A TSUNAMI of discontent from farm groups is swelling against Canberra over its handling of the backpacker tax.
The surge comes after crossbench Senators Derryn Hinch, One Nation’s Rod Culleton and Tasmanian Independent Jacqui Lambie rejected a compromise of a 15 per cent tax rate yesterday.
The new rate of 10.5PC voted on in the Senate must now go back to the House of Representatives and it seems unlikely the Coalition will back it.
If an agreement is not reached today, the tax will revert to 32.5pc from January 2017.
Good Fruit & Vegetables understands some horticulture farmers spent considerable amounts of time on the phone yesterday pleading with various supply chain groups to make a public comment or stand.
Groups that are normally quietly spoken on the political front such as the Australian Macadamia Society and the Australian Blueberry Growers Association have remained silent no longer.
In a sign of the growing concern within the horticulture sector, wholesale markets representative group Fresh Markets Australia (FMA) publically called on the federal parliament to agree on the tax rate.
It was a rare glimpse of total industry unity as it sang in unison with grower groups.
FMA director, Andrew Young, said the political point scoring must stop.
“Grower bodies are also informing us that supply volumes to the Central Markets will certainly be cut with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of fresh produce left in the paddock if the labour is not there to pick and pack it,” Mr Young said.
“Bowen Gumlu Growers Association is reporting a drop of 10pc in backpacker labour while this fiasco plays out just as the busy mango season is upon them.
“Growers across Australia who rely on overseas labour are in the same situation. It affects the whole supply chain and will ultimately affect consumers in the prices they pay for their food.”
Ag sector fires up
COTTON Australia general manager Michael Murray said Australian farmers have been waiting 18 months for legislators to reach a sensible conclusion to the issue working holiday maker taxation.
“The Senate appears to have abandoned common-sense in rejecting the compromise tax rate,” Mr Murray said.
“We call on both houses of Parliament to put aside their political differences and swiftly come up with a solution that is fair and ensures Australia remains globally competitive in attracting crucial seasonal workers.”
Australian Blueberry Growers Association president Greg McCulloch said the proposed 15pc tax was fair and reasonable.
“We are in the middle of harvest at the moment, particularly on the north coast of NSW, and member of our members have a combination of backpackers and Australian working side-by-side,” Mr McCulloch said.
“I have tried to talk to (Tasmanian) senator Jacqui Lambie, and I am still waiting for a call back after leaving messages.
“We feel likes pawns in a game and no one will win if this goes on. It is now time for the cross benchers to meet halfway at 15pc.”
Ausveg CEO Simon Bolles said Australian vegetable growers are sick and tired of their industry being treated as a political football.
“Ausveg welcomed the spirit of bipartisanship in which the Government offered its compromise deal of 15pc," Mr Bolles said.
We feel likes pawns in a game and no one will win if this goes on. It is now time for the cross benchers to meet halfway at 15pc.
"While we are unhappy about the changes to the taxation of superannuation which have already been passed and which would increase the effective rate of that compromise deal to well over 20pc, we hoped to see this debate finish with an internationally competitive rate.”
“We are incredibly disappointed that this has not happened.”
Voice of Horticulture and Citrus Australia chair Tania Chapman said the Australian horticulture industry is being held to ransom for the sake of political games.
“The damaging and dangerous 32.5pc rate cannot be allowed to come into effect, or Australian horticulture will suffer and the blame will be placed squarely at the feet of every politician who placed political expediency above the livelihoods of our growers,” she said.
“This must end now.”
The Australian Macadamia Society (AMS) and Australian Nut Industry Council (ANIC) also called for all politicians to support the 15pc rate.
Australian Macadamia Society CEO and ANIC chairman Jolyon Burnett the industry acknowledged and appreciated the efforts that resulted in the proposed compromise position of 15pc tax rate.
"We are extremely disappointed by the rejection of this position in the Senate,” he said.
“We are calling on all parties to pass the 15pc tax this week so that our industry can have a resolution which is fair to both workers and growers,” Mr Burnett said.
“It is time to stop playing games with growers’ livelihoods and pass the resolution as soon as possible.”
Farmer rage goes national
GROWCOM labelled the situation the "nightmare before Christmas".
“This game of political brinkmanship must end,” Growcom chief advocate Rachel Mackenzie said.
Ms Mackenzie said the 15pc rate was strongly supported by the key horticultural regions in Queensland as it is equivalent to the rate currently paid by seasonal workers under the Government’s Seasonal Worker Programme.
“We had a number of members contact us this week expressing their relief at an end to the backpacker tax saga and we now have to go back and tell them it may default to 32.5pc," she said.
“If the ALP and crossbenchers can convince the government to vote for 10.5pc then that is a good outcome, but it is hard not be cynical that this is just a grubby political exercise.
“I know that many of our members have personally contacted a number of the Queensland Senators to highlight the terrible impact of a 32.5pc tax rate. They will be seething after this latest impasse.
“This political wrangling is a complete travesty.”
Victorian Farmers Federation horticulture vice president Emma Germano said the Senate had made a mockery of the political process.
“This has been a disastrous result for the agriculture industry and I hope the Senate is comfortable in the knowledge that they could have destroyed this season’s harvest for many hardworking farmers,” Ms Germano said.
She said the bitter stalemate was putting the agriculture sector under increasing stress as many farmers struggled to find reliable temporary labour.
“There is no question that this ugly fight has caused tremendous damage to our reputation,” she said.
“We have already seen a drop-off in backpacker numbers, and with much of the harvest already in full swing, many farmers are struggling to find the labour."
This political wrangling is a complete travesty.
NT Farmers CEO, Shenal Basnayake, said NT Farmers had proposed 15pc at the start of discussions early on in the year as an appropriate rate.
Mr Basnayake said the rate would help align backpackers with the Seasonal Worker Programme, which is designed to support farming by bringing in labour from the Pacific and East Timor.
He noted the last things farmers needed was more red tape and administration created by multiple tax regimes on their workforce, what you would effectively have is multiple tax rates depending on who you are, where you come from and for what purpose.
In expressing his dismay at all sides of politics, Queensland Farmers’ Federation (QFF) President Stuart Armitage described the situation as "one of the best examples of the worst of politics"
We are furious that this has not been resolved, when it is so clearly a time-sensitive issue of critical importance to the future of multiple industries.
“It is extremely disappointing that our politicians would rather play a game of ‘last man standing’ than resolve this urgent issue affecting Queensland’s farmers and regional communities,” Mr Armitage said.
“It is simply unacceptable that farmers and regional Queensland continue to be kicked around like a political football only to satisfy the egos and malignant infighting that now dominate the backpacker tax issue.”
“Politics is the art of compromise. No one gets everything they want. Unfortunately, one of the many great things about Australia and our political system has always been the pragmatism of its people, and by extension its elected representatives.
"This guiding principle seems to have been lost following the defeat of the 15 per cent compromise.”
WAFarmers chief executive officer Stephen Brown said industry was desperate for a solution.
“WAFarmers, alongside the National Farmers’ Federation, stands by our support for the Coalition’s recent 15pc compromise on the backpacker tax as we believe it is a fair, reasonable and competitive figure,” he said.
“We are furious that this has not been resolved, when it is so clearly a time-sensitive issue of critical importance to the future of multiple industries.
“This additional delay demonstrates further contempt for the agricultural industry.”