Millewa farmers Ron Hards, left, and Ian Arney give Victorian Nationals Peter Walsh a first hand view of the state of the drought stricken region during a visit in late August.

VICTORIAN Nationals leader Peter Walsh has called on the State Government to consider extending the implementation period for the new Labour Hire Laws which came into force in April.

As it currently stands, contractors have until the end of October to register.

“There are over 15,000 people needed to pick the fruit crops up there this year, and the labour hire legislation comes into place in two weeks time, but as of October 9, only 74 labour hire businesses are licensed in full, and 62 have provisional licences, so less than 10 percent of the estimated labour hire businesses in Victoria are licensed,” Mr Walsh said.

“Of those 136, the bulk, are for white-collar and non-farm labour hire – for IT, for security, for logistics, for engineering, for teaching and for medical.”

During a visit to Mildura today (October 24), Mr Walsh repeated his call for this issue to be addressed.

“Last week in Parliament I raised the issue that I would like to see the transition period extended for contractors so that we can actually get through this year’s harvest,” he said.  

“There are little more than 130 businesses that have registered currently, and about half of those are only provisional registrations, and they are nearly all in white-collar industries.

“Very few agricultural businesses have been registered, and so I am continually fielding calls from horticulture growers in my electorate who are very stressed, not only about the high water prices, but now equally as stressed about the fact that they can’t get labour.

“The transition period was a relatively short implementation period for such a substantial change so I asked that they extend the implementation beyond this year’s harvest, just to give people a chance.”  

Mr Walsh visited the Millewa in late August to meet with farmers and their families, and he said he is still perplexed by the State Government’s response to the issues facing that farming community.

“As I said at the time, I think Daniel Andrews’ response to the plight of the Millewa farmers was underwhelming,” he said.

“It was very disappointing that he didn’t listen to the farmers, listen to the VFF and everyone who was saying it – do rate relief – for both fixed charges, for water and for Shire rates, and for some reason he has just given the money to Councils. 

“I think he should have made the decision to do that as a State Government, as was done in 2008-2009. It’s relatively easy to administer – it’s easy for treasury to budget for, because you know what the rate revenue of a particular area is, and you know what the fixed water charges are. I don’t know why he is being so pig-headed in refusing to do it.”

Mr Walsh said the reality is the Premier has kicked the can down the road, and has made Councils make the decisions.

“It’s not Council’s responsibility, it’s the State Government’s responsibility to step in on these things,” he said.

“The other concern discussed when I was in the Millewa, was the issue of farmers receiving some form of assistance to plant next year’s crop.

“A lot of the farmers out there are up to their equity limits with the banks and they need to make sure that when it rains, and we assume it will next year, that they have the correct inputs to go into maximising their opportunity for a good crop.”

Mr Walsh also spoke about water, saying that the Federal Government needed to look at the rules around the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH).

“They could consider putting some ‘triggers’ into the Water Act that would potentially see that when you get to a certain point, the CEWH water could be made available to the market,” he said. 

“There is a win-win opportunity there, because while prices are high, the CEWH would get that income and they could spend that on environmental projects, which would benefit the environment long-term.

“I think there would be a win-win for the environment and for agriculture if the Government  actually went back and examined the rules around the CEWH and trading some of that water.”

The Nationals toured Lake Buffalo this week with their Federal leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, to discuss options for the expansion of the dam’s capacity, something Mr Walsh and Shadow Minister for Water, Steph Ryan, are proponents of.

“Lake Buffalo currently stores 26,000 megalitres, and since the mid-1960s, it has been on the books to expand its capacity and it can be built to take one million megalitres of water,” Mr Walsh said.

“Goulburn Murray Water own all of the land to do that, and it has previously been leased to HVP (Hancock Victorian Plantations) to grow pine trees, so there are no issues around land. 

“The design for the bigger dam exists, and the issue that should seriously be investigated is building a pipeline from there to Lake Nillahcootie, a small storage on the Broken River which runs into the Goulburn River near Shepparton, and that would get water around the Barmah Choke.

“We also want them to investigate the possibility of generating hydro-electricity as you take that water across. 

“Building ‘Big Buffalo’ would give South Australia the storage capacity it needs to reduce its reliance on Lake Victoria. It would also result in substantial water savings by reducing water loss from evaporation.”