Riverina farmers have slammed politicians of all stripes for playing games with their livelihoods, as debate over the backpacker tax drags on for another week.
Eighteen months ago the government ditched the $18,200 tax-free threshold for foreign workers under 30 and introduced a 32.5¢ (32.5 per cent) tax from the first dollar they earn in Australia effective from January 1.
After farmers revolted, the government tried in vain to lower its 32.5 per cent tax rate to 19 per cent, but the opposition is causing legislative gridlock by demanding 10.5 per cent.
Now the government is scrambling to hash out a resolution before parliament finishes for the year at the end of next week.
Lake Wyangan – eight kilometres north of Griffith – citrus fruit grower and packer Sue Brighenti has demanded Canberra find a solution or growers will be left carrying the can.
“We use 30 or 40 backpackers in the pack-house and will need them to process Valencias (oranges) from about now up until April,” Ms Brighenti said.
“They're educated, literate, their numeracy's good, they follow OH&S and most importantly they’re willing to turn up.
“There’s a lot of drudgery sorting oranges, so locals aren’t willing to do it.
“I’m hearing from people with stonefruit and apples who are telling me they’re already noticing less backpackers are turning up.”
Ms Brighenti said both major political parties should wear the blame and warned brinkmanship could damage farming businesses for years to come.
“Eighteen months ago the government lumped us with the 32.5 per cent tax without any consultation with industry,” she said.
“Now Labor, who didn't want to know us before the election, have jumped on the bandwagon to jam the government at our expense.
“Farmers don’t care if the tax is anywhere between 10 per cent and 19 per cent, we’d still be competitive with New Zealand and Canada, but we need certainty.”
Riverina MP and small business minister Michael McCormack said Labor was betraying it’s claim to be the “party for Australian workers”.
“We know if the backpackers aren’t there, fruit will be left to rot on the ground and farmers will be left high and dry,” Mr McCormack said.
“Backpackers would quite rightly wonder why they have to pay 32.5 per cent tax, when they want to come here and work very hard.
“This is going to filter right throughout the regional economy.
“We have brought about a resolution which is fair – 19 per cent – that is equitable with Australian workers.
“We have a week of parliament to go and hopefully it will be resolved.”