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Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has defended the Government's lack of action on backpacker taxes in the 2016 budget, echoing the Treasurer's comments that the Government would have more to say soon.
There are strong indications the Government is considering delaying the introduction of its controversial backpacker tax hikes, following sustained pressure from the tourism and agricultural sectors.
With an election looming and anger over the backpacker tax running hot in rural communities across the country, Mr Joyce rejected suggestions his Government was playing politics with farmers' livelihoods by delaying the announcement of its intentions.
"I know that people want a discussion on the backpacker tax and nothing else," he said.
"I can assure you that we are negotiating a solution there, and there is more to be said in the coming period, I'd say in the immediate coming period, and no I'm not going to be announcing what that solution is today," he told ABC Rural in his first interview following the 2016 budget.
Backpacker tax not ruled out by Labor
While Labor has criticised the Government for failing to consult the agriculture sector before announcing its backpacker tax plans, Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon would not rule out implementing the changes himself.
"We're not going to be making promises the morning after the budget when we haven't seen the detail," he said.
"We'd sit down with the sector. The sector's demonstrated a capacity to have the conversation.
"It says there are better ways of doing this so of course in government we will sit down with them and work through the issues."
Mr Fitzgibbon said he saw the capacity for broader visa reforms, and said he favoured the idea of a specific visa class for agricultural workers.
In the 2015 budget, the Coalition announced its plan to scrap the tax-free threshold for backpackers, and to tax them at 32.5 per cent from their first dollar earned, from July 1 this year.
It was proposed to save the Commonwealth $540 million over four years through the changes.
Backpackers make up about a quarter of the national agricultural workforce, and up to 85 per cent of farm labourers in the Northern Territory.
Farmers say the changes will deter travellers from coming to Australia, and make it impossible for them to find the workers they need.
Duelling commitments on inland rail
The national farm lobby was disappointed the budget did not allocate more to build and upgrade an inland freight rail network from Melbourne to Brisbane.
While the Government announced an extra $594 million for the project, that money would be used for research and to acquire land, and not to build or improve track, and that is likely to disappoint farm groups.
Mr Joyce scoffed at suggestions his Government was not committed to building the project.
"We've put already on the table $300 million, now we've got close to an extra $600 million to continue on with the process," Mr Joyce said.
"We'll be buying the corridor, we're progressing the process of making sure that we have the capacity to deliver this.
"These will be real assets sitting on the balance sheet, tangible things that you can go out and touch and say, that is part of the inland rail process.
"If you're going to make close to a billion dollar investment, believe you me, you're building it. This is for real, it's actually happening."
Mr Fitzgibbon said Labor had been committed to the inland rail project, and remained so.
"We funded it far more generously when we were last in government and we'll continue to support it in government again," he said.
Dam loans will deliver: Joyce
The budget included a program to offer up to $2 billion in concessional loans to state and territory governments, to help them build major water infrastructure projects such as dams and pipelines.
The announcement comes days after the National Audit Office issued a scathing report of two Commonwealth concessional farm loans programs, implemented by Labor and the Coalition, which the auditors found were poorly planned and badly managed.
The $2 billion National Water Infrastructure Loan Facility is in addition to the existing $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility loans program, which has faced criticism for being overly bureaucratic and impossible for the private sector to access.
Mr Joyce would not directly answer how he would ensure the new water loans would not face the same criticisms, but said the Government "will address the issues, as we should, in [the audit] report".
"If the criticism is that you had this money for water infrastructure, and oh my gosh, you loaned it all out and we've got all these dams around the country, I will accept that criticism," he said.
This article first appeared on www.abc.net.au
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