Wednesday, 23 June 2010
Farm Household Support Amendment (Ancillary Benefits) Bill 2010
Debate resumed from 26 May, on motion by Mr Burke:
That this bill be now read a second time.
Before I was interrupted I was focusing on the areas in my electorate that had missed out on a good season and who, unfortunately, had their EC cancelled in March following a visit from the National Rural Advisory Council during November. I pointed out that NRAC visited the upper north cropping district in the first week in November and in the second week of November we were hit with a record heatwave. The crops that looked so good had many of their yields halved. There was a late change to the season after the assessment had been made.
On Eyre Peninsula around the Cowell, Cleve, Arno Bay and Ceduna areas, they simply missed out on a good season. The EC declaration was cancelled on the strength that the greater area—in the case of Cowell, Cleve and Arno Bay; that is the central Eyre region—had a good season. The centres of Kimba, Wudinna and Elliston had excellent seasons. It was taken on the balance. About one-quarter of the farmers missed out in those areas that I have already pointed out.
For the western region, it was pretty much the same. It was a great season, except if you happened to live just to the north of Ceduna. Indeed, about 20 farmers there, or a few more, experienced a very poor season. Once again, the area was judged on the balance. Those farmers have not exited the drought. They are still well and truly dealing with the effect of it.
With that in mind, I met with the relevant task force. We decided to approach Minister Burke. They came to Canberra and I accompanied them. Minister Burke encouraged the regions to reapply for EC support and to go back through the state minister. So we went back to South Australia and with the support of PIRSA a new application was lodged. I must congratulate the new minister for agriculture in South Australia, Michael O’Brien. He approved the application and it was sent to Minister Burke’s office. Following his commitment to make this process as speedy as possible, it was forwarded to NRAC.
I must say that NRAC have now had that submission for almost two months. I am continually contacted by people under stress within my region wondering how the process is going. I urge them to put their foot on the pedal and make a decision. The stress of the people contacting my office is quite concerning. I have visited a number of the people involved. To watch people lose this lifelong investment and see the pressures that their families are being put under is quite disturbing.
Exceptional circumstances has two components. Those two components are the interest rate subsidy and household support. Almost surprisingly, the household support seems to be the one that is most keenly missed. That is the one that puts food on the table. That is an indication of how difficult the circumstances are for some of these people. In many cases, farmers are just trying to hang on long enough to sell their farms to qualify for exit grants. The exit grants are another difficulty with the current EC package, in that if a mortgage is foreclosed on it is too late to apply for an exit grant. You must have made the decision to leave of your own free will before that day. What happens is that, once people reach this unfortunate position, they put their properties or portions of their properties on the market. But that does not mean to say that they will sell. For the time they are not selling, the debts just keep accumulating. Eventually, if they do not sell quickly enough, the debts reach that trigger point when the banks will move in on them and issue a foreclosure. Then they have no chance to qualify for the exit grant.
As I said, some people are under terrible stress, watching their lifetime’s work and the future of their children go down the drain. As I have said previously, the process of winding down EC across Australia can be supported if other appropriate arrangements are in place. That is what this bill is leading to. I believe that at the moment it as if these people have been taken three-quarters of the way across the desert and left without a horse or a waterbag and expected to make the rest of the distance. The drought has not ended. They are still clearly in the same drought that they were in last year, the year before and the year before that.
To return to the legislation and the trial in Western Australia, it will include farm family support, farm social support, grants of up to $60,000 for building farm businesses, farm planning support, support for stronger rural communities, a farm exit package up to $170,000 and a new measure to put current farmers in touch with former farmers to work through some of the opportunities outside farming.
In an overall sense, this is an admirable range of options—it is just a case of whether or not it will actually make the difference it needs to. I support it in so much as it focuses on trying to build better businesses and better business models and I think that is a good move. Will it meet the demands of the next exceptional drought? I would have to say probably not because, once again, when governments are faced—as almost inevitably they will be, in these kinds of circumstances—with large-scale business failure there will be calls for them to intervene. I am not sure this is going to foot the bill, but it is certainly worth a try. Hopefully, it will promote better and stronger businesses, more aware of their financial position and able to manage the increasingly complex business of farming. Farming involves a good knowledge of electronics, soil analysis, marketing, finance and staff management—just to name a few.
I must say as an ex-farmer it is a fantastic job. It has the wide responsibilities and challenges of a large corporation but is still, largely, a hands-on occupation. And you are rewarded—the smarter you work, the more you are likely to earn. I have enjoyed the challenge of farming. It is a fantastic job. But we farmers can be our worst enemies, in fact—from time to time talking down the industry and discouraging those that may join it. Family members are sometimes actively discouraged from farming. Our agricultural training courses are well undersubscribed, and we struggle to attract the top students. Farmers should be proud of what they do and they should be, in an overall sense, optimistic about their future, because we know that there is going to be not only a continuing demand for agricultural products but also an escalating demand. That is why I support anything that supports farmers to become better at the job. The future of farming in Australia hinges around profitability, adaptability and innovation.
I have raised before, in this place, the continual decline of government support for agricultural research. We expect to have eight to nine billion people in the world by 2050 and 11 billion by 2060. Surely, the greatest moral issue of the generation will be how the world will feed this number. Widespread famine is more than just personal tragedy—and it certainly is a terrible personal tragedy—it is a world security issue. The planet will need to double food production. At the same time, we expect to lose 30 per cent of our arable lands. Those who believe agriculture is a sunset industry are wrong. They have to be wrong, because if agriculture is not a new horizon then all else will fail.
Five million dollars of research funding was cut from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry’s budget last year and, in my state of South Australia, the South Australian Research and Development Institute can expect no more than standstill budgets in the foreseeable future. Investment in research and development is the backbone of the agricultural industry but has been diminishing in real terms for the past 25 years. Climate change, the pressures of international trade, the rising cost of doing business in the Australian economy, the likely rises in inputs and the weakness of the American dollar—which will continue to reduce our competitiveness—all present real challenges for the industry. Periodic drought, pestilence and market collapse inevitably will occur. A profitable agriculture sector is the best chance we have of avoiding periodic requests for assistance. Australia must have a commitment to the world and our own nation to ensure that industries are equipped to meet those challenges, and the best way of doing this is to provide the scientific horsepower to drive adaption and adoption of new technologies.
In some areas we are restricted by cheap politics. In South Australia we are held hostage to the green left, who have opposed any advances in technological agriculture as being somehow bad for the general public. Any new technology promoted by a multinational automatically becomes bad. Where else are we going to find money to develop new technology that costs millions of dollars per product except from major multinationals? Some of these people who feel they have the environment in their best interests are driven by this idyllic view of agriculture a hundred years ago—that, somehow, it was better for the environment than today’s agriculture. That is an unfortunate consequence of the urbanisation of the nation, as city dwellers disconnect from rural activities. There was a time in Australian cities when virtually everybody’s father, uncles or cousins resided on farms and people would travel out from the cities for their summer holidays and have some contact with and some understanding of how food is produced. That is becoming increasingly rare, and children tend to think that milk comes from packets and meat comes from the supermarket. That disconnect is a real threat to agriculture in so much as people do not understand what farmers do, how they do it and how it needs to be done. Those who would inhibit the use of new technologies have a charming view of agriculture and farming—but, if we were to adopt their views, millions of people around the world would starve. One hundred years ago, for instance, our topsoil was washing away and blowing away. Modern farming has made farming in Australia environmentally sustainable—and the technology has made it so.
The influence of the Greens scare campaigns means there are still bans in South Australia on growing GM product, when the rest of the nation has moved on. Indeed, the rest of the world is moving on. We will soon see widespread adoption of these technologies in China and other parts of Asia and we all well know that increasingly—and sometimes disturbingly—an increasing part of our food profile is actually coming from these nations. Genetic modification offers lower chemical use, varieties which will grow on and rehabilitate degraded lands and drought tolerance, and certainly in the future there will be health benefits. Blanket bans are nonsensical. Every product should be assessed product by product, just like any other new product in any market. If there is a new chemical on the market we assess the new chemical—we do not just say all chemicals are good or all chemicals are bad. I urge those that have control over the licensing of GM product in South Australia to get on with the job.
To return to the legislation and this limited trial in Western Australia, I think it is well worth a go. I am not fully convinced it will meet the challenges of the next extended drought in Australia, but there is nothing in this package which is harmful and it may well help—it should help—build better sustainable businesses and farming businesses.
Before I begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet. I also wish to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land that we call northern Tasmania. I respect elders both past and present, together with their continuing culture and traditions. On 20 February 2008 when I gave my inaugural speech I advised the House that it was indeed both an honour and a privilege for me to wear traditional shell necklaces hand made by Dulcie and Lola Greeno. I am extremely proud to again wear a traditional shell necklace hand made by Dulcie Greeno and to bring Tasmanian Aboriginal culture into this chamber. I am inspired by women like Dulcie Greeno, who continue to be a fountain of virtue and optimism for our society. Dulcie is a woman who understands that a nation that is fully reconciled to its past is one that can go forward with confidence to embrace its future.
The Australian parliament under Prime Minister Rudd’s leadership, together with Minister Macklin, made the formal apology in parliament on 13 February 2008, which will be remembered as a proud day in this nation’s history when, as a nation, we declared that we are ‘sorry’. The word ‘sorry’ holds special meaning in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. In many Aboriginal communities, sorry is an adapted English word used to describe the rituals surrounding death. Sorry in these contexts is also often used to express empathy or sympathy rather than responsibility. Simply saying that you are sorry is a powerful symbol. It is powerful not because it represents some expiation of guilt or any form of legal requirement but simply because it restores respect.
On 24 November 2007 it became evident that the people of Bass were indeed an excellent barometer for the mood of the country. On that day the people of Bass, like the people of the nation, determined to forge a new future for our country and our local communities. In doing so, the people of Bass demonstrated their decency, their belief in the ‘fair go’ not just for themselves but for all Australians. I was elected to this place at a monumental time within Australian politics. The ‘Your Rights at Work’ campaign was the most successful union and community campaign in Australian election history. It began when the former Howard government announced sweeping changes to workplace laws that would strip away basic rights at work, including penalty rates, overtime and unfair dismissal protection. As thousands of Australians, including many young workers, began feeling the impact of Work Choices, the campaign grew rapidly into a broad based movement for a fair go. Australians were adamant that they wanted to uphold the Australian way of life and its values that working people hold so dear—a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. ‘Your Rights at Work’ was instrumental in the downfall of the Liberal and National Howard government. ‘Your Rights at Work’ was instrumental in getting me elected to this place. I have no doubt that in decades to come, and when my children’s children look back at Australian political history, historians will refer to the 2007 election as the ‘Rights at Work’ election, an election and a platform that I am so honoured and proud to have been a part of.
I acknowledge the brilliant work of the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. I put on the record my sincere thanks and gratitude to all the union members, to all the working families and to all the workers within my electorate that I had the privilege of meeting and who stood up for the rights of future generations on that November day in 2007. You have a place in my heart forever and you have again instilled in me the principles to fight for what you believe and to never, ever give up.
Those principles are what gave me the determination to fight for the entitlements of the employees in Launceston who were made redundant when Ansett Australia collapsed back in 2001. Let us not forget 400 employees in Launceston, let alone the 16,000 employees across the country. I was part of a collective team who worked solidly for many, many months with the hope of securing what was rightfully due and owing to those employees. On 14 September 2001, the day of the Ansett collapse, employees were entitled to all wages, accrued annual leave, long service leave and redundancy entitlements that had not been paid under the Special Employee Entitlements Scheme for Ansett employees, otherwise known as SEESA. As of 31 March 2010, the scheme has made payments totalling $383.7 million to all of the 13,072 eligible former Ansett employees. This really is fantastic news, as it means that former Ansett employees have now received 100 per cent of the SEESA payments that they were entitled to. Those principles have been with me in this role as the federal member for Bass. Being the 13th member to hold this seat, I feel extremely privileged and incredibly humbled to have been given this opportunity to serve the people of Bass and to represent them and participate in decision making at the highest level of democracy within our country.
When I was elected to this role I wanted to achieve real outcomes for people in areas that mattered. Two of those outcomes hold special significance. The first one involved a local woman, Jo Ryan, and concerned her son, Ben, who has a condition known as fragile X syndrome. Jo came to me as one determined mum, asking for help for funding a weekend respite program so that she could get some much-needed rest and, equally importantly, Ben could attend the weekend program, have a certain degree of independence and socialise with his peers. I will always remember Jo’s words to me that she had worked so hard and put so much time in with Ben that she was not about to let it go to waste. I could see the look of sheer desperation, but I could also see the look of anger in her eyes. For a long while Jo had really been beating her head up against a brick wall without any success at all. After discussions with the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services, Bill Shorten, funding was received for a weekend respite program, which has made such a positive difference not only to the lives of Jo and Ben but to the lives of many other carers and clients who use the service. Funding for the Youth Break program is due to finish in mid-2011 and I would encourage whoever forms the next government to commit to extending the funding for this vital and necessary program.
I am extremely proud of the work that was completed by the Standing Committee on Family, Community, Housing and Youth, in particular the inquiry Who cares … ?: Report on the inquiry into better support for carers. I would like to acknowledge the leadership of my colleague and chair of the committee, Annette Ellis, together with the deputy chair, Judi Moylan. During this inquiry it was incredibly important to hear from the various organisations about their views and strategies in which government could play a role, but it was the evidence from the carers themselves that was just so heartfelt. The committee heard evidence from 1,300 carers across the country, who shared their personal and often distressing experiences with the committee. Often committee members were reduced to tears, having heard about and been faced with the reality of what life for a carer in our society actually means—their real life stories of becoming socially isolated from their peers, disconnected from mainstream employment and themselves suffering greater adverse health outcomes than the general population. Becoming a carer is not a choice. Some people feel that they are thrust into the role without warning. For others, becoming a carer is a more gradual process, though ultimately, equally devastating.
The committee heard loud and clear from carers that they wanted choices—choices for themselves, choices for the people they care for and choices for their families. That is why the announcement made on 23 November last year by Prime Minister Rudd at the National Disability Awards was just so important. The Productivity Commission inquiry into the national disability care and support scheme will seek to clarify what support carers and people with disabilities are entitled to receive. I am proud to be part of a government that takes the role of carers and also people living with a disability seriously. To that end, I would like to acknowledge the work of Minister Macklin, together with the incredible work that the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services, Bill Shorten, has done by highlighting the dilemma of people with disabilities and their carers.
The other story began with a telephone call that I received from Angela Sheehan, Ward Clerk at the renal unit of the Launceston General Hospital. I could feel the desperation in Angela’s voice as she explained to me that the renal unit, in its then current form, was at full capacity. They needed some assistance and they needed it now. I met with Rose Mace, the Nursing Unit Manager at the LGH, who for many years had been fighting for a new renal satellite unit. Space was so rare at the renal unit that nurses would see patients in Rose’s office, and chronic and well patients were dialysing side by side in an environment that was just totally unsuitable. At times, patients had to cut back on one of their treatments because space was so limited. I worked with Rose and her dedicated team and also with the most amazing people, the patients at the renal unit. Jill Dewis, Robert Wilkinson and Wilma George whom I have the utmost respect for, taught me a great deal when it comes to life on dialysis.
This process took time and I would like to thank the minister for health, Nicola Roxon, together with the Prime Minister, not only for the $15 million but for their genuine interest when it comes to the patients who rely on that technology. I am pleased to say that on 28 January this year I jointly opened stage 1 of the integrated care centre, which is the renal satellite unit. For people like Jill Dewis, Robert Wilkinson and Wilma George who, as I have already said, taught me so much, this renal unit gives them the dignity to access what is a routine procedure in their life outside the hospital environment. As I said earlier, these are two stories that I share with you today; however, there have certainly been many, many more.
I believe the Rudd Labor government has a proud record when it comes to delivering real outcomes for the people of Bass. In health—where in the first instance it was the Whitlam-Barnard Labor government who initially invested in our local hospital, the Launceston General—we see yet again a Labor government investing to the tune of $40 million to create an acute medical and surgical services unit. Again I thank Minister Roxon for her patience—no pun intended of course—for always taking my calls and for seeing me on those early Thursday mornings in her office where we had many constructive conversations.
In education, as I have experienced while attending the opening of the Launceston Church Grammar School junior school library and resource centre and inspecting the construction of the Ravenswood Primary School community hall, the school communities in the Bass electorate have been overwhelmed and so appreciative of the funding that they have received under Building the Education Revolution, which has enabled them to begin their capital works program much earlier than they would ever have expected. The government is connecting the people of Bass to the rest of the world by investing in a National Broadband Network. We will see the community of Scottsdale become one of the first three towns in the country to be connected as early as next month under the Rudd Labor government’s National Broadband Network initiative.
I am proud that, for the first time in Australian history, women on low incomes will have access to paid parental leave, giving them greater financial security when planning to begin a family. I would like to acknowledge the commitment and hard work of Sharan Burrow, President of the ACTU, together with Jennie George who have worked with many others to achieve this incredible result.
I am also proud to be part of a government that has delivered the most significant reforms in the 100-year history of the pension system. Because of this government, these historic reforms delivered for more than 17,000 pensioners in Bass increases of up to $100 per fortnight for singles and up to $74 per fortnight for couples combined.
As I reflect on my time here I am further convinced of the importance of the work that is done in this place. It is important because the people of Bass are important, the people in Tasmania, Australia and indeed our global village are important. International trade, global financial markets and high-speed technologies have connected individuals and communities beyond the borders of their countries. There is a growing awareness with the realisation that individuals, communities, corporations and countries have obligations to one another that are global in reach. In a world with much, it must continuously shock and disturb us that so many have so little. The fact is that we need to engineer opportunities for those who are economically underprivileged.
The Millennium Development Goals paint a vision of a better world—a world where poverty is halved by the year 2015. I am proud to be part of a government that prioritises the poor and the Millennium Development Goals. This year’s federal budget saw an increase of $530 million in overseas aid and I look forward with anticipation to when our aid budget reaches 0.7 per cent, which will effectively result in 220,000 lives being saved every year.
The young people of Bass have been particularly inspiring concerning the MDGs. A young student from Launceston College, Laura Sykes, has recently lobbied the Launceston City Council to become a fair-trade-certified council and succeeded. Young people understand the global injustices, question our belief in equality and justice and are active in raising a voice for those that have no voice. In doing so, the people of Bass demonstrate their decency and their belief in the fair go, not just for themselves as Australians but indeed for themselves as global citizens.
Together with my colleagues it has always been my intention to make a difference. I chose the Labor movement because of what it represents—a movement that has always sought to act with a moral seriousness, a commitment to social justice and an ideology that is on par with my principles and beliefs. It has been my intention from day one to bring to the team all my energy, patience, skill and compassion, and I believe I have done this. I am extremely pleased that the Labor Party in Bass has a strong and dedicated candidate in Geoff Lyons. Geoff brings to this role a commitment to his community that is second to none, holding 34 voluntary positions on committees. Geoff has my total support and will be an effective and dedicated federal member for Bass who represents the interests of his constituents.
Of course, there are people I dearly wish to thank. To the people of Bass, a hard-working and resilient community, I thank you again for allowing me the opportunity to represent you in federal parliament. To my parliamentary colleagues who have given me much support and encouragement, I say thank you. I have forged some great friendships and value them greatly. I also value the great working relationships I have had with political staffers. Thank you to my ALP colleagues in my home state of Tasmania, together with party members who work so incredibly hard from election to election. With Senator Helen Polley, duty Senator for Bass, and with her staff, my office has enjoyed a great working relationship. To Karl Bitar I want to put on the record my sincere thanks for his advice and support. To those on the opposite side of the chamber, clearly our political views differ. However, I believe we have the same determination, which is to make a difference to the lives of others.
To the most wonderful staff here at Parliament House—the attendants, security and, may I say, the Comcar drivers who keep us all incredibly sane and safe, and to my dear friend Patti Wilkins for giving me a truly wonderful home to return to after a busy day here in parliament—just amazing—I say thank you. To Anne Marie Wilcock, thank you for your friendship and allowing me, at times, to vent my frustrations and feelings. To my staff—and some are here this afternoon—to Gemma, Ben, Lauren, Gordon, Steph, Michelle and Terri, an amazing team for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect, a group of people who have shown me such loyalty and trust, I thank you all for always working so incredibly hard in helping the constituents who walked through our door. In particular, I would like to thank you, Gemma, as you have been with me right from the beginning of this journey.
To the most gorgeous Emma Brindley, who is also here today—who would have thought when I gave my inaugural speech in this House that you would be sitting in the chamber listening. We were indeed strangers at that point. However, as events unfolded, you moved from Sydney to Launceston to lead the team in the Bass office. You became someone in whom I could confide and whom I could trust and whose loyalty I so appreciate. You were able to make people see things a whole lot clearer than I ever could, and that certainly was not from a lack of trying on my part. For that, Emma, I thank you. You are now back in Sydney with your fiance, Tim, and whilst you are clearly now not working for me, what I do have is a lifelong friend in you.
To my offshore advisers, Margaret and Terri Brindley, and of course the lovely Nanny Flo, thank you for your kindness, friendship, wise counsel and, may I say, humour. To my dear friends Sophie, Matt and Ava, Steph, Ben, Oliver, Xavier and Indigo, Genevieve, Steve and Felix, Maxine, George, Pippa and Hugh, Fiona, Peter, Shanelle and Samara, Jake, Michael, Joy, Darlene, Graham, Alyssa, Holly and Sophie, thank you all for your friendship and for always being there for the girls and for me.
This position has made me realise the importance of family. To my sisters: at times you yourselves were, I am sure, under scrutiny because of my position. I thank you for your patience.
My mother passed away only recently. I have learnt in recent times that I certainly have my mother’s passion for music together with, at times, her feistiness and resilience. As my sister said at her funeral, she was most proud of a photo that had pride of place in her home—a picture of her, me and the Prime Minister. She was a nan whom both of my girls adored.
To my dearest Alex: you have always had this amazing ability to put light and colour into my life. We have always been able to make one another smile; however, it took us a little while to realise this. I have the utmost respect for the work that you choose, which is to improve the lives of people living with a disability. You most certainly make an incredible difference. I thank you for all of your support, for being there and for showing me an incredible part of our island, Arthur River.
Of course then there are my two beautiful and clever daughters: Sommer and Izabella. You have both travelled this political journey with me—from the campaign trail wearing orange T-shirts and handing out balloons to sitting through your first question time, when you were both very disappointed that you were not able to wear your Kevin 07 T-shirts. It was to my amusement when Sommer told me after question time that she thought everyone was acting like monkeys. Well, I could hardly argue with that. I am looking forward to spending more time with you both and enjoying the simple things in life that we enjoy together.
I would like to take this opportunity also to thank the many people across this country, together with my parliamentary colleagues, for the support I received last year. It was absolutely overwhelming. I must say a special thank you to Roger Price, who not only gave me a great deal of support but gave support to my staff. I would like to thank and acknowledge Corri McKenzie and Fiona Sugden from the Prime Minister’s office, together with Andrew Harris.
The most difficult thing that I have gone through being a member of parliament is having my private life become a public affair. I certainly understand that there is a need to look at court processes; however, I do believe that there needs to be a reporting environment that draws the balance between reporting information that is relevant and having the journalistic integrity so as not to add to the burden.
I have always been a person who has been able to advocate for myself. Now, after going through that period of time in my life, I most certainly understand and relate to women who have been on a similar journey. It is so incredibly important that women are able to access legal services and to have the support they need and that processes are explained to them clearly and precisely.
I am pleased that, in the 2010-11 budget, $154 million has been allocated over four years to enhance access to justice to legal aid commissions, community legal centres and Indigenous legal services. This will provide support for women who require legal assistance to deal with domestic violence. I am also aware that the government is in the final stages of the development of a national plan to reduce violence against women, and I await that report with anticipation. To that end, I would like to acknowledge the work of Minister Plibersek in her role as the Minister for the Status of Women. I would like to personally thank her for her support.
Again I say that I have been extremely humbled to represent the Bass community. I have learnt much from my time here in this House, knowledge that I will take away with me on my next journey. I leave this role knowing that I have achieved a great deal for my community in a short period of time and of that I am extremely proud. I have no doubt in my mind that Bass will always be best served under a Labor government. I will continue to advocate for the party and its principles that brought me to this place.
As the attendant of this monkey cage, I wish the member for Bass every happiness in her future endeavours. May she enjoy her time with her delightful daughters and, well into the future—without wanting to age her too quickly—her children’s children, whose hopes and aspirations she spoke of today.
Before I call the member for Throsby, I understand it is the wish of the House that there be no points of order taken during her speech.
A few weeks ago I sat on the stage at Sydney Town Hall with other stalwarts of the union and women’s movement lending our support to the ACTU test case for pay equity. It was an inspiring event. Just last week we all celebrated the introduction of Australia’s first paid parental leave scheme. Historic breakthroughs such as these occur when both parts of the labour movement work together on agreed outcomes. Labor in government has the capacity to deliver legislative changes unencumbered by the limitations of industrial campaigning. Providing access to superannuation for all was a grand Labor achievement. It began with the creation of industrial funds and then flowed through to all working people by the legislative reforms of the Hawke-Keating government.
In making this last speech in parliament I realise how fortunate I have been over the last four decades of public life to have had the opportunities both in the union movement and, since 2001, in parliament as the member for Throsby. All who have served in the federal parliament are indeed privileged to have earned the public trust of their constituents. In early 2002, I took my place in this House as the 981st elected member of the House of Representatives. But only 56 female MPs were elected before me, the majority of them from the eighties onwards, and what a difference they have made to this House.
But who could have imagined that the daughter of parents who came to Australia as refugees under the UNHCR program would one day be making a farewell speech in this chamber. But my story is not atypical. Our national identity today has been shaped by people who have come to Australia from many lands and in many circumstances. They have helped build our economic fortunes and our cultural diversity and made a great contribution, as we know, in so many walks of life. The politics of fear and prejudice undermine the very best of the values that we take pride in: our belief in a fair go and the generosity and compassion that Australians display in so many ways every day.
Australia has a reputation as a land of opportunity. The industrial and welfare safety nets are an important part of our postwar development. I would like to think that in hard times we continue to extend a hand to those in need and that we will continue to redress the multiple disadvantages of Indigenous Australians. We say as Australians we believe in the principle of equality of opportunity, but translating that into practice needs recognition that material circumstances and family background are important determinants in the outcomes that are achieved. A good education is a key factor in breaking down the barriers that limit an individual’s aspirations and achievements. It certainly was for me.
Demography should not define destiny—a strongly held view that I share with our Minister for Education. The public education system gave me the solid foundations for later achievements. That is why I remain a strong supporter and advocate for public education. It is in that system that the life chances of almost 70 per cent of our students will be defined. That is why I will continue to argue that the primary obligation of governments, at all levels, is to ensure a quality public education system. The effects of disadvantage on student achievement can and are constantly overcome. The inspiration of individual teachers that we all remember cannot be underestimated. But funding levels, resourcing, staffing and facilities do matter and our government has already made a substantial investment in the educational reform agenda with lots more to come.
The school funding review recently announced by the minister gives us all the opportunity to replace the flawed SES system with one that is based on genuine need. I am also very heartened by the goal we have set of 20 per cent of all university enrolments to be filled by low-SES students by 2020. I have spoken about this issue on several occasions in the House, concerned that the Throsby electorate is ranked at a low 133 out of the 150 electorates on the measure of participation rates in higher education. The Bradley review confirmed that we do not still today provide equal access to all. A student from a high socioeconomic background is still three times more likely to attend a university than one from a low-SES background. I will be watching with great anticipation and with great interest the outcomes of these reforms.
My time as the member for Throsby has been challenging and rewarding. It is a great community to represent in the parliament. Working with people on the ground, listening and dealing with their concerns, being their advocate in this place, helping to find local solutions and defining the policy and resource responses required from government is a challenging job that contends us all. I have enjoyed campaigning locally around issues like doctor shortages, dental health needs, unemployment, job creation, apprenticeships and skills training.
Youth unemployment in our region has been unacceptably high and in some suburbs intergenerational. Like all of you, we do want to make a difference and I focused particularly on that issue. In the Illawarra area our low school retention rate meant that lots of young kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and Indigenous children were falling through the cracks with bleak future prospects. With a grant from the former government for an apprenticeship coordinator and an expansion in pre-apprenticeship courses, our local apprenticeship committee, which I chaired, assisted over 400 young people in gaining an apprenticeship.
Our local solution to a local problem has now been mainstreamed by the government’s Apprentice Kickstart program. Raising incentives for businesses to take on young people has resulted in great outcomes locally and nationally. In the first three months of this year around 550 local young people were taken on and given a great start in their working life. Our local campaign was co-sponsored by the local paper, the Illawarra Mercury, and I thank them and Ian Nichols, working from the Illawarra Business Chamber, for their endeavours.
As a member of parliament I believe one of my key responsibilities is to convey the views of the electorate both in our caucus and in debate on legislation. Often I am representing the views and voice of people who have no clout at all in the political process. At other times I am representing the interests of major companies like BlueScope Steel, understanding their importance for our regional economy and the employment prospects for our young people and local families.
As well as being their voice in parliament I really welcome the opportunities to contribute to public policy work through the work of parliamentary committees. I have been a member of several committees whose reports have made a difference. The report Every picture tells a story led to a shake-up of the child support system and a revamp of family law. I enjoyed working on that committee, chaired by the indefatigable member for Riverina, and for several years serving as deputy chair on the environment committee to my friend, the member for Moore, Dr Mal Washer.
Our roles are now reversed but we continue a tradition on that committee, providing bipartisan reports which are substantial in scope and in content. Our recent report on the impact of climate change on the coastal zone followed on from the Sustainable cities report and the one on a sustainability charter. It is through opportunities like this that a lot of good work is done with people on the opposition benches and unlikely friendships can develop across the political divide.
I would like to place on record my thanks to all the staff who work in this building and to the secretariat staff who service the work of our committees. We need to recognise and strengthen the work of parliamentary committees and to that end I trust that our recent report from the Procedure Committee, tabled by the chair this week, and its recommendations will generate interest for future reform.
In this last term I have served as part of the federal Labor team in government. It certainly makes a difference to being in opposition, particularly so if you are representing as I do, a relatively safe Labor seat. The people that I represent understand the difference. By our actions we have shown that a federal Labor cares about the local community regardless of where it sits on the political pendulum. They see every day the benefits of over $400 million of investment in our community with the upgrading of school infrastructure and important community projects throughout all the suburbs of Throsby: the upgrade of local roads, new GP superclinics, investing in cancer care, elective surgery and new beds, the re-opening of the Medicare office at Warrawong, and the list goes on. I never fail to promote these positive achievements locally to remind people what has been achieved in our first term of office at a time of great economic and financial challenge.
It is more than the bricks and the mortar; it is the local jobs that were sustained and new employment opportunities created. You can see the multiplier effect in operation on every building site that you visit throughout my electorate. Instead of unemployment rates almost double the national average in the Howard era, we are now closing the gap in the Illawarra and laying solid foundations for future prosperity.
Investment in social capital, which is not so visible, has been equally important. Early intervention programs like the HIPPY program, Indigenous disadvantage, homelessness, disability and respite care, and social housing, have all benefited from government investments. It has been humbling to see the work of our church and welfare agencies, community groups and organisations like Barnardos, Southern Youth and Family Services, the Aboriginal Corporation and Warrigal Employment. If anyone is deserving to have their work properly recompensed it is the workers, predominantly women, in the community sector.
The Illawarra has a proud working class history built on the traditions of coal mining and steel making. In looking to the future one of our major challenges is to ensure a more diversified economic base. In that regard our region is indebted to the key role played by the University of Wollongong under the guidance of Vice-Chancellor Gerard Sutton. The member for Cunningham and I have had a solid and productive relationship with both our university and the TAFE institute so ably led by Di Murray. Recent government investments, secured in competitive funding rounds, at our university will have profound, long-term benefits for the Illawarra.
The new SMART infrastructure facility that we have funded will have value way beyond Wollongong, so too the new processing and devices facility at the Institute for Innovative Materials, where our scientists will be able to manufacture their inventions in fields like medical bionics, solar cells and superconductors. And just in the last few weeks a $25 million investment in an exciting new project, Retrofitting for Resilient and Sustainable Buildings, will provide for a new six-star Green Star facility with research and teaching laboratories at the university and, very importantly, testing laboratories at the local Yallah TAFE. BlueScope Steel will provide the materials and the technical expertise. Indeed, a great collaborative venture.
We hope that the whole nation will benefit as we in the Illawarra develop new technologies to make buildings more energy efficient, helping in our transition to a more carbon constrained future. But to complete our vision there is a missing link—and I am glad the minister for infrastructure is with us this afternoon—the Maldon-Dombarton freight rail link. The local campaign to have this major piece of infrastructure completed has been ably led by my colleague the member for Cunningham, Sharon Bird. It will complement the state government investment in the port at Port Kembla. If the economics stack up at the end of the feasibility study, it will be a bonanza for the Illawarra and a great reward for Sharon’s persistence and vision.
On top of this the southern end of my electorate of Throsby is one of the first test sites for the rollout of broadband. This will position our region well to capitalise on the innovation and opportunities that will come with our national broadband project.
In concluding I want to acknowledge the many people who shared my journey over the past 40 years. So, to you all, a big collective thank you. Whatever I have achieved and done has always been with collective support and encouragement. To the union movement, and Bill Kelty in particular: thanks for the opportunities and the memories—who could ever forget the maritime dispute! And thanks to all of you who helped pave the way for my transition to this parliament.
I have always been, and will continue to be, a strong believer in the importance and benefits of a constructive engagement between the industrial and political wings of the labour movement. We saw the mutual benefits of the Your Rights at Work campaign—a brilliant campaign—and, of course, one of our proudest achievements, the dismantling of Work Choices. Communities across the nation will never forget the much despised Work Choices regime, which stripped away conditions like overtime and penalty rates and forced individuals onto insidious individual contracts of employment. Women will be the major beneficiaries of our new Fair Work system. That system has enshrined for them an annual minimum wage review; the right to request flexible working arrangements; a new, comparable wage fixing principle; new protections on the grounds of pregnancy and caring responsibilities; an effective award safety net; and a bargaining stream for the low paid—truly historic achievements. Just last week we had Australia’s first national paid parental leave scheme—an historical achievement, which only Labor in government could deliver.
I have had great support from the local unions affiliated to the South Coast Labour Council. Special thanks to Arthur Rorris, Andy Gillespie and Garry Keane, for their wise counsel and friendship over the years—and so, too, to Colin and Melissa Markham. Thanks to the community groups, local organisations and council representatives with whom I have worked and alongside whom I have campaigned for the benefit of our community, and to the local media on whom we rely to communicate the Labor message. Without loyal branch members and supporters and my campaign director Vicki King, no election campaign could have been successfully prosecuted.
And without our staff no MPs can do effective jobs for their communities; we all rely on them so much. Thank you, Idalina, Sarah, Michel and Danielle and current relief staff Annie, Wendy and Brian, for all your efforts over all these years.
To my colleague Sharon Bird, the member for Cunningham: it has been great working with you and sharing the highs, and the occasional lows, of political life. I know, in moving on, that the needs and aspirations of the Illawarra will be in safe and capable Labor hands.
I wish Stephen Jones, my successor as the Labor candidate for Throsby, all the best in the election.
I am confident he will take his seat in this chamber alongside my colleagues, on the re-election of our government. Stephen will be in the fortunate position of building on the foundations of our first term in government—seeing those investments come to fruition and meeting future challenges, working together with the member or Cunningham. Last, but not least, to the residents of Throsby, who have made all this possible: thank you for your continuing support. It has indeed been a great privilege to represent a wonderful community.
I am looking forward to moving on. I think we all know when the time is right. I am not quite sure what retirement actually means in practice—other than knowing I will have lots more time for friendships, both new and longstanding, and time with Denis and mum. I remain forever grateful for the opportunities, experiences and memories in almost 40 years of public life, and the many fine people with whom I have shared that journey.
Order! I thank the member for Throsby for her friendship, her comradeship—especially as a colleague on the House environment committee in years past. Congratulations on your contribution to public life, both within this place and outside.
Before calling the member for Hume, I indicate to him that I am not sure it is the wish of the House that he is protected from points of order!
Mr Speaker, I had to take the opportunity to say hello and congratulate a fine individual and a good local member.
I rise to talk on the Farm Household Support Amendment (Ancillary Benefits) Bill 2010. I take this opportunity to compliment the minister for the decision he made on 5 May 2010 to carry out a trial of drought reform measures across 65 local government areas in rural Western Australia. The pilot will run from 1 July this year to 30 June of next year. The trial will not affect farmers currently receiving income support payments and interest rates subsidies under the old exceptional circumstances system. The National Rural Advisory Council, which I have often spoken to the minister about—pointing out some weaknesses in that system—will continue to consider proposals for exceptional circumstance declarations submitted by state governments and to reassess current declarations coming up for renewal.
This trial is a very significant contribution to the history of drought relief in this country, and I praise the minister because he had the initiative to look at this in a very visionary way. There have been criticisms about the current system for some time now, about it not meeting the expectations of people affected by drought, specifically in terms of the arbitrary declaration of borders. The property of one farmer can be declared eligible for EC assistance, but his neighbour a fence away might be told that his property does not meet the criteria. I just find that reprehensible. There is only one aspect of the trial that requires specific legislative changes, and that is the Farm Family Support program. A similar measure is already in place, the exceptional circumstances relief payment program, for those areas subject to an EC declaration.
The issue around this particular legislation is that farm businesses outside of the trial area suffering from dry conditions and not in an EC declared area may raise concerns that farmers not necessarily suffering from drought conditions in Western Australia are able to receive funds, but they cannot. The government has not yet made public the guidelines for the Farm Family Support scheme which will include precise definitions of which farm businesses will be eligible and which will not. The government has previously indicated that farmers who are in hardship will be able to access support through this program but has not defined ‘hardship’. That is a very important part of this lesson—the definition of ‘hardship’. I believe the government needs to take that part of the thrust of this legislation into serious consideration.
Those of us who spend time in our rural electorates have watched droughts come and go, watched fires come and go, and watched floods come and go, so we appreciate the very significant impact that they have on individuals and farming families. The impact of drought is around a couple of things: the financial pressures and the stress that comes from those pressures, and the pride of farm families who are in many instances placed in destitute situations but because of that pride will not put their names forward for some sort of social security assistance. That is what the farming community and people on the land have been born with and what they have practised all of their lives. They do not seek help from people. They want to try and get themselves out of the mire that natural events like drought create for them. They see the futility of borrowing money from the bank and putting in a crop in the hope that the weather patterns that people say are going to come their way to break the drought will occur, only to see their wheat in the ground die because the follow-up rains did not come. We have seen that in this latest drought, one of the worst droughts in the history of this country, which has gone on for about eight years.
I want to illustrate just how hard it is for people in drought conditions and why this legislation is very important. About eight years ago, my wife was asked by some women in Sydney to bring some country women to Sydney to talk about drought and how it affected them as women on the land. There was a function at the New South Wales state parliament, and my wife took with her two women and the 27-year-old daughter of one. They addressed those city women, some 200-plus in number, about drought and how it affected them. One of the things that usually happen during a drought or at other times when things are tough is that women give up what they call non-essential items. They gave up things like perfume; they could not afford to buy perfume. They could not afford to buy hand cream, facial cream, shampoo—all the non-essential items that you and I and other people in the nation take for granted. The young lass, the 27-year-old, after she finished reading a poem that she had written about drought and how it affects farming families, was asked by one of these elderly matrons who came from the North Shore of Sydney why her hands were in such a mess. She told them that her hands were a mess because they had been damaged by barbed wire because she was helping her dad put some fencing up because he could not afford to employ any labour—and we talk about poverty in this place. They made such an impact on those women at the luncheon that there was not a dry eye in the house, my wife told me. Offers of assistance by way of holiday home accommodation and things like that came forward out of that.
About a fortnight after they came back to the electorate, I got a phone call from one of those women and she said, ‘Alby, we’re sending down two station wagon loads of items that some of the women affected by drought might be able to use.’ We waited for the station wagons to arrive. They arrived at my office, I think, at around 20 past five in the afternoon. My staff stayed back and we unloaded them. We went into the store next door and bought 200 of those fancy little bags with handles on them—I am not quite sure what you call them; I am a mere male. My wife called them pamper packs, and we distributed all the items that came in those station wagons among the packs. I estimated that each one of them, because of the cost of the items, was worth between $250 and $400, so it was a very significant contribution by urban based women.
That process continues today with some members of the Trefoil Guild here in Canberra—women who were Girl Guides in their younger days and then joined the Trefoil Guild, which works for charities. When these ladies buy their groceries, they spend an extra $50 to $100, in some cases $200, on non-perishable food items. They stockpile them in a double garage and then 10 of them come down every now and then and pack them all up into bags and then they give us a phone call. If there is too much for us we arrange for volunteers to go and pick them up and deliver them to families in need. Only last Friday I went to the little village of Wee Jasper, a beautiful little place down in the valley of the Goobragandra and Murrumbidgee rivers, where we delivered 20 parcels to five families in need.
The point I am making here is that these are the things that flow on from drought conditions which people do not know about. We drop these goods at schools because people are proud and do not want to be seen to be picking up assistance from other people. I am so grateful that a minister of the Crown, in this case the Hon. Tony Burke, has had the vision to look at exceptional circumstances relief to find how we can better assist farmers to handle drought and to get out of drought. I know that, no matter what a government of the day does, there will be people out there who will be critical because they have a personal view on what should or should not occur with changes to legislation which might assist where drought is making life difficult for people.
It is important that people understand just what is involved in this process. The trial in Western Australia is going to cover several issues. There will be farm family support, with income support to help farmers meet basic household expenses; and farm social support, with stronger social support networks to meet the mental health, counselling and other social needs of farming families and communities. In the last five years I personally, as a result of a plea from women, have talked seven farmers out of committing suicide. That is where beyondblue and all of those organisations come into it. But these men would not talk to anybody else; they wanted to talk to me for some unknown reason. There are a lot of people around this place who do not want to talk to me on a regular basis! Somehow I had made an impression on these people. It is very important that we understand the pressures on farmers in drought.
Another aspect of the trial is building farm businesses, with grants of up to $60,000 to help farm businesses prepare for the impacts of drought, reduced water availability and a changing climate, and on-farm land care activities. The previous government assisted small businesses who rely on the off-farm income that comes into their business and their communities and also those businesses that assist farmers by supplying them with the equipment and goods that help keep them going. When the farmers are going bad these businesses are going bad and go out of business. It impacts on the economy of the small rural towns in particular, and you see the unemployment rate go up. So once again there is recognition by a government of this great country, regardless of its political persuasion, of the need to support businesses that work with farmers.
Then there is farm planning, with support for farmers to undertake training to develop or update a strategic plan for their farm business with a focus on preparing for future challenges. We did a report centred on the skills that are lacking in rural and regional Australia. There are multiskilled people out there in the isolated areas, and they need assistance. There are the wives who keep the businesses going and they need computer training and those sorts of things. Once again, that support is a very good initiative.
Under the heading of stronger rural communities, there will be grants to local government for activities that make rural communities more resilient during agricultural downturns. The only point I make there is that, if we put government assistance into those areas, we must make sure that we have the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed so there is no waste and that valuable resource is used constructively and has positive outcomes for people affected by drought. There will also be farm exit support. That commenced under the previous government, and there will be grants of up to $170,000 to support farmers who make the difficult decision to sell their farm businesses. That is wonderful stuff, because it does help them. It helps them particularly when, because of drought and the drop in value of their properties, they live on the fringe of absolute destitution. This sort of package is the difference between them going off their properties broke and going off their properties with at least enough money to start a new life. I compliment the minister for recognising that and keeping the momentum going in that area.
The beyond farming proposal is a new measure that puts current farmers in touch with former farmers to work through the opportunities outside of farming. Again, this is wonderful stuff. You have to have that peer group understanding; you have to have people who know what farming is physically all about and how drought affects people working with them. Ex-farmers and retired farmers are terrific people who go back to the land to help. Some of them go back to the land because they just love it so much, and in some instances their children have taken up the farm for a living and need some assistance. It is interesting to note that not too many young people are taking up farm occupations, and they are not taking them up in part because of the stigma placed on farming by some sections of the educational world. More importantly, they are not taking them up because they cannot see the sense in this day and age of working from dawn till dusk for $20,000 or $30,000 a year when they can go as young people out into the IT sector or into major urban businesses and make four, five or six times that amount.
The farmers are in a situation where they work the land they love and do not in many instances get any credit for the significant contribution they make to the environment. The environment is their living—the land they toil on has to be there on a day-to-day, year-to-year basis for them to have any hope of making a living out of it. They love their land, and it is very, very difficult for them to walk away from it.
I cannot express to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, how pleased I am that a bill of this sort is going through. As I said at the outset, it is wonderful that we have a minister of the Crown in the agricultural field who does not have an agricultural background and does not come from the country but who, to his credit, is going out there and talking to people and introducing legislation which in my view is going to produce some very positive outcomes for farmers.
I close by saying that, whilst some might accuse me of being overgenerous to a minister for agriculture who is on the other side of politics, I do not resile from what I have said. I think he is doing a wonderful job. He is a very caring minister, and I often talk to him about problems associated with farmers in my electorate and elsewhere. I must be doing something right, because I note that the National Farmers Federation, the Western Australian government, the Western Australian Farmers Federation, the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of Western Australia and other organisations are in favour of the direction the minister is taking on this. I complement him on it, and I am pleased to have been given the opportunity to speak on this bill here tonight.
I take the opportunity, following the comments of the member for Hume, to also add my support for the work of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. It might not be looked on very favourably if I did not do that, so I am with the member for Hume in his praise for the work of the minister for agriculture. I also join with the member for Hume and my other rural and regional colleagues to support the Farm Household Support Amendment (Ancillary Benefits) Bill 2010. I think that all speakers in the debate have acknowledged that we are on the threshold of a new era in drought support. It is a change that reflects the reality that Australian farmers face: a hotter and drier future, which means that the existing concept of exceptional circumstances as a measure of support for farmers will increasingly lose its relevance.
Our new system is built on the projections from our scientific organisations, such as the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, which tell us that droughts are likely to happen more often and be more severe. It is also built on the renowned resilience and adaptability of our farmers. We want funding and support to be there to help farmers use that resilience and adaptability to prepare their farm businesses for droughts and other climate based risks. Our new approach to drought policy strengthens the support system and moves it from crisis management to risk management.
This bill ensures that farmers who are participating in the current pilot of the government’s drought scheme in Western Australia receive all the benefits for which they are eligible. It does that by amending the Farm Household Support Act 1992. As I said, the bill relates to the pilot project program that will run in Western Australia for the next 12 months. In a partnership between the Commonwealth and Western Australian governments announced by the minister for agriculture in May this year, a number of support programs will be trialled and evaluated in a region of Western Australia between Karratha and Esperance. About 6,000 farmers who are involved in these trials are expected to be eligible for assistance under the package. The aim of the pilot, which was announced in May this year, is to trial drought reform measures that will better support farmers, their families and rural communities in preparing for future challenges rather than waiting until they are in crisis to offer assistance. This is about preparing for drought as much as it is about responding to drought when it occurs.
There are seven measures in the new package to be trialled in Western Australia. The first measure, farm family support, provides income support to help farmers meet basic household expenses. The second measure, farm social support, provides stronger social support networks to meet the mental health, counselling and other social needs of farming families and communities. The third measure, building farm businesses, provides grants of up to $60,000 to farmers in two components: $40,000 to help fund businesses prepare for the impacts of drought, reduced water availability and the changing climate and a further $20,000 which can be accessed for on-farm natural resource management measures and landcare activities. The fourth measure, farm planning, provides up to $7,500 for farmers to undertake training to develop or update a strategic plan for their farm business, with a focus on preparing for future challenges.
The fifth measure, stronger rural communities, provides grants to local governments for activities that make rural communities more resilient during agricultural downturns. The sixth measure, farm exit support, provides grants of up to $170,000 to support farmers who make the difficult decision to sell their farm business. The money can be used for things such as retraining and relocation expenses. The final measure, beyond farming, was referred to specifically by the member for Hume. This is the new measure that puts current farmers in touch with former farmers to work through the opportunities outside of farming. It will allow farmers to talk to someone who has been in the same position as them about the options for themselves and their families if they are selling the farm business or retiring.
Farming groups across the country have welcomed this much-needed reform. As the list of seven measures indicates, this reform includes financial grants for farmers experiencing hardship or trying to exit the industry. Along with the financial measures, this new drought policy has a much stronger focus on the mental health issues that can arise from the challenges of drought. The farm family support payment is part of the pilot being conducted in Western Australia. It provides eligible farming families who are facing hardship with income support based on Newstart rates to help them meet basic household needs. It also provides case management support to assist farmers to assess their financial situation and identify those on-farm or off-farm activities which may improve their financial position.
The Farm Household Support Amendment (Ancillary Benefits) Bill 2010 will ensure that farmers who receive the farm family support payment will be eligible for the same access to ancillary benefits as those farmers who receive exceptional circumstances relief payments. After so many years of drought gripping large areas of our country, most people would be familiar with exceptional circumstances relief payments. Those payments help farming families living in areas affected by exceptional circumstances to meet everyday living expenses. Of course we on this side are all very proud that that program was originally introduced by the Labor government in 1992 under the then minister for agriculture, Simon Crean.
With these new changes to drought relief, the government believes it is important that recipients of farm family support payments participating in the current Western Australia trial can access the full range of ancillary benefits in the same way that exceptional circumstances relief payment recipients can. The ancillary benefits include an automatically issued healthcare card. The trial also allows for concessions relaxing the income, assets and family actual means testing of student allowances paid to, or in respect of, the student children of recipients. Importantly this trial will support farmers to develop or update a strategic plan for their farm business. We want to support Western Australian farmers and their families through this pilot period and this bill ensures that they will be spared financial hardship while they consider the future of their farming business.
My electorate of Capricornia covers a large section of Central Queensland and it is home to beef, horticulture, grain and sugar industries. Central Queensland experienced significant rainfall at the start of the year—it was almost back to a traditional wet season—but it has had little to no rain in more recent months. So while many areas of Central Queensland have experienced pasture growth as a result of the rainfall, there has not been enough rain to replenish water supplies to the extent that farmers can be confident of seeing livestock through to the next summer storm season.
The large rainfall at the start of the year, however, did see drought declarations lifted from 15 shires in Queensland in April. Rockhampton, in my electorate, was amongst those on this list. Banana, which is just south of my electorate, is one in our region that does remain partly drought declared. Of course before an area’s drought status was removed in this way, the local drought committees carefully considered whether an area had received enough rain for sufficient pasture growth and water for maintaining stocking. Revocation of drought status provides producers with access to restocking and freight subsidies for returning stock from agistment. I am pleased to say that currently only 1.4 per cent of Queensland is currently drought declared. This is a 35 per cent drop from 2009, and this is great news for Queensland and an ideal time for the government to be trialling its new approach to drought relief.
Of course the government has always made it clear that, whatever reforms to drought policy were proposed, those farmers who are currently receiving exceptional circumstances assistance would not be affected. Our drought reforms are about setting a path for the future, not inflicting any hardship or anxiety on those currently recognised as being drought affected.
Rockhampton has struggled with the negative effects of drought in the past. Although none of us can pretend to know the full devastation of drought unless we have lived through it as members of a farming family or rural community, in a city like Rockhampton and a region like Central Queensland, we all feel its effects—especially through our local abattoirs in Rockhampton. The Lakes Creek and Swift meatworks in Rockhampton have experienced shortages of cattle, and the management and staff know that the tough times of 2009 will continue this year as graziers recover from a very dry period last year, combined with the effects of flooding in parts of Queensland. However, as I was saying, currently pasture production across the region is generally good, but it is lower than what normally occurs in a longer growing season as a result of the late summer rain and pasture not beginning to grow in some areas until January. Pasture quantity is good to very good, but the quality is deteriorating with the onset of cool weather, some frosting and no useful rainfall in these past few months.
Cattle condition has held well during the autumn period, with breeders in good condition generally and fat dry stock being turned off, particularly earlier this month. Pastures in the Mackay district in the north of my electorate are now at their peak after the long and very wet summer up there. The Central Queensland sorghum harvest is about to start and to date reports indicate much of it is likely to produce above-average yields. The cotton crop west of Rockhampton and around Emerald has generally suffered from poor weather conditions with much of January and February being cloudy and then significant rainfall happening as the cotton balls opened and picking started.
I list that snapshot of some of the industries in my electorate to demonstrate the unpredictable ups and downs that drought and general climatic conditions can bring across areas in Australia. It is no doubt the reason that the Productivity Commission, in its review of drought policy, found that most farmers are sufficiently self-reliant to manage climate variability; climate variability has long been a fact of life for farmers in Australia. That is why the emphasis has to be on preparing for the very real risk of drought and helping farmers with that preparation rather than waiting until the situation reaches crisis point.
As members know, and the member for Hume told us some examples from his experience, there is always a positive story to come out of these hard times that rural Australians often face. In my electorate, as well as all over Australia, farmers are able to contact an organisation known as Aussie Helpers. For those who do not know, Aussie Helpers was started in 2002 to help families who are living with the hardship and poverty that farming can bring. John and Rhonda, for example, are volunteers based outside Rockhampton and cover all of Central Queensland west to the border. They are part of a network of around 40 helpers nationwide who freely give their time and expertise to enable Aussie Helpers to achieve its goal of tackling poverty in the bush. This program originated in Charleville, which is south-west of my electorate in Queensland, and many Queenslanders have benefited from their advice and support. The long years of drought in so much of our country have brought much devastation to farming businesses. National Farmers Federation figures show that rural debt has increased by 85 per cent since 2002-03 and the debt servicing ratio has followed a similar upward trend in that time. It will take many years for farmers to recover.
In the meantime, we are confident that these measures that are being trialled in Western Australia are the right way to go for drought policy in this country. It represents the shift from drought relief to drought management and preparedness, as the National Farmers Federation described it at the time of the announcement of the WA pilot. We will no longer have the situation, as before, when in the good times government retreated and assistance for farmers dried up. The seasons would change and when things became dire for farmers the government would step back in and provide just enough support to keep people struggling on in their farming business during devastating drought, only to disappear again when the rains came and exceptional circumstances status was lifted.
Now that we know that longer and more severe droughts will be part of the business of farming into the future, we want to work with farmers in a proactive and strategic way to support them as they work through all of the challenges and opportunities their farms face. We want them to do that thinking and planning and deciding and preparing before any drought takes hold, and when it does we want to support them financially and also emotionally through community networks and counselling where necessary.
We will all be watching the Western Australian trial very carefully and we look forward to working with farmers and their organisations on incorporating any lessons that come out of the next 12 months. In the meantime I join with my rural and regional colleagues here in the House to support this bill, which extends important benefits to farmers receiving income support payments as part of this very significant trial of these new drought support measures.
Tonight I rise to speak on the Farm Household Support Amendment (Ancillary Benefits) Bill 2010. Mr Deputy Speaker Adams, there is no doubt that over many years our farmers have gone through trials, tribulations and undue hardship—you would know that from your own electorate down in Tasmania. It is important that governments of any persuasion provide benefit to those who work the land. Without people who are working the land and providing the food basket for this nation, our nation suffers dearly. We must also remember that the large bulk of agricultural product produced in Australia is exported, so it helps our bottom line. It is important, though, that as we go through periods of drought—and we must remember that Australia is by and large a dry nation which we attempt to farm as a wet nation—we come to a realistic understanding that, indeed, we must start to adopt dry-farming principles broadly and largely across Australia.
That being said, it is critically important that the government provide supports in those times of undue hardship, and it is important that that support is bipartisan. The coalition holds the majority of rural seats throughout Australia. My own electorate is a rural and regional electorate. I have farmlands from the floodplains through the Port Stephens, Raymond Terrace and Maitland areas, the home of the famous 1955 flood. I have seen that region under water, on the long weekend in June 2007, when the Pasha Bulker was grounded, but I have also seen that region tinder dry, when there has been no water and they have had to pump water out of the rivers just to keep the feedstock up where they could. There are areas through the electorate of Paterson where, indeed, it is impossible to bring water to the farms; then people have to rely on the importation of feed. Most of the time, farming is very marginal in areas like that, but, when you have the added cost of pumping water or bringing feed to keep your cattle sustainable, it is critically important that the government in those financially difficult times provides that support.
One of the key aspects of farming, in particular when times are tight—when they are dry—is the increase in the number of mental health problems throughout our rural farming communities and, sadly, the increase in the number of suicides because of the difficult financial pressures that are placed upon our farmers. Quite often these suicides are not recorded as such; they tend to be motor vehicle accidents or farming accidents; but nonetheless it is something where we as members of parliament and governments of either persuasion need to ensure we put into effect systems that provide support.
Exceptional circumstances relief is critical. I know from my own area that one of the difficult things is the fact that the locations of the gauges measuring the amount of rainfall do not necessarily reflect the amount of rain that is coming across an area. I will give the classic example of that. A catchment area that covers a large part of the Gloucester-Stroud area also includes some of the more coastal fringes down through towards the Great Lakes region. Whilst we might get coastal rain, some of those areas that are a little higher up, through Gloucester, Stroud, Allworth and Booral, quite often suffer because they are excluded from exceptional circumstances but do not have the rain. They do not have access to water, so their only recourse is expensive stockfeed to keep their cattle alive. As you would know in your own area, Mr Deputy Speaker Adams, some would say it would be simpler just to remove the stock from the land and not incur that cost, but in particular in areas like mine, where you have a large number of breeders, it is very hard to replenish that stock either at an affordable price or at a rapid rate.
The issue with that is that it has a downstream effect on local employment and local investment. The money does not flow through our communities and, therefore, it starts a vicious cycle downwards. I know that this bill does not particularly relate directly to the zonings of exceptional circumstances, but time and time again members of parliament of all political persuasions put the arguments to the bureaucracy to redefine the areas within which rainfall is measured to determine whether an area is in long-term drought and what level of exceptional circumstances relief should be provided to those farmers.
It can be said that there is nothing better than to grow up in a regional and rural area. I was one of those young people who grew up in the city of Sydney but took the first opportunity to move into a regional and rural area. That is something I have been very thankful for. I have learned a lot from our farming communities. I have learned one end of a cow from the other and I have learned so much about the lifestyle and the environment, but after around 28 years in and around regional and rural Australia I am not quite a local yet. I still suffer from hay fever from grass seeds, so I tolerate it.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I am aware the hour is now coming to seven o’clock and it is time for the valedictory speech of my good friend Pat Farmer. With that I will hope to continue my remarks at a later hour. I wish Pat Farmer well in his future endeavours.