Wednesday, 23 October 2019
Farm Household Support Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2019; Second Reading
The proposal put forward by the previous speaker—that the government should, effectively, know what's best for every particular nook and cranny within the agricultural sector—is a load of rubbish. To have an open-door policy; to have lines of communication with the NFF, who are the peak association for our agricultural sector; to have them develop a policy that is most pertinent and appropriate for the struggle of each particular sector—that is what we as a government need. We need open lines of communication to every peak association within the agricultural sector. Let those peak associations design the support packages for what is best for each of their areas and bring those support packages to government, so we can assist in the way the industry thinks is most appropriate, not in the way that some group of politicians who have had a brain snap think might be best for the sector. It's what this government has been very good at doing.
The Farm Household Allowance is not just about drought. In fact my first example of the Farm Household Allowance came just prior to the election in 2016, when the milk price collapsed and clawbacks were put in place by two of our major processors, claiming that they had overpaid our dairy farmers. They were demanding that hundreds of thousands of dollars be repaid to them. The Farm Household Allowance was the mechanism we used to support farmers through that time. This support package we have in place needs to be adaptable under different circumstances. We never envisaged that this would then run on into an ongoing drought; however, now that it has, and farmers are getting hit from one area to another, it is appropriate that we broaden the qualifying criteria and make it more accessible to more farmers.
That's what we've done. We've lifted the off-farm income test from $80,000 up to $100,000. That's very important. We've lifted the assets that you're allowed to have tied up in the value of your farm from $3 million up to $5 million. We've extended the time you're allowed to be on Farm Household Allowance firstly from three years out to four years in a lifetime and then made it even more accessible by making it four years in any 10. This support has been broadened and expanded. We now have the exit packages so that, as people do transition off Farm Household Allowance, they have the one-off payments of $7,000 or $13,000, plus a little bit. These are some of the things that are really important for our people. But, before we think that putting in place support packages is enough for our people, it's not. It's more important that we first look at policy opportunities and ways we can further assist our farmers during times of hardship.
If you're in the southern Murray-Darling Basin areas, this all pertains to water policy. Are we doing everything we possibly can with water policy to enable our farmers to farm? It's good to hear the previous speaker, representing the Labor Party, suggest that we should be doing more in relation to building dams. That's very refreshing—that we're getting criticised by the Labor Party for not doing enough in relation to building dams! We would like that sentiment to be echoed throughout Queensland. We would love that sentiment from the Labor Party to be pushed harder throughout Victoria. It's good to see that the New South Wales government have come on board to partner with the federal government to build dams in New South Wales. But, if that's the stance of the Labor Party, then we're very happy that they have taken that view.
We also have to look at other ways of getting water to farmers. In the Murray River and the Goulburn River areas of Victoria, this might mean looking at using environmental water in dry years in the way that it was first explained to the Australian people under John Howard, when he had the view of putting together a national strategic plan instead of just this ad hoc arrangement where various governments around Australia were rushing off to buy indiscriminate parcels of water. Therefore, Prime Minister Howard at the time thought we needed to put some strategy around it, instead of these indiscriminate buybacks. When we put this strategy around it and put together a plan where water is taken out of agriculture and put into the environment, in dry years we should make allowances for that water to be returned to agriculture to enable farmers to farm. If we enable farmers to farm by using water in a more flexible manner, we're not going to need to supply farm household allowance to a whole range of farmers, because they're going to be able to fend for themselves.
This is very critical piece of support that the government is putting in place. Minister Littleproud, the minister for water resources and drought, is talking very clearly about a three-pronged strategy that we as a government are adopting. That is about providing, here and now, farm household support, and low-interest loans that have the capacity to save farmers in the vicinity of $30,000 per annum. We have farm household allowance, which is in the vicinity of $26,000 a year over a four-year period—that is, over $100,000.
A large proportion of the farmers that have transitioned out of farm household allowance have indicated it made a significant difference to their ability to stay in the farming sector. After transitioning out—hopefully, on the back of a couple of good years and profitability returning to their business—they've been able to look back and reflect that the farm household allowance came to them at a very crucial time and was a major reason why they were able to stay in agriculture. There is no doubt that this program has had wide-ranging impacts. Over 12,700 farmers have been part of the Farm Household Allowance Program. That has cost over $365 million during that period up to 4 October 2019. There has also been an additional $44 million for supplementary payments in recognition of the severity of this drought.
This program has been absolutely crucial to the ongoing viability of our people, certainly in my electorate of Nicholls. All of them would rather not be on this program. All of them have expressed some frustration with the complexity of getting the FHA—and we were able to acknowledge that, and it's a positive thing that the applications process has been, effectively, cut in half. It is still regarded in the same light as welfare support, even though we understand that it is entirely different. But the process of gaining this financial assistance does mean that we ask people to jump through a lot of hoops and provide an awful amount of their financial positions and financial structures. I understand that many farms are set up with trust arrangements, and this does add complexity to the process of being assessed for the farm household allowance. We do ask that people do not self-assess. We understand there are rural financial counsellors out there, who are prepared to help, and we understand that every member of this House is also prepared to help farmers in their patch, in any way they can, with their application for the farm household allowance. It is something that has been incredibly valuable.
I also need to re-stress this issue: that right now, this drought tightens its grip on our agricultural sector and our farmers and our farming communities. The point that's been well made is that this is not just about the farmers; this is about the communities that support our farming sector. Certainly in my electorate many of these small communities have been built around the dairy industry and, to a lesser extent, the fruit growing regions of the Goulburn Valley. So these communities are also the beneficiaries when it comes to giving people the farm household allowance to enable them to put food on their table and have that little bit of money swim around the community, which, in fact, it does. We have to stay fully committed to our farming communities.
I need to reinforce that, before we look at some of the things the NFF are talking about—that is, exit packages and maybe reskilling programs—we have to look under every rock and every hollow log to see if there's another way that we can actually help our farmers. If we happen to find an opportunity to assist with water policy and we are able to become more flexible with the water that currently exists within the agriculture sector, the investor pool or the environmental pool, then I think we owe it to our farmers to put the politics aside and look at the ways we can make water available to our farming sector in these incredibly dry times. If we come into this place and say that we all support our farmers and want to do everything we can to help them and then turn our back on them because we're not prepared to give them an opportunity to access the water that's flowing past their doors, flowing past their paddocks then we are simply politicians with hollow words. We have an opportunity to act in the Southern Basin. We have an opportunity to do something to help our farming sector. Everyone in this House has to have a genuine think about if it's just hollow words of support for our drought-affected farmers or if we actually want to change water policy to give them the water they need.
In Victoria right now, another element has been thrown into this, and this is the proposal that's been put forward to build another dam—that is, to turn little buffalo into big buffalo, which will effectively grow the size of buffalo dam by about 25 times. This is something that could lead to over a thousand gigalitres of water being held in storage. Again, this is something the Victorian government needs to come on board for and be supportive of. This is another way that we can capture more water in the heavy rainfall events and deliver it to Lake Nillahcootie to supply not just Victorian farmers but also South Australia and New South Wales with a more secure supply of water. Surely this is a project that needs to be looked at and examined. If it stacks up, then we need to see the funding flow and we need to see state governments prepared to get off their backsides and get to work and create further water storages to help our drought-affected farmers through these very, very troubling times.