having gap years. A lot of students usually go overseas, but it looks like that's not going to happen—how about getting them out onto our farms across the country? Paul has some terrific ideas there, even around the HECS program and what could be done to incentivise some of our young people to look domestically in terms of their gap year.

Picking mangoes in the Top End build-up is not a job that just anyone can do; it does require training and it is tough work in that heat. I call on the Prime Minister to act urgently and provide farmers and the agriculture sector with a strategy to ensure they're not left without desperately needed seasonal workers, to clarify progress on an agricultural workers code and to give assurance that an announcement will be made on Friday. If a nationally consistent agricultural workers code is not delivered this Friday, as promised, the Prime Minister must accept the blame or consider the future of his agriculture minister.

On 21 August the Prime Minister said that national cabinet noted discussions that had commenced on the code and agreed that further work should be undertaken by agriculture ministers to deliver a paper to be considered by national cabinet. But there seems to be confusion as to who is actually developing the agricultural workers code, and with national cabinet just three days away it's not looking good. The agriculture sector needs certainty and producers need to be confident in the development of the code. They will certainly be watching national cabinet closely on Friday, as will I.