Wednesday, 23 October 2019
Farm Household Support Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2019; Second Reading
As the shadow minister has indicated, we will be supporting the measures of this bill, but I'm also here supporting his second reading amendment. In particular, I want to focus my remarks on the Drought Communities Program, which sits in the Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development Portfolio. This is a drought funding communities program which, in essence, recognises that, as farmers go through drought, the communities that exist around them are also experiencing economic hardship. Over various governments, there has been some form of recognition that we do need to try and support the economies and jobs of those communities. But what is really disappointing—and we found this out in the last couple of days, through Senate estimates—is that not all councils are equal when it comes to the Drought Communities Program. I think there is a very serious issue with the way in which this program is being administered, the way in which decisions are being taken and the way in which councils are able to either get into the program or not get into the program.
As we understand it, as the current measures stand, there are about 123 councils that are eligible. During the election campaign, 14 councils were deemed eligible under this program. They may well be exactly in the circumstances we're talking about, but we heard in Senate estimates yesterday—and there is not a lot of transparency around this—that one of the measures that is being applied to whether councils are eligible or not is not only rainfall data but also the number of workers who are involved in the agricultural workforce; it has to be at around 17 per cent.
At Senate estimates we heard about the ridiculous circumstance of the shire of Moyne being deemed eligible for this funding and being offered $1 million, but they were out in the media saying: 'We are actually saying we think we've got enough rainfall at the moment. We feel a bit guilty about accepting this money, because we think there are other council areas in more trouble than we are.' That's not to say that parts of their shire aren't in trouble, but they were saying very clearly: 'We think there are people doing it much tougher than we are. How come we're getting this million dollars?' Then there was the example of the shire of Moira, in the member for Nicholls's electorate, which just fell short of the workforce figure—16.9 per cent. When you look at the workforce, that could potentially be, according to a spokesperson from the shire itself, a handful of workers—five people. It might have been because people had to leave the sector because the jobs weren't there due to the drought. This seems to me to be a very passing-strange way of administering this sort of program.
I also think, when we start to look at some of the things for councils being funded under this program, that the minister needs to pay some attention to this. I understand—others may not—that the government wants to use the program to, hopefully, provide some opportunity for better economic development—so, if it's in the tourism sector, trying to get people into the communities so that there are still jobs and that the economy is still going in those communities. But, when I look at the list of some of the projects that the department provided us on Monday—I am very happy to be corrected on this—I'm not convinced that toilets at Bourke Cemetery are actually economic drivers for jobs and growth in that region; I'm not sure about that. I'm not sure that toilets at a skate park are either. I think they're important, and I think it's great that you get toilets at a skate park, but I'm not sure that these were the sorts of things envisaged under the Drought Communities Program. We haven't seen a public media statement about this, but, as a result of some Channel Nine media inquiries, there was a report on Channel Nine that the government is now reviewing local government eligibility for this program. There has been, as far as I have seen, no media release or statement from the minister that this is actually a problem.
What we have got here is a government basically using this program with 14 councils during the election campaign—none of which are in Labor seats, I have to say, and there are definitely Labor seats that are drought affected. We had this program announced in the context of the election. It's a good election announcement to say, 'We are going to give your council $1 million in funds for community facilities.' We have got areas like Shoalhaven, and some of the areas in the member for Hunter's electorate, saying that they think they should meet the eligibility criteria as well—and places like Kiama as well. You have to say that this government has politicised this program, and it needs to clean it up—particularly in a context where we have communities that are severely affected by drought.
This government has tried to talk a big game about drought funding. The problem it has is that it has been asleep at the wheel. We are in this government's seventh year. The drought didn't just happen yesterday, or a week ago, or a month ago; we are in a long period of extended drought. The government basically cut and stopped much of the work that Labor had started in government: trying to actually look at drought mitigation strategies, trying to connect water infrastructure, trying to look at the way in which you would reform, trying to look at the way in which drought declarations and the partnerships between states and territories are made. It basically stopped doing any of that work because it had this principle that anything Labor did was bad, and therefore they couldn't do it, rather than actually thinking there was some good in it and they should just continue it.
The government has talked this game—'We've got $7 billion that we're spending on drought!'—which is simply and utterly not true. The government has taken $3.9 billion out of the Building Australia Fund, the infrastructure fund, which in fact it could have used for drought mitigation infrastructure if it got through the Infrastructure Australia process. It could've been using that money anyway. It's taken that and put that into a fund that will, over time, grow to $5 billion, and it will then draw down on the interest of that fund to the tune of $100 million a year. That is not a $7 billion drought program; that a $5 billion program, the interest of which will go to drought affected communities.
Again I say, supporting this second reading amendment, the government needs to actually look very seriously about what its drought policy is. In particular, it needs to look at what it is actually giving directly to farm households—it is in this bill, but also a number of people are coming off farm household assistance—and how that's working. More broadly, it needs to look at our preparedness and how we are actually managing drought—in particular, in my portfolio area, the Drought Communities Program. I look forward to seeing—the minister is at the table—the terms of reference of the review of the Drought Communities Program. I look forward to seeing whether it is just a review to try to say, 'We've got a local council in the member for Nicholls' area that probably should be eligible, so how do we make it eligible?' It looks to me, from the administration of the program, that this is a significant failure. If the government has politicised the program in the way that it looks on paper after the evidence of Senate estimates, frankly, they should be ashamed of themselves.