Federal Member for Parkes Mark Coulton said Gunnedah’s sister city partnership with Tonga is leading to a stronger diplomatic and economic future for Australia and its near neighbours. But the opposition MP also said there must be greater allowances from the Australian government to encourage employment opportunities to grow.

Mr Coulton was a special guest at this month’s one-year anniversary celebration of Gunnedah’s sister city partnership with Kolomotu’a in Tonga.

The Gunnedah-Kolomotu’a agreement has several keys area of focus including arts and culture, sports, education, employment and the economy.

Mr Coulton, who severed as assistant trade minister under the previous Coalition government, said the advantages of Gunnedah’s links to Tonga were significant for both countries.

“In a practical, economic sense there is benefit for both communities, but also more broadly with global tensions particularly in the Pacific and the south-east Asia area,” he said.

“It is really important Australia has close relations with those nations because they are very important to us as we are to them.”

During his time as minister, Mr Coulton spent much time meeting with representatives from Australia’s near neighbours, particularly Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.

He said establishing close, long-standing relationships with countries, rather than “fly-in, fly-out” arrangements, was critical to the future success of sister city partnerships and Gunnedah already had a good foundation.

“Over the years I think this can be nurtured into something much bigger,” Mr Coulton said.

A big motivation behind Gunnedah’s pursuit of the sister city agreement has been to supplement the shire’s growing skills shortage and local industry’s increasingly desperate demand for workers.

The royal Tongan delegation made a second visit to the Gunnible Pastoral Company during its most recent trip to Gunnedah. 

The citrus orchard on Wean Road relies on the Pacific island labour force to fulfil seasonal roles at the farm and workers equally depend on the income the work provides for their families.

But Mr Coulton said the Labor government’s amendments to the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme will make recruitment increasingly tough. 

“It is going to make it more difficult for overseas workers to come and settle,” he said. “My office is getting more requests as a result of changes.”

The PALM scheme allows eligible Australian businesses to hire workers from nine Pacific islands and Timor-Leste when there are not enough local workers available. 

New government changes to the scheme will guarantee workers pay parity with their domestic counterparts and a minimum weekly take home pay of $200 under the changes as well as a minimum of 30 hours of work per week. 

Unions have applauded the changes, which took effect on July 1, as a win for workers but some agricultural employers said the changes are too rigid. They said the 30-hour minimum each week does not reflect the seasonal nature of the work and does not account for unavoidable disruptions such as wet weather. 

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