Labour flexibility, rail projects, effective internet: Regional requests for the Budget

Infrastructure and labour market flexibility have been identified as key issues as regional Australians await the Federal Budget.

Regional budget

Flexibility in the labour market is a major issue for farmers in regional Australia, ahead of the Federal Budget. Source: SBS

In many areas of Australia’s diverse agriculture sector, there are complaints the existing labour market lacks flexibility.

For long-time dairy farmer Noel Campbell, the issue arises twice a day – at milking time.

He says each cycle takes less than two hours but a law stipulating a minimum three-hour shift for engaging casual staff means employing others simply isn’t viable. 

“So we're actually paying, if we need someone for four hours for the day, we've got to pay them for six hours, so it makes it quite difficult to do, so we tend to end up doing the work ourselves rather than employ people,” Mr Campbell told SBS World News.

Regional budget
Dairy farmer Noel Campbell. Source: SBS

For he and his wife, it means 80-hour weeks - and theirs is a story consistent across the sector.

Tony Mahar, from the National Farmers Federation, says the nature of seasonal and sometimes remote work, means an "agriculture specific" visa should be considered, as part of the Budget and review to the overall visa system.

“We need to have the capacity to get people from overseas that can come and help us get products out of the ground, off the trees and onto the consumers' tables and into their kitchens,” he said.

Mr Mahar believes the Budget must also deliver certainty around the long-awaited inland rail infrastructure project, which would link key agricultural hubs throughout Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

“We've had feasibility studies and we've had commitments from government which is positive - we need to actually get a firm commitment of a billion dollars to getting this inland rail actually built,” he said.

If completed, the 1700km track will become Australia's largest rail-freight project - and Jack Archer, from the Regional Australia Institute, says it will offer significant savings and improved opportunities in regional Australia.

“With better pathways to markets, cheaper pathways to markets, businesses and agricultural producers in those areas will be able to tap into the Chinese markets in a different way,” Mr Archer said.

Other issues front of mind for those living outside metropolitan centres include further commitment to mobile phone black spot funding, access to effective internet facilities and upgrades to the Bruce and Pacific Highways.

Mr Archer says, if funded appropriately, regional centres have the potential to provide a solution to a major metropolitan problem.

“There's an opportunity to address the housing affordability crisis by making it easier for people to consider regional living and transfer out into regional areas,” he said.

Another key aspect of incentivising regional living is improving rail transport for those living in country areas and commuting to cities for work.

In Victoria, the state government says it will spend almost $1.5 billion on regional rail upgrades - but needs the federal government to release money it says it's owed under the Asset Recycling Initiative from the lease of the Port of Melbourne.

Despite the challenges of living in the bush, Mr Mahar says the right high-level decisions on Budget night could offer progress and solutions.

“As sectors like mining and manufacturing come down from in the mining case peaks agriculture will provide growth productivity and profitability,” he said.

THE FEED: Is moving to Tamworth the solution to housing affordability?

3 min read
Published 5 May 2017 at 7:04pm
By Luke Waters