House debates

Wednesday, 23 October 2019


Farm Household Support Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2019; Second Reading

1:15 pm

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

I'd like to briefly thank the member for Macquarie for that excellent speech and I would like to echo her sentiments. We remain ready on this side of the parliament to stand with the government to address the drought crisis affecting farmers across our nation. The member for Hunter and the Leader of the Opposition have proposed a 'drought war cabinet'—a joint effort to address this issue. That offer stands ready. It continues. Let's work together as a parliament, united, to address this issue.

I rise today to speak on the Farm Household Support Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2019, and the amendment moved by the member for Hunter, as a representative of farmers who are battling drought, principally on the east coast of my electorate. It may surprise some in this place, but Tasmania does experience drought. I know the pretty pictures show we're an island of green and lush mountains and beautiful rainforests, but the east coast of my electorate and of the state is dry, and it's been dry for years. We've had record low rainfall and farmers are struggling. Farmers on the east coast of my electorate are haemorrhaging money as they try to prop up their businesses and feed their livestock. Their mental and physical wellbeing is undermined. They are desperately worried for their future. I've met with several of them in recent months and have attended a drought awareness community meeting in Cranbrook, as recently as a few weeks ago. Cranbrook is on the east coast of my electorate, smack bang in the middle of the driest region in Tasmania. From what I heard when I spoke one-on-one to farmers and others at the meeting, it was clear to me that these people, this community, are hurting, and hurting badly.

Tasmania is a state of microclimates. That's fairly normal. The west coast has always received much more rainfall than the east. But this year, the extremes were amplified. On the west coast, the town of Strahan—some members may be familiar with it and with its rainforests—had a record high winter rainfall. The east coast had the opposite. It's hard to believe how extreme the extremes can be in a state that is so geographically small. The west coast had record high rainfall and the east coast had record low rainfall.

This bill is welcome. It increases the time for which a person affected by drought can access farm household allowance from a maximum four years over their lifetime to four years in each specified 10-year period. It introduces an expanded off-farm-income offset, broadening the circumstances in which it can be applied and increasing the upper threshold from $80,000 to $100,000. Finally, it will serve to introduce a one-off lump sum payment to those who have exhausted the allowed days of the allowance, by July 2020. These are certainly good initiatives. Any support given to those living with drought is noble. But let me be clear: It's not sufficient. It isn't sustainable. It has no impact on the broader issues, which the government seems to be ignoring. In Little Swanport on the east coast, wool producer Stuart has been destocking and feeding sheep since May. He reports he has spent more than $50,000 on feed. If rainfall does not increase, Stuart is going to have to destock further and keep only his breeding stock. It will take him years to recover. Closer to Cranbrook, on Steph's cattle and sheep property only two of the 20 waterholes contain water. She reports that over the past five years the region has experienced less than half its annual rainfall—2014, she reports, was the driest in 118 years. Down the road, Alan, who also farms sheep, acknowledges the persistence of the dry. 'It's just hung on. There's no break in between,' he told the ABC last November.

In the south-east of my electorate it was reported in August this year that Bangor Vineyards' Matt Dunbabin, a former Australian Farmer of the Year, was having to invest in a $100,000 10-kilometre pipeline, simply to ensure that his grape vines continue to have a reliable source of water. It's expensive and a lot of work but cheaper than letting his grapevines die. The reality is that farmers across Lyons and across Australia are experiencing similar situations. There is no rain. There is no water. There is no let up from the dry, the extreme weather conditions and the drought.

The Prime Minister has stated several times that the drought is his top priority. He acknowledges the severity of it, the implications of it. He has a minister for drought. Previously he had a drought envoy. We still have not seen the reports or the results of that expensive, nonsensical marketing exercise that was generated—it seems clear now—only for a headline. We have seen nothing in public about what the drought envoy was supposed to have achieved.

Drought is not a new phenomenon to Australia. Our farmers and rural and regional communities have always had to contend with the realities of fickle and extreme weather, and it was always projected they will continue to be a prominent feature of Australian weather. What was not expected, however, was the consistency of this drought or just how extreme it has been. It May last year, a paper was published by the University of Melbourne in collaboration with the Australian Research Council's Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science. This paper demonstrates that Australia's recent drought experiences could be the worst drought seen on the continent in 800 years. The broader problem is Australia does not just have to face the challenges caused by drought. There is also blistering heat. The lack of rainfall has created an environment susceptible to bushfires and low dam reservoirs, and extreme temperatures mean we are not in a position to combat them.

Parts of my electorate not known for being overly dry—the Derwent Valley and the Central Highlands, which in winter are covered in snow as often as not—were ravaged by bushfires earlier this year, burning more than 200,000 hectares of land, including some of our state's most sensitive and unique natural areas. Vegetarian that has evolved over millennia went up in flames. In May 2018, many Tasmanian regions, including our capital city of Hobart and another part of the Derwent Valley—not the part that was hit by bushfire—were hit by floods, causing widespread damage and costing councils millions of dollars.

Across the world, we are seeing record-breaking temperatures and extreme weather becoming more frequent and more normal. This summer might well be the hottest summer in 100 years, but we need to change the way we think. We shouldn't be thinking that this is the hottest summer in 100 years but should realise that it could well be the coolest in the next 100 years.

Our farmers are resilient, optimistic and adaptable. There is only so much they can do in the wake of these experiences. The science, the data, the mapping and the research all show that our weather is going to get hotter, it's going to be drier and there will be more extreme weather events—more floods, more fires, more droughts. It's likely to be even more unpredictable in the years ahead.

Government needs to step up, take responsibility and do more to help those who are affected by the drought. While this bill certainly provides some assistance, it is not enough. I go to the member for Macquarie's statements and those of the member for Hunter. The government has made much of the $7 billion drought fund. Not one cent of $7 billion goes to farmers. We don't argue on this side against the merits a drought fund, about the $100 million to be drawn down in future years for drought infrastructure. We don't argue about the need for that or about the good sense in drought infrastructure, but stop telling farmers that it's for them. It doesn't help farmers on the ground, and it certainly does not help farmers who are affected by drought right now, today. Not one cent of it goes to farmers, so stop telling farmers that this is a drought fund for them.

Agriculture and our primary industries are critical to our economy. They employ tens of thousands of Australians in Tasmania alone. Around 10,000 Tasmanians are directly employed in agriculture and contribute about a third of gross state product. This does not include the money and jobs created through value-adding and downstream industries and processing. Last night, the parliament got quite literally a taste of some of the agricultural produce that Tasmania—


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