House debates

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Bills

Treasury Laws Amendment (Supporting Australian Farmers) Bill 2018; Second Reading

11:10 am

Photo of Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Labor will always stand by the people of the bush. People often forget—and it is worth reminding people sometimes, especially those opposite—that Labor was born of the bush. In 1892, the Australian Labor Party was born under a tree in Barcaldine, Queensland, during the Shearers' Strike. Men were fighting for a better deal. Men were fighting for better pay and conditions and a fair go from the pastoralists. Labor was born of the bush, and its mission to fight for a fair go has never changed.

Labor are proud to stand here today and support the Treasury Laws Amendment (Supporting Australian Farmers) Bill 2018, but we're not going to pretend that this bill is the answer to all the problems that are besetting farmers during this drought. The bill before us today is, at best, a mild response to what is a very serious problem affecting New South Wales and Queensland. I don't want to belittle the bill, but it really is window-dressing. What it will do is offer mild relief to some farmers who are beset by drought. It will allow some farmers a provision whereby they can get instant asset write-offs for things like silos and grain sheds, rather than waiting three years for depreciation to take effect. It will be of some assistance, but it won't do nearly enough to address the real issues besetting farmers.

One of the concerning things throughout this whole episode has been the government's rather piecemeal approach to responding to this drought. We've heard speeches from various members on this issue. We've seen this government's piecemeal approach reflected in the fracturing and the failures of the government itself. We've had a National Party leader replaced by another National Party leader. We've had an agriculture minister replaced by another agriculture minister. We've had a Prime Minister replaced by another Prime Minister. The failures of this government are reflected in the failures of its drought strategy. It is a fractured and piecemeal approach; it is not good enough. It is not good enough that there has not been a coordinated, strategic approach to combatting this drought.

As I said before, this bill is a very modest measure in the scheme of things. It will have a fiscal impact of around $75 million over the forward estimates—and, to be blunt, it is window-dressing. It will be of some assistance to farmers, but it won't do much—and we really should not pretend that it will. This is, as I say, the fourth drought announcement by the government in three months. Instead of planning and preparing a comprehensive response, the government is, frankly, all over the place—a little bit here, a little bit there, a little bit later on. It has all the hallmarks of the utter dysfunction that plagues the government. People who are struggling to keep their heads above water, who are in tears over the condition and misery of starving stock, deserve better.

On 19 June the government announced an increase in farm household allowance payments from three years to four, effective 1 August 2018—a very modest measure. On 5 August, the government announced a $190 million financial support package and a $12,000 supplement to the farm household allowance. The government announced it but the funds weren't released then—no; the government has split the payment. So farmers who are beset by drought now must wait till the next financial year before they can access the second $6,000 instalment. It's unnecessary red tape getting in the way of helping farming families who are in need of assistance today.

Later on, the minister announced some increased funding for mental health support. I welcome this initiative. Done properly, it will be of great assistance, and I do commend the minister for this thoughtful initiative. I know mental health workers in my electorate do incredibly important work and have saved scores of people, particularly men, from taking their own lives. I refer in particular to the organisation Rural Alive and Well—or RAW, as it is better known—which is based in the town of Oatlands in my electorate. The more we can do to improve the mental health and psychological resilience of farmers and other members of regional communities, especially in times of financial crisis, the better. It is difficult to get men in regional Australia to open up about mental health, but it's getting better. There is less stigma attached to discussing and disclosing mental health, and we must do all we can to ensure that we remain on this trajectory.

A couple of weeks later, on 19 August, the then Prime Minister announced the appointment of Major General Stephen Day as National Drought Coordinator. I have every confidence that Major General Day will bring his expertise to bear in bringing together charities, NGOs, donors and arms of government, and I look forward to getting a progress report from the minister. It has been a month since Major General Day was appointed and I know the parliament would be keen to get an update on how things are going.

Then, following the still unexplained change of Prime Minister—and the country is still asking why: a question the government seems unable to answer—the member for New England was announced as drought envoy, a position we know little about in terms of what it is meant to achieve other than perhaps to keep the troublesome member for New England in Queensland and New South Wales as much as possible. Indeed, in his first week on the job, the drought envoy suggested diverting water that is vital for environmental sustainability to farmers and also suggested opening national parks to grazing. He has been silent, however, as far as I know, about his government's decision to allow Adani to access 12.5 billion litres of river water without going through an environmental impact study.

The fact is that the government's drought response has been a mess. Farmers have had to contend with, first, the change in the Nationals—with the member for New England out as leader, Deputy Prime Minister and agricultural minister, and the member for Riverina in as leader and Deputy Prime Minister, and the member for Maranoa in as the agriculture minister—and then the change in the Liberal leadership, with the former member for Wentworth out as Prime Minister and the member for Cook in as Prime Minister. From all the public statements flying about, it seems responsibility for the drought response is being undertaken jointly by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the agriculture minister, the drought envoy and the Drought Coordinator.

What makes this dog's breakfast even more bewildering is that the government had a template for drought response at its fingertips. Ten years ago, the Productivity Commission completed an inquiry into drought support and, in 2008, the federal and state primary industries ministers, the majority of them representing conservative governments, signed an agreement on drought reform. The ministers, sitting as the COAG committee known as SCoPI, agreed to commission the PC inquiry and report. So a coordinated drought response was ready to go, pretty much with a ribbon tied around it, but instead it has been all but ignored and discarded.

In fact, the federal coalition elected in 2013 abolished SCoPI and thereby removed an important coordinating body between the federal and state primary industries ministries. It was an act of policy vandalism, idiocy and arrogance to abolish SCoPI and it bore all the hallmarks of a born-to-rule federal coalition government that believes it, and only it, has all the answers and needs no input from the states to develop policy. The result has been a disaster. With New South Wales and Queensland suffering the worst drought in living memory, there has been no coordinated or strategic response. Ten years after a coordinated drought response was agreed to by all levels of government and backed by key farm leadership groups, we are scrambling with three piecemeal announcements in two months from a government that's changed leadership amongst both its senior and its junior coalition party partners.

The elephant in the room is climate change. The mere mention of climate change is enough to have some coalition members sticking their fingers in their ears and making loud sounds to drown out the noise. The truth hurts. Climate change is real. It is here, it is happening and it is having a real and lasting impact on our agricultural sector. The former agriculture minister, the member for New England, did nothing about mitigating the impacts of climate change because he simply doesn't believe it's real. He says, 'We've always had droughts and we always will.' He shrugs and says, 'This is no different than what's happened in the past.' It's a she'll-be-right attitude that flies in the face of scientific, measurable facts. Annual temperatures are hotter than they've ever been in recorded history. The trends are hotter and dryer. Extreme events are occurring more often and are more extreme. Any agriculture minister who seeks to respond to the drought without having a climate change strategy is not doing their job.

Climate change is the elephant in the room and it has to be contended with. Those opposite just have to deal with climate change; they have to get on board with this. They can't say, 'There's a drought on right now. We can't discuss climate change. That would be insensitive to those going through it.' Increasingly, we're getting farmers and those who represent farmers saying to us, 'Yes, climate change is real. Yes, it's having a real impact on our farms and on our ability to grow produce. We need to have a strategy to deal with it.' Farmers are calling out for this. Farmers are just as frustrated as we on this side are by the government's failure to grapple with the scientific facts that climate change is real and that climate change is absolutely contributing to the conditions that farmers face today.

This is a land of drought and flood; we know that. But the 100-year floods are now 20-year floods. The bushfires are hotter and faster. They are happening more often. The experts, the measurable data, the facts and the charts tell us that climate change is responsible. You have to have a strategy in place to deal with it. You can't have a drought response and you can't have a response to the crisis enveloping Queensland and New South Wales without having a climate change strategy. It is absolutely crucial.

I will finish where I started off: Labor will always stand by the people of the bush. We were born of the bush. We're not what those opposite like to paint us as. We're not just a bunch of inner-city lefties who go down to the cafe for a soy latte. That's not us. We represent blue-collar workers: farmers, shearers and the men and women in the shops and the IGAs. It was Labor in Tasmania that brought on the irrigation scheme that is transforming Tasmania today. It was Labor who put through the infrastructure, the roads through the regions, that allow us to get to goods to market quicker. It is Labor that looks after the bush.

The pretenders over there think that wearing a big hat and having a subscription to RM Williams is enough to make people think that they represent the bush. They say one thing out there to the people in the regions, and then they come in here and all they do is vote with the Liberals on big corporate policy. It was Labor fighting the $17 billion giveaway to the big banks. It wasn't the National Party standing up for the people of the regions when the Liberals were trying to give that $17 billion corporate handout to the big banks. It was Labor that helped get that stopped; it was Labor that brought on the policy change from the government. We brought the pressure to bear to stop the $17 billion giveaway to the big banks. It wasn't the National Party; they rolled over and had their tummies tickled on that.

I just mention here, by way of passing—and I don't want to get personal—that I can't help but smile when I recall that the deputy leader of the National Party, the self-proclaimed party of the battlers of the bush, doesn't live in the regions. She lives in inner-city Melbourne, if I recall, in the member for Melbourne's seat. The deputy leader of the National Party lives in a Greens seat. That's what I understand. I'm happy to be proven wrong.

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