August 24, 2008 - 3:31PM
East Timor hopes Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will support a guest worker scheme that would see its workers picking fruit in the Northern Territory.
Timor Leste Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao is counting on the Australian government green lighting the scheme when he and Mr Rudd meet in Canberra this week.
It is modelled on the federal government's controversial Pacific Islander scheme, which will give up to 5,000 workers from Pacific island nations special visas to work on farms.
The plan, which does not include East Timor, is expected to be approved by cabinet soon.
Following a brief meeting with NT Chief Minister Paul Henderson in Darwin at the start of a four-day Australian visit, Mr Gusmao said he had every confidence in Mr Rudd.
"In my heart I believe that he will say 'yes'," said Mr Gusmao, who was flanked by seven of his ministers and his Australia-born wife Kirsty Sword Gusmao.
The Pacific Islander scheme has sparked debate that Australia should be using its own indigenous people to plug worker gaps.
"I don't believe this will be a question," Mr Gusmao said.
Asked how many workers could come to Darwin from East Timor, the prime minister joked: "Depends on how many Air North flights."
While light on the detail of a possible arrangement with the NT, Mr Gusmao flagged extending the scheme from fruit pickers to hotel workers, depending on demand.
But Mr Henderson, who is currently workshopping a three-year seasonal workers scheme, said the nuts and bolts would come at a later date.
"If there is in-principle support from the Australia government (we) would form working groups to look at how many people and where," he said.
Western Australia has recently signed a memorandum of understanding to employ workers from East Timor in the Kimberly area, and is awaiting federal approval.
"I believe the prime minister would be very keen to see some East Timorese workers come and assist us with the mango harvest," Mr Henderson said.
Mr Gusmao's adviser, former Victorian premier Steve Bracks, said East Timor had a lot in common with countries such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomons.
He said East Timorese youth faced 60 per cent unemployment at home and warned of future violence.
"Getting people to work, getting people an education, getting skills is the best defence against a further uprising in Timor Leste," he said.
NT Opposition Leader Terry Mills has backed moves to import labour to meet a chronic worker shortage.
"We need to find ways where we can have a win for East Timor, provide some support there, as well as fill a need here," he said.
"However, we must never reduce our effort to bridge that gap from welfare to work here.
"We can never turn our back on that problem."
© 2008 AAP