Wednesday, 23 October 2019
Farm Household Support Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2019; Second Reading
Farmers make a unique contribution to the prosperity and wellbeing of our nation. They do so under extraordinary conditions and family sacrifices, often subjected to unpredictable weather, fluctuating commodity prices, long hours of hard work, pests, disease, and, more often than not, heavy financial burdens. Not surprisingly, I believe most Australians are sympathetic with the struggles of farmers and are supportive of assistance programs that enable farmers to get through hard times. With continuously changing weather patterns, those hard times are likely to be longer and more frequent. We're already seeing more frequent and more extreme weather events, precisely as predicted by climate scientists, yet the Morrison government does not even have a comprehensive climate change policy. They often talk about climate change commitments, but when you delve deeply into their policies, the reality is that you see very, very little.
This legislation, the Farm Household Support Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2019, can, in fact, be directly attributed to a changing climate. Without continued financial assistance into the future, farmers are going to find it more and more difficult to make ends meet. Under this legislation, farmers will be eligible for 4.5 years of farm household support in every 10-year cycle. Originally, farmers were eligible for three years of support in a lifetime. That was probably a reasonable proposition at the time that the policy came into effect, but times have changed and, in particular, the climate has changed. The three years was subsequently increased to four years and the four years is now being topped up with a six-month lump-sum payment of $7,500 for a single recipient, or $6,500 each for couples, which means it's effectively a 4½ year support program. I note that the payments are not subjected to the government's shameful robo-debt program. I welcome that, but it does expose the Morrison government's double standards.
For some farmers, the increased assistance will not be enough. We're hearing calls from the National Farmers' Federation for more drought assistance, including farm exit packages. Farming in Australia has always been risky, but when calls are being made for farm exit packages, that implies a crisis.
On Monday night I spoke in this place about the long-term sustainability of the Murray-Darling Basin, which, again, is a matter I have spoken about in this place on many occasions, and which has been the subject of parliamentary debate in this place for over a decade now. Yet we still have a situation where the insecurity hanging over farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin is as bad as it ever was.
It is irresponsible for governments to wait until a crisis is upon them before they act. By that stage, the financial and social cost to communities is traumatic. My understanding is that, since 2014, farm household allowances have assisted over 10,000 people. As at the end of 2018, just over 5,000 people were still receiving support. We also heard yesterday in question time that around 600 recipients had had their payments ended, and a further 500 will have payments terminated by Christmas. It seems incredibly short-sighted and callous—in a worsening drought period, with calls for increased assistance coming from so many sectors—to end farmers' government assistance payments. I simply cannot understand that logic. I would have thought that this would be a time where, if anything, we would be going in the opposite direction—yet we are not, under this government.
Of course, when farmers are struggling financially, it affects whole communities and industry sectors. We just heard the member for Ballarat talking about the Drought Communities Program. Government assistance should not ignore the impact of drought on the workers and small and medium-sized businesses who depend on farming for their own survival. For them, the effects of drought are just as direct as they are for the farmers themselves. Those small and medium-sized businesses and the workers who work for them may not be farmers, but they are also affected by the drought, and their struggles, unfortunately, are all too often ignored. Then we see the social consequences of that, with many of them, whether they are business people or ordinary families, ending up in a financial mess, seeking help from support services, which they quite often can't get access to, and the like. In fact, I suspect that one of the reasons we have so many social problems in many country areas is because of the struggles of the farmers as a result of the climatic conditions and the like, which then flow on to the communities around them.
The other matter of real concern that has been raised in this place in recent months is the issue of the way banks have operated across this country. The government did finally agree to a royal commission into the banks, but the truth of the matter is that it only agreed to that reluctantly. It did so under pressure. One of the issues that farmers across this country have continuously struggled with is the way they have been treated by their banks. Not only did the government agree to the royal commission reluctantly—in fact, from my memory, it voted against it some 26 times—but even now it does not follow through on the recommendations of that royal commission nor ensure that the interest rate cuts that have been handed down by the Reserve Bank of Australia are passed on in full to the farmers. That's one of the measures that directly has an effect on the viability of farmers across this country.
The Morrison government has been in office for over six years. It claims to be a friend of Australian farmers. But that is a very shallow claim. I've just spoken about the greedy banks gouging farmers and causing some of them to lose their farms, but it's more than just that, when you look at the track record of this government. The banks are just one example. I said earlier that this is a government that doesn't have a policy with respect to climate change. Climate change will mean that there will be more devastation, whether it is in the form of longer or more frequent droughts, or in the form of floods or tornadoes and the like. We know that drought has been one of the issues that this country has had to grapple with, particularly in the last two decades—and, I believe, more so than ever before. We hear this government constantly talking about building more dams. They've been in office for six years, and I'm not aware of one single new dam being built. So it's one thing to talk about having a policy and a strategy and to make promises to people to try to suggest that the government is responding to the needs of the farming community, but it's another to actually see what they are doing when they're actually doing nothing.
I said earlier on that I spoke about the Murray-Darling Basin only a couple of days ago. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is now in shambles. Over two million Australians live within the Basin, mainly farming communities, and I see no clear direction for those farmers in that plan. We heard only in recent days about the response to the dairy industry and how it's caused a major problem within the National Party, the junior coalition member of this government. In fact, I understand that, as a result of some suggested changes to the dairy industry that ought to be made, the National Party has its own leadership crisis to contend with. This is a government that has been in office for six years and it hasn't dealt with the dairy industry. We have absolutely absurd claims that farmers are being forced to compete with mining companies for water. There is no way that most farmers can compete with mining companies for water and pay the kinds of prices that the mining companies are prepared to pay. It's not a level playing field anymore, and the farmers will simply not be able to compete on that basis.
We've also heard other speakers today, time and time again, say this is a government that does not even have a drought policy. In a country that relies so heavily on farming in climactic conditions that make farming so insecure, it is incredulous that Australia does not have a drought policy. What we have is a government that has a knee-jerk response to each crisis as it arises. Talk of a drought policy by referring to a $5 billion or $7 billion drought fund is absolutely meaningless when, as the member for Ballarat also quite rightly pointed out, that's not the amount of money that is being made available to farmers across this country to assist them through a drought period. In fact, that to me is shameful dishonesty on the part of the government—to purport to be supporting farmers with that fund—when we know that all the farmers get out of it is the interest that that fund accrues.
The last issue I will touch on with respect to how this government has ignored farming communities is the government's failure to provide decent health services and get health professionals into farming communities and regional parts of Australia. This is a government that has had six years to fix the rural health crisis and it has failed to do so. When farming communities are struggling because of drought or other climactic issues, of course they will need health services to a higher degree than at other times yet, again, we see reports in the media today and I hear stories on a regular basis about how accessing health services in regional Australia is becoming more and more difficult.
The opposition has moved an amendment to this legislation and I will be supporting that amendment. In summary, many members of this government represent the very communities that are going to be affected the most by the drought. I would have thought that they would have been in touch with their communities more so than other members in this place because they represent them. And yet, in the last six years that they have been in government, I have seen farming communities struggle from one crisis to another and I don't see a cohesive strategy to deal with that. We had the National Farmers Federation come to Canberra yesterday, I believe—that's what the reports say—and speak to the Prime Minister and to other senior ministers. It took the National Farmers Federation to bring the whole notion of a policy or of a strategy to deal with drought to the government. It should have been the other way around. This is not a new concept, and it should have been the government that led in respect of establishing a national strategy to deal with drought. The situation, in my view, is going to get worse in the years ahead of us. I say that because I have faith in the science. If that is the case, I don't want to see our farming communities struggle, because, as I said in my opening remarks, the farming community is essential to the prosperity and wellbeing of this nation. We need to ensure it remains that way, and that will happen only if we have a national drought strategy.