Stop de­lay­ing and axe the tax

Farm­ing groups not happy with six-month de­lay on the im­ple­men­ta­tion of back­packer tax

North East & Goulburn Murray Farmer - - NEWS - BY JODIE FLEM­ING jflem­ing@ne­me­dia.com.au

THE de­layed in­tro­duc­tion of the con­tro­ver­sial back­packer tax has at­tracted wide­spread op­po­si­tion from the agri­cul­ture in­dus­try as it pro­vides no cer­tainty to farm­ers’ that they will have a work­force to help them dur­ing the next har­vest.

The Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment an­nounced that any de­ci­sion on its plan to tax work­ing hol­i­day visa hold­ers as non-res­i­dents at 32.5 per cent would be re­viewed af­ter the elec­tion, with a final de­ci­sion on whether to en­force it to be de­layed un­til Jan­uary 1, 2017.

Dur­ing his re­cent tour around Vic­to­ria, Deputy Prime Min­is­ter and Fed­eral Min­is­ter for Agri­cul­ture and Wa­ter Barn­aby Joyce said that he “quite clearly” stated that the gov­ern­ment would have the back­packer tax is­sue re­solved be­fore it came in and he has done “pre­cisely that”.

“We have said the con­di­tions that are in place now will con­tinue un­til the first of Jan­uary, so if you are in­tend­ing on com­ing to Aus­tralia and it is in the mid­dle of July then there is ab­so­lutely no rea­son why you shouldn’t come,” Mr Joyce said.

He added that the tax could not be “got rid of” be­cause there are a whole range of is­sues that may re­quire leg­is­la­tion which can­not be ad­dressed un­til af­ter the elec­tion as the gov­ern­ment is cur­rently in a care­taker role.

“We aren’t go­ing to get leg­is­la­tion through both houses of Par­lia­ment in a care­taker mode.

“We have made sure af­ter hear­ing the con­cerns of so many peo­ple that we have, as we said we would, landed a po­si­tion be­fore the im­ple­men­ta­tion of a new tax rate which would have hap­pened on the first of July, now we have got that ex­ten­sion to the first of Jan­uary.

“This will al­low us time so we can work through an out­come that deals with this over the long term,” Mr Joyce said.

He added that he un­der­stood the con­cerns of those af­fected by the tax and that he will do some­thing about it to reach an out­come.

“Now I am not go­ing to start declar­ing what the end of the review is be­fore I have even started it.

“If I take charge of this, and I will, we will land at an out­come that deals with con­cerns that are held by so many peo­ple, but I am not go­ing to de­clare what those con­cerns are as that would be com­pletely in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­cause I haven’t talked to them all yet,” he said.

How­ever, farm­ing groups do not be­lieve the is­sue has been re­solved at all, just de­layed un­til af­ter the elec­tion, with both sides of pol­i­tics not mak­ing any clear com­mit­ment to abol­ish­ing the con­tro­ver­sial tax.

The Na­tional Farm­ers’ Fed­er­a­tion (NFF) and its mem­ber or­gan­i­sa­tions have been fight­ing hard on the is­sue with an on­line pe­ti­tion op­pos­ing the mea­sure at­tract­ing al­most 48,000 sig­na­tures.

While NFF pres­i­dent Brent Fin­lay said he wel­comed the gov­ern­ment’s ac­knowl­edge­ment that a bet­ter long-term agri­cul­tural work­force so­lu­tion is needed, this would not ad­dress the short-term work­force cri­sis fac­ing the farm sec­tor now be­cause of the back­packer tax.

“We have heard sto­ries from farm­ers across the na­tion who have found them­selves un­able to move for­ward with ba­sic farm man­age­ment, fac­ing much lower pro­duc­tion lev­els than usual be­cause of the im­pact this tax will have,” he said.

“A six month de­lay does not al­le­vi­ate that con­cern, and for many means that the tax will now take ef­fect half way through their busiest time of the year.

“Farm­ers across the coun­try will be won­der­ing how much area to put un­der crop, if al­ready dwin­dling back­packer num­bers drop off even fur­ther at that time,” Mr Fin­lay said.

He added that an im­me­di­ate, per­ma­nent so­lu­tion which en­cour­ages work­ing hol­i­day mak­ers to travel to Aus­tralia and find em­ploy­ment in ru­ral ar­eas must be de­liv­ered as a mat­ter of pri­or­ity.

“The last thing we want is to be in the same sit­u­a­tion in six months’ time, with no work­able so­lu­tion.

“If the gov­ern­ment is se­ri­ous about jobs and growth and is re­ally lis­ten­ing to the farm sec­tor, they will de­liver a fairer tax rate for back­pack­ers so that farm­ers have a fight­ing chance of find­ing the work­ers they need, not just next year, but this year as well,” Mr Fin­lay said.

The Aus­tralian La­bor Party said it would abol­ish the back­packer tax if it wins the up­com­ing Fed­eral elec­tion with Shadow Min­is­ter for Agri­cul­ture Joel Fitzgib­bon stat­ing that it would “kill this tax and kill it quickly”.

How­ever, farm­ers are con­fused over La­bor’s plans should it win the fed­eral elec­tion as the op­po­si­tion con­tin­ues to crit­i­cise the Coali­tion’s 32.5 per cent tax with­out of­fer­ing a so­lu­tion of its own.

Vic­to­rian Farm­ers Fed­er­a­tion (VFF) hor­ti­cul­ture vice pres­i­dent Emma Germano said it was un­ac­cept­able that both par­ties did not year have a clear po­si­tion.

“This is a crit­i­cal is­sue for peo­ple liv­ing in ru­ral ar­eas, and it doesn’t in­spire con­fi­dence that so close to the elec­tion nei­ther side has made a clear com­mit­ment to scrap the tax,” she said.

“We can’t sit around un­til af­ter the elec­tion be­fore we get a clear sig­nal from ei­ther side that there won’t be a back­packer tax, be­cause one of them will be in gov­ern­ment.

“All sides need to step up and com­mit to scrap­ping the tax as an elec­tion pri­or­ity.

“The Coali­tion wants to review the tax and La­bor doesn’t know what to do, so what are we sup­posed to do while they strug­gle to get their act to­gether?

“De­lay­ing a de­ci­sion on the tax will be dev­as­tat­ing for farm­ers who will be har­vest­ing their crops in the New Year, which is when we’ll most need the sup­port of back­packer labour,” Ms Germano said.

She added that the tax was a threat to both the agri­cul­ture and tourism in­dus­tries, with more than 40,000 visa hold­ers work­ing in the agri­cul­ture in­dus­try each year and con­tribut­ing around $3.5 bil­lion to the Aus­tralian econ­omy.

“Work­ing hol­i­day mak­ers are a valu­able source of short-term labour for pro­duc­ers and they bring bil­lions in rev­enue to our na­tional econ­omy.

“The lack of cer­tainty around the tax means that we don’t know how to pre­pare for this year’s sea­son and back­pack­ers won’t visit here, which will be dev­as­tat­ing for two vi­tal in­dus­tries,” Ms Germano said.

Beech­worth Vignerons pres­i­dent Si­mon Grant, who rep­re­sents all of the vine­yards in Beech­worth said the sim­ple an­swer to the back­packer tax is to “axe it”.

“Vir­tu­ally all vine­yards in Beech­worth are hand­picked and se­cur­ing labour at the ap­pro­pri­ate time is very dif­fi­cult and ul­ti­mately groups of back­pack­ers end up be­ing em­ployed,” he said.

“If you re­move back­packer labour in the mar­ket­place by tax­ing them out of ex­is­tence, the short­ages could reach cri­sis point.

“The re­al­ity of the sit­u­a­tion is that it is dif­fi­cult to get labour hire at short no­tice and grape pick­ing is of­ten at short no­tice.

“There isn’t enough peo­ple look­ing for work and if we have these tourists com­ing through keen to work and do­ing it at the right price and pro­vid­ing the right qual­ity of labour, why make it im­pos­si­ble for them?” Mr Grant said.

AUSVEG deputy chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer An­drew White also ex­pressed his dis­ap­point­ment at the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment’s “lack of ac­tion” to elim­i­nate the tax.

“Aus­tralian veg­etable grow­ers rely on back­pack­ers to off­set do­mes­tic labour short­ages and per­form the high amounts of man­ual labour needed in veg­etable pro­duc­tion,” he said.

“Whether the tax is in­tro­duced at the cur­rently pro­posed level now or in six months, the ef­fect will be the same – it will threaten the avail­abil­ity of this vi­tal labour source and leave grow­ers un­able to get crops off the field.

“We hope the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment’s review de­liv­ers a sen­si­ble so­lu­tion to this is­sue which ac­knowl­edges the unique needs of the Aus­tralian veg­etable in­dus­try and will con­tinue to en­able Aus­tralian grow­ers to ac­cess this im­por­tant source of labour,” Mr White said.

Sta­tis­tics from the Depart­ment of Im­mi­gra­tion and Border Pro­tec­tion show that the num­ber of back­pack­ers com­ing to Aus­tralia has dropped re­peat­edly over the past two years, with more than 34,000 fewer visas granted in 2014/2015 than in 2012/2013.

“The on­go­ing de­cline in back­pack­ers vis­it­ing Aus­tralia must be ar­rested if the Aus­tralian veg­etable in­dus­try is to re­main vi­able, and any fur­ther de­crease in the num­ber of back­pack­ers vis­it­ing Aus­tralia could have a crip­pling im­pact on the Aus­tralian veg­etable in­dus­try,” Mr White said.

PHOTO: Luke Plum­mer

DE­LAYED TAX: Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Barn­aby Joyce in Wan­garatta said the ex­ten­sion to Jan­uary 2017 on the in­tro­duc­tion of the ‘back­packer tax’ will al­low the gov­ern­ment to work through a more suit­able, long-term out­come.

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