Wednesday, 23 October 2019
Farm Household Support Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2019; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Farm Household Support Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2019. The drought may feel a long way away for city dwellers, but for many people in my electorate of Macquarie, on the fringe of Sydney, it's very close to home. We might only be 70 kilometres from Sydney's CBD, but we have around 500 businesses in the agricultural sector employing around 1,000 people between them. That includes cattle producers, orchardists and vegetable and produce growers. We've also got Western Sydney University and the Hawkesbury campus, with its focus on agriculture and innovation in agriculture.
This drought, which people are saying will soon be the worst drought since European settlement, impacts in a number of ways. It impacts directly on local farmers who are coping with less water and higher costs; that is affecting their production and their profitability. It affects the businesses that supply those farmers, who are much less likely to be upgrading tractors and equipment in difficult times and are cutting costs where they can. It flows on through the whole local economy. When you drive past paddocks and dams every day, there's also greater awareness. Of course, everyone appreciates that things are so much tougher across the ranges. There's certainly nothing much positive coming from forecasters about rain throughout summer, and there is therefore huge empathy for the farming communities who are suffering. The government didn't need to spend $190,000 on an empathy plan to make that happen, as it did with the Inland Rail project; people do understand.
There is real sympathy for the plight of farmers and little sympathy for a government that likes taking photos with farmers but whose claims on drought funding sometimes just don't stack up. I think the best example of that is this: the Prime Minister keeps banging on about his $7 billion drought package, but we've learned that $5 billion of that is locked away in a fund for another 10 years and that only $100 million is going to be spent per year—so it's a $100 million amount, not a $5 billion amount, to be spent. And the other $2 billion is actually loans. I really think the Prime Minister has to be a bit more up-front about what is actually being provided to people.
I've listened with interest to Senate estimates on the Future Drought Fund. It's designed to fund research and other things that are really worthwhile doing; there is no doubt about it. But it's not actually providing immediate support to farmers and their communities, and it won't start until 1 July next year. So the question has to be asked: what are people going to do until then? That is why we will be supporting these extensions and improvements to the farm household support program, because they are terribly needed. But this isn't enough.
One of the reasons some communities are missing out on drought funding is that they don't have quite enough people involved in agriculture. I was stunned to hear that the formula that is applied is being applied so rigorously. You're required to have a minimum of 17 per cent of your community employed in agriculture. There are communities all around Australia that are dreadfully drought affected, but they're missing out on funding because they only have 16.9 per cent of their population employed in agriculture. We need communities' needs to be understood, not an inflexible percentage to be placed. The government really needs to think about how to make the support packages that they have available and accessible. We support this increase in farm assistance, because we believe there are people who need immediate support. But we also need longer-term planning and action.
In terms of immediate support, it is extraordinary how my community have stepped up to provide immediate support where they see a need. Groups like Hawkesbury Hay Runners, set up by Dan Naethuys and Josh Stephenson, are contributing to the immediate response. Earlier this year their volunteer truck drivers delivered 50 round bales to Moree, to help out, and they've been collaborating with Animal Welfare League NSW to provide some hands-on practical support. City Slickers Appeal, another Hawkesbury charity, has been active for around 18 months after Wade and a group of Ebenezer friends realised that they could help, that there was something they could do. Their work was recognised in a Hawkesbury Australia Day award earlier this year. When I spoke to Wade, he said that he realised just how hard things were in the bush and he simply wanted to show country people that city-slickers did actually care about what was happening past the mountains. Ever since then, Wade and his team have been going about their business, just trying to help as many communities and farmers they can, delivering bales, food and all sorts of supplies regularly to the bush. They're well supported by the very generous Hawkesbury community in which they live.
These are people who can see there is more to be done, in spite of the Prime Minister's claims that it's all under control. In the absence of rain, a promised dam just ain't gonna cut it. Dams are great when it is raining, but we're kind of beyond that point. What we're missing is a comprehensive approach to tackling the impacts of the current drought and then a longer term plan to manage the changing conditions that farmers are clearly facing. The National Farmers' Federation thinks there needs to be a plan. The Nationals think there needs to be a plan. It's just that the government can't quite see that things are at a point where in fact you do need to reach out and work with a whole range of people. Guess what? That includes working with us, across this parliament, to put a long-term strategy in place.
One of the things we need to see is the report by the Coordinator-General for Drought, Major General Stephen Day, which the Prime Minister refuses to release. That is mind-boggling. He tells us it's the basis for the decisions government is making, yet we're not privy to what is in that report. Keeping secret the reports you receive isn't a way to work collaboratively or for there to be any confidence in the decisions the government is making; nor is bluffing your way through by saying, 'We're doing heaps,' when those on the ground are having a very different experience. That's why we've proposed a drought cabinet, modelled on the war cabinets chaired by Menzies, Curtin and Churchill, creating a forum that allows decisions to be made on a bipartisan basis. These are dark days for farmers and the farming communities that rely on them. That's also going to flow through to every person who buys food. It's only a matter of time before the crunch is really felt. We can't wait for that point. This situation goes beyond what we've seen in the past with drought and requires a comprehensive and urgent response now.
I will address one final point. It's often said by those on the other side that our side doesn't understand the bush and farming communities. That claim is made often, as are many others that are simply not based on any evidence or fact. I put on the record that as, a small-business operator, my very first client was New South Wales Farmers. This was back in the 1990s. For 25 years in the course of working in my business as a media and presentation consultant I was privileged to work with a multitude of agricultural businesses. Sometimes they came to me because things were really tough in their sector and they needed help; at other times things were going great guns and they wanted to spread the word on what they were doing and needed some skills to do that. What it gave me was the opportunity to really see inside some of these bigger agricultural businesses and smaller producers, the individuals who were there working on their properties. I think it does this parliament a disservice that those opposite think they have all the knowledge about farming and rural communities.
There are parts of my community which you look at and you think, 'This is absolutely remote wilderness.' There are other parts where you think, 'This is rural agriculture.' I really urge those opposite: work with us. We do have some knowledge and understanding, and, what's more, we have the goodwill to find a way through this very difficult problem, which is not your problem alone; it's our country's problem, and it's something where we should all be working together to find a resolution. There has been a lot of talk about what the solutions might be for the best way to come to an agreement on these, because nothing is going to happen in a single term of parliament. Anything that really will make a difference in the long run is going to require ongoing support. You can't have governments chopping and changing at will. I urge you to set your pride aside and come and work with us. We really want to help. We have Australia's best interests at heart.