Australia missed an opportunity to reaffirm its trade commitments to Indonesia as COVID-19 hit.
Last month, Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan announced that her department was working with the federal government to bring workers from Vanuatu to provide labour throughout Western Australia’s farming regions.
The minister’s action may be a little too late, however, as many of WA’s 800 vegetable growers start to plough-in crops that cannot be harvested (or simply defer future plantings) as the supply of overseas backpackers dries up completely due to COVID-19 border restrictions.
In fairness, Ms MacTiernan is required to facilitate any additional workers through her colleagues in Canberra, as it is the federal government that authorises any labour from overseas to work in Australia.
Since 2008, when Australia launched the Seasonal Worker Program, workers from the smaller Pacific countries, and also Timor-Leste, were among those to assist Australian growers and farmers each year during harvest.
Despite this program, WA producers have also relied on overseas backpackers, who can spend up to two years in Australia under a special 417 Holiday Work visa.
It was therefore not surprising that the closure of international borders due to COVID-19 would cut off WA’s supply of holiday backpackers and seasonal workers, leaving growers and farmers in a potentially desperate situation.
The state’s leading horticulture association, vegetablesWA, was quick to highlight this looming crisis, but governments in both WA and Canberra were unable to respond rapidly to the deteriorating situation.
As Australia entered widespread lockdown, an opportunity was missed with regard to the nearby island of Bali.
Bali was being devastated economically by the indirect impact of COVID-19 as annual tourist numbers – including 1.24 million Australians – plunged.
At this time, however, Bali was almost free of COVID-19, recording fewer than 150 cases in total and only two deaths in the early months of the virus.
WA has had a 30-year sister-state relationship with the province of East Java, located next door to Bali, and is the only Australian state to have a minister for Asian engagement.
So it should have been relatively simple for the government to demonstrate our longstanding loyalty to our Indonesian, and Balinese, friends during this difficult time by fast-tracking virus-free agriculture workers to come to WA; not only to provide the labour we desperately needed, but also to help their families and community financially.
Some years ago, the WA potato industry facilitated the recruitment of Indonesian potato growers for training purposes in the Pemberton region.
The program was successful in providing skills training for the workers while providing much-needed labour support for the growers.
So this type of scheme works.
Unfortunately, the opportunity to engage with Bali was lost, as the federal Seasonal Worker Program excludes workers from Indonesia, including Bali.
Therefore, despite ongoing pleas for help, the federal government ignored the emerging crises in our agriculture sector, while only three hours north of Perth, thousands of trained and healthy workers in Bali were put out of work with no government safety net to support their families.
In recent weeks, the shortage of farm workers in WA has become so acute, the agriculture industry is now seeing cafe and restaurant owners ‘poaching’ the remaining foreign backpackers (who would normally work picking fruit and vegetables) to resolve their own staff shortages within the hospitality sector.
This COVID-19-induced challenge for our state presented a golden opportunity for us to not only act decently, and with kindness, towards our Balinese neighbours to ease the severe economic plight they were facing, but to also build enormous political capital throughout Indonesia and the region.
As we approach Christmas, WA consumers will see shortages of fresh food along with significantly higher prices as more fruit and vegetables are dumped or not even grown, despite the much welcomed arrival of workers from Vanuatu in the next two weeks.
We will also have lost an enormous opportunity to build goodwill in our region by reaching out to the people who live on the island home to our north, which is visited by 400,000 Western Australians each year.
Meanwhile, the minister (Peter Dutton) and his team within the huge Department of Home Affairs should expand the Seasonal Worker Program to include Indonesian – and more specifically Balinese – labour, once COVID-19 is under control or has past.
This would be consistent with the recently signed Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, and the prime minister’s rhetoric as to the importance of the Indonesia relationship.
Ross B Taylor is the president of the Perth-based Indonesia Institute and a former senior executive with the WA horticulture industry