Details of new agriculture visa still thin on the ground but industry remains hopeful of meaningful change

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It can take a meat worker almost 15 minutes to produce one steak from a carcass. 

For one of Australia's largest beef companies, that means hiring almost one worker for every animal that is processed.

In other words, it's labour intensive.

While plenty of Australians like eating meat, it seems there are not enough Aussies who enjoy processing it, and it has become an industry highly reliant on migrant workers.

That's why meat processors, such as farmers, have this week welcomed more detail about the federal government's plan to establish a new visa to permit more foreign workers into Australia.

The agriculture visa is intended to create an opportunity for workers in farming, fisheries, forestry and meat processing to take up skilled and un-skilled jobs that can't be filled domestically.

The government says it will consider making the new visa a pathway to permanent residency, but that's no guarantee.

There's also no guarantee there'll be any workers to take up the visa given, so far, no countries have signed up to the program.

The government is set to hold bilateral talks with countries that might be involved and find out what they might expect of the visa in return.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has previously suggested the UK – which recently withdrew a 10,000 backpacker per-year workforce as part of trade negotiations — and ASEAN nations as targets for the visa.

Grain growers, desperate for workers that can operate specialist machinery, hope North American and European countries will also agree.

These negotiations will determine much about how the visa will work.

Flight caps next major hurdle

Once that's nutted out, the success of the visa will all depend on the ability of workers to access flights.

Under current flight caps, just 3,000 people are allowed into Australia each week.

Don't forget there are Australians who can't get home – tens of thousands of them.

Assuming the flight issue can be overcome, quarantine is an almost insurmountable hurdle in Australia right now.

Like a good steak, it is expensive and it's rare.

According to Victorian Premier Dan Andrews, Mr Littleproud is living in a fantasy if he thinks there's enough quarantine places for people to come into his state on the agriculture visa.

While Mr Littleproud might take comfort that Mr Andrews actually believes there'll be workers on the visa knocking on the door soon, the Queenslander was quick to point out that the Premier currently has his hands full confirming quarantine for Pacific Island workers, already approved for work in Victoria.

There's no shortage of tit-for-tat.

The quarantine of ag workers is one in a long line of battlefronts between the states and the Commonwealth over its handling of the pandemic.

It may have been lost in some reporting of this week's announcement but it's  important to note the "full conditions [of the agriculture visa] will be developed and implemented over the next three years as the visa is operationalised".

And yes, only the government would use a word like "operationalise".

More unknowns than knowns

So, what do we know about the visa? It'll be operated and overseen by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

But what's still unknown is how closely the new visa could resemble existing Pacific labour programs, or what safeguards will be put in place to ensure it doesn't undermine those programs.

The ag visa was announced in a statement co-signed by Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Mr Littleproud.

It was Mr Littleproud who was out selling the visa this week.

The Nationals deputy leader says by initially using a subsection of the pre-existing 403 visa, foreigners could have their boots on the ground after September 30, although he "is cautious not to put an exact date when we'll see the first workers".

He also won't put a number on how many workers are expected to take up the visa, opting for a "demand-driven approach".

Again, it is unclear how that will be measured.

One farm industry insider suggested it could be hundreds, not thousands, of foreign workers that arrive in the months before Christmas.

It's difficult to know how optimistic that is, but the horticulture sector alone says it needs more than 20,000 additional workers for this summer's harvest.

There are more questions to be answered about the portability of workers if and when they arrive, and the Opposition is seeking assurances that workers from overseas won't be exploited.

But for now, the development of the agriculture visa is a big win for the Nationals.

Farmers have been calling for it since 2016 and Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he supported it in 2018, long before COVID-19 closed borders and ramped up the pressure on the farm workforce.

Some Liberals had managed to keep the handbrake on, and farmers had almost given up on the prospect of a new visa, when Mr Littleproud seized an opportunity on the sidelines of the UK trade deal, just days before Michael McCormack was sacked as Nationals leader earlier this year.

While welcome, at the time National Farmers' Federation president Fiona Simson said she'd believe the new agriculture visa when she sees it.

This week, she believed it.

For those prepared to look beyond the next harvest and beyond the pandemic, there is the possibility that the agriculture visa could provide real, meaningful change across the farm sector.

There's a lot of steak to hit the plate before that happens.

By national rural reporter Kath Sullivan (Original ABC Article)