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Backpacker tax debate 'a debacle' for Australia

WORKFORCE: While the debate about the rate of backpacker tax rages on in Federal Parliament, the true damage done to industries such as mango farming may be felt for years to come.
WORKFORCE: While the debate about the rate of backpacker tax rages on in Federal Parliament, the true damage done to industries such as mango farming may be felt for years to come. Mark Wilton

NO MATTER what happens in Federal Parliament this week in regards to the backpacker tax debate, or probably more appropriately "debacle", the damage may well have already been done to Australia's reputation.

Despite repeated calls from farmers and tourism operators to "just make a decision", all sectors of parliament seem hell-bent on making the issue their own personal political footballs to be punted from one end of the spectrum to the other.

For more than a year the debate has raged about the level of tax backpackers should pay on their earnings while on working holiday in Australia.

The Coalition, without consultation, initially announced a flat-rate of tax of 32.5% would be placed on backpackers from the first dollar earned.

Once industries such as farming became aware of the new regime, they rightly pushed for a compromise.

The 32.5% rate would have made it extremely hard to entice backpackers to Australia when compared to similar destinations such as New Zealand and Canada.

Until recently, farming groups seemed happy with the compromise rate of 19% proposed by the government. And in fact they still, in the main, seem happy for that to be the rate.

However, people such as the NT Minister for Primary Industry Ken Vowles has maintained he would only be happy with the rate being scrapped completely.

Then up steps Tasmanian Independent Senator Jacqui Lambie, who advocated for a 10% rate and won an amendment vote in parliament last week with the support of Federal Labor.

The Lower House led Coalition quickly rejected the amendment and the stalemate continued.

That's the skinny on the issue and hopefully it is resolved this week.

But, what damage has already been done?

Apart from the obvious, where a number of NT growers have literally lost thousands of dollars because they have not been able to find the labour to pick their fruit, there is an underlying issue that I doubt many politicians have turned their thoughts to.

And that is the social and cultural reputation of the "easy-going, lucky country" that is falling by the wayside while the debate continues.

The amount of tax paid by backpackers is of far less value to Australia than the goodwill and happy memories of travelling to our "fair" country and having the one time experience of their lives that we can provide Down Under.

Speaking to Australians who work full-time on farms, there is no angst over the tax rate paid by backpackers.

Rather they have told me that their lives are much more enriched through the experience of working with a diverse group of people from all parts of the world.

One Australian who worked on banana farms in Far North Queensland said that getting to know so many people from the other side of the world was an invaluable experience.

In fact, she is still in contact with many of her ex-farm backpacker colleagues a few years later through social media. Those friends are now at home in various countries across the world, including Japan, China and the UK.

The conversations between them all are the same as people who interact on Facebook from state to state and suburb to suburb.

Happy birthday wishes, "how are you" call outs and "I loved my time there" when a familiar photo is posted are all commonplace.

This is a scenario repeated thousands, possibly millions of times, across the country, where backpacker labour is needed to do jobs that many Australians seemed to give up on many years ago.

Backpackers in their thousands return to countries all over the world from Australia on an annual basis and quickly spread the word about the wonderful time they had here.

That word of mouth endorsement would carry much more weight than any slick advertising campaign a government could concoct.

Especially when you consider the backpacker will invariably only head off on such an adventure "once" in their lifetime.

So, if they are told that Canada was wonderful or New Zealand was great, who really misses out ... that's right, Australia! Because why would they come here if no one else is telling them how great it is?

And what is the true impost backpackers place on the Australian economy?

Their impact on the health system is minimal and they pay for the use of roads through the fuel excise.

And let's not forget that there are not many backpackers who go home with a fist full of cash after travelling around our great country.

In the main everything that these young adventurers earn is spent right here.

Topics:  backpacker tax federal parliament



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