AUSTRALIA’S Agriculture Minister Murray Watt has criticised a National Farmers Federation campaign against proposed workforce law amendments in a Senate Estimates hearing this week.
And chair of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee, Labor Senator Glenn Sterle has agreed the campaign contained “mistruths.”
The NFF recently completed its National Farmer Priorities Survey that showed most respondents believe government policies were harming the sector.
The federation has also outlined several concerns about the government’s proposed Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill.
Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie yesterday questioned Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt about elements of the NFF survey, suggesting the results showed farmers believed that government policies were doing more harm than good.
Mr Watt said he did not think it is unprecedented for a peak lobby group to have disagreements with the government of the day. There were areas of agreement and disagreement between the government and the NFF, he said.
Mr Watt also recalled there were times that the NFF disagreed with the former Coalition Government.
However, Mr Watt said the priorities of NFF survey respondents were also priorities of the government – biosecurity, trade, workforce, impact of drying conditions and climate change — that gave him some confidence the government “was addressing the right issues”.
Mr Watt said Senator McKenzie was “twisting” his evidence when she claimed he was not acknowledging that there were issues with the government’s policies and was more prepared to “kick” the former government.
“The industry has made very very clear it has issues with your government’s approach,” she said.
On reducing red tape said the government was digitising and improving biosecurity and export related measures that benefited farmers by streamlining and speeding up exports.
On levelling the playing field for farmers – specifically unfair contract provisions for small farmers – initially said it is not a matter for this portfolio and “levelling the playing field is a generic phrase that is hard to respond to.”
On protecting arable farmland, Mr Watt said the next round of the Natural Heritage Trust is delivering $302 million for agriculture to maintain and improve natural capital on farms.
On protests by farmers over transmission lines, Mr Watt said he had several conversations with Minister Bowen and Minister Plibersek about the issues “and conveyed the concerns of farmers”.
“In fact, because of the concern in the community, the very real concern about poor consultation by some proponents, the government has commissioned a review of community consultation processes around the rollout of the energy network and you can ask as many questions as you like about that in the energy estimates hearing.
And it is also worth pointing out that there are many farmers who are excited about the opportunity to diversify their incomes through having renewable energy infrastructure on their properties, but of course that needs to be done in a proper way in consultation with communities – and that’s the point that I’ve made to Minister Bowen on several occasions, and he’s listened,” he said.
Senator McKenzie said with the fair work legislation amendment that there is a sense across rural and regional Australia and agriculture that the government is doing everything it can to reduce agriculture’s ability to grow and prosper.
“That’s completely untrue,” Mr Watt said.
When asked what concerns about the bill had the agricultural sector raised with him, Mr Watt said it is “pretty well known” that the NFF is running a public campaign against the laws.
On whether the NFF campaign was justified Mr Watt said he would not sit in moral judgment: “It’s up to them what they campaign against.”
“I actually think that there are a number of aspects of the laws that do not apply to agriculture in the way that the NFF is stating.
“So for instance, some of the changes that are being proposed around the use of labour hire and some of the closing loopholes do not apply to farming businesses, either because they’re small and fall under the threshold of those laws applying, or people are employed on a seasonal basis for a shorter amount of time than is required for the laws to apply,” he said.
So I’m certainly conscious that the NFF doesn’t support parts of those laws.
“They’ve conveyed that view to me, they are running TV advertisements about as is their right, but there are a number of ways in which those laws don’t apply,” he said under questioning by Senator McKenzie.
Senator Watt said some elements of the agriculture industry, including the NFF, are concerned that the workforce law amendments will have an impact on the profits of farms.
“As I say, there are a number of ways in which their concerns are not correct frankly, and the laws won’t apply in the way that they fear, but it’s their right to run a campaign.
“There are other parts of the sector that support parts of the (laws); farm workers will benefit a lot from these laws and I actually consider as the agriculture minister my responsibility is not only to farmers, it’s to people who work on farms, it’s to the whole supply chain and farm workers stand to receive better conditions and I think they’ve got rights too.”
Senator Watt said the NFF campaign in particular makes claims about the impact of the laws on the use of casual and seasonal labour, and labour hire that are “not backed up by the facts.
“There are all sorts of constraints on those laws such as that they don’t apply to small businesses …”
In urging Nationals senator Matt Canavan to let Minister Watt complete his answer, Senator Sterle said “there are mistruths being spread by the National Farmers Federation.” However, Senator Canavan said some farm businesses will be impacted, “therefore the NFF claim is right.”
NFF Closing Loopholes Bill concerns
The NFF is concerned the Federal Government’s Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill:
establishes a regime for dictating pay arrangements in labour hire and service contractor situations;
gives the Fair Work Commission power to make decisions beyond its traditional workplace remit, authorising it to control commercial arrangements;
gives unions enhanced rights to enter farms unannounced, potentially intruding on personal privacy and creating biosecurity, animal welfare, and health and safety risks, and;
changes the meaning of casual employee that will deprive businesses of certainty and flexibility.
NFF campaign criticised in parliament
In the House of Representatives question time last month Minister for Industrial Relations Tony Burke said “the (NFF) ad campaign was incorrect and that the legislation was never going to do what the ads were claiming—that somehow you’d lose the capacity to pay someone who has a lot of experience a different rate to that for someone who was brand new.
“Now that the legislation is here, I’m pleased to tell the parliament that they’ve stopped that ad of misinformation,” he said.
“They’ve now replaced it with two ads with different forms of misinformation.
“I just want to explain one of those too. It’s an ad authorised by the National Farmers Federation,” he said.
“I’ve been dealing with the National Farmers Federation for a long time, right back to when I was agriculture minister.
“As an organisation, they often provide very good advice on policy, but they’ve never been that good when it comes to the rights of workers, historically. They just haven’t been,” Mr Burke said.
Mr Burke said the NFF ad claimed that the labour hire loophole is going to affect farms and therefore is going to affect prices at supermarkets.
“That’s the argument in the ad. I thought, ‘Well, hang on; the labour hire loophole only applies if you have an enterprise agreement.’
“How many farms in Australia have an enterprise agreement where this loophole could possibly be used?,” he said.
“Certainly there are some, but, to work it out as a percentage of the industry, I went to the regulatory impact statement that was prepared independently for the bill.
“I’ll admit here that there are rounding errors, but, for the sector, where they say ‘proportion of employees on enterprise agreements’—so there’ll be a rounding error here; it’s only to the nearest one-tenth of one per cent—the figure is 0.0 per cent.”