Wednesday, 23 June 2010
Farm Household Support Amendment (Ancillary Benefits) Bill 2010
Mr Speaker, I had to take the opportunity to say hello and congratulate a fine individual and a good local member.
I rise to talk on the Farm Household Support Amendment (Ancillary Benefits) Bill 2010. I take this opportunity to compliment the minister for the decision he made on 5 May 2010 to carry out a trial of drought reform measures across 65 local government areas in rural Western Australia. The pilot will run from 1 July this year to 30 June of next year. The trial will not affect farmers currently receiving income support payments and interest rates subsidies under the old exceptional circumstances system. The National Rural Advisory Council, which I have often spoken to the minister about—pointing out some weaknesses in that system—will continue to consider proposals for exceptional circumstance declarations submitted by state governments and to reassess current declarations coming up for renewal.
This trial is a very significant contribution to the history of drought relief in this country, and I praise the minister because he had the initiative to look at this in a very visionary way. There have been criticisms about the current system for some time now, about it not meeting the expectations of people affected by drought, specifically in terms of the arbitrary declaration of borders. The property of one farmer can be declared eligible for EC assistance, but his neighbour a fence away might be told that his property does not meet the criteria. I just find that reprehensible. There is only one aspect of the trial that requires specific legislative changes, and that is the Farm Family Support program. A similar measure is already in place, the exceptional circumstances relief payment program, for those areas subject to an EC declaration.
The issue around this particular legislation is that farm businesses outside of the trial area suffering from dry conditions and not in an EC declared area may raise concerns that farmers not necessarily suffering from drought conditions in Western Australia are able to receive funds, but they cannot. The government has not yet made public the guidelines for the Farm Family Support scheme which will include precise definitions of which farm businesses will be eligible and which will not. The government has previously indicated that farmers who are in hardship will be able to access support through this program but has not defined ‘hardship’. That is a very important part of this lesson—the definition of ‘hardship’. I believe the government needs to take that part of the thrust of this legislation into serious consideration.
Those of us who spend time in our rural electorates have watched droughts come and go, watched fires come and go, and watched floods come and go, so we appreciate the very significant impact that they have on individuals and farming families. The impact of drought is around a couple of things: the financial pressures and the stress that comes from those pressures, and the pride of farm families who are in many instances placed in destitute situations but because of that pride will not put their names forward for some sort of social security assistance. That is what the farming community and people on the land have been born with and what they have practised all of their lives. They do not seek help from people. They want to try and get themselves out of the mire that natural events like drought create for them. They see the futility of borrowing money from the bank and putting in a crop in the hope that the weather patterns that people say are going to come their way to break the drought will occur, only to see their wheat in the ground die because the follow-up rains did not come. We have seen that in this latest drought, one of the worst droughts in the history of this country, which has gone on for about eight years.
I want to illustrate just how hard it is for people in drought conditions and why this legislation is very important. About eight years ago, my wife was asked by some women in Sydney to bring some country women to Sydney to talk about drought and how it affected them as women on the land. There was a function at the New South Wales state parliament, and my wife took with her two women and the 27-year-old daughter of one. They addressed those city women, some 200-plus in number, about drought and how it affected them. One of the things that usually happen during a drought or at other times when things are tough is that women give up what they call non-essential items. They gave up things like perfume; they could not afford to buy perfume. They could not afford to buy hand cream, facial cream, shampoo—all the non-essential items that you and I and other people in the nation take for granted. The young lass, the 27-year-old, after she finished reading a poem that she had written about drought and how it affects farming families, was asked by one of these elderly matrons who came from the North Shore of Sydney why her hands were in such a mess. She told them that her hands were a mess because they had been damaged by barbed wire because she was helping her dad put some fencing up because he could not afford to employ any labour—and we talk about poverty in this place. They made such an impact on those women at the luncheon that there was not a dry eye in the house, my wife told me. Offers of assistance by way of holiday home accommodation and things like that came forward out of that.
About a fortnight after they came back to the electorate, I got a phone call from one of those women and she said, ‘Alby, we’re sending down two station wagon loads of items that some of the women affected by drought might be able to use.’ We waited for the station wagons to arrive. They arrived at my office, I think, at around 20 past five in the afternoon. My staff stayed back and we unloaded them. We went into the store next door and bought 200 of those fancy little bags with handles on them—I am not quite sure what you call them; I am a mere male. My wife called them pamper packs, and we distributed all the items that came in those station wagons among the packs. I estimated that each one of them, because of the cost of the items, was worth between $250 and $400, so it was a very significant contribution by urban based women.
That process continues today with some members of the Trefoil Guild here in Canberra—women who were Girl Guides in their younger days and then joined the Trefoil Guild, which works for charities. When these ladies buy their groceries, they spend an extra $50 to $100, in some cases $200, on non-perishable food items. They stockpile them in a double garage and then 10 of them come down every now and then and pack them all up into bags and then they give us a phone call. If there is too much for us we arrange for volunteers to go and pick them up and deliver them to families in need. Only last Friday I went to the little village of Wee Jasper, a beautiful little place down in the valley of the Goobragandra and Murrumbidgee rivers, where we delivered 20 parcels to five families in need.
The point I am making here is that these are the things that flow on from drought conditions which people do not know about. We drop these goods at schools because people are proud and do not want to be seen to be picking up assistance from other people. I am so grateful that a minister of the Crown, in this case the Hon. Tony Burke, has had the vision to look at exceptional circumstances relief to find how we can better assist farmers to handle drought and to get out of drought. I know that, no matter what a government of the day does, there will be people out there who will be critical because they have a personal view on what should or should not occur with changes to legislation which might assist where drought is making life difficult for people.
It is important that people understand just what is involved in this process. The trial in Western Australia is going to cover several issues. There will be farm family support, with income support to help farmers meet basic household expenses; and farm social support, with stronger social support networks to meet the mental health, counselling and other social needs of farming families and communities. In the last five years I personally, as a result of a plea from women, have talked seven farmers out of committing suicide. That is where beyondblue and all of those organisations come into it. But these men would not talk to anybody else; they wanted to talk to me for some unknown reason. There are a lot of people around this place who do not want to talk to me on a regular basis! Somehow I had made an impression on these people. It is very important that we understand the pressures on farmers in drought.
Another aspect of the trial is building farm businesses, with grants of up to $60,000 to help farm businesses prepare for the impacts of drought, reduced water availability and a changing climate, and on-farm land care activities. The previous government assisted small businesses who rely on the off-farm income that comes into their business and their communities and also those businesses that assist farmers by supplying them with the equipment and goods that help keep them going. When the farmers are going bad these businesses are going bad and go out of business. It impacts on the economy of the small rural towns in particular, and you see the unemployment rate go up. So once again there is recognition by a government of this great country, regardless of its political persuasion, of the need to support businesses that work with farmers.
Then there is farm planning, with support for farmers to undertake training to develop or update a strategic plan for their farm business with a focus on preparing for future challenges. We did a report centred on the skills that are lacking in rural and regional Australia. There are multiskilled people out there in the isolated areas, and they need assistance. There are the wives who keep the businesses going and they need computer training and those sorts of things. Once again, that support is a very good initiative.
Under the heading of stronger rural communities, there will be grants to local government for activities that make rural communities more resilient during agricultural downturns. The only point I make there is that, if we put government assistance into those areas, we must make sure that we have the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed so there is no waste and that valuable resource is used constructively and has positive outcomes for people affected by drought. There will also be farm exit support. That commenced under the previous government, and there will be grants of up to $170,000 to support farmers who make the difficult decision to sell their farm businesses. That is wonderful stuff, because it does help them. It helps them particularly when, because of drought and the drop in value of their properties, they live on the fringe of absolute destitution. This sort of package is the difference between them going off their properties broke and going off their properties with at least enough money to start a new life. I compliment the minister for recognising that and keeping the momentum going in that area.
The beyond farming proposal is a new measure that puts current farmers in touch with former farmers to work through the opportunities outside of farming. Again, this is wonderful stuff. You have to have that peer group understanding; you have to have people who know what farming is physically all about and how drought affects people working with them. Ex-farmers and retired farmers are terrific people who go back to the land to help. Some of them go back to the land because they just love it so much, and in some instances their children have taken up the farm for a living and need some assistance. It is interesting to note that not too many young people are taking up farm occupations, and they are not taking them up in part because of the stigma placed on farming by some sections of the educational world. More importantly, they are not taking them up because they cannot see the sense in this day and age of working from dawn till dusk for $20,000 or $30,000 a year when they can go as young people out into the IT sector or into major urban businesses and make four, five or six times that amount.
The farmers are in a situation where they work the land they love and do not in many instances get any credit for the significant contribution they make to the environment. The environment is their living—the land they toil on has to be there on a day-to-day, year-to-year basis for them to have any hope of making a living out of it. They love their land, and it is very, very difficult for them to walk away from it.
I cannot express to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, how pleased I am that a bill of this sort is going through. As I said at the outset, it is wonderful that we have a minister of the Crown in the agricultural field who does not have an agricultural background and does not come from the country but who, to his credit, is going out there and talking to people and introducing legislation which in my view is going to produce some very positive outcomes for farmers.
I close by saying that, whilst some might accuse me of being overgenerous to a minister for agriculture who is on the other side of politics, I do not resile from what I have said. I think he is doing a wonderful job. He is a very caring minister, and I often talk to him about problems associated with farmers in my electorate and elsewhere. I must be doing something right, because I note that the National Farmers Federation, the Western Australian government, the Western Australian Farmers Federation, the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of Western Australia and other organisations are in favour of the direction the minister is taking on this. I complement him on it, and I am pleased to have been given the opportunity to speak on this bill here tonight.