AGRICULTURE Minister David Littleproud has been called out for blaming the Labor Party for the Coalition’s failure to progress key ag visa worker tax cut legislation, in a National Press Club of Australia debate yesterday.
During the debate, Mr Littleproud accused the Labor Party of hypocrisy over its refusal to agree to a guillotine motion to not debate the tax cut Bill in the Senate.
Labor’s Shadow Minister for Agriculture Julie Collins accused the Minister of trying to blame the ALP for the Coalition’s failure to progress the legislation before Parliament closed last month.
Just prior to Federal Parliement’s pre-election close in late March, the Coalition attempted to bundle into a Senate guillotine motion a Bill that would have cut in half the tax rate for certain income made by ag visa workers.
The Income Tax Amendment (Labour Mobility Program) Bill 2022 would have cut the 32.5 percent tax rate for certain income earned by foreign resident workers in the Australian Agriculture Worker Program and the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme to 15 per cent, equalising this with the rate paid by backpackers up to $45,000.
However, the Labor Party refused the guillotine proposition, which would have avoided Senate debate on the Bill and other legislation in the bundle. In the House of Representatives on March 30, the Government Chief Whip Bert Van Manen effectively ran down the clock on the Bills’ second reading until Parliament closed, meaning the legislation could not have reached the Senate for debate or a vote.
Mr Van Manen was only part way through introducing the Treasury Laws Amendment (Enhancing Tax Integrity and Supporting Business Investment) Bill 2022 and the Income Tax Amendment (Labour Mobility Program) Bill 2022 when Parliament closed.
The sequence of events was seized on by Mr Littleproud, who on March 31 declared that Labor had refused to allow passage of the tax-reduction Bill.
“What it shows is that Labor stands for higher taxes and won’t stand up for workers or Australian agriculture.
“Labor is doing the work of their political masters the Australian Workers Union by failing to support the reduction of foreign agriculture workers’ tax,” he said.
“The hypocrisy from the AWU is breathtaking, having demonised farmers for not paying foreign workers enough over the last few months.
“Disgracefully, the Labor Party has now failed to support a reduced tax rate,” he said.
Mr Littleproud was then supported by National Farmers Federation chief executive officer Tony Mahar, who on 1 April said “farmers were frustrated that Labor last night thwarted the passage of a reduced tax rate from 32.5 percent to 15 percent for people working pursuant to the Australian Agriculture Worker Program.”
The NFF later said Mr Mahar had based his comments on advice from Mr Littleproud that Labor had refused to agree to a guillotine motion in the Senate if it included the ag visa tax bill.
On March 31 in a Senate Estimates hearing before the Rural Regional Affairs and Transport Committee, Liberal Senator Alex Antic, referring to the tax Bill, said “it was blocked by our friends on the other side – The Labor Party – from even being considered by the Senate” and Liberal Assistant Minister for Industry Development Jonathon Duniam corroborated with “yes, in the House, it was knocked on the head by the Opposition.”
Senator Antic and Mr Duniam have not responded to questions about their Senate Estimates statements.
However, the office of Labor’s Shadow Assistant Treasurer Stephen Jones told Sheep Central on 1 April that the Labor Caucus had resolved to support the tax cut measure and that Labor could not vote on a bill unless the government puts it to a vote, which they declined to do.
“Labor unequivocally supports this measure.
“Any suggestion to the contrary is false,” Mr Jones said.
A week later, Labor Senator Raff Ciccone said: “If the Liberals and Nationals put as much effort into doing their jobs in Parliament as they do into photo opportunities and announcements, this Bill would have passed and the tax rate would have been lowered.”
“Let’s be very clear.
“The Coalition failed to progress the Bill through the House of Representatives and present it to the Senate in time for debate before the election,” he said.
“David Littleproud is now seeking to deflect attention and blame Labor for the Coalition’s failure.
“This is just another example of the Liberals and Nationals being all spin and no substance,” Senator Ciccone said.
The Morrison Government did not prioritise the ag visa tax Bill – Collins
In the press club yesterday, ABC Rural reporter Kath Sullivan said she had been told that industry groups had been briefed by government officials to not expect any arrivals from Vietnam on the ag visa until the tax rate was set for PALM and visa workers.
Ms Sullivan asked which side of parliament decided not to hear the legislation in the dying days of parliament, prompting Labor’s Agriculture Minister Julie Collins to claim the Bill was obviously not prioritised by the government.
“The Government sets the sitting schedule for Federal Parliament; it did not prioritise this legislation.
“There was a heap of legislation that the government needed to get through in a hurry, including the Budget Bills; it needed to get the Budget Bills through both houses within a day – the Tuesday night with the Budget and Wednesday it needed to get both the (Budget) Bills through.”
She said there was also “a whole heap” of other legislation the Government wanted to “just race through the Parliament.”
“And we said: you’ve got to have a proper process for all of this legislation; you need to prioritise it.
“There are plenty of pieces of agricultural legislation that didn’t get through the Parliament before Parliament was dissolved and the Government should take responsibility for that,” Ms Collins said.
“That is the Government’s issue, totally the Government’s issue; we do not set the parliamentary agenda, the Government does, we don’t, as an Opposition, let me be very clear about that.”
Mr Littleproud said Ms Collins’ description of the situation “is not necessarily correct.”
“What happens at the end of the last parliamentary sitting, there is a whole list of legislation that we sit down, and it’s not all argy bargy in Parliament House; we actually sit there and go: ‘look at the legislative agenda, what are the things that have a bipartisan approach, what are the things that we all agree on, that we can guillotine debate, with some of the extremities on the left side and the right side, that we don’t necessarily always want to hear from, what are the ones that we can agree on as an Opposition and a Government?”
Ms Collins then interjected that the Opposition said it would support the legislation, but Mr Littleproud refused to answer Ms Sullivan’s quick query as to whether the Coalition had agreed to support the tax cut Bill, pleading “I’d like to answer the (initial) question.”
“What we did is the Senate leaders sat down with Penny Wong and said these are the legislations that we want to push through and guillotine debate, because if you have the debate it takes too long and we don’t get through as many Bills as what we want.
“So part of that was a piece of legislation that would take the tax rate, as it is for backpackers, to, for an agricultural visa worker that came in, from 32.5 cents down to 15 cents,” he said.
“The Labor Party said: No, we are not going to allow for that to be guiollotined, we won’t allow that to happen.
“After the demonisation by their political masters, the AWU, that walked into embassies and high commissions and spoke to ambassadors and said ‘don’t allow your citizens to come to Australia because they will be exploited.
“The hypocrisy to sit there with a Bill that would have meant that the tax rate was reduced and was equitable to everyone else, is the most brazen piece, brazen piece of hypocrisy I’ve ever seen,” he said.
“This was an opportunity to send a signal, a signal to Vietnam, a sovereign country, that wants to send its citizens here, that has signed up as a soverign country and said a signal and say: ‘No, I’m not going to do that’, that’s more about politics than it is about good policy.”
Mr Littleproud did not accept a suggestion that five months after the Government had said ag visa workers would be on Australian farms, there had been “a blockage” between government departments in progressing the ag visa.
“But what’s happened is that when the AWU sat there and was talking to ambassadors, no soverign country would not take that seriously and to do more due diligence before they signed up – we respect that.
“But for it to be sabotaged in the way that it was; I mean what Australian organisation does that to their fellow Australian?” he asked.
“These are family farms in many cases and I’ve been on many of them, that employ foreign workers, and yes there is a small cohort that do the wrong thing, we need to weed them out.”
Mr Littleproud said the Indonesians were also had genuine concerns about that was being reported by the AWU.
“Now we are Australians, we should back ourselves, fix the problem, get on with the job, providee our farmers with opportunity, the opportunity they need.
“Because you know what, this is going to be the biggest cost of living pressure on every Australia, forget fuel,” he said.
“Because if farmers don’t have the confidence to plant, nothing gets picked, and up goes your price.
“ABARES was talking over 20 percent increase and you are starting to see ven Coles and Woolworths talking about it now.”
He said farmers won’t make planting investment decisions without certainty and what was needed was “Australians working with Australians, not against one another.”
Ms Collins said the Coalition after a decade in office, has failed to ensure that workers on farms get paid appropriately and fairly.
“Labor wants to look at the detail of this visa, it only went up on the website just as caretaker mode was announced, we have been working on a solution and will have more to say.
“But let’s be clear, what we need to do is to make sure that workers on farms are not exploited , that we do have fair pay for workers on farms, that farmers able to have confidence to do their plantings so that this workforce issue that has been there for a long timeand this Government has had ten years to fixi it and at the eleventh hour is trying to blame somebody else for it not having done its job, that is the reality here,” she said.
“Mr Littleproud and the Government have not done their job.”
Ms Collins said the ag visa “wasn’t real.”
“That’s the point, there are no workers here under it and there was only an MOU signed recently and the detail of it only went up on the website as caretker mode was announced.
“We need time to have a look at that detail, we need time to make sure and we’ve been talking to the farmers federation, talking to farmers, we need to make sure that get it right and we’ll have more to say well before polling day, with detail about what our solution is.”
She said the ALP wanted to give farmers the “long-term confidence” to continue planting, but said Labor supported the PALM scheme and would more to say about how workers are protected.
A Labor spokesperson told Sheep Central today that the Coalition’s stance on the tax Bill was “nothing more than another lie from the Liberal/National Party.”
“It’s completely disingenuous for David Littleproud to blame Labor for this Morrison Government stuff-up.
“It was David Littleproud who mismanaged the passage of this legislation through the parliament before the election, in fact it was his own Liberal colleague, Bert Van Manen, that talked down the clock to stop it from passing the House of Representatives,” the spokesperson said.
“The fact that these laws failed to pass the Parliament is completely David Littleproud’s responsibility and we won’t be blamed for his incompetence.
“Labor supports this legislation and was ready to vote accordingly in the Senate but the Morrison Government, once again, didn’t do its job.
“This is just another reason why this tired old government doesn’t deserve a second decade in office.”
Industry is disappointed tax cut Bill did not progress
Secretary of the Shearing Contractors’ Association Jason Letchford said the SCAA supports any government legislation that promotes an increased supply of workers to the agricultural sector.
“In this case, it is changing tax legislation that is creating a clear disincentive to overseas workers, who may be weighing up their options to come and work in Australia.
“To be clear, the requested changes are only leveling the ‘tax playing field’, not giving overseas workers and an advantage over Australian workers,” he said.
WoolProducers Australia chief executive officer Jo Hall said there is such a critical shortage of workers in the sector that the peak body had been calling for all options to be considered to attract workers, including favourable tax provisions for overseas or domestic workers.
“Therefore, we are disappointed that the tax rate wasn’t reduced.”
It is all very well for Minister Littleproud to come out aggressive and assertive against an inexperienced shadow Minister for Agriculture on election eve. But what has the Coalition and the Nationals, ever done about the shortage of skilled workers in agriculture for decades? It is not a new problem, is it?
Until recently, exploiting backpackers with exorbitantly high rates of taxation when many other countries refund tax on departure if the tax free threshold has not been reached.
Not to mention lack of investment in education and training across the whole agriculture sector. What about training for the enormous under-utilized indigenous community in Australia with incentives to train and work? What about addressing the taxation and pension entitlements of older Australians who would like to work, but loss of pension prohibits their involvement in seasonal work? What about making childcare, education and housing more affordable so Australian families can afford to have more children and give them a good education so we don’t need to import guest workers? What about making University and TAFE free?
Don’t say we cannot afford it as a nation; that is plainly rubbish and you know it.
The Coalition could not care less about the shortage of skilled workers in agriculture., Their performance over decades demonstrates that. Get off your backside Littleproud and act and desist in acting like your leader in always deflecting the blame elsewhere. It might be smart politics, but it does not impress your constituents.
From my knowledge of the backpacker tax, when they go home they are eligible to claim back on departure any taxes paid while in Australia. They mostly only earn enough to get around and see our wonderful country. If they paid no tax, yes no tax, they would spend it all in the next town, contributing to its wealth and have not much to claim and take home to their country of origin.