Question without notice – My question is for the Premier. It is becoming clear that in order to harvest our fruit and vegetable crops in the Goulburn Valley producers will need access to Pacific Islander workers under the federal government’s Pacific Islander seasonal workers program.
My question for the Premier is: what is your government doing to facilitate the necessary quarantining for these workers so that they will be able to travel to the Goulburn Valley to pick our fruit?
The shortage of seasonal workers across Victoria is extremely worrying for so many of the growers in my area, many of whom have bumper crops and have been facing years of drought, fluctuating overseas markets and high water prices. Much has been said and done to incentivise local workers to become fruit pickers, but as February and March draw near, the peak picking period for pears and apples in my region is nearing and it is getting critical. To this end, the Pacific Islander seasonal workers program is really extremely important, particularly in the absence of our usual backpacker cohort.
Mr ANDREWS (Premier): I thank the member for Shepparton for her question and for her advocacy on this and all issues that are important to the Goulburn Valley. She is well known and well understood to be a passionate advocate on behalf of her community. The program that the member for Shepparton refers to is of course the federal government granting permission for the entry of certain people from very low or no virus communities in the Pacific. That is largely where the program ends. Being able to provide safe quarantine would fall it would seem to the states, despite the fact that quarantining is in effect a principal responsibility of the federal government. But again, that is not the quarrel that any of us need to be getting into. It is about the practicalities of this. It is about the practicalities of very large numbers of people coming to regional Victoria to complete a very important task, both for the income of growers but also for consumers having an availability of fresh, high-quality produce at an efficient price.
What I can say to the member for Shepparton is that we are working as hard as we possibly can to deal with these issues. They are not simple. They are not easy in any way. Giving effect to the decisions that the commonwealth government in a very broad context has facilitated, if you like, rather than made, is not a simple thing. And yes, there are costs involved if we do not get this right, and one of those costs is potentially many, many coronavirus infections, particularly in communities where there have been, not just for 40 days, no infections, but in some communities months and months without any infections. The balance point is the key point here.
I appreciate the advocacy on behalf of the growers and all of that supply chain that is critically important in the Goulburn Valley. I would say that we, all of us, have got to redouble our efforts to get more and more Victorians to do this work right now and into February, March, April and right out to May. That is our priority at this stage. We will have more to say about quarantining arrangements potentially and some overseas arrivals, but that is incredibly complicated. It is not a matter of expense and it is not a matter of cost; it is a matter of what can be done at scale to the highest standard. As my honourable friend the minister for COVID19 Quarantine Victoria would I am sure have said if she had been asked this question, there are limitations. We do not have an unlimited supply of workers and others, hotels even, to provide that highest standard, best-in-class standard, hotel quarantine. That is what the Victorian community expects.
That is what the government will fundamentally deliver and, despite the laughter of those opposite who could not prove any more clearly their irrelevance to every matter of importance in this state, we will not, unlike them, compromise the safety of this community.
Mr R Smith: On a point of order, Speaker—it seems one of us is missing the other one a little bit too much. But it is okay; I am back. I never really went away.
The SPEAKER: Order!
Mr Andrews interjected.
Mr R Smith: On a point of order, Speaker, under Rulings from The Chair—he is still going. I am actually tired of the bullying that we are getting from the Premier. Under Rulings from the Chair I ask you to—
Ms Neville interjected.
The SPEAKER: Order! The Minister for Police and Emergency Services!
Mr R Smith: Sit down, you sook? Is that what you just said? Sit down, you sook? Is that okay? Is that what we have to put up with here in this chamber? Well, you might have a higher office than me, but you have got no more right to be in this place that I have.
The SPEAKER: Order!
Mr R Smith: On a point of order, Speaker, the Premier is not permitted during this period of parliamentary procedure to attack the opposition. I ask you to bring him back to answering the question, and he can refrain from the bullying barbs that he likes to throw across the table.
The SPEAKER: Order! I ask members not to interject across the chamber, and I ask the Premier to come back to answering the question.
Mr ANDREWS: As I was saying, these are not simple matters—simple as some may suggest from the opposition—they are complex. We are working through them and will report progress at the appropriate time.
Ms SHEED (Shepparton): Look, I thank you for that response, although time is critical on these, and just this week we had the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Quarantine Fees) Bill 2020 before the house. I think that the issue of quarantining of workers under this scheme is being talked to me about at some length and the cost of what that quarantine might be, so I am just wondering, Premier: what steps and what sort of framework you might anticipate will be in place in relation to the cost of quarantine for workers as opposed to residents currently returning under the current scheme?
Mr ANDREWS (Premier): I thank the member for Shepparton for her supplementary question. I think this is at the heart of the issue. This is an industry where workers are not highly paid. This is an industry where I think it simply cannot be avoided pointing out the fact that we have seen many, many examples of not the highest standards of practice when it comes to health and safety, industrial relations, the protection of workers and the proper pay for a proper day’s work.
That is not necessarily synonymous with some elements of this industry. The notion then that we put a further disincentive—hard work, not well paid often, with not always the highest of standards—does present us with a challenge. If we say to people that they are going to have to pay $3000 to $5000 for the privilege of coming here to work such a job, I fully agree with the member for Shepparton that that will be a real challenge and a real blocker. That is why we have got to work hard, all of us, to get a solution to this. Can I offer to the member for Shepparton: I will facilitate a meeting with the Leader of the Government in the other place, the agriculture minister, to talk through in detail all of our work and what we hope to achieve in partnership with the member for Shepparton