Following a furore among experts and proponents of Australia’s Seasonal Worker Programme, Australia’s Coalition government has put the brakes on a proposed agricultural visa scheme that experts said could endanger gains made by workers from the Pacific islands.
On Saturday, the Daily Post reported that a proposed new agricultural visa scheme might sideline the SWP by providing an opening similar to the SWP to Asian workers. Policy experts feared the resulting influx of workers would outnumber and out-compete Pacific island workers, and possibly lead to the effective demise of the programme.
But Pacific affairs assistant minister Ann Ruston confirmed to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation yesterday that the announcement, which sources had said could come as early as today, was now delayed.
In a conversation with the ABC’s Stephen Dziedzic, Ms Ruston said that “details [were] yet to be worked out”. But the proposed scheme was “still very much in development”.
Ms Ruston was the third member of government to speak out after initial reports emerged about the scheme. Articles on ANU’s Development Policy blog and the Lowy Institute’s website raised concerns that the Australian government was going off half-cocked with its plan to institute a new visa scheme. One source told the Daily Post that very ‘little thinking has gone into this’.
Fittingly, it was foreign minister Marise Payne who was first out of the blocks. She quickly posted to social media, affirming her government’s commitment to the SWP and to the recently announced Pacific Labour Scheme.
Then on Saturday evening, agriculture minister David Littleproud told the ABC that “we’re not going to rush into anything” when asked about the concerns expressed by experts and supporters of the SWP. He did emphasise he wanted to “ease concerns” about the potential conflict between the new proposal and the SWP.
And yesterday, it was left to Ms Ruston to officially kick the unveiling down the road. Claiming all the while that she was “unaware” of any announcement, she told the ABC’s Stephen Dziedzic that there were many details still to be worked through. Posting on social media yesterday, Mr Dziedzic wrote, “Assistant Minister Anne Ruston says the government is still pursuing the agriculture visa, but ‘one of the things I’ll be working with the Agriculture Minister to ensure is that our commitment to labour mobility in the Pacific is still our number one priority’”.
He quoted Ms Ruston as saying that complications were inevitable in any plan: “you always find the devil is in the detail. I’ll be very keen to work with Minister Littleproud and Minister Payne to make sure any visas put out there recognise the importance of the existing visas… and build on those visas”.
The SWP is well-known to Ni Vanuatu workers. It is one of the more popular employment options. Thousands have already participated.
In spite of early teething pains, employment agents speak glowingly of the programme. One agent told the Daily Post that the vetting process had improved so much that an experienced agent could get visa applications approved in about 24 hours.
Not everyone is in favour of the programmes. Some high-ranking officials privately express fears that the disruption to rural society outweighs the benefits. They feel that more effort should be spent developing domestic agricultural livelihoods rather than exporting the cream of our own labour force.
This view appears to be in the minority, but even full-time employment agents take pains to avoid tearing Vanuatu’s social fabric when they conduct their recruitment drives. They are selective in their enrolment, and often engage directly with traditional village leaders to ensure that a sufficient number of people remain behind, and that those who wish to participate get a fair shake.
No official timeline for the proposed visa scheme has been announced, but the agriculture minister did confirm that his government was committed to proceeding with it.
Australian engagement with Pacific island nations is evidently sincere, but has progressed in fits and starts since Scott Morrison took over the premiership.
Prime Minister Charlot Salwai only recently signed on to the Pacific Labour Scheme.