Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Opposition Whip) (09:54): It has often been said that Australia once rode on the sheep’s back. It is no longer the case. There was a time when Australia had 170 million merino sheep. We now have 70 million. I make the point on merino sheep because they are wool producing sheep, of some of the finest wool in the world. I’m concerned at the number of farmers and pasturers that are actually abandoning the merino industry, getting rid of their wool producers and putting in meat producing sheep, largely dorper flocks. One might ask why; wool prices are historically good, and it’s a wonderful fibre. I wear wool suits myself. They wear well, they pack well, and they don’t crease too much. We should all be wearing wool. It’s simply the lack of shearers. Farmers are getting out of the sheep industry because they can’t get shearers at the critical times of the year. It’s just another one of those tough physical jobs that modern Australians have lost enthusiasm for. It’s tough work, but it doesn’t pay too bad. The award rate for shearing a sheep is $3.31. Most shearers are earning well over $4, and some are earning $5 to $6, simply because of the shortage. That is $5 to $6 a sheep. A good shearer should shear 800 to maybe 1,200 sheep a week, depending on the weather conditions. So it’s pretty good money. I’ve spoken to the Australian wool industry, to the Shearing Contractors’ Association of Australia and WoolProducers Australia. They are all concerned that, if Australia cannot keep its merino numbers up, we will reach a tipping point where the great mills of the world in Italy and China and whatever turn over to synthetic or other fabrics and we become more of a cottage industry. It’s very important for us that we do not allow this to happen.
We had been filling up the shearing shortage in Australia largely with Kiwi shearers because, of course, we have easy come-and-go with New Zealand and they have a background in shearing sheep. Historically, they came here because the rates were better than in New Zealand. But they’ve increased their rates there recently, and the advent of COVID stopped the free flow of people across the Tasman. It really has put a bomb in the industry. We’re finding it difficult to attract enough numbers of Kiwis back here. We have shearers from all over the world. There are many countries that shear sheep. There was a program that AWI was working on with Pacific workers. I doubted that it would work because it was asking people to shear sheep when they had never seen one before. It just doesn’t quite gel. What we need to do, I believe, is open up a special visa class to bring in specialist teams of shearers in the busy times of the year. That’s what I’ve been talking to those industry leaders about. There are good shearers in France, South Africa, Uruguay and Chile. We need to find a way for them to come and go. Backpackers can do it, but they’re limited to an age of 30. So I’m hoping to be able to work with the industry to develop policy that we can actually take to the government or implement ourselves.