Wine crisis talks plea

Warren HatelyAugusta Margaret River Times
Nigel Gallop with good mate Hugo.
Camera IconNigel Gallop with good mate Hugo. Credit: Freedom Garvey

Margaret River wine industry veteran Nigel Gallop says all parties must come together in a round table forum well before the start of next year’s vintage to avoid a repeat of the problems which have plagued 2021.

The Fraser-Gallop Estate owner and former Margaret River Wine Association president said the housing crisis and a shortage of backpacker workers were the two greatest challenges this year.

But vintage 2021 was also hampered by confusion around WA’s hard borders, Chinese trade tariffs on Australian wine, no breakthroughs in emergency housing measures, changing tourism fortunes for cellar doors, and the latest difficulties bringing in workers from the Pacific Islands.

Mr Gallop proposed a similar round table early last year to address working conditions for backpackers, but was critical that pay rates were never resolved.

While COVID-19 solved some of those challenges — in-demand workers this year received boosted hourly wages rather than bucket rates — he said the last forum fell flat and MRWA had to show leadership.

Mr Gallop said accommodation providers, caravan parks, labour hire companies, business experts and wineries all needed to thrash out a response to avoid another year in which vineyards scrambled for labourers and places to house them — often relying on friends, families and almost anyone for help, and using machine picking more than any past vintage.

Caravan parks were focused on protecting their bottom lines and the Shire of Augusta-Margaret River had to “grasp the nettle” and address years of industry calls for budget accommodation permissions.

“It’s the planning hurdles that stop the industry,” he said.

“They just say planning (restrictions) preclude them doing anything.”

Shire of Augusta-Margaret River chief executive Stephanie Addison-Brown said past consultation had led to “considerable scope” for tourism and worker lodging.

“Changes to specifically provide flexibility for workers’ accommodation were an outcome of this previous consultation,” she said.

“Uptake of the opportunities currently available has been low.”

Looming consultation on a new local planning scheme also offered “a unique chance” to make sure planning rules met industry needs.

MRWA chief executive Amanda Whiteland pointed to the joint campaign with the Shire, City of Busselton and others to free up available housing.

Although the State Government didn’t bite, efforts to extend temporary housing subsidies to vineyard and hospitality workers was part of longer-term work to support the sector, Ms Whiteland said.

Busselton Mayor Grant Henley said there could be benefits to a forum looking at housing supply issues.

Labour Solutions general manager David Cooper said “finding solutions” was crucial, and the State Government could offer more direct help.

The wine sector was caught in “a chicken and egg situation” between lack of housing and workers.

In February, Mr Gallop said the region could not accommodate the vintage workforce if it was at full strength due to the housing crisis.

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