And now it’s more than a bunch of grapes



UPDATE December 10, 00:21am: A JobSeeker saying “no” to a job offer.

When it comes to hardy perennials in Central Australian journalism, right now is the time for a yarn about lucrative table grapes being picked near Alice Springs, in time for the nation’s Christmas tables.

Elsewhere the harvest is still a few weeks off.

Picking teams are travelling in from the Riverland, thousands of kilometres away, because the Alice Springs locals don’t want to do this type of work. Wow. It is what it is.

Or is it? If you think unemployed people declining jobs may well lose their benefits you’re pretty close to the mark.

This is how the media people at the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment explain it: “As a condition of receiving unemployment related income support payments, such as JobSeeker Payment, most recipients must actively look for work and be prepared to accept any offer of suitable employment.

“This includes any work that the person can do, not just work a job seeker prefers.

“Job seekers who refuse an offer of suitable employment without a reasonable excuse may face financial penalties, including loss of their income support payment for a specified period of time,” says the department.

“The penalty which applies depends on whether the person is subject to the Job Seeker Compliance Framework (which applies in the Community Development Program or CDP that operates in remote Australia), or the Targeted Compliance Framework (which operates in other employment services).

“Under the Targeted Compliance Framework, job seekers who refuse suitable work may have their income support cancelled and be ineligible to receive further payments for four weeks.

“Information on penalties under the Job Seeker Compliance Framework for job seekers in CDP in remote Australia should be directed to the National Indigenous Australians Agency.”

That of course begs the question, how come, year after year, such clear and reasonable rules are not turned into practice? How come locals are getting Job Seeker – or the dole –while fruit picking labour is being imported?

Soon the narrative trails off into the wide blue sky and so on …

Except this year a back story or two are elbowing their way to the front of the readers’ attention: Why, they ask, will several tonnes of grapes near TiTree be buried because there are not enough pickers? Just some 70 are needed?

Not a single one of the 400-odd locals were prepared to lend a hand, nor did any of them apparently want to make $200 a day.

Why do people get the dole when they are making no practical contribution to the broad society, some locals may be asking.

At the same time private enterprise and governments are funnelling cash into the TiTree area for agricultural experiments.

Janet and Roy Chisholm, of Napperby, a pastoral family with generations in that area north of Alice Springs, moved some of their operations closer to the Stuart Highway. They are experimenting with crops ranging from almonds to mung beans.

They are growing Rhodes horse fodder under vast circular sprinklers that in daylight are entirely driven by solar power.

Ah, solar. Stand by for more. That’s where the story streams dove-tail. Uncluttered land, lots of sun and the voracious appetite for our products from neighbours are pointing towards an unexpected but hugely promising future.

SunCable to Singapore, anyone?

The often yawn-inducing wide open spaces are taking on a new meaning. Are we on track to replace the Arabs’ grubby oil with our pure sunshine?

Says the nation’s leading thinker on climate and energy, Ross Garnaut, whose latest book is called Superpower, some of it is set in The Centre: “The fog of Australian politics on climate change has obscured a fateful reality: Australia has the potential to be an economic superpower of the future post-carbon world.”

At Rocky Hill vineyard south-east of Alice Springs Ritchie Hayes is harvesting a bumper crop of table grapes.

He is again employing a team of some 60 from the Riverland and has toyed with the idea of getting some Pacific Islanders.

Mr Hayes is happy with the way the work is going. It needs to be fast and precise.

The grapes come out of his vineyard pretty well exactly as the Sydney shopper will encounter them on the shelf: Neatly cut and packed into a box.

Would it be worth training locals in the art of grape-picking?

Maybe not, says Mr Hayes. He engages a small team of Alice Springs prisoners to fold the tops of cardboard boxes.

When the colour of the lids was changed from red to green the workers had to be retrained. True story.

We asked Warren Snowdon (Lingiari, Labor) and Senator Sam MacMahon (CLP) if they had any thoughts about the grape industry in The Centre. They didn’t reply.





  1. Wow, so people on job seeker simply refused to work picking grapes? Was transportation part of the problem? I.e. some people couldn’t get to the harvest fields or were there other issues like accomodation or the fields are too far from the comforts of town?
    I work in an office and don’t go looking for work because obviously I am already employed, but for $200 a day I would be keen to take a week’s worth of leave and spend some time outdoors.
    Is the job advertised on any particular website? The dry heat doesn’t bother me and as long as I have a fly net I wouldn’t mind grape picking for a job.


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