Wednesday, 23 June 2010
Farm Household Support Amendment (Ancillary Benefits) Bill 2010
I take the opportunity, following the comments of the member for Hume, to also add my support for the work of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. It might not be looked on very favourably if I did not do that, so I am with the member for Hume in his praise for the work of the minister for agriculture. I also join with the member for Hume and my other rural and regional colleagues to support the Farm Household Support Amendment (Ancillary Benefits) Bill 2010. I think that all speakers in the debate have acknowledged that we are on the threshold of a new era in drought support. It is a change that reflects the reality that Australian farmers face: a hotter and drier future, which means that the existing concept of exceptional circumstances as a measure of support for farmers will increasingly lose its relevance.
Our new system is built on the projections from our scientific organisations, such as the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, which tell us that droughts are likely to happen more often and be more severe. It is also built on the renowned resilience and adaptability of our farmers. We want funding and support to be there to help farmers use that resilience and adaptability to prepare their farm businesses for droughts and other climate based risks. Our new approach to drought policy strengthens the support system and moves it from crisis management to risk management.
This bill ensures that farmers who are participating in the current pilot of the government’s drought scheme in Western Australia receive all the benefits for which they are eligible. It does that by amending the Farm Household Support Act 1992. As I said, the bill relates to the pilot project program that will run in Western Australia for the next 12 months. In a partnership between the Commonwealth and Western Australian governments announced by the minister for agriculture in May this year, a number of support programs will be trialled and evaluated in a region of Western Australia between Karratha and Esperance. About 6,000 farmers who are involved in these trials are expected to be eligible for assistance under the package. The aim of the pilot, which was announced in May this year, is to trial drought reform measures that will better support farmers, their families and rural communities in preparing for future challenges rather than waiting until they are in crisis to offer assistance. This is about preparing for drought as much as it is about responding to drought when it occurs.
There are seven measures in the new package to be trialled in Western Australia. The first measure, farm family support, provides income support to help farmers meet basic household expenses. The second measure, farm social support, provides stronger social support networks to meet the mental health, counselling and other social needs of farming families and communities. The third measure, building farm businesses, provides grants of up to $60,000 to farmers in two components: $40,000 to help fund businesses prepare for the impacts of drought, reduced water availability and the changing climate and a further $20,000 which can be accessed for on-farm natural resource management measures and landcare activities. The fourth measure, farm planning, provides up to $7,500 for farmers to undertake training to develop or update a strategic plan for their farm business, with a focus on preparing for future challenges.
The fifth measure, stronger rural communities, provides grants to local governments for activities that make rural communities more resilient during agricultural downturns. The sixth measure, farm exit support, provides grants of up to $170,000 to support farmers who make the difficult decision to sell their farm business. The money can be used for things such as retraining and relocation expenses. The final measure, beyond farming, was referred to specifically by the member for Hume. This is the new measure that puts current farmers in touch with former farmers to work through the opportunities outside of farming. It will allow farmers to talk to someone who has been in the same position as them about the options for themselves and their families if they are selling the farm business or retiring.
Farming groups across the country have welcomed this much-needed reform. As the list of seven measures indicates, this reform includes financial grants for farmers experiencing hardship or trying to exit the industry. Along with the financial measures, this new drought policy has a much stronger focus on the mental health issues that can arise from the challenges of drought. The farm family support payment is part of the pilot being conducted in Western Australia. It provides eligible farming families who are facing hardship with income support based on Newstart rates to help them meet basic household needs. It also provides case management support to assist farmers to assess their financial situation and identify those on-farm or off-farm activities which may improve their financial position.
The Farm Household Support Amendment (Ancillary Benefits) Bill 2010 will ensure that farmers who receive the farm family support payment will be eligible for the same access to ancillary benefits as those farmers who receive exceptional circumstances relief payments. After so many years of drought gripping large areas of our country, most people would be familiar with exceptional circumstances relief payments. Those payments help farming families living in areas affected by exceptional circumstances to meet everyday living expenses. Of course we on this side are all very proud that that program was originally introduced by the Labor government in 1992 under the then minister for agriculture, Simon Crean.
With these new changes to drought relief, the government believes it is important that recipients of farm family support payments participating in the current Western Australia trial can access the full range of ancillary benefits in the same way that exceptional circumstances relief payment recipients can. The ancillary benefits include an automatically issued healthcare card. The trial also allows for concessions relaxing the income, assets and family actual means testing of student allowances paid to, or in respect of, the student children of recipients. Importantly this trial will support farmers to develop or update a strategic plan for their farm business. We want to support Western Australian farmers and their families through this pilot period and this bill ensures that they will be spared financial hardship while they consider the future of their farming business.
My electorate of Capricornia covers a large section of Central Queensland and it is home to beef, horticulture, grain and sugar industries. Central Queensland experienced significant rainfall at the start of the year—it was almost back to a traditional wet season—but it has had little to no rain in more recent months. So while many areas of Central Queensland have experienced pasture growth as a result of the rainfall, there has not been enough rain to replenish water supplies to the extent that farmers can be confident of seeing livestock through to the next summer storm season.
The large rainfall at the start of the year, however, did see drought declarations lifted from 15 shires in Queensland in April. Rockhampton, in my electorate, was amongst those on this list. Banana, which is just south of my electorate, is one in our region that does remain partly drought declared. Of course before an area’s drought status was removed in this way, the local drought committees carefully considered whether an area had received enough rain for sufficient pasture growth and water for maintaining stocking. Revocation of drought status provides producers with access to restocking and freight subsidies for returning stock from agistment. I am pleased to say that currently only 1.4 per cent of Queensland is currently drought declared. This is a 35 per cent drop from 2009, and this is great news for Queensland and an ideal time for the government to be trialling its new approach to drought relief.
Of course the government has always made it clear that, whatever reforms to drought policy were proposed, those farmers who are currently receiving exceptional circumstances assistance would not be affected. Our drought reforms are about setting a path for the future, not inflicting any hardship or anxiety on those currently recognised as being drought affected.
Rockhampton has struggled with the negative effects of drought in the past. Although none of us can pretend to know the full devastation of drought unless we have lived through it as members of a farming family or rural community, in a city like Rockhampton and a region like Central Queensland, we all feel its effects—especially through our local abattoirs in Rockhampton. The Lakes Creek and Swift meatworks in Rockhampton have experienced shortages of cattle, and the management and staff know that the tough times of 2009 will continue this year as graziers recover from a very dry period last year, combined with the effects of flooding in parts of Queensland. However, as I was saying, currently pasture production across the region is generally good, but it is lower than what normally occurs in a longer growing season as a result of the late summer rain and pasture not beginning to grow in some areas until January. Pasture quantity is good to very good, but the quality is deteriorating with the onset of cool weather, some frosting and no useful rainfall in these past few months.
Cattle condition has held well during the autumn period, with breeders in good condition generally and fat dry stock being turned off, particularly earlier this month. Pastures in the Mackay district in the north of my electorate are now at their peak after the long and very wet summer up there. The Central Queensland sorghum harvest is about to start and to date reports indicate much of it is likely to produce above-average yields. The cotton crop west of Rockhampton and around Emerald has generally suffered from poor weather conditions with much of January and February being cloudy and then significant rainfall happening as the cotton balls opened and picking started.
I list that snapshot of some of the industries in my electorate to demonstrate the unpredictable ups and downs that drought and general climatic conditions can bring across areas in Australia. It is no doubt the reason that the Productivity Commission, in its review of drought policy, found that most farmers are sufficiently self-reliant to manage climate variability; climate variability has long been a fact of life for farmers in Australia. That is why the emphasis has to be on preparing for the very real risk of drought and helping farmers with that preparation rather than waiting until the situation reaches crisis point.
As members know, and the member for Hume told us some examples from his experience, there is always a positive story to come out of these hard times that rural Australians often face. In my electorate, as well as all over Australia, farmers are able to contact an organisation known as Aussie Helpers. For those who do not know, Aussie Helpers was started in 2002 to help families who are living with the hardship and poverty that farming can bring. John and Rhonda, for example, are volunteers based outside Rockhampton and cover all of Central Queensland west to the border. They are part of a network of around 40 helpers nationwide who freely give their time and expertise to enable Aussie Helpers to achieve its goal of tackling poverty in the bush. This program originated in Charleville, which is south-west of my electorate in Queensland, and many Queenslanders have benefited from their advice and support. The long years of drought in so much of our country have brought much devastation to farming businesses. National Farmers Federation figures show that rural debt has increased by 85 per cent since 2002-03 and the debt servicing ratio has followed a similar upward trend in that time. It will take many years for farmers to recover.
In the meantime, we are confident that these measures that are being trialled in Western Australia are the right way to go for drought policy in this country. It represents the shift from drought relief to drought management and preparedness, as the National Farmers Federation described it at the time of the announcement of the WA pilot. We will no longer have the situation, as before, when in the good times government retreated and assistance for farmers dried up. The seasons would change and when things became dire for farmers the government would step back in and provide just enough support to keep people struggling on in their farming business during devastating drought, only to disappear again when the rains came and exceptional circumstances status was lifted.
Now that we know that longer and more severe droughts will be part of the business of farming into the future, we want to work with farmers in a proactive and strategic way to support them as they work through all of the challenges and opportunities their farms face. We want them to do that thinking and planning and deciding and preparing before any drought takes hold, and when it does we want to support them financially and also emotionally through community networks and counselling where necessary.
We will all be watching the Western Australian trial very carefully and we look forward to working with farmers and their organisations on incorporating any lessons that come out of the next 12 months. In the meantime I join with my rural and regional colleagues here in the House to support this bill, which extends important benefits to farmers receiving income support payments as part of this very significant trial of these new drought support measures.