Tasmanian Country Article - 9th Sept 2022 - Summit falls short for farmers

09 September 2022



As featured in the Tasmanian Country publication 9th September 2022

Only a certain number of jelly beans in the work force jar

This week we digest the wash-up of the Jobs and Skills Summit. We do it amidst an unusual anthology of circumstances unfolding politically and economically. In isolation each situation is not remarkable, yet collectively it has been a long time since we have experienced such a unique backdrop to an event the scale of the Summit:

  • This week the reserve bank raised official interest rates by 0.5% for the fifth straight month, taking the official cash rate to 2.35% — the highest level since 2015.
  • There are a few strikes around. Childcare workers and airport ground staff are both campaigning for higher pay and better working conditions.
  • Australia is experiencing record levels of inflation. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reported the annual Australian inflation rate as 6.1% — the highest recorded since 1990.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from the Jobs and Skills Summit. I kept thinking quietly to myself something big might happen. In short, it didn’t. Especially for farmers.

I think we can say the Summit fell short of our expectations and our needs. In agriculture I can’t help but feel we needed something ‘big’ to happen to alleviate the current and looming pressures surrounding our industry.

The National Farmers Federation (NFF) has provided a nifty re-cap of the ‘agreed actions’ from the Summit that are of particular interest to farmers (good and not so good). They are as follows:

  • $36.1 million will be dedicated to accelerating visa processing. It is estimated the Department of Home Affairs has a backlog of nearly one million visa applications.
  • The cap on skilled migration will be increased to 195,000 for 2022-2023, with an allocation of 8000 places for agriculture.
  • An Agriculture workforce Working Group has been established, tasked with progressing areas such as skills and training programs and social support for workers.
  • 465,000 additional fee-free TAFE places (180,000 in the next year) have been created
  • The government has agreed to review and simplify the ‘Better Off Overall Test’.
  • Pensioners can work and earn $4000 more income before their pension is reduced.
  • The government has committed to exploring multi-employer bargaining.

172,000 workers needed

The ‘Food Supply Chain Alliance’ is a group made up of more than 160,000 businesses, with a revenue exceeding $200 billion. It includes the NFF, the Australian Meat Industry Council, Seafood Industry Australia, Independent Food Distributors Australia, AUSVEG, Master Grocers Australia, Restaurant and Catering Industry Australia and the Australian Association of Convenience Stores. Before the Summit the Alliance calculated the food supply chain needs 172,000 skilled and unskilled workers to provide food for Australia. This number includes jobs such as, pickers to harvest Australia’s crops, packers in warehouses, truck drivers for food distribution. You get the idea. The Alliance said that without a dramatic lifeblood of workers Australia would continue to experience increasing ‘cost-of-living’ pressures.

Demographics don’t lie

A close look at Tasmania’s demographics indicates that the Summit outcomes are not aligning with our population opportunities.

Lisa Denny is a Hobart-based workforce demographer, she writes an interesting blog covering topics regarding Tasmania’s population and workforce. In her blog earlier this month she discussed Tasmania’s changing population structure in terms of age distribution. She compared Tasmania’s population, by age, between 2016 to 2021, which revealed the number of Tasmanians aged 70–84 is considerable and increasing.

Our Tasmanian workforce needs come from somewhere, it won’t miraculously appear out of thin air. While the Summit has promised modest changes to the migration numbers, there are considerable blockages in the visa approval system, which won’t be changing in the immediate future. And while the Summit increased the provision for fee-free TAFE courses, this doesn’t help our labour issues now. Denny’s demographic data suggests Tasmania doesn’t have a heavily skewed TAFE age population anyway. On the other hand, what we do have, as illustrated by Denny, is a large and increasing proportion of older Tasmanians.

Increasing the flexibility for pensioners to work more before pension payments are impacted is a missed opportunity and the Summit actions in this area don’t go far enough. We need to give older Tasmanian’s the choice to work more hours without impacting their pension. The $4000 income bank credit promised in the Summit, does not provide enough scope for pensioners to supplement their income in an era of booming cost-of-living pressures, record level inflation or provide help farmers to meet growing workforce demands.

The Summit may have given us a greater insight into the new political sphere of influence. The unions are back in the fold, it could bring an increase in pay and conditions for workers, it may also see greater work force disruptions, only time will tell. What we do know is that without considerable expansions to visa schemes or migration there are only a certain number of jelly beans in the work force jar, and we need to work with what we have. In Tasmania, that means a greater proportion of older Tasmanians, who might appreciate the opportunity to supplement their incomes to help battle the cost-of-living pressure as long as it isn’t accompanied by a plethora of red tape income reporting.

Ian Sauer
TFGA President