House debates

Monday, 10 September 2018

Private Members' Business

Farm Household Allowance

6:45 pm

Photo of Justine KeayJustine Keay (Braddon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this matter raised by the member for Calare. I notice the member's focus is on drought as no doubt his community and many others are struggling through some very terrible circumstances, but I have to ask some questions.

Where was this government when Tasmania was in the was in the grip of its worst drought in history between 2015 and 2016? Where was this government while farmers were coping with—and are still coping with—the ongoing $1 milk price war between the supermarkets? Where was this government when the milk price was slashed by Murray Goulburn and Fonterra, causing a dairy crisis in May 2016? Where was this government when the June 2016 floods in Tasmania devastated not only our dairy farmers but the entire agriculture industry in my region? I see the member for Calare congratulates the Prime Minister and others for the touring drought affected areas, which is always a positive thing, but why did the coalition leadership not visit my state and talk to our farmers as they were hit with one crisis after another? I correct myself: they only visited our state during elections. I wrote to the former Deputy Prime Minister, not during an election, and asked him to visit Tasmania to meet our farmers, and, in particular, our dairy farmers. However, he failed to acknowledge this request. The offer still stands for the current Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, and I have spoken to him directly on this.

Why did this government not act on extending Farm Household Assistance in 2016? Even today in my electorate I'm advised that there are up to 24 farming families still receiving Farm Household Assistance from the 2016 dairy crisis and other farming related issues. Other families have now come off household assistance, but I am sure they would have appreciated that extra bit of assistance that this government is now providing—had they only acted two years earlier. This side of the Chamber supports measures to increase farm household assistance to farmers in financial crisis. To put it simply: this scheme is a dog's breakfast.

In 2016 when farmers cash flows were in crisis, they faced long delays in having their applications processed. They were desperately in need of help. Many were living off food vouchers and receiving other community support. The IT program processing the claims was not fit for purpose. My office had to intervene to help a Circular Head couple get access to this assistance after they had waited over three months for any help. Even after this family received their household assistance, the problems continued, as, after 12 months, they were cut off due to a glitch in the system. Again, my office had to intervene.

Rural Business Tasmania, in a recent submission to this government, states the following:

We believe the Farm Household Allowance has potential to be a successful output of the IGA but that the delivery mechanism needs further review.

Issues over the life of the FHA included: telephone 132316—the person phoning may have to wait up to an hour or longer to gain a Helpline support person

Complexity of the application process (including number of forms)

Delay in outcome (in some cases up to 10 weeks) and clarity of requests for further information can provide frustration.

Many families have experienced all of the above. Rural Business Tasmania succinctly summed up the issue further in their submission when they stated this question: 'What can be improved?' Their answer was: 'The Farm Household Allowance and concessional loan processes.'

When it comes to delivering farm household assistance, Labor knows it can and must be done better. This government has gutted Centrelink, contributing to the delays in accessing the farm household allowance. Labor will rebuild Centrelink by employing an additional 1,200 properly trained full-time staff. In my electorate of Braddon 50 Department of Human Services officers will be employed, with some given the specific responsibility of visiting regional communities as outreach. Many of these don't have access to reliable internet, thanks to this government, and many want to talk to people face to face to avoid the long, long wait on the phone. Unlike those opposite, who talk up a big game of supporting farmers, Labor will take practical steps to support the sector, to ensure farmers receive the support they deserve when crisis hits. And just maybe the member for Calare could say sorry on behalf of his government for ignoring Tasmanian farmers in their hour of need.

6:50 pm

Photo of Anthony ByrneAnthony Byrne (Holt, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to this motion. One might ask why an outer suburban MP who represents a large growth-belt seat with lots of young families shifting into the area, even though his new seat does take in farmland, would speak on a motion moved by the member for Calare about drought in New South Wales and in some areas of Queensland, although there are some areas of Victoria that are drought affected as well. The reason that I'm speaking on this matter tonight is two exceptional people in the suburb of Doveton: Ruth Murray and Jenny Colvin, who have seen the plight of farmers and heard the tales of hardship and devastation suffered by those farmers experiencing drought, particularly in New South Wales. They are two women with not much money—Doveton is a working class area—who are tremendously community minded and who decided to do their bit to assist the farmers in need.

Why did Ruth and Jenny from Doveton get involved in a fundraiser that will be held in October? I'll tell you why. The media has done a good job of late talking about drought. I lived on a cattle station in Kalgoorlie when I was younger, so I know about arid countryside. This is a very serious drought. Some are saying the drought in New South Wales is worse than the one in 1965. For those who are watching in the non-farm areas in my constituency, I will reflect on a discussion reported in an article about the effects of drought in The Guardian, which quotes a doctor based in Tamworth. I mention this because this is what Ruth and Jenny saw and what motivated them to take action. The quote is from Dr Alison Harris, who is based in Tamworth. She said:

I don’t depend directly on the land for my livelihood but many of our patients do, and the farmers and their families are struggling.

We live 10km out of Tamworth. Our garden is dying, we have no grass except the little bit watered by the grey water outflow. Everything is dusty and so dry. I have been buying water for most of the last year, every month another truckload.

Normally you don’t see roos except at dawn and dusk—now we see them any time of the day, they have come out of the hills and are in the paddocks, eating the last of the tall dead grass … They are even coming into town, eating any grass or plants they can find. They are desperate.

Even the indigenous trees are dying. Driving in through the pass in the hills behind Tamworth, the gums on the ridgelines are starting to die—dead leaves, dead branches on almost every tree.

There are no frogs—the last six months we have hardly heard any frogs at all.

We are losing things that are precious to us – the breed lines for the farmers, the special trees and plants in our gardens and parks, the lovely green lawns we used to have. It seems so long since we have seen green grass, since we have heard rain on the metal roof. It is a hard slog, minimising water use, shuffling buckets of water out to the remaining treasured plants, knowing that it may all be useless unless the rain comes.

And yet, on the mainstream news bulletins, it is as if we don’t exist on the other side of the sandstone curtain. Weather reporters blab on about lovely clear skies and sunny weather as if the cities were all that mattered. But how will the people in the cities eat if the country isn’t producing food for lack of water?

Good people like Ruth and Jenny, who have been community icons in Doveton, decided to do something about it. These little Aussie battlers with very little money decided to create a community event at the John Pandazopoulos Hall on 7 October this year. Because Jenny had a connection from her time singing in a band called Country Pride, a lot of musicians from all over Australia are coming to Doveton on 7 October to sing, free of charge, to do their bit. It says a lot about the quintessential Australian character that, when people know the extent of the suffering of our farming community, they don't play politics; they do what Australians do in a time of crisis—pull together and do their bit. They have no money, but by dint of their will and commitment to their community they have encouraged people from all over the country to come to the John Pandazopoulos Hall on 7 October to play music for about five hours to raise money to send to the farmers in need. That says a lot about Ruth Murray and Jenny Colvin but also a lot about our great country. Let's hope that small dint will do something to help those farmers that have been devastated by the drought.

Photo of Kevin HoganKevin Hogan (Page, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There being no further speakers, the debate is adjourned. The resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.

Federation Chamber adjourned at 18 : 56