THE National Farmers’ Federation says there’s unprecedented disillusionment and anger among the farm sector at the political games being played over the backpacker tax in Canberra.
A political ambush led by crossbench Senators Derryn Hinch, One Nation’s Rod Culleton and Tasmanian Independent Jacqui Lambie saw a compromise of a 15 per cent tax rate torpedoed today.
An amendment moved by Labor and supported by the Greens saw the Senators vote together with others for a 10.5pc rate, forcing the legislation to return to the Lower House.
Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison has said he won’t send the bill back to the Senate unless there’s a firm commitment from the crossbenchers; meaning it may now go up to the 32.5pc tax rate on January 1.
That outcome has been feared by the farm sector as a major threat to fragile seasonal labour supplies but the entire issue has been a major source of ongoing frustration.
NFF President Fiona Simson made an urgent trip to Canberra today as the chaos erupted with the shock Senate vote and told media the 15pc rate remained the best way of getting the issue resolved, before parliament ended for the year.
Ms Simson said Australian farmers wanted workforce stability with not only this harvest impacted by the backpacker tax saga but also the one that’s being planned for new which remained in a “state of uncertainty”.
“We implore parliament, as we did last week, to work together come to a sensible consensus decision and we implore government to agree to a sensible rate,” she said.
“We believe the 15pc is the right rate – we believe that this rate is fair internationally and is also fair to Australian workers.”
NFF CEO Tony Mahar said there was a real opportunity for the parliament to listen to Australian farmers.
“Let’s get this issue sorted once and for all because it has dragged out for way too long,” he said.
“Farmers are business people and they have got families and got operations to run but are being compromised.
“There’s an opportunity for the parliament to make this clear, to get this done and to get some resolution on this.
“Let’s get this thing sorted.”
Ms Simson said farmers had spoken today and wanted certainty with the backpacker tax issue resolved before parliament rises this week.
“Parliament needs to agree on the rate that farmers want,” she said.
“The government I believe have shown leadership on this issue and good will to negotiate in the range that we determined some time ago, 18-months ago, was fair.
“At the moment the government has shifted considerably in its position and I think really it’s up to the Labor party now to look at the facts and figures behind the 15pc, to actually come to the issue with common sense and credible clear thinking and facts, to talk to us constructively in the Farmers’ Federation which is what we’ve always sought to do – and also to the Senators.
“I have personally put in calls to Senator Hinch and Senator Culleton and at this stage they haven’t taken my calls which is very disappointing.
“I’ll continue to talk to all Senators and the Labor party and any members of parliament who are actually willing to come to the table and strike a deal, and talk sensibly about what is at stake here and what’s at stake is the livelihood of Australian farmers.
“We would hope that parliament will stay sitting until a deal is reached.”
Ms Simson said the NFF believed a common sense agreement had been reached when Mr Morrison announced earlier this week his support for the 15pc rate which was likely to see the issue resolved.
But she said it was unfortunate that at the last minute that position had changed.
“We’ve seen a number of farmers coming out today and expressing disappointment at their elected representatives for reneging on what they thought was a fair rate,” she said.
“We’ve seen huge disappointment across agriculture today in Australia and in fact I’d say unprecedented support for a position that we as NFF were proud to bring to the table.
“I’m incredibly disappointed that we haven’t been able to have bipartisan support on this issue.
“Labor consistently quote 10.5pc as being the rate that’s applicable in NZ however that also applies to NZ wage rates which are considerably lower than Australia’s so if Labor is advocating for that, we’d have to have another discussion about that.”
Mr Mahar said everyone claimed to be representing farmers and listening to farmers but they had ignored categorical evidence and support for the 15pc rate that existed “across the board”.
“If the parliament thinks that they’re listening to farmers then they should get this thing done,” he said.
Earlier today, Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said the NFF was not representing farmers because he had evidence of other groups backing a 10.5pc rate.
“I am standing up for the very many, and I won’t put a number on it, the many growers who have been in contact with me and calling me, emailing me and walking through my door begging me to strike a 10.5 rate,” he said.
“They keep reminding me the National Farmers Federation doesn’t represent them.
“It does not represent them but the National Farmers Federation can fix this today and can fix this by picking the phone up and calling Scott Morrison and saying - enough is enough, we need this fixed and a lower tax rate is better for us and that’s what we want.”
Ms Simson said the NFF certainly didn’t represent every Australian farmer however they do represent the most farmers of any other group in Australia.
“We represent roughly 60,000 farmers across Australia and so that’s an enormous voice and it’s an enormous voice we will continue to represent,” she said.
“We will only take on outcomes that are good for farmers and this is an outcome that is good for farmers.”
Mr Mahar said the NFF’s view on a 15pc rate was supported by the Victorian Farmers Federation, NSWFarmers, WAFarmers, AgForce and all commodity groups.
“It has been clear, from our perspective, that the farming industry wants this issue dealt with so cherry picking and picking people off the street to say they don’t agree with it is a little bit short sighted, when the evidence is on the table of the support for this issue,” he said.
Ms Simson said NFF members backed the 15pc rate as did non-members like the Australian Blueberry Growers Association, Ausveg and Growcom, that had come out in support of that position.
Mr Mahar said the backpacker tax issue demonstrated the challenges and disillusionment that the public saw, in the federal parliament’s actions in not listening to people.
“This is an issue that should have been dealt with,” he said.
“People are sick of it; the farming community are sick of it; they want resolution on it; and we’ve seen with a number of developments around the world that people are disillusioned with parliament not listening to the population.
“This is an issue where the message has been absolutely clear.
“It appears as if the parliament isn’t listening.
“Clearly the Senate aren’t listening to the advice that we’ve been getting from across the board.
“A compromise is where we’re at and where we think we’re able to get resolution on this thing but it’s being bogged in the parliament so it’s the parliament that’s not listening.”
Ms Simson said she hoped all Senators and all members of parliament would listen to reason and evidence based policy and come to the table with the right intent.
“And that is to achieve good outcomes for the farmers of Australia,” she said.
“The farmers of Australia today really do feel like pawns in a political game and we do have to stop that.”
Senator Hinch denied he’d betrayed the government on the backpacker tax after saying earlier this week that he supported the 15pc rate.
He said the only understanding he ever had with Scott Morrison was weeks ago when he said he was going to back the government on a 19pc rate.
“In my press conference I said they have gone done to 15pc and I can go with that (but) I didn't say I'm not going any lower,” he said.
“They could negotiate and lower it from 15pc - come up with another figure - somewhere between 10.5pc and 15pc.
“I don't make provisions - I'm purely looking for a way to getting this out of the way.”
Senator Hinch said Senator Lambie wouldn't budge (on the 10.5pc rate) but Senator Culleton might, in any further negotiations with the government.
Mr Morrison said the government’s position remained resolute at 15pc as negotiations continued
“This is the rate of tax for seasonal workers and this is the second occasion on which the government has sought to put forward a compromise position on this issue in the interests of seeking to resolve the matter, in the interest of supporting particularly the growers but the tourism industry,” he said.
“The government, the National Party, the Liberal Party, believe we have struck the right balance here and that has been supported by growers, by farmers, by those in the community who are calling on the parliament to resolve this matter.
“What the government will be doing is until we can have a clear commitment from the requisite Senators in the Senate to be able to pass the measure of 15 per cent, then the government won’t be returning these Bills to the Senate until such time as we can get those clear commitments.”
Mr Morrison said he’d met with Senator Hinch and Senator Culleton today and also NSW Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm who has changed his position and now agreed to back 15pc having voted for 10.5pc earlier today.
He said only one additional Senator was needed to support the government’s measures at 15pc, “to ensure this matter can be dealt with this week”.
“I don’t think it is an edifying thing, or the right way to manage this issue for it to bounce back and forward between the Senate and the House,” he said.
“The government has moved from a position of 32.5 cents from the 15-16 Budget, which was enshrining the non-resident status position which was first sent at 32.5 cents by (former Labor Treasurer) Wayne Swan.
“The common law position is they are non-residents for tax purposes - we are seeking to change this to resolve this issue.
“It is disappointing that they (Labor) just see this as some sort of political sport but as the government we will continue to work with the Senate to see if we can come to a position of support for that 15pc.
“I must be clear, 15pc is the rate - that is fair, that is the right balance.
“To have a lower rate of tax for backpackers as opposed to seasonal workers would be an inconsistent and an unnecessary distortion in the tax system and I think it is important that we will continue to work with those Senators over the next 24 hours and hopefully we can reach a resolution.”