National Cabinet has failed to reach consensus on an Agricultural Worker Movement Code.
Five out of eight states and territories supported the code, but Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania did not.
A national code would have allowed workers to move across all state borders relatively freely, in the same way that truck drivers have been able to.
The failure to reach agreement means workers will continue to be impeded in crossing some state borders, causing concerns in sectors like grain growing and horticulture about how crops will get harvested.
South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria are expected to apply the code to their shared borders, but it is not yet clear when it will come into effect.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania would monitor how the code worked in those states.
National Farmers’ Federation disappointed
The code was initially proposed by the National Farmers’ Federation.
Its chief executive, Tony Mahar, said today’s announcement was good news but it was disappointing that Queensland had not backed the code.
“The adoption by five states and territories is a step in the right direction and we want to make sure we continue working to get it adopted across the country,” he said.
Mr Mahar said the code needed to be enacted as soon as possible.
“We haven’t seen any final details of the code, but we hope that it’s prescriptive enough to allow some certainty to industry and to really make sure that it’s enacted at the state borders,” he said.
Mr Mahar said governments still needed to develop proposals to allow international agricultural workers into the country.
“We’re encouraged by the fact that a plane landed in Darwin this week with workers from Vanuatu, so we want other states to look at those measures,” he said.
Fruit and veg could be left unpicked
Tyson Cattle, national public affairs manager at AUSVEG, said Queensland’s opposition to the code would weigh heavily on the minds of farmers.
“The longer this drags on, the harder it is for our growers and our workers,” he said.
“Do they have the confidence that they’ll have the workers they need, and if they don’t have that confidence, do they make the decision to plough it back into the ground or leave it unpicked?”
Questions remain for contractors
Leigh Burke, a contract harvester based in central Victoria, is preparing to send his workers to southern Queensland.
He said today’s announcement was “better than nothing”, but he was disappointed Queensland had not “come to the party”.
“This is a pretty important job that we’ve got in front of us and we need to be able to move around,” Mr Burke said.
Mr Burke said it was extremely time-consuming navigating changing border restrictions.
“It’s all new to us and at the moment we’re pretty busy getting machines ready to go north, so trying to find the time to put toward this is really difficult.”
‘We’re not criminals’
Border community farmer Lucy Tink has been severely affected by the restrictions — she lives with her family in Victoria at North Serviceton, but their properties straddle roughly five kilometres of the South Australian/Victorian border.
“Daily we travel to South Australia for farming purposes,” she said.
The Tinks deliver their grain to a mill in Bordertown and Ms Tink said more flexibility for agricultural workers crossing the border would be “lovely” ahead of harvest.
“My husband Matthew is really, really stressed about harvest,” she said.
Ms Tink said the constant police presence at borders has especially been difficult.
“We’re finding we can’t go to a paddock with a tractor … my husband has been out spraying today, and he is being asked where he’s going,” she said.
“We’d just like to feel like we’re not criminals.”