Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said farmers would gain more help after keeping production at about $61 billion this year despite floods, drought, bushfires and the coronavirus crisis.
Mr Littleproud said the objective was to encourage Australians to “have a crack” at work in the regions, but he emphasised the use of incentives rather than penalties for those on the JobSeeker unemployment benefit.
“So we’re working through some measures that could be announced very soon around incentivising Australians who are on JobSeeker, but also Youth Allowance recipients, to look at measures and opportunities for them,” he said.
With farm groups calling for urgent measures to find more workers, he said incentives would be revealed “very soon” to help meet domestic demand and lift exports.
The new budget measures are likely to add to a $300 “income free area” that allows recipients to earn up to that amount without losing any of their JobSeeker payment.
The JobSeeker benefit is currently worth $815.70 per fortnight for singles when the temporary coronavirus supplement is included, although the government cut the supplement this month and is yet to decide a new permanent rate.
Mr Littleproud said he had picked watermelons and potatoes after leaving school and believed there were ways to encourage young Australians to do the same thing today.
“That is the big challenge – how do we incentivise those people, particularly those who are recipients of the Youth Allowance, to get a leg in,” he said.
“I don’t think you’re going to see [a] rush to the regions, I think you’ll see a small but orderly transition of some people in metro areas who see the opportunities.”
Mr Littleproud embraced an industry goal to expand agricultural output to $100 billion by 2030, promising government measures to “bust congestion” that holds back exporters.
He said this did not mean easing environmental controls but instead streamlining the paperwork for food producers.
“To be honest, they’re antiquated,” he said of the government checks on farm exporters.
“And they’re not fit for purpose or fit for the future. So what we’re trying to do is to make sure that we get into the 21st century, with the rest of the world. Now is the time to rip the Band-Aid off and go harder.”
The government estimates farmers have lost access to more than half the foreign backpackers who would usually take up short-term agriculture jobs, with the number falling from 160,000 to 70,000 now in the country.
“They can stay in Australia and work if they work in agriculture, but what are the some of the ways that we might incentivise them to do more in agriculture, stay in agriculture and stay in Australia a bit longer?” Mr Littleproud said.
The government is also reopening its Seasonal Worker Program and Pacific Labour Scheme to bring in Pacific and Timorese worker to fill rural and regional job shortages.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison signalled on Tuesday he would do more to open the seasonal labour schemes and encourage Australians to take up the regional jobs.
Asked on Tuesday whether he was open to further measures and when they might be announced, Mr Morrison said: “the answer is yes, and soon.”
Labor agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon has called for faster action on the worker shortage and the country’s dependence on seasonal workers from overseas.
“While it’s very good to be looking at how we improve access to foreign labour, it’s even better to be talking about how we get more Australians, given our unemployment rate, into the sector,” he said on September 15.
The Australian Tourism Industry Council has called for a 12-month visa extension for all remaining backpackers in Australia.
The National Farmers Federation recommends a relocation payment of $1200 to move to the regions and a seasonal worker incentive trial that would allow participants to earn up to $5000 a year from seasonal horticultural work without it being included under the social security income test.
The National Farmers Federation’s 10-point approach to addressing worker shortages also includes restarting the working holiday maker program in the next three to six months and introducing a harvest work visa in the longer term.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.