Drought summit promises new funding source
In October the Federal Government convened a summit to unite national efforts in coordinating action to support drought-affected farmers and regional and remote communities.
January to September rainfall in 2018 has been the second lowest recorded since 1900 for the Murray-Darling Basin, and September rainfall was the lowest ever recorded nationally.
‘There is an obvious and urgent need to provide emergency measures (and) responding to the immediate issues will understandably be the focus of the summit, however if participants abdicate their responsibility to also genuinely address better frameworks for long-term preparedness and resilience then the exercise will be a failure,’ AFI Executive Director Richard Heath said.
At the National Farmers’ Federation Congress in mid-October, Prime Minister Scott Morrison listed three major priorities for drought policy:immediate relief measures, social and economic recovery and planning for long-term resilience. At the National Drought Summit on 26 October the Future Drought Fund was unveiled, with an initial allocation of $3.9 billion to grow to $5 billion by 2028. From 2020, $100 million will be budgeted for ‘long-term drought resilience works’.
Participants at the summit also received updates from the Bureau of Meteorology and the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences  which indicated the current drought, while severe in some regions, is affecting a smaller area than the 2002-03 drought, and that farm incomes are on track to be less affected than in previous droughts.
During the National Drought Summit there was no announcement on a national drought policy, but it was agreed that ‘it was critical that governments plan for the future, given that droughts are part of Australia’s landscape’. The Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers agreed to discuss a new agreement on drought reform at the Council of Australian Governments meeting in December.
Moss review recommends live ex ‘reset’
The much-anticipated Moss Review  into live animal export regulation released at the end of October has identified systemic regulatory failings in the Agriculture Department and recommended significant reforms.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has committed to implement the review’s 31 recommendations, which will impact both sheep and cattle exports.
‘Australians were appalled in April when they saw footage of sheep dying on voyages to the Middle East during a shipment in August 2017, and further angered at their assessment the report of the incident did not match the footage,’ Mr Littleproud said.
‘Today I reset the live export industry to make it sustainable.’
The Minister announced the planned appointment of an external, independent Inspector General of Live Animal Exports; a Principal Regulatory Officer within the Department to improve compliance and its culture as regulator; an animal welfare branch within the Department, and the development of animal welfare indicators to be used as part of compliance systems.
Farm worker visa reform
The Federal Government is amending two schemes that bring temporary farm workers into Australia after concerted pressure from farm lobby groups, including the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) and the NFF Horticulture Council. With rural industries becoming increasingly reliant on foreign labour coming into the summer harvest season, seasonal workers play a vital role within the food supply chain.
The changes to the Working Holiday Visa Program and the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) ‘will make it easier for farmers to source and retain the workers they need’, NFF President Fiona Simson said.
Under the reforms, working holiday makers such as backpackers will have the option of qualifying for a third year visa by undertaking an extra six months of regional work during their second year.
Backpackers will be able to undertake farm work in areas where labour is deemed most required and have the time of work with a single farmer extended from six to 12 months, and the age limit for working holiday makers will also be extended from 30 to 35 years.
Changes to the SWP – which in 2017 brought 8000 workers from the Pacific Islands and Timor Leste to Australia for farm work – include extending the visa from six to nine months with employers’ out of pockets costs reduced and farmers no longer needing to provide evidence of skills shortages in order to have international workers on their property.
‘We also welcome a $1.5 million investment in ensuring the Fair Farms Initiative continues to be available to horticulture and other agriculture sectors,’ Ms Simson said. A further $9.9 million will expand the scope and reach of the Fair Work Ombudsman.
Farm employers are encouraged to register their vacancies with the Harvest Labour Service on 1800 062 332 or at www.jobsearch.gov.au/harvest.