Tuesday, 21 August 2018
Farm Household Support Amendment (Temporary Measures) Bill 2018; Second Reading
That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
“whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House calls on the Turnbull Government to:
(1) allow eligible farmers the option of receiving the Farm Household Allowance supplement in a single $12,000 up-front payment; and
(2) prioritise the resurrection of the COAG process it dismantled in 2013, in order to restore progress on the development of the National Drought Policy Reform Program”.
Many are dismayed by the failure of the Australian parliament to reach a settlement on energy policy. I'm glad the member for Port Adelaide is with us to hear this contribution. Over a period stretching more than a decade, political partisanship has run interference on every attempt to put a carbon constraint in place without unnecessarily pushing power prices up or undermining electricity reliability. It's a both bewildering and sorry story.
But there's an even more bewildering story to tell. Next year marks 10 years since the completion of the Productivity Commission's inquiry into government drought support. The PC's work should be compulsory reading for anyone with an interest in farm and drought policy. Like in the energy sector, we still have no coherent and effective drought policy 10 years on. What makes this even more incredible than the energy story is that we managed to lose 10 years, despite the lack of partisanship—at least until the member for New England came along.
In 2008 Commonwealth and state primary industry ministers reached an historic agreement on drought reform. They agreed that drought support based on exceptional circumstances was 'no longer appropriate in the face of a variable climate'. Sitting at the COAG committee known as the Standing Council on Primary Industries, which the now government abolished in 2013, ministers further agreed to commission the PC inquiry and report. Another historic agreement followed. On 3 May 2013, SCoPI ministers, including the former Queensland agriculture minister and now federal Minister for Regional Development, Territories and Local Government, signed the Intergovernmental Agreement on National Drought Program Reform. It is worth noting that five of the nine ministers who signed that agreement represented conservative governments. It is important to note that both the 2008 and 2013 agreements enjoyed not only bipartisan support across the political parties; they also were backed by the key farm leadership groups. So why is it, 10 years on, we are now dealing with the third government drought announcement in two months? Why is it that the last two announcements came only a fortnight apart? Why is it we still have no coherent drought policy based on the 2008 and 2013 agreements?
The answer can be found in the September 2013 election result. Two things followed. First, the member for New England became the Minister for Agriculture. Second, the now Turnbull government abolished the SCoPI, the key COAG committee. Remember, underpinning the Commonwealth-state agreements was the recognition that the changing and more challenging climatic conditions demanded a new and different approach to drought. As the new minister then, the member for New England had a different view. He doesn't believe our climate is changing and nor does he think we should be taking any responsibility for or action on it. His 2015 failed agriculture white paper made only a passing reference to it. So I suppose we should not have expected him to embrace a policy approach based on that proposition. Minister Joyce made his view well known—'Climate change is a conspiracy, but the best way to deal with it is to build dams.' I always said he'd never build a dam and he never did. His response, no doubt, will be to say he ran out of time. Well, he had five years. How many years did he need? Was it 10, 20 or maybe 25 years? I don't know.
SCoPI was the key driver of that drought policy reform. As a COAG committee, it was properly resourced and structured. It held regular meetings, was supported by key public servants and had a diverse agenda, including drought, biosecurity and productivity. Members of the government will argue it was replaced by a thing called AGMIN. This is a fiction. AGMIN is no SCoPI. Indeed, the department of agriculture website says:
The Agriculture Ministers' Forum (AGMIN), which is chaired by the Australian Government Minister for Agriculture, agreed to meet face-to-face once a year and for ad hoc meetings as required.
And that is what AGMIN has done—met once a year. The member for New England, when he was minister, often didn't even turn up. I suspect he viewed it as a bit of a waste of time. SCoPI was the vehicle for drought reform, and its abolition cost the nation five years of drought reform progress.
Following the 2009 PC report, and prior to the signing of the 2013 intergovernmental agreement, SCoPI agreed to trial new drought measures. The exercise was held in the agriculture region of Western Australia. The measures aimed to achieve the following outcomes: to ensure farmers and their families were better equipped to adjust to the impacts of drought, increased climate variability and reduced water availability; to develop a more effective social support system for farming families and communities; to encourage farmers to adopt a self-reliant approach to managing farm risks; and to encourage farmers to use Australia's natural resource base and water resources more sustainably and efficiently. The pilot consisted of seven programs: Farm Planning; Building Farm Businesses; Farm Family Support; Farm Social Support: Rural Support Initiative, Online Counselling for Rural Young Australians Initiative and Rural and Regional Family Support Service; Stronger Rural Communities; Farm Exit Support; and Beyond Farming. This was an extensive agenda.
While the results of the trials were mixed, ministers agreed to soldier on with the reforms. The 2013 IGA set similar objectives:
a. assist farm families and primary producers adapt to and prepare for the impacts of increased climate variability
b. encourage farm families and primary producers to adopt self-reliant approaches to manage their business risks
c. ensure that farm families in hardship have access to a household support payment that recognises the special circumstances of farmers
d. ensure that appropriate social support services are accessible to farm families
e. provide a framework for jurisdictions' responses to needs during periods of drought.
That last, of course, was a reference to the roles of the states, as opposed to the Commonwealth—something still not well delineated. Ministers further declared that the agreement should facilitate the achievement of two key outcomes:
a. primary producers have an improved capacity to manage business risks—
and business risks, of course, include drought; and:
b. farm families are supported in times of hardship.
In the past five years, little progress on these objectives and outcomes has been achieved.
Commonwealth and state ministers also agreed that the 2013 farm household allowance should be a temporary payment only. This decision was consistent with the view that drought cannot be treated any longer as an abnormal event; rather, protracted dry events and higher temperatures can be expected to be regular events. There is no justification for providing ongoing income support to farmers who are not viable during protracted dry spells. I've heard no-one challenge that proposition. Farm household allowance was designed to provide farmers with the support and the time they needed to adjust or to adapt, or, indeed, to leave their business.
The latest iteration of farm income support—that is, the farm household allowance—is time-limited and comes with mutual obligations. Farmers can opt in and opt out of the farm household allowance. And they could receive the payment for no longer than three years in total—until, of course, the Turnbull government increased it from three to four years, from June this year, just prior to the winter break. Labor supported that because there was a complete and utter absence of any longer drought reform policy. So the government left us with no choice.
The mutual obligation requires recipients of farm household allowance to enter into a financial improvement agreement. An FIA requires recipients to accept case management and to enter into activities like further study or training, or even paid work elsewhere, to contribute to self-sufficiency. As stated already, the Turnbull government has extended farm household allowance for an additional year but there's little evidence the mutual obligation side of the government's FHA design has been a success. Both outcomes reflect poorly on the government's performance on drought and drought reform policy. Every time the government concedes the need to extend income support or spend more money on farm welfare, it is also conceding failure, including a failure to meet the agreed objectives of the 2013 intergovernmental agreement.
There were aspects of the PC's report that surprised many of the policymakers. For example, it alerted us all to the fact that in 2005-06 the largest 30 per cent of farms generated 82 per cent of the total value of agriculture operations, while the smallest 50 per cent of farms generated just seven per cent. As a group, the bottom 25 per cent of broadacre farms have not made a profit in any year from 1988-89 to 2007-08. In 2007-08, 23 per cent of Australia's farms received drought assistance, totalling over $1 billion, with some on income support continuously from 2002. Obviously, these figures are dated, but I've seen nothing to suggest that any of those trends have changed much. These revelations were, or should have been, a wake-up call to all policymakers.
The PC also pointed out that the most vulnerable farmers are not necessarily those facing the toughest drought conditions; rather, the most vulnerable to drought are those which are already marginal—my words, not the PC's. The most vulnerable farms are those which lack scale, suffer the effects of land degradation and have not embraced regenerative practices, have low liquidity and capital, lack diversity in their income sources, have a broken business model or have a poor take-up on the innovation front.
Now, that brings me to the counterproductive nature of past approaches to drought policy. The drought policies of the past created a moral hazard, sending a signal to those who don't adapt and prepare that the taxpayer will always be there in their time of need. This, of course, undermines the incentive for others to build resilience. In building resilience and self-reliance a farm business relies on five levels of capital: natural capital—the soil and water resources on which it relies; physical capital—the infrastructure and technology that farm businesses use in production; financial—the income both on farm and off farm; the capital—both debt and equity; human—the labour, skills, education and experience of those who work within the farm business; and social—the ties between people, both on the farm and with the local community. These are the areas which should have been our policy focus over the course of the last five years. Sadly, that hasn't been the case.
Despite the length and severity of the current drought, the Turnbull government has been asleep at the wheel. It only started to focus when the media started to bring drought to the top of the public discussion. Four years ago, the opposition was telling the then minister and indeed the government that farmers were finding it all too difficult to access farm household allowance. Minister Joyce's flippant dismissal of our concern led to an unfortunate answer to a question from me in this place and subsequently the doctoring of his Hansard and, sadly, the dismissal of the secretary of his department by the Prime Minister.
As I noted, after five years of policy inaction the Turnbull government has now made three drought announcements within two months. This bill seeks to give effect to one of them. Firstly, it gives effect to an increase in the assets test for farm household allowance from $2.6 million to $5 million. They are, of course, on-farm assets. Secondly, it gives effect to the introduction of the supplementary payment of up to $12,000. These changes are being made despite consistent claims by government ministers that the farm household allowance required no adjustment. They were still saying that up to a month ago—even more recently, I think. Now its changes are almost daily. Only last night I was informed by the government that it'd be amending this very bill we're debating tonight. The ink is hardly dry on the bill, and already the government is amending it. All of this is happening as the government continues to progress a review of the farm household allowance—a review, we are told, that will not be complete until next year. I ask members to think about this: we need a year to work out what is needed to change a system that didn't need changing but is now being changed on a daily basis. It's chaos. There's no logic or rationale.
The opposition will support the changes contained within the bill but we are obligated, I think, to point out that there are many part-pensioners in this country doing it pretty tough, because their pension begins to taper off when their assets go through about $375,000—it's $5 million for farmers and $375,000 for pensioners. There are many unemployed people struggling on a Newstart payment which is frozen and not keeping pace with the cost of living who face about the same assets test as pensioners: around $375,000. That's a big difference.
Labor has always supported a more generous asset and income test for our farmers. We recognise that, when things are difficult, they can be asset-rich with all those farm assets and very income-poor. We acknowledge that and have always supported it. But $5 million seems extraordinarily arbitrary. If we are not careful, we will lose community support for these income support measures. I heard one farmer complain that his assets are $8 million, so he'd still miss out on farm household support. There is something dramatically wrong with that narrative. It can't go on ad infinitum. Income support must be the bridge to something better, not just a bridge to nowhere and more of the same for those who are doing it toughest.
The mistake we too often make is to treat farmers as homogenous. Every farmer is different and every farm business is different. I can introduce members to farmers in the most drought-affected parts of Queensland and New South Wales who are doing quite well in the face of drought, because they've built the necessary resilience. We have old farmers, young farmers and people for whom the farm is a secondary income or the dominant of two incomes. We have growers, croppers, producers, graziers, pastoralists and apiarists. There are those who grow fish and grow trees. It's a very diverse portfolio or sector.
There are publicly listed companies, privately owned corporates, cooperatives and, of course, family farms. Some have scale, some don't. Some have embraced technology, some haven't. Some take a science based approach, some not so much. Some are on good land and others are on marginal land. Because of our history with soldier settlements, there are many on marginal land—governments didn't give away really good land. Some rely heavily on chemicals, some do not. Some are organic, others are not. Some export, some don't. Some want to grow in size and, believe it or not, some don't. It's true of all small businesses—some are keen to grow, some don't necessarily want to grow. But they all have one thing in common. They need their government to do at least 10 things: keep the economy strong; keep interest rates low; keep costs and red tape compliance down; make sure there is a workforce with the necessary skills; maintain a strong biosecurity system; grow and maintain markets; provide the supply chain with infrastructure and connectivity; provide data and climate information; ensure we have strong research, innovation and extension systems; and address market power inequality.
Many farmers need help to adapt to a harsher climate. Adaptation and resilience-building must be our key response to a hotter and drier environment. We must help farmers regenerate their landscapes to improve the quality and biodiversity of their soils and to retain more water. Raising soil carbon levels by one per cent on an acre of land will hold around 140,000 additional litres of water. I've said it before: we can improve our soils quickly and less expensively than we can build dams.
Scientist and author Charles Massy says we have to work with—not against—our ecological systems and empower them.
He is a Monaro farmer. We must help them embrace holistic grazing methods and embrace biological agriculture. What they don't want or need is more debt. What they don't need is more political spin. What they don't need is wasteful exercises, like the relocation of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority and the establishment of an unnecessary Regional Investment Corporation. Right there is about $100 million of taxpayers' money that could be invested in helping farmers adapt to harsher weather conditions.
We can't continue to ask more and more of our natural resource base when it is in decline. As we grow towards a global population of some 10 billion, we should be asking ourselves how we are going to feed all of those people. It is clear to me that we won't be able to unless we deal with the decline in our soil and water resources. Indeed, we should be asking ourselves how we're going to feed 40 million Australians by 2050 if our natural resource base continues to decline. We owe it to future generations to change our course, to focus more on value and less on volume, to ensure our natural resources are directed to the activity that produces the best return, both for our farmers and for our broader economy. Most of all, we need to do it in a sustainable manner. We can't keep asking more and more of our natural resource base and expect not to run into problems in the future. This should be an absolute priority for government. This should be the key approach to drought management—not short-term fixes, not drought tours for the 6 o'clock news, not measures that do nothing to assist farmers to take that different course. This needs to be our focus. It was certainly the focus of COAG, and it should be our focus now.
The question becomes: how do we help farmers better embrace those best-practice farming methods? I've given this much thought, and a few weeks ago I announced that a Labor government would direct our research and development corporations to play a major role in that effort. Our research and development model is a Labor architecture from the late eighties and early nineties. It's a good architecture. It's in need of some regeneration, and if we are given the opportunity we will revisit the structures and operations of those research and development corporations. They will remain co-funded by government but we will ask them to do more on this front. They are big organisations, they are well-resourced, they have the expertise and they already do extension work. They are already helping our growers and producers and our horticulturists to embrace better methods, but the work is underdone. Extension has been withdrawn, largely, from the agriculture sector. It was once largely the domain of the states. They now have largely withdrawn and the Commonwealth hasn't filled the vacuum.
I think there is a great opportunity for the Commonwealth to do just that and to build upon what our research and development corporations are already doing by further progressing the science, further progressing the best practice and making sure those practices are getting down onto the farms where they are most needed. Research and innovation is not very helpful if it's not getting down inside the farm gate. That's where we need it to be. I invite the government tonight to think about that proposition.
We should have a bipartisan approach to this matter. We should have a bipartisan approach to agriculture more generally. There is no more important sector than the one that feeds us and the one that puts the clothes on our back, and we should be doing this together. We should be doing it most energetically. Together, we should be doing all we can to assist farmers facing what is a shocking, protracted drought, close now to becoming the worst drought in the history of European settlement. While there are things we can do short term—and I thank the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Australians who have so generously donated from their own pockets to various drought appeals—we won't fix this problem, we won't properly deal with this problem, we won't properly do the right thing by the farm sector if we don't take that long-term view, if we don't embrace that long-term strategy, if we don't go back to the COAG agreement and start to rebuild collaboration with the states and properly delineate the roles of the states and the Commonwealth. If we don't do all of that, we won't reach our objectives.
We've lost five years and that is a very great shame, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be starting now. We should be starting urgently. We can't wait for tomorrow. We should be starting tonight. Minister Littleproud, unlike the member for New England, has acknowledged that the climate is changing. I think he has acknowledged, too, that there is a need for mitigation. But he has certainly acknowledged that there is a need for adaptation. I think all of us in this place have an opportunity to do good things, despite those lost years, and we should be starting to do that tonight and tomorrow, because the way the weather patterns are looking—as members know, the Bureau of Meteorology is not predicting any substantial rain either in the spring or in the summer—things are going to get worse, not better. It is too late, having lost five years, to enhance the capacity of many of our farmers to deal with drought. But it's not too late to start again, and we should start very, very quickly.
I will be talking to the original bill itself, without the amendment. Listening intently to the shadow minister, you would think he doesn't realise that we are already doing an awful lot of carbon sequestration programs right throughout regional Australia. We have carbon sequestration projects in my seat of Murray, right throughout the seat of Parkes, right throughout the seat of New England and up into Maranoa. We have carbon sequestration projects either being implemented at the moment, being done right now, building up the carbon within the soil, or in the planning stages of being done. We have over $2 billion on the table to increase this drought resistance capacity that the shadow minister thinks is his primary policy. He thinks he is going to actually be able to somehow or other make these farmers more resilient against these droughts. If it were that simple, we would already be doing it. In fact, we are doing that aspect of it.
People denigrate the member for New England for his endeavours in trying to build water infrastructure in the shape of dams, but anybody with half an interest in this issue would be aware that it was the Queensland government's—and only the Queensland government's—refusal to come to the party on dam infrastructure that has held up those particular projects. That money from the federal government has been on the table for a couple of years now; we simply have a Labor government in Queensland that is not interested in that type of infrastructure.
Right now we have hundreds if not thousands of farmers throughout regional Australia who are working on their own carbon sequestration projects, planting the right pastures, working on their water irrigation patterns to gain the greatest benefit they can to grow the most amount of feed they can and taking advantage of the over $2 billion that's on the table for carbon farming. It's an amazing project that we have going now. The challenge goes out to the shadow minister for agriculture to state his case as to whether or not he's going to be there for farmers. He seems to be talking about how the fact that we have to keep going back to farm household allowance somehow means that farm household allowance is a failed program. I don't think that's the case. I don't think many governments in Australia—either the state or federal governments—saw the milk crisis coming.
People would like to think that we had the ability to forecast an oversupply on the world milk market. When those milk companies started to drop the price dramatically and then asked for this clawback, it was an enormous hit to the dairy industry here in Australia. Within a week, Barnaby Joyce was in the Goulburn Valley offering farm household allowance and lower interest rates in that 2016 period. Most of those farmers found themselves to the tune of around $50,000 better off with that assistance—up to around $30,000 on interest rate assistance on a million-dollar property and up to about $24,000 in assistance with a farm household allowance. This bill is going to increase that $24,000 up to around $37,000 with a couple of one-off payments. That's going to be very much appreciated by these families who, in these times of crises, need to put food on the table.
The Labor Party need to be able to state very clearly if they think these types of policies are the right way to go, whether it be for a commodity that hits its value floor, which is what happened with the milk crisis of 2016, or whether it be for a drought, which we're seeing now. These measures are occasionally implemented for any disaster, whether that be fire or flood or, predominantly, drought. Occasionally it can be these various commodities that, without any blame being sheeted home to the agricultural sector, find themselves in a state of disaster. This is what happened with the milk crisis in 2016.
Minister Littleproud, Prime Minister Turnbull and Deputy Prime Minister McCormack have been on the front foot again with a range of packages that increase the farm household allowance and the time lines that are available. In the first tranche of changes, we moved that time line out for an additional year to allow farmers who are already on the supplement to have an extension. That was something that's been very well received. We see now an increase in the threshold. Previously $2.6 million in assets was the threshold. That's now been pushed out to $5 million. I agree with the shadow minister that to many people that sounds like a lot of asset to have, but you have to understand the nature of farming. It's a very real proposition that you could be asset rich but not even have enough money to buy the groceries that a normal family would need. By taking the asset threshold out to $5 million, it's going to be very well-received in our families that are facing that hardship. We understand that those farmers who have little or no access to cash are going to need this type of assistance. It will give them the breathing room that they need to be able to adapt to change. They won't have to sell their assets, as has currently been the practice of trying to put food on the table. Often, when you have to sell assets in times of drought, you sell for way below the market price for whatever that asset be. Whether it be stock or machinery, you sell for way below the value—for much less than it's worth. Obviously, if it does happen to be stock, the problem is that you then have to go back and restock at a price that's way in excess of what you've been able to achieve in times of drought. What we're hoping is that this supplement will enable families to resist those practices, because we know how tough it is on those families when it happens.
We also note the proposed farm household allowance supplement will be payable to all farm household allowance recipients in addition to existing payments. These two lump sum payments will be in addition to existing payments. It will be $3,000 per person for a member of a couple, if you happen to be in a couple, and $3,600 for all other circumstances for individuals. That means, if both members of a couple are receiving the farm household allowance between 1 September 2018 and 1 July 2019, they will receive $6,000 each or $12,000 extra per household. We think this is incredibly important. We are also urging farmers who find themselves in this situation to not self-assess. We understand that, especially with the low-interest facilities that are available and because of the need to take assets as surety for the loans that have been allowed, there is a lot of paperwork that needs to be done. Assets—not just on-farm assets but also off-farm assets—have to be accrued. We need to be very, very diligent because we're dealing with taxpayers' money. There is a lot of paperwork with this. Sometimes it has been seen that farmers have self-assessed and seen that they are not eligible. However, with an extra $5 million going into the Rural Financial Counselling Service, we would like to see farmers who think they might be eligible to use that counselling service so that they can get the help that they need and so that the assessment can be done without the emotion and trauma of going through a drought and also having to try and see if they are eligible to receive this additional assistance.
The government cannot make it rain—we can't—but we can be there for the farmers when they need us. We don't know when the next drought is going to come. We don't know when the next commodity crisis is going to hit one of our industries. I know that many of our pork farmers right now are going through an oversupply of pork, forcing them into some very perilous financial situations. We don't know how bad that situation is going to get, but, at the moment, we know it's serious. We know that people in the pear industry are struggling to find markets where they can receive payment for their pears that is above the cost of production. These problems are going to be ongoing. It's hard to know about these issues in advance. What we need is a government that understands agriculture and that will be there for those people when they need it, in times of crisis. As the previous member, Mr Fitzgibbon, said, we rely on the agriculture sector to feed us. There's no more honourable or more important industry than the industry that feeds us, so we need to make sure that, as a government, we're there for them. Under the member for New England we were, and under the member for Maranoa we are. We understand that at the core of what the National Party believes in is supporting our farming industries, both in good times and bad. Right now, with the drought hitting a large part of Australia, it's a tough time and we need to be there for them. The amendments we've brought forward into the parliament are going to help us support our farming industry through this tough time.
I appreciate and welcome the opportunity to speak on the Farm Household Support Amendment (Temporary Measures) Bill 2018 and to support the shadow minister's second reading amendment. It is a very important amendment and one that I hope those opposite will support because it will support our farmers with a lot more than what the government is currently proposing.
What is being proposed, though, is very long overdue and will go some way to relieving the hardship faced by farmers in our community. The current focus is on drought, and I have to make this point: the member for Mallee was concerned about our focus on how we can make our farmers much more resilient and have sustainable farming. I will just say this: we must recognise this thing called climate change. It's a thing that the farmers recognise. They are experiencing extreme weather events much more frequently than they used to. They recognise that they need to adapt. It's a shame that this government will not adapt with them.
I have to ask the question though: where was this government when the dairy crisis hit in 2016? Where was this government when Tasmania was in the grip of its worst drought in history, between 2015 and 2016? It seems that the circus that has beset this government as the Prime Minister currently clings to his job is perhaps the real reason why we now have this legislation. Or is it because the affected areas are in the backyards of current sitting government members that we finally now have some action?
Even today in my electorate, the electorate of Braddon on the north-west and west coasts of Tasmania—and, of course, King Island—I am advised that there are up to 10 farming families still receiving farm household assistance as a result of the dairy crisis and that up to 14 other farming families in other sectors are also receiving the household allowance. Many other families have now come off household assistance, which is a good thing, but I'm sure that these farmers and their families would have appreciated the bit of extra support that's in this amendment if this government had acted seriously two years ago. Labor understands the urgent need to support farmers struggling through the current drought.
Just as I have asked the question as to why this government failed to act during the Tasmanian drought and then through the diary crisis, I have to ask the question: where has this government been when it comes to drought policy? On this issue alone, there have been three policy iterations over the last eight weeks. It sounds a little similar to the government's energy policy! I think that on that score, though, it's about 10 different energy policies in the last seven days, no doubt with more to come—we would hope! Ten weeks ago, the government said all was fine with drought policy and that nothing needed to change. Eight weeks ago, the government changed tack and announced a plan to extend from three to four years the period that a farmer in financial crisis could receive farm household allowance. That announcement, in itself, did nothing to address the complexities of actually applying for and receiving farm household allowance, which I'll come to a bit later. And just two weeks ago the government announced another policy to introduce a farm household assistance supplement payment and temporarily increase the farm asset limit when assessing applications for assistance. Again, the government failed to address the bureaucratic nightmare that farmers face in trying to access farm household assistance.
When I say this, I think about the number of instances in my electorate a couple of years ago when farmers were trying to access the allowance through the dairy crisis. We've been calling for improvements to the processing of this allowance for many years, and so have farmers. The internet is riddled with media stories of farmers waiting many, many months just to get the allowance processed. I remember the times when farmers would say to me, 'We actually need to spend money to try to access this allowance.' They needed to go to their accountants and get up to three years of financial projections to then give those to the government to say,' Can you please approve my application?' And then they waited for many, many months after that.
The government also fail to address their policy shortcomings when it comes to preparing for and managing drought. As I said in my opening remarks, Tasmania is not immune to drought. Hobart is the second-driest capital city in Australia and, even today, parts of the East Coast of Tasmania are shown by the Bureau of Meteorology as being in a 16-month rainfall deficiency. Given this historic rainfall deficiency—and not just in Tasmania but, of course, New South Wales, southern Queensland and northern Victoria—it should not take a rocket scientist to work out that the government should have a clear and articulate drought policy. But what has this government actually done? One of the first acts of the former Deputy Prime Minister, the member for New England, was to dismantle the Standing Council on Primary Industries, or SCoPI, the COAG council working on longer term drought reform measures. The dismantling of this council makes no sense when you look at the current Intergovernmental Agreement on National Drought Program Reform. That agreement lists, at point 9:
Future programs related to the objectives of this agreement will be consistent with the principles for reform agreed by the Standing Council on Primary Industries ...
and, at point 10:
Future programs providing temporary in-drought support will be consistent with the principles and processes agreed by SCoPI ...
Can the minister please explain how this is meant to work? On the surface, a dismantled body can't guide future work.
This government is filled with climate change deniers. You only have to spend time talking to our farmers and they will tell you climate change is very real. Does anyone on the other side of the House actually know what this government's policy is to deal with climate change and the land? On this side of the House, however, Labor has been developing strategic policy solutions to deal with drought. The shadow minister has already put these policies on the public record, but they are worth repeating.
Labor will restore the COAG process for drought reform. Labor will also ask the Council of Rural Research and Development Corporations to lead the development of an agricultural climate response plan. Labor has committed to establish a $20 million regional economic development fund to support drought-affected communities. The fund will be directed towards local councils as local government has the knowledge of what is required to stimulate local economies and support local jobs. Labor has also developed policy to greatly improve farmers' abilities to deal with the complexities of receiving Farm Household Assistance.
This side of the House supports measures to increase Farm Household Assistance to farmers in financial crisis, but the government's latest amendments to this bill just add more complexity. I know struggling farmers in my electorate and throughout Tasmania who are currently recipients of FHA will welcome this legislation, but what the government has failed to do is, firstly, allow farmers to take up the supplement payment in a single amount, and, secondly, deal with the nightmare of trying to access the allowance. Labor strongly believes farmers should be given the option to receive their allowance supplement in a single payment. It just goes to show how out of touch the Prime Minister is. When asked about providing this payment in a lump sum, his response was: 'March is not too far away.' Tell that to a farmer who is struggling now; tell that to a farmer who would like that extra money to get themselves back on their feet and deal with the situation and challenges that they're facing.
I know from experience with the farmers in my electorate that, when a crisis hits, it is hard enough to live through each day, let alone wait weeks and months for that extra bit of support. Can someone from the other side please give a coherent explanation as to why farmers doing it tough should have to wait? March not being not too far away, as the Prime Minister said, just does not cut it.
During the 2016 federal election campaign and shortly after, farmers in my electorate were hit from multiple angles. First there was and still remains a $1 milk price war between the supermarkets. Then came the slashing of milk prices in April 2016 by Murray Goulburn and Fonterra. It was a body blow and, combined with its retrospective nature, many dairy farmers in Braddon struggled to come to terms with the clawback. Then came the June floods, which were devastating, not only for dairy farmers but also across the entire agriculture industry and our communities. Farming families' mental and physical health were being affected by the very real and difficult situation they found themselves in. I have to commend the support by the broader community in the states—it was not just in Tasmania but also across the country—who supported our farmers. Their efforts are truly extraordinary and I thank them for that.
At that time I invited the former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture, the member for New England, to visit Tasmania: 'No strings attached; no politics; just come and see my farmers; come and see how they're hurting; talk to them.' I think he completely underestimated what that would've meant for those farmers. When he politely ignored my request—he didn't refuse it; he just ignored it—I said that it was probably because the Liberal Party of Tasmania would not let a National Party member into the state. Now I've extended that invitation to the current Minister for Agriculture, and, as we have one member of the National Party in Tasmania—and that's the only member of the National Party, Steve Martin, who has sold his soul to the government—perhaps the new minister will come to my electorate and speak to farmers and actually see what we do in a very agriculture-rich part of the country.
But, through the cocktail of stress at that time, the government did offer some support via concessional loans and farm household assistance. Concessional loans were, and remain, problematic for farmers. They're not only very difficult or almost impossible to obtain; they also set farmers up to fail by increasing their already-climbing debt. Many, though, took up the challenge to try and receive the allowance. That process in itself remains a nightmare, with very lengthy delays.
During the 2016 dairy crisis, a multitude of issues arose relating to the allowance. Farmers' cash flows were at crisis point; yet, in many cases, they faced very long delays to have their applications assessed. They were in desperate need of help and having to rely on food vouchers and other assistance from the community to try and make ends meet and put food on the table. The IT program processing the claims was not fit for purpose. My office had to intervene to help farmers in Circular Head get access to this assistance. Some were waiting up to three months for any help. And, even after these families received their allowance, the problems continued. Twelve months after receiving the allowance, they were cut off, due to a so-called glitch in the system. Again, my office had to intervene. It should not come to that. There's enough stress in farming and in trying to put food on your table and pay your bills when you're facing these sorts of crises, without having the government stuff up something as simple as an IT system. But this government has form on that.
During the 2016 crisis, I wrote to the former Deputy Prime Minister raising concerns about the delays farmers were dealing with. The Deputy Prime Minister responded—he acknowledged the problem—but, to this day, the government has done nothing about it.
But it's not just this side of the House who knew accessing the allowance was an issue. Rural Business Tasmania, in their submission to the review of the Intergovernmental Agreement on National Drought Program Reform, made the following point: 'We believe the farm household allowance has potential to be a successful output of the IGA, but the delivery mechanism needs further review. Issues over the life of the FHA include: the telephone number, 132316, as the person phoning may wait up to an hour or longer to gain a helpline support person; the complexity of the application process, including the number of forms; delay in outcome, in some cases up to 10 weeks; and clarity of requests for further information can provide frustration.' Rural Business Tasmania succinctly summed up the issue further in their submission under the question: 'What can be improved?' Their answer? 'The farm household allowance concessional loan process.' I trust this government is now taking notice.
I also want to put on the parliamentary record my thanks to the teams at Rural Business Tasmania and Rural Alive & Well for the work they do in supporting farming families. There is no doubt that many farming families would not have got through the trials and tribulations of the drought, the dairy crisis and the floods without their work. These organisations continue to do great work for our farmers.
When it comes to delivering the allowance to struggling farmers, Labor knows that it can and must be done better. This government has gutted Centrelink, causing the delays in accessing the allowance. But Labor will rebuild Centrelink by employing an additional 1,200 properly trained full-time staff. Labor has announced that, in my electorate, an additional 50 Department of Human Services officers will be employed to give further support. Those officers will visit regional communities so that clients, such as our farmers, can get access to the support they need. I commend Labor for doing that, and I trust that this government will follow suit. But we will sit here and wait a long time for that to happen.
I'm going to touch on the issue of climate change, because I always hear that people on our side don't believe in it and that believing in it on the other side's going to fix the problem. I want to do it from a very practical farming perspective that people might find of some interest. It isn't what you believe, it's what you do that matters in the farming sector.
Our family has had a farm or been in the farming district for years around Bridgewater. I still own a commercial farm. Yesterday I sold 132 lambs and they made $155.80. So I know something about agriculture. I'm a Nuffield scholar. I've looked at agricultural policy in about 70 countries. I think I can speak with some authority. It disappoints me to see that the member who just spoke is going to run out the door, because they'd find this very educational.
For the 124 years from 1894 to 2018 we've got the growing season rainfall figures for Bridgewater. This is very interesting. Did you know there were 18 very dry years in the first 62 of those years and 14 in the following 62 years? We tend to imagine, when we talk about climate change, what our parents can tell us and what our grandparents can tell us. My grandparents met in the war years. They began farming in 1946. They farmed through to 1976. If you could talk to my grandmother—she's now passed away—she would say, 'We live in a very good farming area. We always get the header out and we always harvest something.' There was only one year out of those 124 years that was a very dry year. They farmed through reasonably wet years.
From 1976 the seasons dried out again. The challenge for us, if we really want to address policy settings around agriculture, is to develop a farming system that doesn't just reflect what our grandparents experienced—because, historically, they were wetter years—we have to develop a farming system that is the long-term average over 124 years. That long-term average is dryer than what our grandparents and parents experienced. You can have the discussion around climate change or not, and I have a view that we should be responsible global citizens. We should plant trees and we should look after the environment. That is our moral obligation as citizens of the world. But we also need to realise that we have, in many ways, developed farming systems that have been based on historically high rainfalls and not over the last 124 years that have been dryer.
Let's work through the things we need to do if we're going to develop farming systems that will give us some long-term stability. Those things will be based around, firstly, ensuring that we have the right genetic varieties and farming techniques. We have crops in the Northern Mallee that still have the potential to yield, because of no-till farming techniques, because of the research and development that has been invested in from this chamber. It was John Kerin, when he was a Labor agricultural minister, who set up the R&D organisations where the government co-contributes with industry to try and drive productivity. That model, good policy, has been adopted and adapted and kept from when it was implemented in the Hawke era. So there are things that are bipartisan on this side and there are things that can really go a long way.
I want to touch on what the government is doing. I don't think this should be politicised—that somehow everything we're doing is terrible and everything they'd do would be better—because there's some good in it, and this policy, I think, will stand the test of time. Farm household support is really about grocery money, money for schoolkids, money for kindergarten and money for school uniforms. Essentially, what we're saying is that when a farmer is going through drought they shouldn't have to worry about how they're going to feed their family. Just like we have a safety net in our Centrelink system for people who are unemployed, in a drought situation you will have a farmer who may have a large number of assets but hasn't earned any money and we should stand by them. Just like we stand by someone who's unemployed because they haven't got any income coming in, we should stand by them. That is what the farm household support is about. It's $25,000 per couple.
The most important amendment here is a recognition that in the past the threshold of farm assets was $2.5 million and we are now increasing it to $5 million. That's because just because you have assets in a drought situation you have been precluded. Those assets might be land assets or in water allocation and the water allocation might be zero. Or you might have 1,000 megalitres of water. At the moment, at $4,300 a megalitre, that is $4.3 million worth of assets. So this amendment is about essentially lifting that threshold to $5 million, and I think that's sensible.
The other thing we've done is we've given two lump sum payments of $6,000 each. There is a lot of value in that because there's grocery money on the table but there are school fees that need to be paid. We don't think that country kids who are the children of farmers should be disadvantaged. We think they also deserve to have a decent school uniform, a new set of shoes and maybe some Christmas presents. That's really about trying to take off some of that household pressure.
We often have a view when we talk about farms. They often grab the farmer out there who's handing out a bit of fodder or trying to put a little bit of grain out to some drought-affected sheep—that is, the bloke. One of the things I've seen, having been on the board of the National Farmers' Federation and having been the VFF president, is that so much of the psychological burden of drought is on the partner of that farmer. Having some support around that household at least takes some of the burden off that partner. There are amazing rural women out there who are standing behind their blokes across New South Wales and Queensland at the moment. I want to say that this parliament pays tribute to you and your assistance. I know, having farmed through the 2002 drought, the 2006 drought, the 2007 drought and the 2008 drought, the burden that my wife carried when I was out there trying to make ends meet.
The other thing I want to talk about which is an important part of the package is the low-interest loans. I want us to just fully understand the advantage of these, because we somehow look at the low-interest loans and think not a lot of money has been placed down in the low-interest loans. But their purpose and really what Barnaby Joyce, the member for New England, was trying to do with those low-interest loans is to put some competitive pressure back on the banks. You've got to understand that it wasn't that long ago where a household loan was at five or six per cent but a farm loan would be at eight and nine per cent. Yet the level of equity that a bank was requiring on a farm loan was extraordinary, so there was really no risk for them. By us entering the market as a Commonwealth lender and saying, 'We will loan you money in the instance of a drought,' it forced the banking sector to close that margin drastically. Now you will see situations where a home loan has basically the same interest rate offered as a farm loan. That in itself has saved millions and millions of dollars of repayment in the farm sector.
When we think about the two things that we've offered—farm household support for grocery money and for schoolkids and support of the households and being there as a banking facility to put downward pressure and competitive pressure on the banks—they have actually assisted our farming sector. The other thing that we've done which is very important is essentially open up the market. In 1992, when we went through some dry times then, I remember we had old wethers that were worth nothing and we had to shoot them. My father couldn't do it. It was actually me and a friend of mine who, after school, at 17 years old, had to do it. He just couldn't get over the waste of it. But the great contrast between then and when we farmed in 2002, 2006, 2007 and 2008 was that, because we have opened up the opportunities for markets—instead of exporting to 12 countries, we now export sheepmeat to 96 countries—livestock commodities stayed high. That makes such a difference. If you're selling stock or having to unload stock and you're still getting $150 a head for it as opposed to getting nothing, that's additional income.
The other thing that our drought measures have made provision for is that farmers can actually park that income from the sale of drought-affected stock and it doesn't become part of the taxable income for that year. It's part of a financial mechanism so they can bring that back into production later. Those things are very good.
Another thing that I think has been instrumental in assisting us through dry times has been the significant investment in water infrastructure and in fodder retention infrastructure—tax incentives for hay sheds and for grain storage silos. There is also what farmers can now do with piped water. If there is one thing that climate change is showing us very clearly it's that we're having higher rainfall intensities and then longer dry periods, and so the ability of the catchment dam to hold water doesn't appear to be there anymore. Progressively, the Victorian government, in conjunction with successive federal government—governments of different persuasions—have rolled out piped irrigation infrastructure. I can see it taking place in my patch now. I'm still pretty keen to see some funding for the Mitiamo pipeline system, which is going to require $29 million—some from the Victorian government, some from the farmers and some from us. We haven't found that money yet. But the Wimmera Mallee Pipeline system, which was funded by the Victorian Labor government and the federal government in the Howard era, is a billion-dollar project. It's the biggest pipeline system in the world.
You would be surprised at just what you can do, Mr Deputy Speaker Buchholz. I put my own pipeline system on my farm. I ran three miles of two-inch polypipe with a double impeller Honda pump. You wouldn't believe it: a five-horsepower Honda pump, using a litre an hour, will deliver 100 litres a minute out the other side.
Yes—it's incredible what you can do with pipeline systems now. What we're seeing across our agricultural regions is the rejigging of stock and domestic pipelines when, in the past, catchment dams may have done that.
People ask, 'Do you believe in climate change or not?' What we do know is that the climate is changing, what we do know is that we're building the tools, collectively, as Australians to adapt to that and what we do know is that our farmers are pragmatic. They're not getting stuck in the intellectual debate around climate change. What they're saying is: 'We see that it's drier on our farm. We see that we have different periods of dry—and it may be because of historic reasons and that we're getting back to our long-term average rainfall, or it may be because of emissions in the air.' They don't really care. They care about how they farm, how they make a living and how we ensure the market's available to them—how do we open up the financial products to them?
Can I also offer something that we haven't moved on and which I think we need to move on more—something that is taking place around the world. Saskatchewan in Canada has a drought insurance model, and I met with the USDA in Washington two years ago to discuss their arable drought insurance. 'Arable' is the word they use for broadacre cropping. We have yet to develop a really effective drought insurance model. I think that where we do need to land—and I'll just put this on the record—is encouraging people to have an FMD of the same value as their interest component. So if they have a million-dollar debt and interest rates are at six per cent, they should have $60,000 parked in an FMD. If it's dry they can then realise that FMD and make an interest-only payment, which will keep the bank out of their way for that 12 months.
We should also encourage an input-only insurance product. So if they're running up a fee for fuel, wheat, seed or fertiliser, they should be able to take an insurance product against what they write out in fees. Then, when we get that dry year and they don't harvest anything—and I have harvested one bushel an acre myself. If anyone wants to check what a bushel is, it's a third of a bag. You can work that out, less the seed that I actually put in the ground. In those dry years, they should be able to get their input components back, service their loans with an FMD and then not be out of pocket. They can roll the dice again and set themselves up for another year, because the most important thing anyone must have at the end of a drought is ensuring that they're well placed for productivity so they can then go forward and produce, because it will rain. It does rain.
To our farmers out there: we hear you and we're standing by you. To our farming families and those women out there in Australia, we pay tribute to you. It'll rain again and we'll be helping you until it does.
I rise to support the second reading amendment to the Farm Households Support Amendment (Temporary Measures) Bill 2018 from my good friend and colleague the shadow minister for agriculture, the member for Hunter, and salute his work in getting out there and listening to our farmers and being part of our Country Labor caucus. I'd also like to acknowledge my colleague the member for Malley. He's one of the few members in this place who does actually have a connection with farming as opposed to being a journalist, an accountant, a banker or what we call in New South Wales a Pitt Street farmer. As always, he made some valuable observations from the coalface, as we might say. I support this amendment because we believe that the farmers need a single up-front payment option. We call on the government to remove that two-part payment period to ensure that farmers aren't missing out on the supplementary payment due to the complexities of the application process.
We support this bill. We will pass it. If we can also get this amendment, we'll be very happy with that. We should have bipartisan approaches to helping our farmers. I think we always do, by and large. I'm going to offer here today not political partisanship but some constructive criticism and suggestions, because this is part of that broader story of the conditions that are facing our farmers now. Like the member for Malley, my family have been dairy farming in the Bega Valley for over 170 years now. My great-great-grandfather founded the Bega Cheese Co-op and was the first chairman. Dairy farming requires a much-better-quality pasture than a lot of other country, where you can do marginal grazing and the like, so dairy farmers are doing it really tough. I was privileged to spend time in the agricultural and water portfolios when we were in government. I went up and down the Murray-Darling Basin, looking at the struggling farmers during that time. It is heartbreaking to see them having to go through this again. We all know the mental health issues that farmers go through in this environment.
The point of distinction for me is I'm not accepting any more that there's any kind of argument we can enter into about climate change. We have to convince some of the blockers on the other side of this chamber to get out of the way because we need to aggressively take on this climate change issue. We have to be able to prevent further catastrophic climate change. We can't see another two-degree increase. That should be a matter of bipartisan approach. I can't understand why it isn't. In every other significant OECD country, you get the conservative side of politics completely aligned with the progressive side. Angela Merkel, David Cameron, John Key, Theresa May and even Arnold Schwarzenegger are all over this. I don't get why we can't agree, particularly using the power of the market. I would've thought members opposite would embrace that. That was the potential that our farmers had. Under the clean energy future package that we were able to put in a government, the power of that market and the investment would have flowed to farmers.
We've heard about the Carbon Farming Initiative that we introduced. I know some of the measures of that have been preserved by the government, but not enough power is getting behind that investment. Agriculture takes up 53 per cent of the Australian landscape. The opportunity that farmers in agriculture offer for large-scale carbon sequestration in this country is huge. Apart from that, we know that getting carbon back into the soil is going to help restore its health. Over the two centuries that we've been here, we've been doing a lot of damage to soil health. There's no doubt about it. Laying on too much phosphate, pesticides and other things has definitely drawn down on the carbon store that we have in soils and eroded a lot of our landscape.
We have great farmers out there who are politically neutral—they're not wheeling any barrow for any side of politics—who are doing great stuff in trying to push us forward. We have some great Nuffield scholars who have introduced techniques of stubble management, no-till farming and the like. You also have people like Tony Coote at the Mulloon Creek Natural Farms co-op out near Bungendore doing a lot of great stuff on absorbing and implementing the theories of natural sequence farming to rehydrate the landscape and slow down water through the landscape. If we're able to adopt those techniques then there's going to be no need for dams. As the member mentioned, in the kind of environment that we're seeing, with extreme weather and long periods of dry weather and then heavy falls, dams are not helping a hell of a lot. I must point out that we have to have health in our rivers and natural flushing flows through our rivers. Our fishers really depend on the health of the estuaries. I know only too well that in my region our fishers and oyster growers have to have a healthy river environment. Damming is not the answer to all of this. It gets back to, at the end of the day, better techniques in farming and that includes, as they're doing at Mulloon farms, slowing water down through the landscape and enabling the soil to retain that water much more effectively.
We've also heard mention by the shadow minister of Charles Massy. He's a tremendous bloke. He's one of the Monaro farmers. He's got a PhD from the ANU and a BSC as well. He's an expert on what he's implementing on his farm. He terms it 'regenerative farming techniques', and it's working. He's getting carbon back in his soil—it's helping to sequester carbon—and he's making his property much more productive. He can show you a slide which is quite dramatic. It shows his fence line, and the difference between his property and the property next door is stark. He's trying to sell the techniques to other farmers. That's where the critical emphasis has to be now. We have to get the communication going. Fortunately, in our high country, the Monaro farmers, in the millennial drought, finally got together and formed Monaro Farming Systems. Through that, they were able to team up with the CSIRO to develop a computer modelling tool that will help them plan for a 50-year cycle on their properties to manage pastures and herds properly. That is also a great mental health prop as well. There is something to grab onto. Bringing them together in that aggregation also helped them to talk to each other and pass on scientific tips and farming techniques. This is what we've got to take countrywide: enable the farmers to aggregate and adopt the best science out there but also to take advantage of the proper carbon system that allows the investment that needs to flow to those farms. Under our Carbon Farming Initiative, for example, we were looking to enable farmers to aggregate, reforest parts of their properties, have a broker to manage that process and diversify the income on their farms. This is another thing we have to do: ensure resilience in farms by diversifying their incomes. Certainly, our Clean Energy Future package was helping in doing that.
In my region, forestry industry is a huge part of what we do. It's one of the largest forestry industry components in certainly any electorate in the state of New South Wales. More is needed and more can be provided to a growing sector of the economy for us. The busy pulp mill in Tumut wants to double in size and expand. They need another million tonnes of resources to do that. The Dongwha-TASCO sawmill near Bombala would like to expand into particle board manufacturing. Again, they need more resources. So I really welcome the shadow minister's announcement that he's committed to a review, with a view to modifying the water restrictions on the plantation investment strategies under the Carbon Farming Initiative. That's important because, normally with plantation resources, you'll only get a return on that at either a 10-year or a 25-year time line. But, with the Carbon Farming Initiative, you can have investors getting a return on their investment through the whole life of the forestry and plantation development and investment. I really welcome that. That's the sort of thing we need. We need aggressive action on climate change to save farmers from catastrophic climate change, but we also need to enable investment to flow into diversifying their farms.
All of this was going to happen under the processes we established when we were in government. We looked at the exceptional circumstances regime and said, 'This is no longer exceptional circumstances. This is the world now.' We also knew from that, and I knew from my own experience, that inefficient farmers had their inefficiency covered up by the exceptional circumstances regime. You also had artificial lines on maps where a farmer on one side would say the Eurobodalla Shire was not getting the support a farmer in the Bega Valley Shire was getting. That was just arbitrary silliness. We took the exceptional circumstances regime to the Productivity Commission and had it reviewed and they came up with suggestions on how we could move forward in developing a regime that would actually empower farmers to deal with farming over the long term through dire circumstances. Following that, we set up the intergovernmental process, the COAG process and the Standing Council on Primary Industries to help develop and implement that strategy. But, unfortunately, the member for New England, who became the Minister for Agriculture, dismantled that whole SCoPI process under COAG, so we no longer had the implementation of those longer term drought reform measures. That's really very, very sad, and we have to get those mechanisms put back in place to make sure our farmers can be assisted and empowered in adopting those techniques that will help them to survive well into the future.
Obviously, what we're still seeing missing from the government's policies is the restoration of that COAG drought policy reform process, action to help farmers adapt to climate change, and also giving farmers immediate access to this $12,000. It's also a bit disingenuous to claim this dollar value of the drought response by factoring in the capital value of loans when we know that these farmers are going to have to pay this back. Really, a loan approach to this is just no help right now. These farmers are not going to qualify for these loans. They're not going to be able to pay them back right now. The other thing that we've heard mentioned that is hurting them so badly is the denuding of human services—the 2,500 staff who have gone from Centrelink, who were our frontline warriors in getting together with farmers and getting together with communities suffering from the effects of disasters and extreme weather events.
Just look around you. In my own region we've had the earliest beginning to a fire season we've seen. Already there have been three homes lost near Bemboka, the Yankee Gap fire, off the back of what we saw was a late season fire tragedy in Tathra. We lost nearly 70 homes there. There was a great uniting across the chamber to respond to that crisis, but we need to raise the sights here. Look up. What's going on around the world right now? It is just smashing us in the face what's happening. There has got to be more urgency in doing something about this. We can no longer sit by and pretend that the science and the evidence isn't there.
For example, the Climate Council has said that by 2030 we are going to need double the number of firefighters. With these overlapping fire seasons that we are seeing now, there is a real problem with the sharing of air assets between the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere. We're fighting fires here, and California is still burning—and Sweden et cetera. So we are now going to have to revisit the issue of how we manage air asset support for fires. We might have to acquire our own capacity for a year-round threat. This is what we're being confronted with and what needs to be addressed by more serious national policy.
What I'm also very concerned about—and I particularly want to finish on this—is that we've seen the drought community's program announcement, the extension of that $75 million in funding. We've seen a list of about 60 eligible councils published today, and each of those councils will be getting $1 million of support for things like employing local contractors, undertaking repairs and maintenance, upgrading and building new community facilities, holding events and undertaking drought relief activities and the possible carting of potable water. I've got a list of all the New South Wales councils that are benefitting from this program. I have six councils in my electorate, which is 41,000 square kilometres—in the top 15 in this chamber. Did Queanbeyan-Palerang Council get support? No. Yass Valley? No. Snowy Valley Council? No. Snowy Monaro? No. Bega Valley? No. Eurobodalla? No. Every single one of the six councils in my region received absolutely no help under this program, and I can tell you the mayors are really angry. They think this looks terribly like a political decision. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt here—I'm sure it wasn't—but I cannot see for the life of me how my six councils have been overlooked in this assistance, because they are hurting. They are red on the map; they are all red. They are all drought-declared and they all have farmers who are really doing it tough.
I'm not going to sit by and tolerate that. I call on the member for Groom to please revisit this, because those mayors are going to come knocking on his door and demand their inclusion. So let's take this opportunity to perhaps remedy what might have been an oversight—I give all the benefit of the doubt here. But those six councils of mine need this help and they need it now. They should have been included on that list in the first place, if you just looked at the drought-affected map.
So let's make this a bipartisan approach to dealing with this crisis. Let's accept the second reading amendment that my colleague has proposed to make this more effective, in the immediate assistance the farmers need. But let's get serious, let's get real, about the true story behind all of this—effective policy on climate change—and not the circus we've seen over these last 10 years of climate change wars. It's got to end.
I support the passage of this Farm Household Support Amendment (Temporary Measures) Bill 2018 bill that will provide some relief to Australia's farmers. Australians are no strangers to drought. We've seen it before and undoubtedly we'll see it again. However, the severity of recent droughts—with the millennium drought etched firmly in our memories and the current drought on the eastern seaboard one of the worst on record—is having a devastating effect on our farmers.
This bill allows more farmers to apply for the farm household allowance and provides those farmers with two lump sum payments worth up to $3,600 each. While this provides some small immediate relief, the government still needs to address the biggest issues facing Australia's agricultural sector—climate change, energy costs and, I would also say, dealing with the banks. The first to feel the real impact of climate change are our farmers. The fact that the government continues to be so bitterly divided on energy and climate change policy and yet claims to be addressing farmers' concerns is deeply frustrating for the agricultural sector, a sector which contributes $60 billion to Australia's economy every year.
One-off payments to farmers will not prevent future droughts and will not address the systemic, surrounding skyrocketing power prices. I call upon the government to show real leadership and not just pay lip-service to the incredibly difficult challenges Australia's agricultural sector are facing. I also call on the government to address the unconscionable lending practices by banks to small primary-production businesses. Primary producers are so often at the mercy of factors far beyond their control. Family farmers hope to make profits over a multi-year cycle, using good years and what we're seeing now as bad years to build their financial buffer, to see them through the bad. These primary producers are capital rich and income poor, and their ability to pay their creditors is reliant upon long-term profit cycles.
Banks are not always accommodating to the challenges faced by farmers, and we've seen that with the royal commission. They often only give the minimum notice for sudden and unilateral variations to loan agreements. Revaluations of assets are undertaken during downturns, when asset prices are at their lowest, and as a means to call in the loan and force the farmer off the loan book. Earlier this year I introduced the Banking Amendment (Rural Finance Reform) Bill 2018, which took a reasoned and measured approach to levelling the field between the lender and the lendee. And now that I'm fortunate enough to be back in my role I'll be seeking to re-table that bill. The government has refused to even debate the bill let alone put it to a vote. How can you call yourself the party for farmers if you are not going to address the inequity that lies between bankers and farmers?
The government's proposals in this bill are long overdue and they will provide assistance to farmers in the short-term. Lifting farm asset tests from $2.55 million to $5 million will allow more farmers to access the farm household allowance, providing them with up to $16,000 per year in income support. It is support that I know farmers don't want to take, but if they need money we must provide it for them. The two lump-sum payments, each worth up to $3,600, will provide immediate relief with rising bills, but lowering power prices would provide so much more real and long-term assistance. And that's what we're talking about—long-term assistance on energy prices, on climate change and on banking behaviour.
I support the passage of this legislation. The measures will provide some short-term relief for Australia's farmers, and that is important. More important is the government standing up for rural Australia and meaningfully addressing the real issues that are forcing families that have worked on the land for generations to sell their farms.
This drought is biting right across New South Wales and also Queensland and indeed other parts of Australia. It is hitting the communities of central western New South Wales especially hard. It is an awful drought and it is taking an awful toll on all of our communities—our farmers, our farming families and our country communities. It is not just the farms that are being affected; it is the whole community. We are seeing an economic slowdown which is really taking a toll right across the business sector as well.
The farm household allowance is an important relief measure. It is a vital relief measure. That's why I speak to support the Farm Household Support Amendment (Temporary Measures) Bill 2018 this evening. Basically the farm household allowance puts food on the table and diesel in the ute when farmers just don't have any income because of the ravages of drought. It's worth around $530 to $580 per fortnight for singles and just under $1,000 per fortnight for couples. With this bill, we are seeing additional funding go into it, including $12,000 in grants, which is, I think, really important.
Another feature of this bill which I think is important is that the assets test threshold has been widened to $5 million. Previously it was around $2.5 million. This was one of the big issues which farmers had raised with me concerning the farm household allowance—that most of them weren't eligible for it. By widening the asset threshold and raising it, you are going to get thousands more people eligible to apply. I think that's a great thing because the constant feedback that I have had from communities right around the central west is that that assets threshold needs to be adjusted.
The other issue that farmers have is that it's just so difficult to fill in those forms. I note that this week the Australian government is taking steps to make it easier to apply for the farm household allowance and to streamline the process. This is a constant source of irritation to farmers. The drought takes a huge emotional toll. There is no rain, the paddocks are bare and you've got farmers and their families going out, day in and day out, feeding, checking dams and checking troughs. It's very time consuming. It's very labour intensive. The last thing our farmers need to be saddled with is more forms and red tape. Indeed, I've had farmers actually take photographs of the pile of forms that they have to fill in to access the farm household allowance. So I'm very pleased that efforts are being made to streamline it. I think it's really important, and it is the least that we can do for our farmers.
I am also very pleased that the federal government has just announced more badly needed drought relief measures. Drought relief can't exist as a static thing in time. You can't just put out a package and say: 'Yes, we're done. Here is our drought relief package.' It's got to move and change as conditions worsen, and they are worsening. This season is shaping up to be a very ugly one. So I was very pleased to see these new drought relief measures announced just recently, including for the National Drought Coordinator, Major General Stephen Day. I think that his presence will help coordinate all of these parties, because there does need to be coordination across the state governments, federal government and also private enterprise.
I was very pleased to see that primary producers will now be allowed to immediately deduct rather than depreciate over a number of years the cost of fodder storage assets, such as silos and hay sheds. That's a good thing. Doubling the amount a farmer can borrow in low-interest loans to $2 million across a 10-year loan term with interest-only repayments for the first five years helps. Farmers will access that. The additional $23.7 million to improve drought resilience by expanding the great artesian bore capping program is a positive thing as well, as is the special drought round under the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund that will provide up to $72 million for water infrastructure projects. There's $2.7 million for the Bureau of Meteorology to develop new finer scale regional weather and climate guides. Again, that's a positive step.
Something that I touched on previously is the bolstering of staffing levels at Centrelink to ensure farms are supported when applying for the farm household allowance. This will include phone access capacity, which will allow farmers to complete a claim over the phone and just make the whole process simpler and easier. I'll touch on an aspect of that shortly.
One initiative that was part of the package was the Drought Communities Program, which provides $1 million to councils to help communities affected by drought with local infrastructure projects and drought relief activities. I think this is an important initiative, because it recognises that it's not just the farm which is being affected by this awful drought but the farming communities and our country communities—our country towns and villages. Everyone in our region is being hit by this, so it is an important initiative. But, when it was announced, there were some notable omissions. I include Bathurst Regional Council, Lithgow City Council and Orange City Council in that. Two that do host significant farming communities are Bathurst and Lithgow. They have significant farming communities in their local government areas, so, as soon as this announcement was made, I got on the phone to the responsible minister, the member for Groom, to highlight this problem. He understood my frustration—that there were drought-affected communities that weren't on the list. I think the issue is the bureaucratic process here, not the minister. To his credit, the minister has undertaken to work with me to fix it, and I'm confident he will. He's a good man, an effective minister and a great friend of the Central West. However, the situation isn't acceptable when everyone in the Central West is getting hammered and is suffering under this drought. This situation needs to be resolved as a matter of urgency. We need to get cracking on it, and I urge all parties to do just that. We need to get this issue sorted out on the double.
Another issue which needs to be sorted out quickly is that of the rural financial counsellors. I was very pleased to see recently an additional $5 million for rural financial counsellors. I visited the counsellor in Mudgee recently. She is now booked out for three weeks. There's a counsellor in Mudgee and in Young, and there are counsellors in Dubbo too, but we need more support on the Central Tablelands now to service Lithgow, Oberon, Bathurst, Orange and the Cabonne area. The funding is there. There's an additional $5 million—that's a good thing. I welcome the announcement. Now we've just got to get the counsellors on the ground. We need boots on the ground and we need them ASAP. I've spoken to the folks who run the counselling service out of Dubbo and I understand that an application for funding has been made, but I would encourage everyone who has some input into this process to get it cracking—to expedite it—because we need to get this help on the ground where it's needed, on the double.
Everywhere I go in the Central West—I've been visiting a lot of farms and speaking to a lot of farmers—the mental toll it's taking is huge. People are worried about their family members, and it's hurting. The last thing that farmers need to worry about is trying to work out whether they're eligible for a program or whether they can get relief, because they're coming in late after long, awful soul-destroying days. We need to get them the help. That's the least that we can do for them. We need to work out the feed situation here and support them to get the feed and fodder to where they need it—get the grain going. That's what I'm hoping the new drought coordinator can do, because we need to get the grain to where it's needed. At the moment, it's not coming into the Central West of New South Wales.
Grain is in extremely short supply. There have been some big buy-ups in recent weeks, with hundreds of thousands of tonnes taken off the market. WA is going to have a bumper season—and thank the Lord they are— but we need to get the grain from there over into the Central West of New South Wales. We need it on the double. I'm hoping the drought coordinator can get private enterprise, the New South Wales government and the federal government all in a room together to sort out how we can do it and who's doing what, because, at the moment, the grain just isn't arriving. Farmers are now being charged upwards of $500 a tonne, and it's uneconomic to feed in that situation. All of the work they've done to this date, by making feedlot on their places and storing the grain and the hay, will all be for nothing if they can't continue to feed. We need to get this sorted ASAP. I would encourage all farmers to speak to their local members and drought coordinators, state and federal, to raise these issues and make the decision-makers aware of the importance of this project in terms of getting the grain. It's urgent and we need it quickly.
We also need fodder. We need the hay. There has been some discussion in this House about the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder making water available so that farmers, especially in the southern reaches of the state and into Victoria, can actually finish fodder and actually irrigate the hay. The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder has a huge holding of water. It's being held as environmental water. I don't think the farmers are asking for much. We need to be looking out of the box and thinking a little bit differently about how we can get feed and fodder to the farmers. Getting not huge amounts of water, but enough so that they can irrigate the fodder, would be a really helpful start. So I would encourage all parties, including the drought coordinator, to get moving on that, because it's urgent and it can't wait for a long bureaucratic process. We need this help now. This needs to be delivered now. We need to get this sorted out now. We need to get the million-dollar grants to council sorted out because this is pressing and it's going to get a whole lot worse. There's a real urgency about this.
So many people around our region have rallied to the cause to help our farmers. If you can take away anything from this adversity, it shows the Australian spirit. The Australian spirit shines through in times like these because in country communities we care about each other. But it's not just the country communities caring; this is the whole of Australia. For example, in the Mudgee area, Will Bateman and Glenn Box have this program called 200BALES, which is a campaign to get hay to farmers. It gives people or businesses the opportunity to give a bale of hay to one of the farmers in the local area who are struggling during these dry times. I was actually at a farm about a week ago, and the farmer, who hadn't asked for it, suddenly received some bales under this program, and it just lifted their spirits. It made them aware that the community was caring. Although they were not looking for a handout, the bales were there and they were really grateful for it. It did make a difference.
All around the central west there are many, many stories of the community pulling together. East Orange Public School students have been raising money to help farmers in the region. They've actually been cooking. They've had an out-of-uniform day. They're hoping to raise around $1,000. They've got an appeal on. They're selling cupcakes. All of the students are involved in it. There are also local businesses. Sierra Leone Hair and Beauty threw open its doors recently, donating all of the money raised from people getting haircuts to drought relief. Rebecca Childs, who runs a hair business called Hair at Home, said the idea was just a silly idea about a week ago, and it just picked up steam. These are everyday people working out what they can do to help drought-affected communities.
This legislation is important legislation. I support the legislation, but there is more work to do, and we need to be doing everything we can to ramp up drought support, because more relief and assistance measures are going to be needed. This drought shows no sign of breaking any time soon, and we need to keep ramping it up and supporting the farmers who have supported us through lean economic times recently. We need to now have their backs and support them.
I rise, as part of the Labor team, to support the Farm Household Support Amendment (Temporary Measures) Bill 2018. I've listened carefully to many of the speakers in this debate and I think we are at one in understanding how important the Farm Household Support Act is. I'll come to that in a moment.
At the outset, I want to say that I come to this debate wearing several hats. As the shadow minister for families and social services, and, until recently, the shadow minister for human services, I have a great deal of interest in the way in which this particular measure works within the social security system. I also come to this discussion as the member for Barton, which is in southern Sydney. But I grew up in the country. I grew up in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, in a tiny little hamlet called Whitton. The whole economy of that town depended on farms doing well, because most of the people who lived there were farmhands in the area. I also come to this debate as someone who was raised by my great-uncle, who was a drover and a stockman on Kooba Station, which was the big station not far from where I grew up. I grew up, as I said, in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. I lived across the road from rice farms. I remember well the importance of the irrigation system, and I spent many, many hours of my youth playing in the rice farms, in the stubble once the rice was cut, building forts and so forth. So I well understand the issues around farming. I want to make sure people understand that in this discussion.
This bill proposes to amend the Farm Household Support Act 2014. The act provides support for eligible farmers and their partners, including one-on-one case support, an activity supplement for planning and training, and an income support payment. I think it's really important to listen to the speakers in this particular debate—that, whilst this is one measure, it is certainly not the only measure that both the government and the opposition have announced around this protracted drought.
The drought has many people, in the city and in the country, working towards providing relief for the drought and, in particular, for farming families. I can only imagine the heartbreak for farming families that have spent years and years building up their herds and their properties, only to see something that's completely out of their control having such a devastating effect—and that is drought.
Drought is not a new phenomenon, of course, for Australia, the second driest continent on earth. It is a part of what we understand. But we also understand—and it's undeniable—that climate change is having a terrible effect, not only in Australia but right across this world, to the point where you would have to ask whether some parts of this blue planet are going to be habitable into the future.
The Farm Household Support Act provides support for eligible farmers, as I said: one-on-one case support, an activity supplement for planning and training, and an income support payment. This bill will extend the period of support from three years to four years, which underpins the length of time it will take for many farmers to recover. The bill will also increase the farm asset limit from $2.635 million to $5 million, and that's an important element of this particular measure. This bill will also introduce a new two-part payment supplement to qualifying farm household allowance recipients. Labor believes that farmers should be able to receive the two-part payment in one single lump sum, which will get support to farmers who need it urgently. I understand that that is not going to be possible, but I'll obviously take advice on that.
Our farmers make a tremendous contribution to the economy and to Australian society. It is part of the cultural milieu of Australia and it is very much a part of how Australia has grown. Labor believes that farmers should be able to receive the two-part payment in one lump sum. Farmers' resilience is not only inspiring; it puts food on our tables and has had an enormous impact on the economic fortunes of this country.
We know that farmers are a proud people. We know that many will be reluctant to accept assistance. I say to farmers who are really in need of assistance to try and think about this not as charity—it is not charity—it is what you are eligible for and it is a temporary measure. In that context, it is very, very appropriate and important that farmers access this assistance. To those farmers second-guessing whether they should accept assistance, I would say: don't wait for things to get really, really past the point of being able to be fixed. If you're eligible for assistance, please use it.
The member for Calare made the points about how challenging these forms are. We know that many farmers who are eligible for this assistance have not accessed it. We know that 15,000 farmers, or two-thirds of eligible farmers, have not taken up farm household allowance. I think part of it is pride, and perhaps part of it is the exhaustion that we have heard spoken about so passionately in this House tonight. But there is no doubt that the bureaucracy and the length and the complexity of the forms is making it extremely difficult to access. Many have found the application process so complex they are simply not applying for assistance. We know that many Australians are finding it more and more difficult to contact and access Centrelink, and this includes the farm household allowance.
Over the past two years, the government has cut 2,500 staff from the Department of Human Services, which administers Centrelink and therefore the farm household allowance. We have seen payment wait times increase and we've seen phone wait times also increase, once again, making it extremely difficult for farmers to make contact and get some clarification about the complexity and what they need to do to qualify for these forms. This is not appropriate in this time of need. The government has already begun to outsource 2,500 Centrelink jobs to labour-hire firms as a bandaid response to the blow-out in wait times. Income support is complex, and that's why it's so important for Centrelink to have permanent full-time staff who are properly trained to assist with complex matters arising in income support. This is one such matter. Labor believes all Australians, including our farmers, should be able to access help if or when they need it. They shouldn't be forced to wait or go without.
Our farmers are incredibly tough and resilient people. This is a long and difficult drought. We are now entering our eighth year of drought. I was talking to the minister the other day who said that there seems to be very little relief in sight. This is some such relief, and farmers should not have to worry about difficulties of navigating a complex bureaucratic process. This month Labor announced it would boost Centrelink staff numbers by 1,200 permanent, full-time, qualified and well-trained staff. We will deploy 100 specifically trained Centrelink community response officers to go out and provide face-to-face assistance to those facing drought, including two additional mobile service centres, doubling the current capacity. This means these mobile centres can actually go to where there is a crisis. It might not be drought—it might be flood or it might be some other difficult situation—but it means that there is a doubling of the resources in terms of mobile service centres. They will guide those requiring assistance through the application process as well as assess for any further assistance that may be required, including financial counselling and health services. We cannot forget that those things are important.
Of course, as people have point out, it is not just farmers but it is communities that rely on farmers to be doing well, particularly things like service stations and other businesses in towns that are in rural and regional New South Wales. This will help to ensure that farmers are receiving the necessary assistance as quickly as possible.
As my colleague, the member for Hunter, has so rightly pointed out, this drought will require a coherent, long-term drought policy. It will require broader discussion about the government's commitment to address climate change—I know other people have spoken about that at length. For now, we need to focus on ensuring that farmers receive the assistance they need so that they can focus on getting through the drought.
I finish by once again reiterating that this is not charity. This is not a handout. This is assistance that you as a farmer have a right to, and it is a temporary measure, so please access it. I know that there is pride involved. I know that many farmers are not used to this kind of process. I know that it is a difficult process, but it is your right.
I stand here a little bit disappointed that the government isn't going to support the amendment that has been put forward by the opposition in relation to the Farm Household Support Amendment (Temporary Measures) Bill 2018, particularly the ability for farmers to get a single up-front payment of $12,000. From what we've heard from people on the ground, in the areas affected, the ability to get that payment now will help them get through the crisis that they're in right now, because so many of them are struggling.
The other part of the amendment that the government is not supporting, which I find really disappointing, is the prioritising of the rebuilding of the COAG process that was dismantled in 2013, when this mob were elected, in order to restore the process to develop the National Drought Policy Reform Program. We are in this crisis because the government has failed on multiple fronts when it comes to drought reform policy, Centrelink, farm household support and the entire program.
There have been a few journalists writing about the fact that there are more Victorian farmers currently accessing the farm household support loans and allowance than there are in New South Wales, even though New South Wales has been declared 100 per cent drought-affected. I'm not surprised by that. When I've been on the ground talking to various different farmers, they have said the processing has slowed a lot of them down. It's the complex paperwork. It's the fact that, when they ring Centrelink to try and get help, they're stuck on the phone for an hour only to get through to someone who works in a call centre for Serco who's a generalist and has no idea of the complex nature of this paperwork and who puts them on hold for a further amount of time.
We've known for many years that it is hard to get this paperwork done. This government has failed to address those concerns on its watch. It has failed to make the system easier. Only now is it starting to put forward some reforms which can actually help. It's not like the government can say, 'We didn't know,' because the opposition has raised this several times. We've asked this question several times, and the government blamed financial counsellors—in fact, it actually shut down the financial counselling services in my part of the world. We had an office in Bendigo, and it was shut down. The government said it was doing a review, and the resources were pushed elsewhere, so now our farmers in Bendigo don't have access to that support. They have to travel or the financial counsellors have to travel further to go to the farmers in my part of the world.
Financial counsellors are a big part of helping people through this complex paperwork. But I should also note that it's not only farmers that have to complete complex paperwork. Many people in this place have probably met with people trying to access aged-care services and home care services. There's a lot of paperwork involved in trying to receive any form of government assistance. It's just the complication that this government has imposed on Australians, because of the lack of trust that it has for people. They talk about red tape, and they came in here with all that fanfare, 'We're going to reduce red tape.' Yet all they've done, particularly in areas like our social welfare state, is to create more paperwork and make it even harder for people to access assistance.
We all know that the government has really been failing in this area and we know that they've really struggled to understand the complexity of why the farm household support program isn't being accessed, because the former minister responsible for agriculture misspoke in the parliament in that kind of tragic moment and then doctored, corrected or suggested corrections to the Hansard record which completely altered his original statement. It demonstrates again just how out of touch this government is. Just turning up with the cameras to do a roadshow tour isn't enough. It's not what people in the regions are looking for.
I do want to acknowledge that there are a number of farmers who don't access this: (1) because of the complicated paperwork; (2) as the former member mentioned, because of pride; and (3) because they think that they've got their drought planning right. There is really mixed experience in people in the agricultural industry when it comes to drought and the drought effect. Some of them did do their planning after the millennial drought. They have destocked, they have planned for drought and they are now working through that plan, knowing ahead of time that it was going to be tough.
Some of them have spoken publicly in the media about how they're doing fine because they planned for drought and they were ready, but that now they've got what they call survivor guilt because they did plan, because they were smart economic managers and because they were ready for it. They spoke about their frustration from being depicted as being out-of-touch cocky farmers who don't know how to manage their affairs. We have to be sensitive in this area, to not demonise all. We have to be compassionate and understanding and support those people, and that's what this bill seeks to do. But we also have to congratulate and acknowledge those who've succeeded in their planning and prepared themselves for this drought.
We desperately need to get the National Drought Policy Reform Program back on track. The fact that we have those opposite still denying the effects of climate change whilst we're debating this bill this week is just extraordinary. It's the fact that they're not even taking the proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which we know affect the environment, seriously. It's is just extraordinary. It's just extraordinary that they have completely dropped the ball when it comes to real action on climate change. It's just so disappointing that they can't even work with the farmers and their core constituency, who are saying: 'This is a result, we know the effects of climate change are really having an impact on agriculture. If you want us to be the economic powerhouse for our country, then we need to work more collaboratively when it comes to drought policy and drought policy reform.' The reason why it needs to be done through COAG is because the states have a number of other policy levers that they can work on.
We talked about water security a lot when we were in the regions. It's quite topical in parts of Victoria and all throughout New South Wales and Queensland. I've had the opportunity to hold agricultural workforce roundtables. At the end of the discussions, I always ask: 'What else is there? What else is on the agenda?' And it doesn't matter whether you're a mango farmer, a sheep farmer or a cotton farmer, and it doesn't matter which area of agriculture you're involved in, they all say, 'Water—water security is critical.' Water security is linked to drought-proofing. It is linked to drought policy and the need for us, as a nation, to have a constructive conversation about water security and water storage.
There are some amazing things that our agricultural industry is doing in relation to water security, water storage and the way in which they're using less water to grow more. We have some real innovation going on in areas of our ag sector. Where are the resources to get behind that?
If we know there's going to be less rainwater, what's our plan? We need to restart the National Drought Policy Reform Program through COAG to bring all of the core constituencies together to work on a national plan. That is what we need to do in the long term. We need to be proactive about this. What we need to be doing in the short term is working with these communities.
I am disappointed to learn that the funding going to local councils, under this government, appears not to be party blind. There is funding going to Liberal and National seats but not to Labor seats. That is disappointing. The member for Eden-Monaro has said that is disappointing. In Eden-Monaro drought is a problem. These councils have missed out. Nobody is denying it's a problem in New England. Nobody is denying it's a problem in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. But it's a problem in every state, including in every area of New South Wales, regardless of who the elected representative is.
If the minister across the table is saying that it is resolved, that will be welcome news to those shires. It's not just the farmers who struggle in a drought. It is also the businesses that support those farmers. It is the communities that rally around those farmers. That is something a lot of rural financial counsellors have raised with me, the effects of drought. If the crops aren't coming in, then the farmers don't have money to spend in the local shops.
A very interesting comment came out of the CWA in one of the affected communities. They said, 'While it's nice to receive donations, it means that people don't go to the local shop anymore.' I think that was a little comment towards saying to people in the metro areas: 'Ask us what support we need; ask us what work we need help with.' What we're hearing when we're talking to people is that they want to see cooperation and collaboration. They don't just want handouts. They want long-term reform that really focuses on how as a country, and how as communities, and how as an industry we can ensure we are—as best as possible—drought-proofing, going forward.
I have a final few comments about Centrelink and how this government could have avoided this disaster of people not being able to complete their paperwork—if only they'd hired more people. If they had just employed more people within Centrelink this entire problem—the fact that there are more people in Victoria on the allowance than there are in New South Wales—could have been avoided. If only this government hadn't cut so many people from DHS. I have a smart centre in my electorate. It's good to have people working for Centrelink in the smart centre of my electorate, because we're a regional community. You have people who work at Centrelink who also have a farm. They understand farming. One partner works for Centrelink, the other runs the farm.
When you live in regional communities, particularly where you've got a big population centre like Bendigo, there are a lot of farming families where one parent will work in a teaching job, or in the Bendigo Bank or in Centrelink, and the other will work on the farm. So they have that dual income. It's really critical that when the farmer rings for assistance, to try and get support through the farm household assistance, when they speak to a directly employed person, someone working in my electorate, there's some understanding and sympathy for what the farmer's going through.
When it comes to social services, this government has really dropped the ball. Whilst it's great to see change now for our farmers, I do have to ask the question: why stop there? Why not continue to employ more people and make the process easier for our pensioners?
Why aren't we making the process easier for people trying to access home-care packages or aged-care services? Why are we not making sure that we're investing more resources into the NDIA so that people can get access and support when they've got questions about their complex NDIS plans for their loved ones? Why aren't we now seeing reform there? If there's the acknowledgement that Centrelink doesn't have the capacity right now to help and to work with people then the government should not stop with just farmers but should roll this out across the board.
If we truly want to be a country that has a strong agricultural sector that continues to export our agricultural produce, whether it be the base commodity or the value-added product, then we do need to get serious about national drought policy. We do need to do all that we can to support our farmers, our agricultural communities and the associated industries so that the effects of droughts can be reduced as much as possible. Congratulations to those who are doing well and are supporting others. As other speakers have done, I encourage those who need assistance to seek help.
One of the greatest frustrations we have is that, every time we talk about drought, the Labor Party talk about climate change. I've got no problem with them talking about climate change, but that is hardly what is going to suffice for someone who is doing it so tough. You turn up and give them a sermon about climate change when you know full well there is not a policy in Australia that is actually going to have, by itself, an effect on the climate. It's something that most people find completely galling. You go to a house where they can't afford groceries and they can't keep the dignity of their life and you say, 'What the Australian Labor Party is offering you is no more than a sermon'—a sermon about a belief in how the people of Woolloomooloo or St Kilda have primacy over the future of regional Australia. That is basically it.
In Tamworth we have had, in imperial measurement, which most farmers work by, a little better than four inches of rain. There is another part of the world that has four inches of rain annually: Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. So we are living in a desert environment. It is peculiar, it is unusual and it most likely has a lot to do with the changing climate, but what we have to deal with is the crisis of now. What the Farm Household Allowance does by raising the cap to $5 million in net equity is give more people access to a payment that will keep dignity in their life. It's a payment that will allow them to go to the chemist and pay the chemist bill; it will allow them to pay the grocery bill; it will allow them to keep the phone on. These things are so vitally important.
When the coalition started and I was the minister, only 367 people had access to Farm Household Allowance. Three hundred and sixty-seven people—that is the number that was given to me. By the end, we had over 7,100 people. This again extends the number of people who have access to it. Not only does it do that but, with a further $12,000, it also gives people the capacity to access a lump sum. The challenge of this chamber and one of the greatest issues before our nation at the moment is to come up with a policy debate in this chamber. We heard so many theatrics today. I listened to them. I know we're partly responsible for it and so is the other side. But there is not one person dealing with the drought who thinks that is of relevance to them. They're looking for us to talk about their lives. They're looking for a question time where the questions that go back and forth are about the stringency and the competition of ideas in policy to deal with the drought. That is why, in this nation, there's a disconnect from this crazy boarding school. People see you not talking about them; you're talking about this place. We've got to make sure this drought is the No. 1 issue.
Out there in the public, the people in Sydney—even those in the suburbs—see it as one of the biggest issues for them. They're not affected by the drought, but they are definitely affected by the empathy for people who are in drought and they want to make sure that our nation does the very best for them. They might even gain more respect for us as a body if we made this our focus. In the recent election of Longman, less than 70 per cent voted for the two major parties. So 30 per cent of people basically voted for no-one because they fear we're disconnected. The drought gives us the capacity to get back on the front foot, to do the right thing by people in the country and to make sure that they see us as relevant in their lives. The Farm Household Support Amendment (Temporary Measures) Bill 2018 is part of doing precisely that.
We hear about issues to deal with drought and water storage—drought, by its very essence, is lack of water. Surely one of the fundamental parts of a drought policy would be the construction of large water storages and the facilitation of farms for smaller water infrastructure. We did that in the past with water infrastructure grants, and it was well supported. When we put forward money for the construction of dams, there were two things that worked against us. One, to be quite frank, was that the Labor Party wanted to take basically half the money away. They don't have the vision for this nation.
The other section is the green lobby groups. Every time we try to do something for this nation, a group of people who are predominantly well paid, who have been the beneficiaries of this nation and who are probably well-educated—as a group, the highest income earners in Australia—work against us trying to make this nation a stronger place. Nathan Dam, which in Queensland has been discussed since the 1920s—I think 1928—has 770,000 megalitres. The reason we couldn't get that started for a long time was because of the boggomoss snail. I have great respect for the boggomoss snail, but I believe this was just a mechanism to create a caveat that stands in the proxy for inertia.
In my own electorate, in Tamworth, we went for the extension of Chaffey Dam from 60,000 megalitres to 100,000 megalitres, but there was the Booroolong frog. I was always of the opinion that frogs liked water. I thought if we gave them more water we should have more frogs and happier frogs, but, of course, there was an argument of inertia. On the road between Limbri and Weabonga that goes up in the hills next to where I grew up, the road fell into the creek. It fell into the creek, but for years they could not fix it. You know why? Because of the Booroolong frog. This frog is a threat to our nation. I had a look at its range. Its range is from northern Victoria to southern Queensland. I believe one of the greatest external threats that we have in this nation is the Booroolong frog. It could stop anything. It's part of the green agenda that we have to stand up against if we want this nation to take the next step.
Back to the farm household allowance, these things work together. We have to make sure that during this drought we do our part in assisting farmers. We can't make it rain, but we can create dignity in people's houses. You've got to remember that before the farm household allowance, farmers were not entitled to anything because their asset base was too high. Other people got unemployment benefits, but they got nothing. They literally had no money. This is part of a drought package and so vitally important. It works hand in glove with other things we are doing for the drought. I would like to say to those who are listening to this tonight that there are about a million dollars we are giving to councils in drought areas. It's vitally important.
In the past, to assist with drought, we built dog fences in western Queensland to exclude dogs from the area and to try to get sheep back into these areas, and to give something with a legacy that works into the future. We've also put further money on the table for the GABSI scheme. This is the piping and capping of one of our nation's most vital assets, the Great Artesian Basin. It is so vital that in the past we lost about 95 per cent of the water in bore drains—which is really just an urban ditch—through evaporation and absorption. This is a huge vital saving of that vital asset.
For some of that water—when it comes up, when we do the testing on it—the last time it saw sunlight was millions of years ago. We are taking a water resource from millions of years ago in some instances. It must be treated with respect because we might be taking it from a wetter period of our nation. We have got to be vastly aware. What the Commonwealth is doing as part of this drought package is to make sure that there is further capping of this resource, so it doesn't just flow out and evaporate. It is too valuable for that.
It is not only farmers that find this important; it is also towns. There are many towns, especially in Western Queensland, for whom that's their water supply. I lived for a long time in St George. We lived on water from the Great Artesian Basin. In summer, you had a peculiar circumstance. You would never run out of hot water. You would run out of cold water, because all the water is hot. Actually, in many instances, you turn the hot water system off and run the water into the hot water system for cold water, and the taps worked back to front. If we lost that resource, it would be decimating to so many areas of Australia.
Regarding the farm household allowance, which we are debating tonight, each lump sum payment will be $3,000 per person for members of a couple, and $3,600 in all other circumstances. This means if both members of a couple are receiving the farm household allowance, between 1 September 2018 and 1 June 2019, they will receive $6,000 each or $12,000 per household. In all other circumstances, the amount payable will be $7,200. That's substantial money. It's not enough money to get yourself through the drought, pay for the fodder and basically keep feeding the stock, but it will keep dignity in that house. I want to commend the minister and those in the government who have worked to provide this. The drought is a dynamic situation, and we must always be mindful of what the next step is. What are we going to do? How do we make sure that this national crisis is dealt with as a national crisis?
In concluding tonight, I will say this: during a bushfire, people can come onto your place, they can take your bulldozer and say, 'We need it to fight the bushfire. We are basically requiring it for the bushfire,' and you comply. During a bushfire they say, 'Look, we're going to have to cut your fences to get access to where the fire is.' During a bushfire, they have the capacity and the authority to back-burn through your place, because they've got to put the fire out. During a bushfire basically laws are put aside because of the common sense that in a crisis, you have to deal with it in this form.
One of the graces of being on the backbench is to propose policy that I think we should consider. This is a national crisis, and a national crisis means that basically the laws as they currently stand have to take into account the crisis that we are dealing with. The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder holds billions of dollars' worth of water. It holds it for the purpose of watering environmental assets—environmental assets which during the drought would not get water if we had a purely natural environment. Remember: during a drought, many rivers that are actually flowing would be dry because the regulated capacity of dams wouldn't be there. Beside me is the member for Parkes and above him is the Copeton Dam, and then it runs down through the Gwydir River. The Gwydir River wouldn't have water in it if it didn't have regulated flow. It would be bone dry. The Peel River right now would be like an environment similar to Saudi Arabia. It would be bone dry. But it flows. It flows because of regulated water. It flows also because of environmental water.
We have to ask a question. This is a one-in-100-year event and we should be considering that the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder's asset be used for the production of fodder, of lucerne, to finish off crops, to make sure that in the Gwydir Valley we finish up a cotton crop, because amongst other things we use the cotton seed for cattle feed. Down south, we want the water for lucerne. We can get high-protein grain across from Western Australia, but we need a fodder component. If we don't really deal with this as the crisis which it is then we will not be doing the right thing by our nation.
Right now, instead of using lucerne and other fodder from southern Australia, we are using products from the northern parts, from Queensland—Rhodes Grass that comes in from the Lockyer Valley and other products from around Dalby. There is a word of caution with this. Anything that comes from Central Queensland has the potential to come in with Parthenium weed. If we move Parthenium weed onto the black soil of the Liverpool Plains it will take strike and it will work its way across. If we move it into Walgett, in the member for Parkes's electorate, it will create massive problems. The Lockyer Valley also has another problem—fire ants. If we move fire ants around our nation, we will be doing it a great disservice.
In closing, I support the farm household allowance. I have been involved with it in its former iterations. But this is a national crisis. We must treat it as a national crisis and we must be bold enough and brave enough to go forward and use the resources that are at our disposal to deal with it as a national crisis.
I rise tonight to speak on the Farm Household Support Amendment (Temporary Measures) Bill 2018. I have lived in a rural area all my life. I was a farmer for 33 years before I came here. I've been through quite a few droughts. I may have seen one or two as bad as this one, but I certainly haven't seen one worse. We are heading into uncharted territory. I think what makes this one so particularly difficult is it covers such a large area. Normally in a dry season graziers have an option to find pockets of feed for agistment by sending livestock to another area. Generally there would be grain or hay available from a more immediate area. This year, because the entire eastern side of Australia west of the range is in drought—from Central Queensland right down to Victoria, including my electorate—it's become particularly difficult. So I am in support of these changed measures.
It needs to be pointed out—and the member for New England touched on it—that the household support is to provide the basic significant essentials for a farm family. It's food on the table, school uniforms for the kids and maybe fuel for the car—those basic essentials—so that, when things are particularly tight financially, one of those concerns about looking after your family is removed. So the extra funding, the extra $12,000 per couple because of the exceptional circumstances, will be greatly appreciated.
The other change is the extra money going into the Rural Financial Counselling Service. That is the key organisation in helping these farm families access the support they need. I think the message is getting through, but in the earlier days of the drought there was a lot of misinformation going around on social media discouraging people from actually applying for this support, saying that it would be too hard. Now, thankfully, that message is getting through and people are applying, but that is putting extra tension on the staff of the Rural Financial Counselling Service. There is provision in here for more staff. That recruitment is happening now, but that's an important recruitment—you can't just pull people off the street and turn them into rural financial counsellors. So we need those things.
Some other changes were announced this week. I just want to pay tribute to my senior colleagues. I've been around this place now for over a decade. I've got to say that I have never seen a greater interest in the affairs of regional Australia through a drought than I have in the last couple of months. Our Prime Minister, our Deputy Prime Minister, our ag minister, our regional telecommunications minister and our regional development and local government minister have all been hands-on. The Prime Minister has been in my electorate twice. He's been out for drought tours, I think, four times. As a matter of fact, the Prime Minister—it might be pertinent tonight to remind people of some of the things our Prime Minister has done—has actually been personally ringing some of my most affected constituents not only to offer comfort but to ask for direction as to what they might be looking for. I want to put that on the record tonight, and I think that tonight, of all times, it's probably more pertinent that that recognition is made. Our entire senior ministry, including the Deputy Prime Minister and the minister for agriculture, have done a sterling job on this.
This drought is difficult. We're taking the edge off it, but the idea that we can take the tension and the stress out of drought is just not plausible. There are funds in this amendment for more mental health support. That can be delivered just as community forums, like a barbecue get-together and an opportunity for people to socialise. I remember that in 1992 we were in a particularly bad drought and a group of my friends and neighbours did a tech course on beef-cattle management. It was more about getting out, having a chat and socialising once a week and getting away from the daily grind that the drought brings.
We do have some problems that we need to deal with that are coming up, and they are particularly difficult problems. One is the shortage of grain. That can be largely overcome, and it is at the moment, with grain coming around from Western Australia. We are already seeing that. There have been half a dozen ships, thanks to the Western Australians. It looks like they're looking for another harvest this year, which will be a big help. Hay is a bit more difficult, because hay, per tonne, is more expensive to cart. To cart it long distances is difficult. Hay is getting in very short supply. A lot of charities have snaffled up hay, which is well and good, but it has also created a shortage for the people who are funding their own way, who have prepared for this drought and who have money put aside for this drought. They are now really having difficulties in sourcing hay.
The member for New England mentioned the Great Artesian Basin and the further flow for the GABSI, the Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative, which is a very important initiative. Where that initiative has been rolled out, those graziers have managed to last longer into the drought because they've been able to manage their pasture better because they've got water reticulated water across their properties.
The other thing that was mentioned on the weekend with the announcement was the money to local governments. Eighteen local government areas will get funds; and the unincorporated area in western New South Wales, which doesn't have a local government, will get funds. That will be very, very important to create employment for those people who may not be getting employment because of the drought but who would be expecting to get upcoming work with a harvest, fencing or rural work like that. With supplies being purchased in those local communities, it would be a stimulus to the towns.
While we're on that, I've got to pay tribute to our cousins who live in towns and cities for their great interest and support. It has been overwhelming. The country people are overwhelmed by your support, but there are a couple of other things you can do to help. I know you can send things, if you want to send a food parcel, but that can have a negative effect for the local supermarket. If you want to help, send some cash. Give cash to one of the telethons or one of the reputable non-government organisations that are managing this. They know where that money will go and they'll spend it locally, in those local shops. But, if you want to do a more fun thing to help regional communities, go and have a long weekend in a country town. Go to Brewarrina and have a look at the oldest man-made structure on earth—the fish traps. Visit the local community. Go to Bourke and visit the outback centre. Go up to Moree and swim in the hot pools. Go to Dubbo and visit the zoo. There are a whole range of things across my electorate that are very worthwhile. Those dollars that you would spend—at the local pub; on having dinner; at the motel; on getting petrol at the local service station—would be very, very much appreciated.
The other thing is the accelerated depreciation for hay and grain storage, fencing and water. That was announced in the first iteration of the white paper, with an accelerated depreciation of three years. A number of people have come to me and said: 'Because of that tax advantage, I have silos full of grain—or I did, at the start of this drought. I've managed to put in water systems so that I'm not relying on dams that go dry. I've been able to fence up my property so that I'm managing pasture better. And I'm not destroying my property because of overstocking in certain areas during the drought.' That has been very, very welcome. And these announcements made on the weekend to bring that back to one year will be very, very welcome.
I just want to make another comment, and this is coming to me from a lot of my farmers. They are very appreciative of the support. They're very appreciative of the attention. But there is a bit of a concern that they are being portrayed as somehow helpless, as not in control of their own destiny, and as having got into this situation because of their own actions. Admittedly, some—and some of those have actually become, somewhat, media stars—may not be the best farmers and the most prepared, and quite often they are the ones that get attention. But I want to talk about the vast majority of farmers in Australia, and particularly those in my electorate, who are resilient, who are professional managers and who do know what they're doing. Most of them are just getting on with it. They are a little concerned that their industry is being devalued not only in the eyes of the rest of Australia but also in the eyes of those in the export market who might worry that Australia won't be able to meet its commitments to them. So we just need to keep in mind that these are mostly professional, well-run organisations.
I've been listening to some of the comments and the amendment from the other side, and, quite frankly, they are incredibly patronising. I was here—I think it was in 2009—when the then ag minister, the member for Watson, removed the word 'drought' from government policy. The member for Forrest would remember that day very clearly. I certainly remember sitting here on that day. They said: 'We're no longer going to talk about "drought". We're replacing that with "dryness". We're going to remove all drought policy. We're going to put in a trial'—I think it was in Western Australia, with a few dollars attached to it—'to help farmers adapt to climate change.'
Well, I've got to say: it's becoming very clear that climate change is real. There could probably be a debate on what can be done to abate it. But the idea that farmers aren't adapting to this changing climate is a nonsense. If the farmers today were farming like their fathers and mothers or grandparents, they wouldn't be there.
The evolution in agriculture—with zero-till farming, and with the GM cotton crops that are growing more kilograms of produce with less diesel and less water than anywhere else in the world—is because of the innovation of farmers. Every drop of rain that falls on a farm now is utilised to fill up the profile of soil, to enable farmers to grow a crop. And the few crops that we do have about this year have been grown on stored moisture because of the management of those farmers. Livestock farmers now are managing their pasture in such a way that there is no run-off until their profile is full. They have fenced their properties so that they are managing these pastures properly. Not only that, but there is the breeding that is going into their livestock, with the gene technology identifying certain traits in genes of livestock and breeding for those traits. The irony of this is that, when the front page of the Telegraph ran a story about a farmer shooting 1,200 sheep, lambs at Forbes made $300. And that is because of the management and the advancement of the farmers of today.
I've been listening to some of the contributions from the other side. I've never heard so much patronising clap-trap in my life. I'm not going to talk to the member for Eden-Monaro about shooting people in a war zone or whatever with his background. I might have phrased that wrongly, but there's his military background.
I withdraw that. What I will say is that I'm not going to talk to the member for Eden-Monaro about matters military, which he knows about—I do withdraw what I said—but I will not sit here and listen to one of his patronising speeches, telling my farmers that they need to somehow have a program delivered from that side of parliament to adapt to climate change, because they damn well know what they're doing. They'll get through this and Australia will continue to lead the way in production and will continue to lead the way in agriculture. These changes to the household support that we're debating tonight will help them get through that particularly difficult time.
I'm pleased to be able to speak on the extension of the government support through the Farm Household Support Amendment (Temporary Measures) Bill 2018. It will actually help the farmers who are so affected by drought in New South Wales. Increasing the farm asset threshold is important, as is the lump sum payment of $6,000 per couple. That is really, really important. I'm one of the few farmers in this place. I'm a dairy farmer from Western Australia. In Western Australia, we don't have the same conditions that are being experienced by farmers in New South Wales, but I well understand what it means to sit around the table. I know exactly what would be going on in the kitchens and how difficult it would be. You walk outside and all you see is dust. You look at the sheep or the cattle and all you want to do is feed them and keep them alive. You want to be able to access water as well to keep them alive. I consider what this has done, with the stress that's been added to the farmers and their families. Farms in Australia, and particularly in New South Wales, like much of my state, are family owned and run businesses. The family will sit around the kitchen table and they have to deal with the basics of life. There is no income and they walk outside and see it's out of their control. There is a huge level of stress involved in unplanned and unmanaged change.
As a farmer, I know that the one thing we can't control, no matter how much we do and how good we are at what we do, is the weather, and that's the issue for the farmers in New South Wales. The other thing that I know only too well is that, when it does rain—and there will be people celebrating, as they should, when it rains—it's actually just the beginning. The grass doesn't appear overnight, so the ongoing support that the government is providing is so important to each of those families for the period of time it takes. Even after the rain has actually come, it takes time for the pastures to grow sufficiently for the cattle and the sheep to be able to graze at all. That doesn't happen overnight. How long it takes to get them back onto the grass depends on the actual number of animals that you have on your property. That is what I know will be happening in each of the homes.
I'm particularly pleased to see increased support through the Rural Financial Counselling Service. They do an amazing job. They support these families in so many simple ways. I encourage every family out there: please access and use this service. At this time, you actually need these supports and services. Please take the supports that are there. I'm very pleased to see the feed that is being donated from Western Australia, mostly out of the member for O'Connor's electorate. I see the road trains. Apparently, around 20 road trains have donated hay from WA. Two thousand large square bales were in many ways delivered by the Rapid Relief Team, but often the truck drivers donate their time. They donate their time to bring the feed across to the farmers in New South Wales. I know that the farmers will be extremely grateful to receive every truckload of feed that arrives in New South Wales.