Sydney-based backbencher and former professional tennis player John Alexander today voiced his proposal before a parliamentary inquiry set up in the wake of Australia closing its borders.
The move slashed the number of backpackers on Working Holiday Maker visas – who form a significant part of the agricultural workforce – from 150,000 to 73,000 last month.
Alexander said that farmers were now desperate for labour to harvest fruit and vegetable crops and that rules for obtaining and continuing to receive JobSeeker benefits needed to be tightened in response.
“We need some more teeth,” he said.
“While we can’t probably go to conscription, can we apply a little more heat and pressure and do it urgently, because the crops won’t wait.”
Earlier, Alexander raised the idea of physical examinations similar to military conscription for people out of work.
He later proposed a compulsory questionnaire about farm labour for all JobSeeker recipients, who would have their dole cut off if they refused to complete the form.
“The question should be asked, ‘if not, why not?’ If somebody is saying ‘oh no I don’t want to do that’ because they’re just happy sitting on the couch and taking the dole,” Alexander said.
“What more pressure could be applied to somebody who’s a little bit marginal?
“It needs to be done as if we’re in a war situation. It needs to be mobilised very quickly.”
Unemployment figures for August showed Australia’s unemployment rate at 6.8 per cent, with more than a million people jobless. That was down from the 22-year high of 7.5 per cent in July, but well above the 5.1 per cent rate seen in February when the pandemic first hit.
It has been claimed that there are 12 unemployed people for every available job in Melbourne and Sydney, while Labor has claimed the SA figure is higher.
Both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg have said the effective unemployment rate is significantly higher than the official figures.
The government has now reimposed mutual obligation rules, frozen for six months after pandemic restrictions wreaked havoc on jobs and the economy, to require JobSeeker recipients to apply for eight jobs a fortnight or risk payments being cut off.
Meanwhile, Treasury has forecast that up to 400,000 more Australian workers will become jobless by Christmas due to changes to JobKeeper which came into effect on Monday.
Businesses on the scheme have to requalify to continue receiving the payments to keep workers on the payroll, while payments for full-time workers was cut from $1500 to $1200 per fortnight, while payments for part-time staff working fewer than 20 hours a week was halved to $600 per fortnight.
Payments will be cut again in January and are set to be axed in March.
Last week, the government cut the JobSeeker coronavirus supplement by $300 a fortnight, reducing the benefit to an average $58 per day compared with the $40 a day poverty-level pre-pandemic payment of $550 a fortnight.
The supplementary income will be further wound down, but the Morrison government has not yet announced what the permanent JobSeeker rate will be.
National Employment Services Association chief executive Sally Sinclair told the parliamentary inquiry today that a questionnaire about willingness to work on farms could be included in the mygov online platform used to access government services.
She said a greater awareness of harvest trail opportunities along with flexible incentive schemes would be important to filling agriculture positions.
“We need to look at how to provide the appropriate incentives and the leverage to get people from those urban areas into agricultural sectors,” Sinclair said.
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