Farmers want Australia-China barley trade dispute ‘kicked off’ to World Trade Organization, NFF says

The National Farmers’ Federation says it will support the Federal Government if it decides to appeal to the World Trade Organization (WTO) over China’s decision to impose hefty tariffs on barley.

In a statement to Parliament, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said the Government was “considering all dispute settlement options” in order to help exporters who have been crippled by tariffs.

As well as barley, Australian wine has also recently been stung with tariffs of up to 200 per cent as part of a Chinese investigation into wine dumping, accusing producers of selling wine for below the cost of production.

Senator Birmingham again said the government had raised concerns about the investigation and the tariffs on both commodities, that they were inconsistent with the WTO’s rules and the free trade agreement it signed with China, known as ChAFTA.

“The government continues to work closely with our exporters in an effort to retain preferential market access into China and raise issues of apparent discriminatory actions targeted against Australia,” he said.

“Australia has raised these concerns with Chinese officials on multiple occasions in Canberra and Beijing and has asked the Chinese government to engage on these matters at officials’ and ministerial levels.

Australia’s barley farmers fell victim to trade tensions with China, after it announced major tariffs.(Tara De Landgrafft)

“The Chinese government has consistently spoken about its commitment to open trade and the multilateral trading system as well as to its free trade agreements, including ChAFTA.

“All WTO members are expected to conduct their trading relationships in a manner consistent with their international obligations.”

National Farmers’ Federation president Fiona Simson has thrown her support behind an Australian appeal to the WTO, over China’s decision to impose hefty tariffs on barley.

“Absolutely, we depend on playing by the rules, we have to support that,” Ms Simson said.

Fiona Simpson stands in a paddock.
National Farmers’ Federation president Fiona Simson says farmers want the government to establish new trade markets.(Supplied: National Farmers’ Federation)

Senator Birmingham has previously said he expected Australia could launch a formal appeal at the WTO, having exhausted China’s domestic appeals process.

If Australia does escalate the dispute, it would be the first time Australia has referred China to the independent umpire over an agricultural trade since signing ChAFTA in 2015, and could be considered a precedent for a similar dispute over tariffs on Australian wine.

Ms Simson said the National Farmers Federation had been speaking with the Government about opening trade to new markets.

“Government can always do more, we always want more markets,” she said.

Senator Birmingham said progress was being made on establishing new trade partnerships, including through the recent Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement — the largest trade deal in the world.

But he also said even with new agreements, China was still Australia’s largest trading partner and the relationship between the two countries was also affected by China’s “growing economic and strategic weight in the global context”.

“We make no secret that this competition is creating new dilemmas for us and the rest of the global community,” Senator Birmingham said.

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NFF appeals to Federal Government to bring back backpackers, Working Holiday Maker program

Farmers and tourism operators have written to the Federal Government pleading for backpackers to be allowed into Australia to harvest crops, care for children and travel.

It comes as department officials struggle to pinpoint labour shortages this summer and almost 30,000 Australians who are stranded overseas cannot get home.

The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) has teamed up with Backpacker Youth Tourism Advisory Panel (BYTAP) to call for an urgent re-start to the Working Holiday Maker program.

The number of backpackers in Australia has halved since international borders closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 earlier this year, creating a potential shortfall of more than 20,000 working holiday-makers.

In an appeal sent to about 30 federal politicians, the NFF and the advisory panel argued backpackers should be permitted to enter Australia under a COVID-safe plan to work as au pairs and harvest labourers, and to travel to boost the struggling tourism industry.

Covid-19 restrictions mean there are fewer backpackers in Australia to harvest crops this year.(ABC Rural: Jon Daly)

NFF chief executive Tony Mahar said backpackers typically made up 80 per cent of farm labour.

“A recent report detailed that without access to working holiday-makers, the fresh fruit and vegetable industry may suffer a $6.3 billion reduction in value and the cost of produce could increase by 60 per cent,” he said.

Backpacker Youth Tourism Advisory Panel spokeswoman Wendi Aylward said backpackers contributed $3.2 billion to the economy each year.

“[That’s] compared to $687 per trip that Australians spend domestically and $474 spent by Australian youth domestically.”

Shortfall of ‘26,000 workers’

As revealed by the ABC in August, the industry groups have been working on the proposal for some months and want backpackers from countries with low COVID-19 infection rates, under a strict testing regime, to be allowed to enter and quarantine in Australia before commencing work or travel.

Under its pilot proposal, the NFF and the advisory panel want visa fees to subsidise the cost of COVID-19 testing, and they have called for the Federal Government to consider offsetting the costs of quarantine with the 15 per cent backpacker tax or superannuation earned by working holiday-makers.

A recent report commissioned by Hort Innovation estimated the industry would fall short of 26,000 workers this summer.

A drone photo of carrots being harvested.
The NFF says backpackers make up 80 per cent of the country’s farm labour.(ABC Open: Genevieve Windley)

But under questioning at a Senate estimates hearing in Canberra on Wednesday, Department of Agriculture officials struggled to confirm the shortfall when asked if the 26,000 figure was “accurate”.

Department Secretary Andrew Metcalfe told the committee he had not read the report prepared by his former employer Ernst and Young, for the horticulture industry.

A written statement was later provided to the hearing.

It said government analysts at the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARES) had undertaken work to determine the labour shortage, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Labour use remains high in March and April before falling back to around 310,000 in May .

Farm work
Backpackers are relied on for seasonal picking work in regional Australia.(ABC Rural: Charlie McKillop)

“ABARES analysis shows that between September and February the use of overseas workers in agriculture increases by around 20,000.

“The extent that we don’t have overseas workers coming into Australia to meet this demand, this could represent the gap.”

Australia’s unemployment rate is expected to reach its highest level in decades,

Under the NFF’s proposal, all farm jobs would be subject to market testing.

In July, the Government approved plans to allow people from Pacific nations to enter Australia to work on farms.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud expects up to 4,000 workers could arrive under the Seasonal Worker Trial this year.

So far, just 300 workers have arrived from Vanuatu to pick mangoes in the Northern Territory.

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