House debates

Wednesday, 19 September 2018


Treasury Laws Amendment (Supporting Australian Farmers) Bill 2018; Second Reading

10:13 am

Photo of Andrew LeighAndrew Leigh (Fenner, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

I move the second reading amendment circulated in my name:

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 makes note of the Government's lack of long term policy and planning to assist primary producers and rural Australians facing drought conditions".

Labor will be supporting the Treasury Laws Amendment (Supporting Australian Farmers) Bill 2018, which amends the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 to allow immediate deduction rather than deduction over the course of three years of the cost of fodder storage assets, such as silos and hay sheds, used to store grain and animal feed. The government has made the case that this will assist primary producers by making it easier to invest in these assets. The measure was announced on 19 August 2018 and applies to fodder storage assets first used or installed ready for use on or after that date. The fiscal impact of the measure is $75 million over the forward estimates.

While we are supportive of this measure, we do note the haphazard approach which the government has taken to the drought that many Australian farmers are suffering from. First, there was the increase in the farm household allowance payments from three years to four years, effective on 1 August 2018. Then, a few days later on 5 August, the government announced a $190 million drought package, claiming that it provided immediate additional financial support to help farming families and their communities, which is a bit of a stretch given that the additional funding did not start flowing on 5 August. We're yet to see how many farmers will actually access the farm household allowance supplementary payments. And, as the member for Hunter, the shadow minister for agriculture, has pointed out, there is a real risk that farming families will miss out on the full $12,000 because the government insists on splitting the payment and denying farmers the possibility of getting a lump-sum payment.

Then, in his second reading speech introducing this bill, the Assistant Treasurer made mention of increased funding for mental health support, something which should of course be welcomed by both sides of this House. Yet, it was just later that week that the new Prime Minister tweeted an extremely insensitive video that claimed that drought is 'a necessary evil' that 'can help cut out the bottom 10 per cent that probably shouldn't be there anyway'. That isn't what struggling farmers need to hear at this time of crisis. Labor has called on Prime Minister Morrison to apologise and to remove the video, but he refuses to do so.

Then we have the fact that, on 19 August 2018, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the appointment of Major General Stephen Day as the National Drought Coordinator. But then, interestingly, in introducing this bill in the House, the Assistant Treasurer made no mention of support for the appointment of the drought envoy position by the current Prime Minister, so the status of that envoy is unclear. We also know that, as the former agriculture minister, the member for New England did very little to address the long-term systemic challenges of the agriculture sector. We all sadly remember his failed white paper, which was full of short-term initiatives so poorly designed that most are yet to be implemented.

This House will recall that one of the first acts of the member for New England as Minister for Agriculture was to dismantle the Standing Council on Primary Industries as part of the COAG council. That body, the so-called SCoPI, worked on longer-term drought reform measures, and its abolition means that we have one less avenue through which to pursue long-term reform. And, of course, we had the member for New England doctoring the Hansard. Everyone in this place will remember his doctoring of the Hansard, which ended up with the unprecedented firing of his departmental secretary, but some may have forgotten exactly the topic on which he was caught out doctoring the Hansard. It was his attempt to exaggerate the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government's drought assistance measures. Farmers have not experienced any meaningful relief from drought in the time since.

As the shadow agriculture minister has said, the Morrison government must immediately take action to restore the COAG drought policy reform process, to respond to the review into the intergovernmental agreement on drought reform and update the parliament on the progress of the new agreement, and to help farmers better adapt to climate change and embrace best practice regenerative farming methods to combat drought—a topic that I will return to.

To go to the tax aspect of this measure, we on the Labor side support the principle that more rapid depreciation—what's known in the US literature as 'immediate expensing'—can be good policy. Labor has supported the government's instant asset write-off. We did so noting that the government had scrapped Labor's instant asset write-off and then put in place their own instant asset write-off. Much like the low-income superannuation contribution, they scrapped the policy, railed against it and then restored Labor's policy when finally they saw sense.

On top of the instant asset write-off, Labor has announced an Australian investment guarantee. That delivers for all companies investing in Australia and is a much more targeted policy than an across-the-board company tax cut. Work carried out by Victoria University suggests that, if you're after investment, then the bang for your buck of an investment guarantee of more rapid expensing is three times larger than a company tax cut. Labor's Australian investment guarantee has the benefit too for firms that it is permanent, permanently accelerating depreciation for all companies and thereby ensuring that we're able to improve the investment pipeline that businesses deliver. This is responding to a concern that many economists have raised about the level of business investment in Australia. As the shadow Treasurer has noted, business investment in Australia has fallen by 20 per cent. The Reserve Bank of Australia has recently commented that non-mining business investment has been 'disappointingly low' in recent years. Our support for more rapid depreciation schedules, as a long-term growth measure, is something that is important to put on record.

This measure is using accelerated depreciation as a form of fiscal stimulus, if you like, and as a way of getting farmers through the drought. In this exercise, it's less clear whether that will have a strong benefit for farmers. The benefits of more rapid depreciation only come to firms that pay tax. If you're not paying tax, then being able to depreciate does not necessarily boost your growth prospects. It's a long-term policy and it has no end date, but it's couched very much by this government as a crisis response. While Labor recognises the economic value of more rapid depreciation schedules, we do put on record at this stage our concerns about the benefits that this measure will bring in helping farmers tackle drought.

To that end, I do want to put on record that Labor intends, if we win government, to review this measure to ensure that it's having the intended effect. We've taken such an approach with other measures that we have supported in this House, such as the measures contained in the Treasury Laws Amendment (Black Economy Taskforce Measures No. 1) Bill 2018 that passed the House earlier this week. A careful, independent review is warranted in a context such as this to ask questions such as whether providing the benefit to all firms but restricting it to fodder storage assets is the best use of resources. We need to make sure that we are safeguarding taxpayer money, particularly at a time when under this government we've seen net debt almost double since the coalition came to office and at a time in which Australian debt is rising more rapidly than it did even during the global financial crisis. That was when Australia was taking on debt not through government mismanagement, as we are under the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, but to deal with the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression and to save 200,000 jobs and tens of thousands of small businesses.

It's important too that, in order to tackle drought, we address climate change. We've seen, as the shadow minister for climate change and energy has pointed out, the fact that the Liberals have no climate policy, and no measures to contain, let alone reduce, Australia's rising carbon pollution. A number of Morrison government ministers continue to repeat the lie that Australia is on track to meet its international climate commitments, but we're simply not. They have a target of a five per cent cut in emissions by 2020, but the coalition government's own data, snuck out in the days before Christmas, showed there would be a zero per cent cut in pollution by 2020. The Liberals have committed to the Paris Agreement with a 26 to 28 per cent reduction by 2030 from 2005 levels. But the same government data—again, snuck out before Christmas 2017—showed there would only be a four per cent cut in pollution by 2030. That means Australia is on track to miss its carbon abatement targets by a whopping 24 per cent. And this was all at a stage when the National Energy Guarantee still had a possibility of garnering bipartisan support. Since the junking of the National Energy Guarantee, the new energy minister seems to take it as a virtue that the coalition has no plans to reduce emissions.

Australia's emissions are substantial. The electricity sector is responsible for a third of all Australia's emissions and has the lowest cost of cutting pollution. That's why Labor has been willing to work with the coalition on their various plans—the emissions intensity scheme, the clean energy target, the National Energy Guarantee. And that's why we're so disappointed at the government's decision to entirely walk away from meaningful action on climate change. This is a great concern to our Pacific neighbours and to the European Union, but it's also a concern to Australia's farmers, who are suffering the impact of drought.

As we know from the scientific evidence, extreme weather events will become more frequent as unchecked climate change continues. In South Australia, there's the famous Goyder's Line, the line which demarcates the boundary of sustainable agriculture. We've seen Goyder's Line shifting towards the coast, shrinking the area of viable agriculture in South Australia: an impact which has been traced directly back to climate change. A government with no plan to tackle climate change cannot be a government that is doing everything to tackle the scourge of drought and the impact of drought.

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this, the honourable member for Fenner has moved an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. If it suits the House, I will state the question in the form that the amendment be agreed to, so the question now is that the amendment be agreed to.

10:28 am

Photo of Andrew GeeAndrew Gee (Calare, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the Treasury Laws Amendment (Supporting Australian Farmers) Bill 2018. This drought continues to exact a heavy toll on country communities around Australia, but particularly in central western New South Wales. It's exacting a heavy toll on the farm and on farming families. There is a physical toll attached to this drought—the drudgery of having to get up early, feed stock, check troughs, check stock and check dams. There's the economic toll of worrying about how you're going to be able to feed the flock, or the herd, where you're going to be able to source feed from, how it's going to get there and if there will be enough of it. And then there's a huge mental toll as well. I've seen the toll that it's taken, because I've been travelling around our region and around our farms and farming communities, talking to them and doing anything that I can to help. The toll is being exacted on the farms, but it's also being exacted in the towns as well—through the small businesses, the mechanics, the tyre fitters, the rural suppliers, the fuel distributors and even the grocery outlets.

Despite some recent rain, this drought hasn't broken, and our region is facing a long, hot and, potentially, fiery summer period. We need to be continuing to ramp up drought support as these conditions worsen. At the moment our total drought support package is hitting $1.9 billion. This bill is part of that response. It won't be for every farmer. I have many farmers in my region just focusing on sourcing feed, and not every region in Australia is in drought, but it is a useful measure to assist farmers to get through potentially devastating dry times both at present and in the future. Basically it means that there's an immediate deduction for fodder storage assets first used or installed and ready for use from August 2018, and they can get the tax benefit straightaway. Currently primary producers can deduct the value of fodder storage assets over three years by one-third of the amount in the income year in which the expenditure occurred and one-third in each of the following two income years. Under the new arrangements this will reduce to one year with effect from 19 August. I think it's a valuable measure. It's about getting through this drought but also preparing for the next drought.

As I mentioned, it's part of a suite of measures which the government has introduced, now totalling almost $1.9 billion. The Regional Investment Corporation, which is going to be based in Orange in the Central West, is going to be dealing with $2 billion in concessional loans and $2 billion for national water infrastructure at the concessional loan rate—very welcome in country Australia and a great example of decentralisation. The farm household allowance has just been extended. The asset cap has been lifted to $5 million. That was a big issue with many local farmers. The total payment for a couple is now up to $37,000. This is a substantial measure, which has been well received, designed to put food on the table of farmers and diesel in the ute when there is no income. The paperwork is being simplified, and I encourage the government and all of those agencies involved to keep going on that, because it is a great source of frustration to our local farmers.

The Rural Financial Counselling Service has also been boosted by $5 million in recent times. We need more rural financial counsellors on the ground in the Central Tablelands. I know that help is coming, but we need to ramp that process up, because at the moment the counsellors we have are on the raggedy edge. They are overworked, they have a huge backlog of cases and they need more help and support. There are also a suite of measures to manage weeds and pest animals—very much welcome. There are new measures for weather forecasting. The government has committed a further $36.9 million to 2023 for Great Artesian Basin water security. This funding will help to drought-proof farms and maximise the availability of water. There's more money for water infrastructure and a suite of taxation measures, including the farm management deposits scheme, which has been in place for a while now. That is a very useful resource for farmers, and many farmers are using it.

You also have the instant asset write-off. There's the small business instant asset write-off, which is basically for assets that cost less than $20,000. Anyone can access that if they're in business and have a turnover of less than $10 million, but this measure today goes beyond the $20,000 cap and means that if you want to get a storage silo for your grain or a shed for storing fodder then you can get the tax benefit in the year that you purchase that infrastructure. You also have measures such as income tax averaging, which enables farmers to even out their high- and low-income years. The tax payable over a maximum of five years ensures they don't pay more tax over a number of years than do taxpayers on comparable but steady incomes.

All are valuable measures but, as I've said, we need to keep ramping it up as these conditions worsen. One of the big issues we're facing is sourcing feed and fodder. If we need to release more water from dams in order to irrigate fodder, we need to be doing it. This is an emergency situation. If the Australian government needs to underwrite grain to get it from Western Australia—where they're going to be having a bumper harvest—into the Central West, where there's not much around, then I think we should do it.

We need more rural financial counsellors, as I've said. We need to keep moving our response and ramping it up as these conditions worsen. I was very pleased to see that Major-General Stephen Day is on the ground working hard. I'm meeting him tomorrow to talk through some of these measures.

One of the distinguishing features of country communities is that when the chips are down they come together, and you see this all over our region and all over country Australia. The communities rally and support each other, and the country community spirit has particularly shone through in these dry times. For example, I'll give you just a taste of what the Bathurst RSL club are doing. This club was established in 1928 and has more than 14,000 members. The club is supporting a Buy a Bale in September campaign, kicking things off with a $10,000 donation to the appeal. They've got banners in the club highlighting the appeal so that members can donate every time they purchase a meal. The club has been creative; they've also given away a dollar from every chicken parmigiana sold in their Parma for a Farmer campaign. Deputy Speaker, I would invite you and all members to drop in for a parma for a farmer—

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I don't like chicken parmas, mate. If it were a beef parma I'd be onto it!

Photo of Andrew GeeAndrew Gee (Calare, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm sure they could do that. In fact, for all of the folks listening at home, wherever you may be, if you want to support drought stricken communities come and visit us. Come and support the hotels, the restaurants, the pubs and the clubs.

Back to Bathurst RSL, 20c from every coffee sold at the club's coffee shop, The Grind, is going to the appeal. And in the popular weekly members draw, if a member wins cash the club will match that amount for Buy a Bale. So far this month the club, with the help of its many members, has raised over $22,000, with plenty more to come. Individual members have also been making donations. For example, one anonymous member left $2,000 on the bar to help those crippled by drought conditions. The Bathurst Filipino community, for example, kicked in $600. The region is looking forward to more hay on the way, with loads expected to arrive in Bathurst on 24 September.

Special thanks to Ian Miller, the president; Ron Hollebone, the vice-president and Harry Robertson, the vice-president and treasurer. Thanks to the directors: Brett Kenworthy, Les Anderson, Paul Hennessy and Coral Miller. And, of course, thanks to the general manager, Peter Sargeant, who has generally let staff wear jeans for the month if they buy a bale. Congratulations to Bathurst RSL club for all of their hard work.

The hard work continues right across the region. For example, the Millthorpe Village Committee held a hugely successful farmers day on Sunday at Redmond oval to support those affected by drought. After I attended the show, where there were many farmers, I also dropped in to see how the farmers day went. It was an opportunity for locals to gather and listen to the representatives from the various assistance bodies and organisations, to hear about what services and support are available. For example, there were representatives from the NSW Farmers Association, the New South Wales Rural Assistance Authority as well as mental health workers. It was highly successful. There were about 200 people there on the day. About 400 sausage and steak sandwiches were served—it wouldn't be a country event without the sausage sizzle. It was very strongly supported by the Millthorpe branch of the CWA.

The Millthorpe Village Committee has around 100 hardworking members. Special thanks for organising the day needs to go to Sam Yeates, president; Russell Keogh, vice-president; Sue Marsh, treasurer; Nick Anganostaros, secretary; and Mary Dowrick, publicity officer. The farmers day itself was a suggestion of committee member Lyndall Harrison, who runs the annual Millthorpe Garden Ramble. Congratulations to the Millthorpe Village Committee on their successful day. It's great to see grassroots community groups stepping in to support our farmers, and, as I said, that's what we do in the country.

Have a look at Mudgee, where you've got the 200BALES campaign. It started off with a group of volunteers getting together and asking the community to sponsor a bale of hay for farmers. They were aiming for 200 bales, but they've well and truly exceeded that target. It's been a godsend to many farmers. Many of them don't ask for the help, but when the trucks roll up they are truly grateful. I've been out in that region talking to farmers who've been the recipient of the 200BALES campaign, and it's just lifted their spirits. So to Glenn Box, Kelly Dray, Will Bateman and the whole team—all of the hay runners—I just want to thank you on behalf of a grateful community for all of the work that you're doing.

As I've said, this drought has taken a heavy mental toll on our farmers as well. There are some wonderful people out there doing wonderful work, including the folks from Lifeline. I was at the launch of Lifeline's Drought Tool Kit recently in Orange, and there were many Lifeline volunteers there who give up their time. They don't get paid for it, but they work tirelessly through the night and through the day just to make sure that, when people call, there's someone there on the end of the line, and sometimes just being able to talk to someone can make all of the difference. Being out on farms can be isolating for people, and some of the farms are very physically isolated. Some are up in the high country, for example, in different parts of the Calare electorate. I think that just being able to talk to someone and knowing that someone's there if you need them and that you're not alone can make all of the difference. So I'd like to thank Lifeline and all of their hardworking volunteers. I also thank the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health. They've got the Glove Box Guide to Mental Health. Basically, both of these resources let farmers and farming families and communities know where they can get help. I've actually been into farmers' homes, talking to them, and on the table there has been the Glove Box Guide to Mental Health. Both of these publications, from Lifeline and the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health, are distributed through local publications, and I just wanted to thank them for that, because their work is largely unseen but the community should know that they're out there working really hard in very difficult times.

So we need to be backing our farmers to the hilt in this time of drought. During the recent economic slowdown, it was the Australian farmers and the farm sector which got Australia through, so they've actually been doing the heavy lifting economically for a long time now, and we can't take them for granted. If we want a strong and vibrant farm sector, we need to keep backing them through these dry times. I think people in the cities tend to take their food for granted. They just think that it's something that appears, but we can't take our farmers for granted. We need to be backing them and ramping up relief as these conditions worsen. I fully support this bill and commend it to the House.

10:43 am

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor is supporting the Treasury Laws Amendment (Supporting Australian Farmers) Bill 2018. However, I'm speaking in support of the second reading amendment that was moved by the member for Fenner, which really highlights the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government's lack of any long-term policy, planning and approach to assist primary producers in rural Australia facing drought conditions. This bill amends the Income Tax Assessment Act to allow primary producers to immediately deduct, rather than depreciate over three years, the cost of fodder storage assets such as silos and hay sheds used to store grain and other animal feed. This will assist primary producers by making it easier to invest in stockpile fodder. The measure applies to fodder storage assets used or installed, or ready for use or installation, on or after 19 August 2018. The measure has a fiscal impact of $75 million over the forward estimates.

Despite these measures, it's clear that there has been a lack of any long-term policy and planning to assist primary producers in rural Australia facing drought conditions by the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments. New South Wales, the home state that I represent, is entirely in drought. Farmers are facing falling crops, short supplies of water and diminishing livestock feed. We've already heard from farmers who say that the government's slow response has been too little too late. Unfortunately, there's been no real planning by this government for drought conditions when we know—as we've heard from climate scientists and others—that we're going to face an increase in frequency and an increase in severity of drought conditions in Australia due to climate change.

The government has been on notice for some years now that, according to climate scientists, these conditions are going to worsen; but the government hasn't adequately planned for them and that's why many farmers are saying that this is too little too late. That's what happens when you have a policy vacuum and a failure of the hodgepodge, last-minute measures from the government. Drought policy shouldn't only be designed during a period of drought. It should be planned for during other periods to ensure that adequate planning has been done to cater for the fact that climate change is occurring in this country and that all of the evidence and all of the expert advice of climate scientists is that climate change is going to worsen the effects of drought and increase the frequency of drought in Australia.

We also need to ensure that the management of water resources is better planned for around the states, in terms of their provision of access to water resources through agreements with the Commonwealth government. Again, this is something that this government has a dismal record of planning for. Importantly, through measures such as what we're discussing today, our taxation arrangements and our system of deduction—particularly for the purchase of assets—need to be appropriate and meet the needs of farmers, ensuring that they can continue to operate and survive during drought conditions.

Unfortunately, this reactive approach to policy initiation by this government is all too common. We've seen this in terms of the financial services sector, which, again, has had a big effect on farmers. We've seen the rounds of evidence that have come through the banking royal commission and the effects that some bad decisions by banks have had on many farming families and businesses in the agricultural sector. Again, the royal commission was a knee-jerk reaction from this government. We should never forget that for 600-odd days, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments voted against a royal commission. That was when many farmers were saying that what was going on in their industry was at crisis levels and the government needed to initiate a royal commission. Many National Party senators, particularly Senator Williams, had been crying out for a royal commission for some years. Crisis shouldn't be the only catalyst for change when it comes to supporting Australian farmers.

Sadly, after the five years of policy inaction by the Turnbull and Morrison governments, we now have had four drought announcements within three months. Firstly, there was the increase in the farm household allowance payments from three years to four years, which is effective from 1 August 2018. Then, on 5 August, the government announced a $190 million package, claiming that it provided immediate additional financial support for farming families and their communities—although it didn't really, given that the additional funding didn't start flowing until 5 August. Time will tell how many farmers access the farm household allowance supplementary payment. It's possible that many farming families will miss out on the full $12,000 amount because the government insisted on splitting the payment and denying farmers the option of receiving a lump sum payment.

The minister then made no mention about increased funding for mental health support, yet last week the Prime Minister tweeted an extremely insensitive video claiming that drought was 'a necessary evil' and that it can help cut the bottom 10 per cent of people that 'probably shouldn't be there anyway'. That's not what struggling farmers need at this time of drought crisis. Labor have been asking the Prime Minister to apologise and remove this video for what we believe are insensitive remarks to people that are really battling and doing it tough at the moment.

On 19 August 2018, the then Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, announced the appointment of Major General Stephen Day as the National Drought Coordinator. Interestingly, no mention was made on the appointment of the drought envoy position by Prime Minister Morrison, and we think that that's quite telling. The member for New England was clearly an answer to a question that farmers had never been asked. Unfortunately, when the member for New England was the agriculture minister there was a distinct lack of action and planning to deal with what was inevitably going to be another drought situation in Australia, given the advice of climate scientists. Of course, we also had the failed white paper, which was full of short-term initiatives, many of which were so poorly designed that they never saw the light of day. One of his first acts as Minister for Agriculture was to dismantle the SCoPI, the COAG council working on long-term drought reform measures.

When it comes to drought relief, farmers have not experienced any meaningful and long-term planning from the various iterations of this conservative government. The government has failed to deliver long-term policy and planning for primary producers and rural Australians facing drought conditions, including a failure to take mitigation and adaptation responses when it comes to climate change. We need to help more farmers better adapt to climate change. It's pleasing to see that many farmers are now on the front line of arguments for greater action for climate change, because those that work on the land probably understand better than all of us that the climate is changing, that it is having an effect on conditions for farming in this country and that we need to embrace best-practice regenerative farming methods to combat drought. The National Farmers' Federation support this approach, saying that real impacts of climate change will mean that drought and rain events could be more extreme and could be more frequent, yet the Prime Minister still won't say whether human-induced climate change is associated with the drought. He's saying he's not terribly interested in engaging with this crucial aspect of policy design for supporting Australian farmers.

Unfortunately, when it comes to drought, energy policy or electricity prices—which, again, have had a big impact on the profitability of farms and farming businesses—the government is willing to ignore the evidence. Their ideology overlooks the fact that, according to climate scientists, widespread and prolonged droughts like the millennium drought will occur more frequently in Australia. Researchers at the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University argue that droughts are getting worse compared to recent centuries and may be exacerbated by climate change. In particular, they say that recent shifts in rainfall variability are either unprecedented or very rare. If it's serious about supporting farmers, the Morrison government must institute some long-term planning around drought resilience and ensure that the agricultural sector can survive what are going to be increasingly frequent and more severe events. We need to be doing that planning with the states to ensure that it takes place at a coordinated national level and has the support of the states. The Morrison government must also take immediate action to restore the COAG drought policy reform process, respond to the review into the Intergovernmental Agreement on National Drought Program Reform and update the parliament on the progress of the new agreement.

We can't, as a nation, continue to ignore the fact that, unfortunately, according to climate scientists, drought is going to happen more frequently and more severely in this country. If this parliament have the interests of the livelihoods of Australian farmers and their families in mind—those that toil and work on the land year in, year out—then we need to make sure that we are properly planning to mitigate the effects of climate change and that we're working with state governments and local governments to ensure that we have better processes in place to mitigate those effects. That is what was being approached through the COAG process. It's disappointing that this government stopped that collaborative approach, and has really put its head in the sand about the effects of climate change that we see in their approach to energy policy and electricity prices. It's been five years since this government was elected, and they still don't have a policy on energy prices in this country. That's simply not good enough.

10:55 am

Photo of Nola MarinoNola Marino (Forrest, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm very pleased to rise to speak on the Treasury Laws Amendment (Supporting Australian Farmers) Bill 2018. I've said repeatedly in this House that I believe I'm the only dairy farmer in this place with a family and a business that's still actively dairy farming, and one that's passionately committed to our farmers in this nation and very keen to speak on their behalf at any given opportunity.

The government has acted to support our farmers during this period of drought. Those of us who are farmers live by the weather, and we have no control over it. There are times when life gets really tough for those of us who live and work on the land. There is no doubt that we love our dirt, we love the grass and we love the water, and we know how essential it is for those of us who farm. In my part of the world we fortunately have access to some irrigation systems fed by a series of dams in the hills. These dams are critical to the long-term future of the region, and I'm very pleased to see that the federal government is investing in securing and improving those water supplies in the Myalup-Wellington project. This underpins that the opportunity for all of us, basically, is water and the quality of our soils and how we manage our land.

I think around 90-plus per cent of our farming land is family owned. It's really a great testament to them—their passion and commitment for their land and their farms—and that they know to pass it on to a future generation in better condition, perhaps, than it was when they inherited it. That's a great passion that the farmers I meet have, and they do it particularly well. Often they make really challenging decisions that affect their bottom lines, about how they manage their property, their water supplies and their fertiliser. They're constantly having to improve, and they always are doing more with less—less land, less water and less fertiliser. Yet look at what we contribute to the Australian economy and how many people around the world we feed. That's a great tribute and a great testament to the efforts of our Australian farmers.

I am always proud to rise in this place and stand up for our farmers, to actually represent them. I don't want to see what we saw so many years ago with Labor, when they shut down the live cattle export trade overnight, and the damage that that brought to an industry, to individual people and to Indonesia itself. How important those cattle supplies and the live trade are. So when I look at the measures in this bill and I see the efforts around fodder storage assets—including the fact that a farmer has now an incentive through the tax system to be able to write off that asset purchase or the installation, whether it's silos or whether it's sheds or bins—and we talk about how we as farmers future-proof ourselves against the constant changes. In all my years as a farmer, I've seen constant change. Whether it's in rainfall or whether it's in weather patterns, it's been a period of constant change, and I suspect that will continue. When you look at your own individual business you have to make decisions about how you're going to manage that constant change. When I look at our irrigation system in the hills, there are years when we have not received a full allocation—in fact, we've received far less—and we still have to manage our farms and our businesses.

The farmers make those decisions on-farm. They decide what paddocks they might dry off. They decide what extra cost they have to go to—whether they're going to produce additional silage or hay, and whether they actually have to feed more bales to their animals to get through that period. Those are the decisions we make on a daily basis.

So this measure that the government is applying gives those that are constructing additional fodder storage an opportunity to write it off over one single year. This is in addition to the $20,000 instant asset write-off for the eligible small businesses, which is being extended further, yet again. The $20,000 instant asset write-off is really valuable, and it's being used extensively by small businesses—not just farming businesses but right across the board. I'm a great supporter of it and, with my colleagues, fought hard for these measures for small businesses—and of course our farmers are small businesses. This is a practical measure that allows farmers to make really good decisions in their businesses.

Some of those decisions are around managing their actual land. Around 96 per cent of farmers are members of landcare groups. These are the practical groups that make a difference on the ground on individual properties and in whole areas. Farmers work with catchment councils. There are a whole lot of groups that work together through our landcare movement to get improved outcomes on each individual property and for the farmers involved. It can be to do with water sources and water resources, it can be to do with fertiliser use or it can be around how they manage their business more broadly. We've seen no-till and low-till practices come out of Western Australia. These are all very important parts of how farmers individually make great decisions in their businesses, because the future of their business and future generations relies on the great decisions they're making today, and they do it on a daily basis.

I've said before in this House that we take for granted the quality of the food that we have available to us in this nation. I think the access to quality food has been brought into very sharp relief with what we've seen recently in relation to strawberries. I've been to other countries where the quality of the food is not what it is in Australia. I look at my own area in the South West of Western Australian, and we produce some of the best quality food in the world right there. I am inordinately proud of the people who produce it, often in really extreme circumstances. Some of our local climatic conditions can be extreme, but we still keep producing. We still keep making it available for people to walk into a supermarket or their local market or wherever they buy their products. As I say, Australians have basically never been hungry. When you go to other countries in the world that, during war years, have gone hungry, they place an extraordinary value on their farmers and the food that they consume. That's something that we've never had to think about too much in Australia. It's when we have a situation, such as we have with the strawberries, that brings that into sharp relief that people are immediately made very aware of the immediate impact on those businesses of simply not being able to sell their products.

I was really pleased this morning, when I was at a breakfast for GPs with the Minister for Health, that he took up to the podium a wonderful Australian strawberry and said he wanted to encourage people to cut and consume local strawberries. The minister has just entered the House. Minister, on behalf of every strawberry farmer in Australia, thank you for you what did this morning. It is a very important message to get out to people: to cut strawberries but not cut them out. I think that's a really simple message.

We see the volume of strawberries that are being dumped. I have heard of one group of over 100 people who've lost their jobs. That's the reality for those of us who live and work in rural regional Australia who are farmers. That's how direct it is. In small communities, the loss of 100 jobs has an enormous impact on every small business. So every time there's an issue, whether it's drought or a situation such as the one we're seeing with the strawberries, there is a loss of income.

The other issue that bothers me greatly is the impact on our international reputation. I hope the law takes absolutely full effect on the people who are doing this. This is having an enormous impact on our reputation as a clean, green producer of high-quality products, worldwide. That reputation is something that we as the farmers in this country have worked so hard for so many years to create. Often, historically, we've had to compete with countries that have significant tariff protection. It's only with the free trade agreements that this government has worked on and delivered that some of those barriers are starting to be, have been and will continue to be removed. But, historically, as farmers, we've often felt as though we've had to work with one hand tied behind our back because of the tariffs that were applied and the concessions that were available to farmers in other parts of the world. We have to compete, and we do compete very well, because we have some of the most efficient producers in the world. Not only are they efficient but they produce absolutely top-quality produce. And they will continue to do that no matter the challenges they face.

I'm really pleased to see the Rural Financial Counselling Service is available to our drought-stricken farmers. I'm encouraging every farmer to take advantage of that. Sit down with these people. There are a whole lot of things happening in your family. There are a whole lot of things happening in your business. There are a lot of things happening in, and impacts on, your community, and no-one is immune. Community service organisations; emergency services, often staffed by volunteers; local volunteers; local farmers; local people and local business people are all affected when we have a drought like we're having. They're also affected when we get a crisis like we're having with the strawberry farmers. There's going to be less money in the small local communities—in community service organisations and community sporting clubs. And that's not going to be overcome overnight either. The impacts of that are like dropping a stone into a bucket of water—the ripples continue. There will be businesses that may not survive this. As I said, the impacts are significant, and I want the full impact of the law to be visited upon those who are perpetrating this. It's having a much greater impact than people actually understand. It's having a direct impact on the ground with our farmers and with the pickers, the planters and the packers.

In Australia, as I said, the farmers produce some of the best-quality food in the world. I can say to the Australian people that we'll keep doing that. My dairy farmers are going to keep producing some of the best-quality milk in the world for you. They're going to continue to produce amazing products for you. I know that once the strawberry growers get back into full production, you'll be buying the most wonderful Australian produced strawberries. Whether it's in the horticultural sector, the food sector or the fibre sector, what everybody needs to know is that every farmer goes out there every day to do their job the best way they, and often it's under really tough circumstances. There are times when the market does not return the sorts of profits that were expected and demanded in other parts of our economy. But our farmers keen producing. And they produce extraordinary products. Look at the food that we take for granted when we walk into a supermarket. As I've said frequently, I look at some of the prices that are being paid in the supermarket—I'll touch on the $1 milk—and see that the market is demanding more and paying more for water than it is for milk. It's in the hands of our consumers. Make a great choice and buy a branded product—a branded product that you know pays more for that product so that our farmers, in the broader sense, are able to keep producing the products that we all take for granted.

Every farmer in Australia, as I've said previously, works constantly. They are very, very technology savvy. They are constantly innovating and improving. They don't sit back. Most of their information now is coming electronically. They're doing amazing work, and they rely on their technology. I'm really pleased with the mobile phone black spot tower rollout that we've been so strongly supporting and putting the funding into. This has made a huge difference to small businesses, which are, of course, our farming businesses. It gives them access and opportunities. They can be sitting in a tractor—the hay season is not far away, and I am really sorry that in New South Wales it's going to be a challenging hay season because they won't be able to grow the crops that they need for the next 12 months. It's not just this last 12 months that's affected by drought. Look at the feedstocks ahead. I want to thank every one of the farmers and organisations in Western Australia and around Australia who have contributed and are contributing fodder into New South Wales. They know that this is pushing up the prices for the rest of the farmers locally, but they're still doing it to support their fellow farmers. I thank and congratulate everyone who is doing that, and I say to the farmers affected by drought: 'Hang in there, and use your rural financial counselling services as well.'

11:10 am

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

Labor will always stand by the people of the bush. People often forget—and it is worth reminding people sometimes, especially those opposite—that Labor was born of the bush. In 1892, the Australian Labor Party was born under a tree in Barcaldine, Queensland, during the Shearers' Strike. Men were fighting for a better deal. Men were fighting for better pay and conditions and a fair go from the pastoralists. Labor was born of the bush, and its mission to fight for a fair go has never changed.

Labor are proud to stand here today and support the Treasury Laws Amendment (Supporting Australian Farmers) Bill 2018, but we're not going to pretend that this bill is the answer to all the problems that are besetting farmers during this drought. The bill before us today is, at best, a mild response to what is a very serious problem affecting New South Wales and Queensland. I don't want to belittle the bill, but it really is window-dressing. What it will do is offer mild relief to some farmers who are beset by drought. It will allow some farmers a provision whereby they can get instant asset write-offs for things like silos and grain sheds, rather than waiting three years for depreciation to take effect. It will be of some assistance, but it won't do nearly enough to address the real issues besetting farmers.

One of the concerning things throughout this whole episode has been the government's rather piecemeal approach to responding to this drought. We've heard speeches from various members on this issue. We've seen this government's piecemeal approach reflected in the fracturing and the failures of the government itself. We've had a National Party leader replaced by another National Party leader. We've had an agriculture minister replaced by another agriculture minister. We've had a Prime Minister replaced by another Prime Minister. The failures of this government are reflected in the failures of its drought strategy. It is a fractured and piecemeal approach; it is not good enough. It is not good enough that there has not been a coordinated, strategic approach to combatting this drought.

As I said before, this bill is a very modest measure in the scheme of things. It will have a fiscal impact of around $75 million over the forward estimates—and, to be blunt, it is window-dressing. It will be of some assistance to farmers, but it won't do much—and we really should not pretend that it will. This is, as I say, the fourth drought announcement by the government in three months. Instead of planning and preparing a comprehensive response, the government is, frankly, all over the place—a little bit here, a little bit there, a little bit later on. It has all the hallmarks of the utter dysfunction that plagues the government. People who are struggling to keep their heads above water, who are in tears over the condition and misery of starving stock, deserve better.

On 19 June the government announced an increase in farm household allowance payments from three years to four, effective 1 August 2018—a very modest measure. On 5 August, the government announced a $190 million financial support package and a $12,000 supplement to the farm household allowance. The government announced it but the funds weren't released then—no; the government has split the payment. So farmers who are beset by drought now must wait till the next financial year before they can access the second $6,000 instalment. It's unnecessary red tape getting in the way of helping farming families who are in need of assistance today.

Later on, the minister announced some increased funding for mental health support. I welcome this initiative. Done properly, it will be of great assistance, and I do commend the minister for this thoughtful initiative. I know mental health workers in my electorate do incredibly important work and have saved scores of people, particularly men, from taking their own lives. I refer in particular to the organisation Rural Alive and Well—or RAW, as it is better known—which is based in the town of Oatlands in my electorate. The more we can do to improve the mental health and psychological resilience of farmers and other members of regional communities, especially in times of financial crisis, the better. It is difficult to get men in regional Australia to open up about mental health, but it's getting better. There is less stigma attached to discussing and disclosing mental health, and we must do all we can to ensure that we remain on this trajectory.

A couple of weeks later, on 19 August, the then Prime Minister announced the appointment of Major General Stephen Day as National Drought Coordinator. I have every confidence that Major General Day will bring his expertise to bear in bringing together charities, NGOs, donors and arms of government, and I look forward to getting a progress report from the minister. It has been a month since Major General Day was appointed and I know the parliament would be keen to get an update on how things are going.

Then, following the still unexplained change of Prime Minister—and the country is still asking why: a question the government seems unable to answer—the member for New England was announced as drought envoy, a position we know little about in terms of what it is meant to achieve other than perhaps to keep the troublesome member for New England in Queensland and New South Wales as much as possible. Indeed, in his first week on the job, the drought envoy suggested diverting water that is vital for environmental sustainability to farmers and also suggested opening national parks to grazing. He has been silent, however, as far as I know, about his government's decision to allow Adani to access 12.5 billion litres of river water without going through an environmental impact study.

The fact is that the government's drought response has been a mess. Farmers have had to contend with, first, the change in the Nationals—with the member for New England out as leader, Deputy Prime Minister and agricultural minister, and the member for Riverina in as leader and Deputy Prime Minister, and the member for Maranoa in as the agriculture minister—and then the change in the Liberal leadership, with the former member for Wentworth out as Prime Minister and the member for Cook in as Prime Minister. From all the public statements flying about, it seems responsibility for the drought response is being undertaken jointly by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the agriculture minister, the drought envoy and the Drought Coordinator.

What makes this dog's breakfast even more bewildering is that the government had a template for drought response at its fingertips. Ten years ago, the Productivity Commission completed an inquiry into drought support and, in 2008, the federal and state primary industries ministers, the majority of them representing conservative governments, signed an agreement on drought reform. The ministers, sitting as the COAG committee known as SCoPI, agreed to commission the PC inquiry and report. So a coordinated drought response was ready to go, pretty much with a ribbon tied around it, but instead it has been all but ignored and discarded.

In fact, the federal coalition elected in 2013 abolished SCoPI and thereby removed an important coordinating body between the federal and state primary industries ministries. It was an act of policy vandalism, idiocy and arrogance to abolish SCoPI and it bore all the hallmarks of a born-to-rule federal coalition government that believes it, and only it, has all the answers and needs no input from the states to develop policy. The result has been a disaster. With New South Wales and Queensland suffering the worst drought in living memory, there has been no coordinated or strategic response. Ten years after a coordinated drought response was agreed to by all levels of government and backed by key farm leadership groups, we are scrambling with three piecemeal announcements in two months from a government that's changed leadership amongst both its senior and its junior coalition party partners.

The elephant in the room is climate change. The mere mention of climate change is enough to have some coalition members sticking their fingers in their ears and making loud sounds to drown out the noise. The truth hurts. Climate change is real. It is here, it is happening and it is having a real and lasting impact on our agricultural sector. The former agriculture minister, the member for New England, did nothing about mitigating the impacts of climate change because he simply doesn't believe it's real. He says, 'We've always had droughts and we always will.' He shrugs and says, 'This is no different than what's happened in the past.' It's a she'll-be-right attitude that flies in the face of scientific, measurable facts. Annual temperatures are hotter than they've ever been in recorded history. The trends are hotter and dryer. Extreme events are occurring more often and are more extreme. Any agriculture minister who seeks to respond to the drought without having a climate change strategy is not doing their job.

Climate change is the elephant in the room and it has to be contended with. Those opposite just have to deal with climate change; they have to get on board with this. They can't say, 'There's a drought on right now. We can't discuss climate change. That would be insensitive to those going through it.' Increasingly, we're getting farmers and those who represent farmers saying to us, 'Yes, climate change is real. Yes, it's having a real impact on our farms and on our ability to grow produce. We need to have a strategy to deal with it.' Farmers are calling out for this. Farmers are just as frustrated as we on this side are by the government's failure to grapple with the scientific facts that climate change is real and that climate change is absolutely contributing to the conditions that farmers face today.

This is a land of drought and flood; we know that. But the 100-year floods are now 20-year floods. The bushfires are hotter and faster. They are happening more often. The experts, the measurable data, the facts and the charts tell us that climate change is responsible. You have to have a strategy in place to deal with it. You can't have a drought response and you can't have a response to the crisis enveloping Queensland and New South Wales without having a climate change strategy. It is absolutely crucial.

I will finish where I started off: Labor will always stand by the people of the bush. We were born of the bush. We're not what those opposite like to paint us as. We're not just a bunch of inner-city lefties who go down to the cafe for a soy latte. That's not us. We represent blue-collar workers: farmers, shearers and the men and women in the shops and the IGAs. It was Labor in Tasmania that brought on the irrigation scheme that is transforming Tasmania today. It was Labor who put through the infrastructure, the roads through the regions, that allow us to get to goods to market quicker. It is Labor that looks after the bush.

The pretenders over there think that wearing a big hat and having a subscription to RM Williams is enough to make people think that they represent the bush. They say one thing out there to the people in the regions, and then they come in here and all they do is vote with the Liberals on big corporate policy. It was Labor fighting the $17 billion giveaway to the big banks. It wasn't the National Party standing up for the people of the regions when the Liberals were trying to give that $17 billion corporate handout to the big banks. It was Labor that helped get that stopped; it was Labor that brought on the policy change from the government. We brought the pressure to bear to stop the $17 billion giveaway to the big banks. It wasn't the National Party; they rolled over and had their tummies tickled on that.

I just mention here, by way of passing—and I don't want to get personal—that I can't help but smile when I recall that the deputy leader of the National Party, the self-proclaimed party of the battlers of the bush, doesn't live in the regions. She lives in inner-city Melbourne, if I recall, in the member for Melbourne's seat. The deputy leader of the National Party lives in a Greens seat. That's what I understand. I'm happy to be proven wrong.

Photo of Greg HuntGreg Hunt (Flinders, Liberal Party, Minister for Health) Share this | | Hansard source

If you want to go down to where your members live, we'll do that.

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

That's okay. That's okay. As I say, I'm just mentioning by way of passing that the Nationals put on the big hats, the checked shirts and the RM Williams and they wear the whips on their sides as if somehow that tells the story of representing the bush, and it's not accurate. It takes more. It takes policy answers to represent the people of the bush and the people of the regions. It takes policy and a commitment to the real issues: cost of living, Medicare, access to health and access to infrastructure. These are the real issues that affect the people of the bush and the people of the regions. Instead, what the National Party does is vote with the Liberals every day of the week to back in the big corporates, even against the interests of the people of the regions, and they need to be held to account for it.

11:25 am

Photo of Mark CoultonMark Coulton (Parkes, Deputy-Speaker, Assistant Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

I too take great pleasure in rising today to speak on the Treasury Laws Amendment (Supporting Australian Farmers) Bill 2018. I'd hoped that the member for Lyons might stay here for a minute. He might learn something. I will not be lectured by the Labor Party about responses to drought. I have been in this place for more than a decade, and for three decades before that I was a farmer. I have lived through the Keating years, when we were paying 22 per cent interest, and I know what it's like trying to farm in that area. I was in this House when the member for Watson, as the minister for agriculture, changed drought policy. He said: 'We don't have drought policy anymore. We now won't even refer to the word "drought". We are going to refer to it as "dryness". Because of climate change, we're going to have "dryness".' He talks about farmers wanting to adapt to climate change. Well, I can tell you our farmers are way ahead of the field, mate. I have my colleague here with me. When he was the shadow minister for the environment, he got to see what my farmers are doing with zero-till, where they're conserving every drop of moisture and growing crops now in adverse climates. Your mates in the Greens want to ban glyphosate, so even that's going to be harder.

We hear the members opposite talking about there being no response to the drought. The federal government has committed $1.8 billion so far, and that figure is rising. The former minister for agriculture Barnaby Joyce's white paper brought in accelerated depreciation for fodder storage, water, grain silos and fencing. Previously it was 15 to 20 years; it was brought back to three years. This legislation brings it back to instant asset write-off. If the members opposite actually knew something about regional Australia, not just what they saw on Facebook or popular TV shows, they might know that that policy has made a big difference in how farmers are impacted by this drought. I've spoken to many of my farmers who are now selling grain at a good price because they took the initiative that was offered to them by the government and have invested in their own storages. This patronising idea that I'm getting from members of the Labor Party that somehow farmers need the government to tell them what to do and are somehow poor, helpless individuals is something I find deeply offensive, and so do the people that I represent.

This legislation is very much appreciated and welcomed by the farmers that I represent, because farmers are not victims. Farmers will know that this is a genuine piece of legislation that will help them plan for the next drought. It gives them greater control not only in their preparedness for drought but in the general marketing and storage of their own product. At the moment, we have a crisis because of the shortage of hay. One of the reasons for this is that the vast majority of all hay that is produced never leaves the farm that produces it. It is cut and stored in preparation for drought. This legislation will enable farmers, when the seasons return and they end up with a wool cheque or a grain crop, to instantly depreciate the cost of a hay shed so that they can store more hay on farm, ready for the next drought.

The cash storage through the farm management deposits scheme is very important. The fact that farmers can withdraw that in less than the 12-month period during a period of drought, to enable that cash to be used to help through the drought to purchase that fodder, is very important. This morning I spoke to one of my constituents, who was unloading a load of hay, and he said that load of hay has brought his fodder bill for this drought up to $400,000. That's what one farmer has spent on fodder. He said that, because he had the money in a farm management deposit scheme, put aside for that very purpose, he's managed this drought. Those opposite would have the government in control of what farmers do.

I have heard academics in the last couple of weeks saying, 'Maybe we're going to need legislation, so that farmers can be instructed where they're going to grow certain crops, or run livestock.' I can tell you one thing that farmers don't want: they don't want the government in their lives. They want the government to provide positive programs like this: legislation like this will help them.

The member for Hunter has just walked in. Some of the comments he has made about this drought over the last month I find deeply offensive to the farmers that I represent. They are getting thoroughly sick of being treated as victims. I can tell you that the farmers in Australia are the most productive and the most innovative in the world—

Photo of Joel FitzgibbonJoel Fitzgibbon (Hunter, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

A point of order: there are processes in the House. If the member wants to make allegations he needs to authenticate them. What quotes from the member for Hunter is he referring to?

Photo of Mark CoultonMark Coulton (Parkes, Deputy-Speaker, Assistant Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Hunter wants me to go through them. I probably wouldn't have enough time left in my speech, but I have heard comments about the lack of support—$1.8 billion going to farmers is not a lack of support. The member for Hunter was a member of the government that removed that policy when the member for Watson was the minister, so one of the advantages of—

Photo of Joel FitzgibbonJoel Fitzgibbon (Hunter, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

With your support—

Photo of Mark CoultonMark Coulton (Parkes, Deputy-Speaker, Assistant Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

Rubbish. One of the advantages of being here for a long time is that you have a corporate memory of these things.

This legislation is very, very important. This legislation, to be honest, is not going to help farmers through the current drought; this legislation is all about preparedness for the next one. During the current drought, we are supplying farmers with household support. That money is to provide some dignity: to take the pressure from the daily lives of farmers who need to worry about how they're going to clothe and get food for their families, and other basic essentials.

Major General Day has been appointed as National Drought Coordinator to facilitate and coordinate some of the programs that are in train now. I know that last week he was speaking to the charities to try and get a coordinated approach, so that we don't have areas that are falling through the cracks.

With the help of social media, this drought has brought the plight of farmers to people in the cities. The support that's coming from people away from farms has been exceptional, and I know it's very much appreciated. But one of the downsides of social media campaigns is that the true situation is probably not presented. When people see a picture of a skinny cow, there could be various reasons why that cow is in that condition, and it's not always as portrayed. As I've touched on earlier, one of my concerns about the current drought is that farmers are being portrayed as a group that have lost control of their own industry, and their own destiny, and that's far from the truth. They're incredibly resilient.

I don't come into this place speaking from theory or philosophy; I've actually lived through droughts as a farmer. Several times in my life I've gone through drought seasons where we haven't grown a grain for the entire year. I know what it's like trying to purchase sugarcane tops from the coast to feed cattle when you've exhausted your own supplies. I know what it's like to spend night after night on a machine baling hay in preparation for the next drought. I know the work that's involved in this. I stand up here today in support of the farmers that I represent and the farmers of Australia, knowing that this drought will end, knowing that they will step up and be back in production very, very quickly and knowing that the vast majority of them out there now, while it's incredibly difficult, are managing this because they have prepared. They have prepared because of previous policies put in place by this government.

This legislation that we're talking about today will certainly make preparation more appropriate and easier for them to do for the next drought. When production does return, they'll be able to take advantage of the markets that are opening up now through the free trade agreements that are being negotiated—some are already agreed to; some are before the House at the moment—which will enable them to trade on the global stage at an advantage over our competitors. I support this legislation. I know that the farmers I represent support this legislation. They are pleased to see a government that's actually putting in practical measures, not the philosophical, ideologically driven, patronising discussions that we're hearing from the other side.

11:36 am

Photo of Joel FitzgibbonJoel Fitzgibbon (Hunter, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

What an embarrassing contribution from the member for Parkes, full of fluff and full of platitudes. Oh, my God! We couldn't have academics making a contribution to one of the most serious challenges facing this parliament and our country! We couldn't have policy based on fact! We can't have long-term planning! We just have to trust people like the member for Parkes, who, of course, is a farmer! That makes him the expert! He's practical! His approach is practical! I heard the member for Forrest saying the same thing, declaring herself a dairy farmer. Well, here's an idea: how about some of these members start declaring an interest in some of these matters. If I were a financial planner and I came in here to speak about a matter relating to financial planning, they'd be all over me like a rash. Conflict of interest, they'd be saying.

Now, let us not have this great boast from those on the other side that, because they are farmers, they don't need policy contribution from any of the experts. That's a ridiculous proposition, and it's an embarrassing proposition for this national parliament. Farmers don't want just sympathy and platitudes from their members of parliament; they want a government that reacts properly, thoughtfully and in a timely way. We are in the seventh year of this drought, and this is a government that did nothing until the media started paying this issue attention. Yes, we had some concessional loans. We had some concessional loans which, of course, were a replication of concessional loans programs that the former Labor government had in place. But concessional loans have been the policy response of choice for this government. No matter what the problem: 'Oh, we'll set up some concessional loans.' Which takes me to the point the member for Parkes made: this continual misrepresentation of what this government is spending on drought. They say $1.8 billion. Well, how did we get to $1.8 billion? Pretty simply. What they do is count the full capital value of all loans provided for, whether they're taken up by farmers or not. Have a think about that. They put a billion dollars aside for drought loans and they count that as a contribution to the drought assistant package whether or not farmers take those loans.

That takes me to the contribution of the member for Calare. I listened carefully to the member for Calare. Of course it wasn't that long ago that the member for Calare was boasting that the member for New England's so-called Regional Investment Corporation in Orange was going to create 200 jobs. Think about that. Then it was 100 jobs. I'll tell you how many jobs the Regional Investment Corporation has provided so far—one, and it's an interim job. This Regional Investment Corporation is no longer mentioned by the member for Calare. I wonder why that is. The answer, of course, is that he's moved beyond the political phase of that campaign or that idea and he's now realising what a joke the member for New England's proposition was. We all know it was a response to another very bad state by-election result for the coalition in 2016. They said: 'We'll have to do something about that. We can't have the National Party losing Orange. We'll create a pork-barrelling exercise and put a regional investment corporation into that town.' That is a regional investment corporation which still has no office, still has no staff and still has no real job to do.

We need a government that is serious about drought reform and drought policy, not a government that comes late to the party and makes three announcements within two months because the media has started taking notice. The only thing that has occurred more often in this country than drought itself has been the review of drought policy, including the one we started in 2009, the Productivity Commission's review, which was manifested in the 2013 intergovernmental agreement on drought.

Speaking of that agreement, I've got a confession to make. I changed my positioning on the speakers list, hoping to follow the member for New England. I was hoping to respond to his contribution. Alas, he's not here. I've been around this place long enough to know he may have good reason not to be here, so all I can do is express my disappointment that the member for New England hasn't presented himself to the House to make his contribution and my disappointment that I won't have the opportunity to respond to him. But I still hope he makes his way in here at some point to explain himself and to explain why, over a five-year period, he stalled drought policy reform in this country, he didn't progress the intergovernmental agreement on drought policy and he abolished the Standing Council on Primary Industries, the key COAG committee which was to progress that reform. He does need to come in here and explain himself.

He will talk about concessional loans and he will talk about the provisions in this bill. Labor support the provisions in this bill. We support anything that will help farmers through drought after a five-year hiatus on drought reform policy. We must. We don't agree absolutely with any of the policies this government has put forward, but we've been prepared to support them because they are the only thing on offer and it's the only thing an opposition can hope to do—urge the government to act and support anything that it does, within reason. There's nothing wrong with an immediate write-off or an investment in storage. That can only help. I do note, though, that the Productivity Commission rejected that proposal because they argued there's no market failure obvious and there's no broader community outcome or benefit in it. I'll challenge that somewhat because I would argue that, if this helps farmers better prepare for and protect themselves from drought, there is a broader community benefit. We know that it's not just farmers affected by drought; the communities around them are affected by a drop in income and therefore a drop in consumer spending in their towns.

Not only have we had a five-year hiatus but we don't even know who is in charge of drought policy in this country anymore. We had the member for New England, and then he was gone, and now we have Minister Littleproud, and he's still floating around, but we have the Drought Coordinator, Major General Day, and now we have the drought envoy, and there appears to be no coordination between them. I welcome the member to New England to the debate. I'm glad he turned up at my urging. I would have been most disappointed if he hadn't. We don't know, after a five-year hiatus, who is in charge of drought policy in this country. Is it the envoy? Is it Minister Littleproud? Is it Major General Day? We simply don't know.

Those on the other side can't have it both ways. They come in here with their platitudes and unthoughtful contributions, but they also want to tell us how well the farmers are doing. Thankfully it is true that some farmers are doing it okay. Some farmers have managed to better prepare for drought than others. Sometimes those reasons are merely geographical, sometimes it's about access to infrastructure, but it is true that some have done better than others. But it's counterintuitive for those on the other side to come in here on a daily basis and claim credit for the things that are doing well but not accept responsibility for the others.

Thank goodness the Prime Minister doesn't seem to be in charge of drought policy, because he told us via tweet last week, by authorising a video, that drought is a necessary evil. What it does, he said by authorising the video, is it allows you to wipe out the bottom 10 per cent who are struggling most. What an amazing thing for a Prime Minister to say. I know the Minister for Health would have been shocked by that as well. The Prime Minister tweeted and authorised, and therefore promoted and endorsed, a video that claimed drought is a necessary evil because it wipes out the bottom 10 per cent who shouldn't be there anyway.

Photo of Greg HuntGreg Hunt (Flinders, Liberal Party, Minister for Health) Share this | | Hansard source

That is utterly false.

Photo of Joel FitzgibbonJoel Fitzgibbon (Hunter, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

The Minister for Health says that's a false accusation. I say to the minister that I was very careful about how I said that. He tweeted and authorised a video in which that was said. I think in anybody's language that is akin to promoting and endorsing thoughts in that video, particularly when the text of the tweet said something like 'another way of thinking about drought'. If the Prime Minister wasn't sympathetic to that statement, there is no way in the world he would have tweeted that video. What is the alternative explanation? What other conclusion could we possibly come to? Why else would the Prime Minister be tweeting that video and writing something like 'another perspective on drought'? There's only one conclusion you can come to.

Those opposite have been coming to this debate saying, 'We've been doing this; we've been doing that.' I've dealt with those issues, but members of the House don't have to take my word for it. At the National Press Club recently the president of the National Farmers' Federation, Fiona Simson, said this:

… we don't have a comprehensive national strategy to deal with drought.

That's what the president of the National Farmers' Federation said, and she is right, because the member for New England stopped the progress of the reform program.

The member for Parkes outrageously gestured over towards the opposition and said, 'They got rid of all the good programs.' I remind the member for Parkes that that historic agreement between the Commonwealth and the states in 2013 was supported by all members in this place of all political persuasions—I shouldn't say that; I'm not sure what the member for Kennedy, for example, had to say at the time, but it was supported by the major parties and that minor party they call the National Party, even though that's not really their name, and the National Farmers' Federation. This approach was the commencement of a program which had the support of all the major parties and the leading farm organisations. It is not appropriate for the member for Parkes to be pointing his finger across at this side; he should be pointing his finger at himself, because his party was very much part of that process.

You can't have a drought policy or hope to develop and progress a drought policy until you accept that the climate is changing, fairly obviously, and until you accept that it's important—if only based on the precautionary principle—to do something about carbon emissions. We have to do something about carbon emissions. Again, we've had five years of a government that is unprepared to do that and climate deniers like the member for New England, who want to continually run a political campaign on that point. It doesn't have to come at a high cost; the cheapest way to do it is through the electricity sector. The best way to prevent this ridiculous discussion about going to the farm sector for the abatement is to do something in the electricity sector. But the member for New England doesn't want to do that. If people start gesturing to the idea of going to the farm sector for the abatement, blame people like the member for New England, who don't want to do anything in the electricity sector.

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (New England, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Why don't you do something about water policy?

Photo of Joel FitzgibbonJoel Fitzgibbon (Hunter, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, I will say something about water. It was the Labor Party that built water infrastructure projects in this country in the six years it was in government. I heard my colleague talking about the Northern Midlands project in Tasmania. That was entirely a Labor project. How about Chaffey Dam in the member for New England's electorate? That was entirely a Labor project. I give credit to the former member for New England, Mr Windsor, who urged the Labor government at the time to build that augmentation project. The member for New England has to stop taking credit for things he had no responsibility for. He needs to get on board with some decent drought policy. (Time expired)

11:52 am

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (New England, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What a load of nonsense. What a load of prattle and nonsense. I don't know where to start with such a load of nonsense. Let's start with the fact that there was no extension on Chaffey Dam when Labor, the Greens and Independents—that lot was a merry little bunch—left government. We had to get the approval through. They didn't have an approval. They were bent over backwards looking after the Booroolong frogs.

You have listened, ladies and gentlemen out there in radio land, to the shadow minister for agriculture. Did you hear one thing that could even vaguely relate to a policy by the Labor Party? Of course not. Oh, hang on—they have to do something about carbon emissions! They said that, before they do anything, they've got to do something about carbon emissions first. The member for Hunter is going to cool the planet and, after he's done that, he'll come back and give you a drought policy! If there's anybody still here when that happens, good luck to you. There will be nothing left. Those opposite never have the gumption, they never have the motivation and they never have the muscle to come in here and nominate something that they will actually do. What they do is say: 'Well, you know, we're going to first of all reduce carbon emissions. We'll then look after the farmers who have no money. We'll then look after the fact that there is no fodder.' They don't even mention that. There's no plan.

I'm going to give you a plan. We'll start by moving 6,500 tonnes of fodder over to Parkes. We're talking about that today. There's another 500 tonnes just up the road; that's going to join up with it as well. We're also talking about what we're going to do with the crop. There's a crop over in Western Australia that's just had to deal with a frost, and that frost means that there is a great capacity for wheat and hay to be moved to the east. We've been having discussions this morning with the Prime Minister about how we can get further stimulus into regional towns on top of the $1 million that we've put into every council in the drought areas to help them out. Ladies and gentlemen, these are policies.

Here, today, we are talking about a 100 per cent write-off for fodder storage assets. That's huge. If you spend $10 million on new silos, you can write them off straightaway. If it's associated with the drought, you can do that. That's real policy, just like we have the 100 per cent write-off for water reticulation, which is part of a white paper; just like we have the 100 per cent write-off for fencing, which is part of a white paper; and just like we've changed the farm management deposits from $400,000 to $800,000, which is part of a white paper.

Photo of Damian DrumDamian Drum (Murray, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What did you ever do, Joel? What did your mob do?

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (New England, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What did they do? We set up the Regional Investment Corporation, a new regional based bank which the Labor Party are going to get rid of. We have put money on the table to build the inland rail. The Labor Party hasn't. The Labor Party doesn't believe in it. We have money on the table for dams. The Labor Party is going to take the money out. That's the difference. Everywhere they go, they are destroyers. They are the political Shiva of rural Australia. Every time they go somewhere, they are going there to destroy it. We believe in decentralisation. Does the member for Hunter, the shadow minister for agriculture, stand by the movement of APVMA to Armidale? He's silent now, isn't he? He will never actually go in to bat for regional Australia. Well, the Labor Party candidate in Armidale wants to know where you are. The Labor Party candidate in Armidale wants to know where you're going. He'd like you to go a long, long way away. That's where he'd like you to go, because you're not helping him when you arrive. Everywhere they go, they never stand up for regional Australia—never once. We always have to go back in to bat.

It's great to be sitting in the room today with the Prime Minister, with Major General Stephen Day, with the president of the NFF, Fiona Simson, and with the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, to try to make sure we take this step forward. Not once has the Labor Party gone to the dispatch box at question time and asked a question about drought. They don't do it, because the shadow minister for agriculture, the member for Hunter, is so politically impotent that he does not have the capacity to get a question through tactics. He can't get a question up at tactics time. Either they just don't care about agriculture or they don't care about him. I say it's both. They don't care about either.

So we have so much more to do, and we're going to make sure that we drive ahead. I am happy to say that, in my discussions with the Prime Minister this morning, there's a real motivation. We are going to make sure that the empathy stops and the action starts, starting right now. About now, or in a few minutes time, the Prime Minister will be doing a press conference, and I'm absolutely certain that he will be mentioning the further things we have to do to assist other areas, especially with what's happening with the adulteration in the strawberry industry and the disaster and hurt that has caused. That would be something you'd believe—

Photo of Damian DrumDamian Drum (Murray, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

They might want to ask a question.

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (New England, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

They might want to ask a question on that. Maybe the shadow minister for agriculture might get a question today and show some interest. I'm going to help you out. I'm going to help you out. I'm going to ask the Labor leader for tactics, Mr Tony Burke, the Manager of Opposition Business, to see if he can get the member for Hunter a question today. I plead with you: give the member for Hunter a question today. Give him some relevance. I'm helping you out here. Give him some relevance.

What we are doing here is building on the $4 billion agriculture white paper. It's great to see the dam that we built, Chaffey Dam, the dams in the Midlands in Tasmania that we are building and the Wimmera-Mallee pipeline that we are building. It's great to see the pipeline that we are building in the Macalister Irrigation District. And what about Rookwood weir, which we're building? The Labor Party fought it all the way through. They ran to any rathole they could to look after their Greens mates and Greens preferences. We're trying to get infrastructure built. I know the member for Kennedy. He's a big fan of Hells Gate. This is a great project. You've got no hope of ever getting something like that past the Labor Party. They'll be looking after their Greens mates, the same Greens mates they look after when they don't want to open up Galilee Basin. It's incredibly peculiar that the member for Hunter, formerly supported by blue-collar workers, has turned his back on them as he turned his back on the farmers. They've given up and become the party for the inner suburban areas, and they're getting a vote to match.

This bill is part and parcel. It's not the fight; it's the start of a whole range of issues that we have to deal with in what is the worst drought on record in certain areas. The rainfall of Tamworth so far this year is slightly better than the annual rainfall of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. It is so devastating that what is happening right now is that there are gum trees—and they're a pretty good indicator of how dry it gets—dying because of a lack of water. We have a national crisis, and we have to deal with it as a national crisis.

We have to hope that the efforts of this parliament are put towards a constructive debate to drive policy. So I'm happy that we have made changes to the farm household allowance, and I commend the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, who's just now come into the chamber. We've gone a long way. I remember when the Labor Party were in government only 367 people got access to the farm household allowance. Now we have well in excess of 8,000 people who have had access to it, and this is so vitally important. It's uncapped. About a quarter of a billion dollars has been spent on it, and that's so vitally important. That's really money that is going on the table to help people. And I know there's more we can do to streamline that application process, and I know the minister for agriculture is working on that. We had discussions about precisely that this morning, and the minister for agriculture is doing an absolutely remarkable job, a splendid job. He's hard at work. Because of the vastness of his electorate, the member for Maranoa has such a great understanding of how agriculture works.

I know that the member for Maranoa, the minister for agriculture, would dearly love to be challenged in question time by the vociferous and cogent questions delivered by the member for Hunter. But he isn't! The member for Maranoa might as well do sudoku when he comes in here because he never gets a question from the member for Hunter.

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Point of order, Member for Hunter.

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (New England, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Oh my gosh, he's on his feet!

Photo of Joel FitzgibbonJoel Fitzgibbon (Hunter, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

I alert the member for New England to the fact that he doesn't have to go his full 15 minutes.

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for New England has the call.

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (New England, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

He's a funny man! Gosh! He's in the wrong career, the member for Hunter. He should have been at the Emmys the other night. He would have done a lot better job!

We have to make sure that we get the absolute focus of this nation's parliament on helping these people who are doing it so tough during the drought. We now know that in the abattoirs—I was speaking to one the other day—they are killing many of the cows with the calf inside. That means people are going through their breeding herds. And because they're going through their breeding herds that means when the drought is over there's going to be serious problems for abattoirs. The stock prices will go through the roof and their capacity to make a dollar is going to go through the floor. The last thing we want is for these abattoirs to shut down, because that will mean blue-collar workers, who we have to look after that, will be out of work. Part of the challenge of this parliament would be to suggest how we're going to keep these workers—many of them are probably members of the AWU—in a job. Has the Labor Party ever proposed during question time a discussion about this? Of course not. They've talked about the reduction of carbon emissions. Well, I'm sure I'll be able to hand that to someone on the boning floor of a local abattoir. I'll say, 'What the Labor party is going to do for you is reduce carbon emissions. Good luck; I hope that keeps you in a job.' But I don't think it will. I think they'll be looking for something a little more direct than that.

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

A little bit more tangible.

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (New England, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

A little bit more tangible. They'll want something to take home to their partner. How are they going to pay for their house if the abattoir closes down? I don't think it's going to be a policy on carbon emission reductions. I think it's going to be: what is the government doing to make sure that, if this drought continues, I, as a meat worker, still have a job? The Labor Party won't ask those questions, but we are. We are in the process of working out precisely how we deal with issues such as that.

The drought has become more pronounced in the last years. You might have been in opposition for five years, and that's very understandable. If you look at how you performed, it's a wonder you're not there for 50 years. What we have to make sure of is that we continue on this path—a 100 per cent write-off for fencing, a 100 per cent write-off for water and, now, a 100 per cent write-off for all your fodder storage, and the extension and streamlining of the farm household allowance. We're making sure that the Regional Investment Corporation that we set up and that the Labor Party wants to get rid of is focused on making sure that, when the recovery phase comes, we're able to deliver an outcome back to regional Australia to keep the cash flow going. The stimulus package is a million dollars per council. I'm sure there is more we can do. I know that the Prime Minister has been made aware of that by the ardent efforts of such people as the member for Maranoa in making sure we go forward with a drought policy that actually delivers on this crisis. A great example of how a government works is how they deal with a crisis. Away from all the theatrics there is something very important: who is providing a path of real policy to deal with the crisis of the drought? I would suggest that the National Party and the Liberal Party, supported by such people as the member for Kennedy, are doing that. I would suggest that the Labor Party have said nothing. They have shown that, when a crisis is at their door, they have nothing to say except theatre—

Photo of Damian DrumDamian Drum (Murray, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (New England, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

and negativity. They never come forward and challenge us with real policies. It is all a rhetorical flourish. As we are speaking here today, the Treasury Laws Amendment (Supporting Australian Farmers) Bill 2018 is showing precisely that. We are bringing forward the legislation to support Australian farmers. This is merely part of what is to come. I think it's going to be very important for people—it's good to see Councillor Webb and Mr Bede Burke in the gallery today—to understand that this parliament is hard at work helping them, making sure that we ask the questions and deliver on the outcomes so that we can get fodder from Western Australia over to Tamworth, Gunnedah and the Upper Hunter, an area quite relieved that they now have an advocate who takes agriculture in their area seriously. It's going to be an interesting test today: will the member for Hunter, the shadow minister for agriculture, in the middle of a record drought, get a question up? Once more the only ones that people in regional Australia can truly rely upon are the National Party and the Liberal Party.

12:07 pm

Photo of Bob KatterBob Katter (Kennedy, Katter's Australian Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It was very good to go to Brisbane, where there were three ex-treasurers and two ex-premiers of Queensland, to listen to Sir Leo Hielscher. Two of the three biggest bridges in Australia are named for Sir Leo Hielscher. I think he was the outstanding figure in economic administration in the nation's last hundred years. A tribute to him was that so many important people—there were four ex-ministers as well, myself being one of them—were in that room for his address. For me it was Paradise Lost. Was the world ever really like that? The budgerigar media and the lily-pad lefties say, 'But Bjelke-Petersen; they are corrupt.' There was never a single case of corruption; there were four ministers who misused their personal travel allowance money. That's not government corruption; government corruption is when you do a job for somebody, the public benefit is involved and you get recompense for that. There was never any of that. It was all police corruption.

I am going sideways; let me return. I would ask the budgerigars supposedly in government to listen to what I am saying. You can see the minister is having a little chat with his mate over here. If he were to listen to me, he might find out what needs to be done in these situations, because I was in a government which successfully dealt with them. The price of sugar in Queensland in the eighties dropped clean in half, as it does regularly. It is a cyclical effect that occurs, like a drought. You have to be ready for it. A well-run government has to know how to handle it.

I point out to the people listening to this debate that the minister is now having a chat with somebody else, and that's what I would probably be doing if I were in his shoes, because he's been in those shoes for some time, I am informed, and he has done absolutely nothing about the drought. What we did was immediately discuss with the state bank a reconstruction loans approach. The head of the bank said no; so we asked him again and again and again. When two weeks were up, according to the media, we sacked him. Whether we sacked him or not, I will leave that to somebody else to say. After his departure from the state bank, I had primary responsibility for it. The Treasurer, Bill Gunn, and I were very close friends. We worked closely together and we discussed it. As usual, we put out, I think, about $700 million or $800 million in loans to the sugar industry.

I want to repeat that, while I have been telling the minister what a successful government did to deal with these problems, he has been constantly talking. He is not the slightest bit interested in finding out what to do, which leaves it open to me to savagely attack him for having no interest whatsoever in solutions to this problem. We borrowed $700 million or $800 million. We bought out the banks so that the sugar industry—

Mr Littleproud interjecting

He is now laughing, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will give a running commentary on his performance while I'm speaking. People will enjoy this. We're talking about a situation where it would appear that a farmer is doing away with himself every five or six days, and he is laughing!

Mr Littleproud interjecting

And now he is screaming abuse. So he talks to his mates, he laughs and then he screams abuse. What is he going to do next? We put the $700 million out so that the farmers owed nothing to the banks. They now owed it to the state bank, which was called the QIDC. We were borrowing it at a little under three per cent at the time, so we were able to put the loans out to farmers at three per cent. If they owed $1 million at the time, they were probably on about 10 per cent interest, so it was $100,000 in interest, and they were probably up for about $50,000 in repayments. So the cane farmer was up for $150,000 a year. They now owed the money to the Reconstruction Board and all they had to find was $30,000 a year—not $150,000 a year.

Within two years, as we knew it would, the upcycle occurred—the price of sugar doubled. The farmers went to commercial interest rates, and Bill Gunn and I, as part of the Bjelke-Petersen government, made some $200 or $300 million in profit, because we now held those loans. Not only did it not cost the taxpayers any money; the taxpayers made money out of it. At all times we knew that that would occur, because we had at our disposal the greatest administrator the country has ever seen in the form of Sir Leo Hielscher. He was offered a position at the World Bank. I'm most certainly very proud to say that I am very much a protege of Sir Leo Hielscher. The greatest fighter for Hell's Gate and the Bradfield scheme in Australia was none other than Sir Leo Hielscher. It's no surprise that I was the No. 2 fighter for that area. What we did was just quietly make available Reconstruction Board loans.

I believe that my son was not very interested in politics initially. What got him interested was when, as part of an inquiry, he went around Queensland talking about the possibility of a reconstruction board. He assumed that people on the committee were listening when every single person they spoke to said that they wanted no further debt. At every meeting—albeit I attended only three—Robbie Katter said that people wanted no further debt. You can bet London to a brick that this government will offer them further debt. They won't offer them reconstruction of their debt; they will offer them further debt, which is specifically what people said they didn't want. When it came to a vote on this committee, he expected that both Labor and Liberal would agree, because clearly that was what every single person who had gone before the committee had said. To his shock and horror—and I think 'shock' is the right word—he couldn't believe it. Here's the logical thing to do. You know it works. It's been tried a million times. Every government in Australian history has done it. It was the essence of the Country Party philosophy. Yet, here they are, both sides, voting against it. I think his shock led him to believe that he had a job to do in politics. From that day forth he was a person who didn't want to get into it and was trying to get out of it. He became very, very dedicated and passionate in his belief.

I want to say some positive things about previous people in positions of power. Wayne Swan called a debt round table with Rowell Walton, the president of Katter's Australian Party. Rowell called a meeting with Wayne Swan and myself, and we got a debt round table. Out of that debt round table we had $450 million made available. We thank former Treasurer Swan for that. Barnaby Joyce attended another meeting called by Rowell Walton at St George. It was very big of the former Deputy Prime Minister, because he knew that we were a competing political party. But he was a big enough man to go to that meeting and provided $200 million on top of the $450 million. Then Robbie Katter called the last meeting, in which Alan Jones was the main feature item. At that meeting former Deputy Prime Minister Joyce put another $150 million aside. Again, we thank him for his approach. This is the very sad part, they gave that money to the LNP government of Queensland.

I think the member for Groom—I'm never too sure of these things—might be the member sitting here at the table. I don't know—

Photo of David LittleproudDavid Littleproud (Maranoa, National Party, Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources) Share this | | Hansard source

No, mate, I'm Maranoa. I'm your neighbour.

Photo of Bob KatterBob Katter (Kennedy, Katter's Australian Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Again, he's laughing and joking. Whilst people out there are doing away with themselves he is laughing and joking. That is true. He just laughed and joked. Don't say it's not true. It's on the record. The radio will have picked up that you were laughing and joking.

The tragedy of this was that Wayne Swan, former Treasurer, ALP, and Joyce, National Party—not LNP; National Party—are both from outside Queensland, in the sense that their parties are controlled from outside Queensland. They gave $750 million. It was given to the LNP government of Queensland, and they did not go to a reconstruction board. They did not reconstruct the loans. They gave them further debt. Very seldom in my entire life have I heard my son shocked and in trauma, but when the figures came out he said, 'The figures have come out. At the back of Queensland, principally North and Central Queensland, the subject of the cattle collapse'—he's had a lot to do with the cattle collapse, as a result of the ALP's actions on live cattle—'out of 2,500 cattlemen who needed that assistance they have given it to four people.' Four people got that assistance. We worked like dogs down here to get $450 million. God bless former Treasurer Swan, because he took pain in getting the $450 million made available. God bless Barnaby Joyce, because he took pain in getting that money made available. In good faith they gave to it the state government—the LNP government of Queensland—and they gave it to nobody.

I said that we were suffering one suicide every three weeks and I was corrected. A number of people venomously attacked me, because it was one every two weeks in the industry. Don't think about graziers here; think about the contractors, the workers and the businesses that depend upon this industry. But four people got it. The policy of this current government is exactly the same as the policy of the LNP in Queensland. The minister comes out of the LNP in Queensland. It is exactly the same policy.

Now, I've spoken to the Prime Minister personally. I have pleaded on my bended knees to go to a reconstruction board approach. Theodore, Chifley, Curtin, McEwen and Doug Anthony, arguably the greatest men in the political history of this nation, all went to a reconstruction board. They knew what needed to be done. But if you can't go to a reconstruction board then you are simply imposing more pain and more debt upon the people. It is counterproductive in the extreme. Having said those things that needed to be said, I put it before the Prime Minister. I went to see the last Prime Minister. He stared at his watch and he stared out the window. I may as well have had a conversation with a gum tree. The next morning I went down to see Arthur Sinodinos. I told him what had transpired. He, like a good and faithful minister, said nothing. He said: 'Shut up. What do you want?' I named four things. He said, 'Have your chief of staff in my office at 10.30 tomorrow morning.' By half past 11 that day, we had the four things through.

I don't think I contributed in any way to the downfall of Mr Turnbull. I most certainly contributed to the downfall of Julia Gillard. She was responsible for the live cattle decision, and she copped it. What, did she really think that I was going to walk away and not break a leg if someone did that? Running commentary: the minister is talking again at the table. At no stage has he listened to anything we've said, just like the LNP people that went on the inquiry all over Queensland and didn't listen to anything that the people there said. They just won't listen! The second thing that needs to be done is on grain. There has to be feed. A grant to people using grain is absolutely essential. I mean, the cattle have to be fed. To feed the cattle, you have got to do that. I might add, in conclusion, that Hell's Gate would feed a million head of cattle a year. Wouldn't that be a weapon? Hughenden and Charters Towers—two little projects we put before the Prime Minister—would feed 300,000 head of cattle a year. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we had that weapon at our disposal as well?

12:22 pm

Photo of Damian DrumDamian Drum (Murray, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Treasury Laws Amendment (Supporting Australian Farmers) Bill 2018 is an important bill to have the opportunity to talk to, because we all know that the drought is cutting right throughout regional Australia right now. I must admit, though, I find it difficult to sit here in silence when the Labor Party come in here and start espousing the values of the Labor Party and what they're doing to try and help our farmers. What they do and what they say they will do in government is quite scary and it spreads a lot of fear through the farmers in my area of Murray.

I don't come to the parliament and profess to be an expert on the union movement. I don't understand how these new workers in the Melbourne infrastructure projects that the government is going to build are going to get $50 an hour, and $100 an hour for Sunday work. The average labourer is going to pick up $150,000 a year from Daniel Andrews. The taxpayers in Victoria are going to have to pay for that. I don't understand how the union movement works. I imagine the Labor Party have full expertise on how the union movement works. But to have the Labor Party turn up here and tell us that they are the party for the farmers, I find that a little bit of a stretch too far. I talk to the leaders of my area and I watch Labor Party policy. There is no support for agriculture from within the Labor Party's leadership.

It starts first and foremost with water policy. We know very clearly that, when it comes to setting water policy in place that is going to enable irrigators right up and down the Murray-Darling Basin to afford to grow their produce in an efficient and profitable manner, the Labor Party, along with the Greens, are the biggest opponents to those two million people that live along the Murray-Darling Basin. They are the ones who are going to make water so expensive that, effectively, we're not going to be able to grow the produce that we have been able to grow for as long as we can remember. It is the Labor Party who are going to make sure that even more water is taken out of the consumptive irrigators' pool and put into the environment, effectively creating a tipping point. We have these Labor Party people who come in here and talk about agriculture and who have no idea what their water policies are going to do to agriculture. And, yet, they still maintain that somehow they are miraculously on the side of farmers. It is just a joke. They don't understand exactly how directly their cutting policies are going to hurt people in the irrigation areas of the Murray-Darling Basin.

We understand that this drought makes the debate around water policy even more succinct and heightened to another degree again. So we have to put in place now the policies that are going to effectively help farmers today, as best as we possibly can, and help them through this time. In my patch right now, farmers are making the incredibly heartbreaking decision to maybe cut their crops for hay. Some farmers will be saying, 'No, there is enough in them that we will give them the chance to get further spring rains so that we'll be able to get the crops through and be able to harvest them around Christmas time.' But this decision is being made right now, right throughout southern New South Wales and Victoria. When you have to make that decision to cut your crop for hay, it's heartbreaking. It means that your profits in that particular crop are going to be less. You'll get your money back, plus a little bit. Ultimately it's all going to depend on the price of fodder.

To deal with this, this bill is putting in place an accounting procedure that's going to make it much more attractive for people to prepare for storage of fodder into the future. So, as has been said throughout the debate this morning, the ability for farmers to increase the numbers of bunkers for silage and the numbers of silos and various bins around farms that are going to help them store their grain won't be used to help people through this drought as much as it will be used for future dry periods right throughout Australia. We've already seen the instant asset write-off have an enormous impact on a whole range of businesses, not just farming businesses. The instant asset write-off has been able to create a real opportunity for many people in small business to further invest in their business and have that offset against their tax. It's become very, very important.

We've also seen the outcomes of some of the measures that we currently have in place, not just for the drought. Before I first came into the federal parliament, we had the milk crisis. We had processors that were offering a price that was unsustainable and then, all of a sudden, they had to make an announcement and come clean and then start clawing that money back out of dairy farmers. They had paid them at a price that was unsustainable. We saw the farm household allowance ramped up at that stage to enable more and more farmers to gain access to it. Under the government and Minister Littleproud's watch during this drought period, we've seen that farm household allowance increased to $37,000, with the new additional money being paid over two instalments. We've also seen a reduction in the amount of paperwork that is needed for mums and dads and individuals to be able to get onto the farm household allowance. We have also seen an enormous uptake in the number of people who have been able to access low-interest loans. Again, these are things that are tangible and have been able to assist farmers as they go through this incredibly tough period.

Right now, the government has Major General Stephen Day working as the Drought Coordinator. There are a whole raft of people out there in the community who are trying to assist in any way they possibly can. I bumped into a great mate of mine, Kevin Sheedy, recently. He was trying to work out with the Essendon Football Club and some of their supporters how they could move into the market and buy hay for the farmers of the Riverina and throughout New South Wales. When you've got people whose hearts are right behind the farmers and right behind the agriculture sector, you need someone like Major General Stephen Day, who can get all these different actors in the industry coordinated so that we can actually get the best bang for our buck.

Barnaby Joyce has now been appointed as the drought envoy. You've heard some of the figures. Thousands and thousands of tonnes of grain are being accessed in Western Australia and brought over to the eastern seaboard by Barnaby Joyce and his connections. Again, they are trying to source the produce from various parts of Australia where we actually have grain and fodder, and bring it over to the eastern states where the ravaging of the drought is worst. But, again, we need special people out there who understand what's really going on and who also understand the difficulty of bringing that produce over to the East. We also argued as hard and as fiercely as we possibly could with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder about whether they had the capacity to release more water into the market, to lower the price of that water so that it could have found its way to the fodder producers three weeks ago, who would then have been in a good position to grow the lucerne that we were looking for.

It's good to see that we've got both Minister Littleproud and Barnaby Joyce from this place bringing together the drought packages and drought assistance. We've also got Major General Stephen Day as the overall coordinator and the Prime Minister and the Treasurer putting in place financial bills like this that are going to assist farmers to make the investments that they need so that they can be better prepared for future droughts. This is a horrible situation that exists in our regions at the moment, and it's probably going to get worse as we move into the summer months. We need a government that is going to be receptive—in the way that the government is already—but it's a reality that we are also probably going to need more and more assistance in the months to come.

12:32 pm

Photo of Stuart RobertStuart Robert (Fadden, Liberal Party, Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank all those members who have contributed to this debate on the Treasury Laws Amendment (Supporting Australian Farmers) Bill 2018. It's an important issue in our national discourse. The government well and truly recognises the need to support Australian families during difficult times, with drought being one of the most difficult. One way we're doing this, of course, is to help farmers better droughtproof their properties. Some four weeks ago, on 19 August, the government announced an instant depreciation initiative for fodder storage assets. This bill gives effect to that announcement. The government is moving, legislating, and acting quickly.

This measure amends the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 to allow primary producers, from 19 August this year, to immediately deduct the cost of fodder storage assets, such as silos or hay sheds used to store grain and other animal feed. Previously, primary producers generally had to deduct the cost of fodder storage assets over an extended period of some three years. Implementing this instant depreciation initiative will certainly assist farmers. It will make it easier to stockpile fodder, and farmers will no longer have to track the depreciation of fodder storage assets for more than one year for tax purposes. I wholeheartedly commend the bill to the House.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill now be read a second time. To this the honourable member for Fenner has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the amendment moved by the member for Fenner be agreed to.