Monday, 3 December 2018
Private Members' Business
Pensions and Benefits
That this House:
(1) recognises the commitment of the Government in support of our farming communities through all forms of hardship, including drought;
(2) notes the continued resilience of our farmers in drought affected areas, and acknowledges the challenges they are continuing to face;
(3) welcomes the record level of funding committed by the Government to provide immediate and ongoing support to our Australian farmers, their families and their communities; and
(4) commends the significant investment by the Government in announcing the $3.9 billion Future Drought Fund, which will grow to $5 billion by 2029, to provide a new and sustainable source of funding to enable farming communities to better prepare for, manage through and recover from drought into the future.
This drought is biting hard right across New South Wales, Queensland and many other parts of Australia. It's hitting the communities of the Central West of New South Wales especially hard. Our farmers, as you know, Mr Deputy Speaker McVeigh, are extraordinarily resilient, but many have been struggling with many different aspects of this drought. If we want our farmers to be a key source of our national success and prosperity, as they have been, we need to support them to get through it to make sure that they are here for our nation when the rains come.
Helping our farming families and their communities has been a real focus of the government and, as part of the government's immediate and long-term drought response, we have committed nearly $6 billion, growing to $7 billion, in assistance, including additional funding and improvements to existing support. It's about $6 billion at the moment. It's going to grow to $7 billion. That is the biggest drought package in our nation's history. That's how important getting on top of this drought has been to this government. We need to support our country communities and our farmers to make sure that they can once again be the powerhouse of our economy, as they have been and as they will be again once the rains come.
Our support and assistance measures cover a range of areas. They include providing financial assistance, investing in infrastructure and in rural and regional mental health, combating pest and weed impacts, and making information easier to access. This support to our farmers is based upon preparedness, risk management and support in times of hardship. It's not dependent on where a farmer lives or whether they're in a particular industry; it's about helping all farmers, in all parts of Australia, who are affected by drought.
The Future Drought Fund will support initiatives to improve drought resilience, preparedness and recovery. The government's initial $3.9 billion up-front will provide a sustainable and ongoing source of funding for drought resilience. In time it's going to grow, and it will create a sustainable source of funding. The fund will provide grants to assist primary producers, non-government organisations and regional communities in preparing for and responding to drought. It will encourage primary producers and communities to adopt self-reliant approaches to managing exposure to drought. It will provide services and research to assist with the adoption of technology, as well as advice and infrastructure to support long-term sustainability in the event of drought. And it will enhance the public good—that is, benefits are not solely for individual farm entities.
That's just one part of this wide-ranging program. Another is the Regional Investment Corporation, which is based in Orange. I was in Wellington on the weekend, and already farmers are talking about the positive impact the RIC, as it's known to its many friends, is having in the country. The loans are being written. They're talking about the great work—
Mr Fitzgibbon interjecting—
that is going to occur with these funds. Right around Australia farmers are starting to talk. If the member for Hunter wants to somehow dismantle it, which he says he's going to do, not only will he be ripping jobs out of country Australia but he will be ripping a valuable source of investment and drought preparedness away from farmers, because the loans have just started to be written and they're having a very positive impact out there.
The RIC received more than 340 applications for up to 32 new jobs, with 85 of those coming from the local region. If the member for Hunter wants to come into this Chamber and say, 'All of those jobs are going,' I wish his candidate for the seat of Calare all the very best. If those opposite are going to rip jobs out of all of the areas where decentralisation has occurred, I wish them all the best. To me, it's not going to be a campaign winner in country Australia, but good luck and godspeed to them.
We've also got improvements to farm household allowance. That includes cash payments, obviously. The total payment for a couple is around $37,000 and, for a single person, around $22,000. We're supporting our farmers. We're going to stand shoulder to shoulder with them through these very difficult times.
If you are looking for a motivation lying behind the member for Calare's motion today, you just heard it at the end of his contribution. This motion is not about our farmers and the impact of a terrible drought; it is about the political survival of the member for Calare! That shone through so strongly towards the end, when he, amusingly, started to talk about the so-called Regional Investment Corporation. I was a bit intrigued by that, actually, because none of his ministers ever mention it any more—not in the House during question time, not outside on the doors. That leaves me very curious as to why ministers never ever mention the boondoggle, the pork-barrelling exercise now called the Regional Investment Corporation.
I was so amused to hear the member for Calare say that his farmers in the district are championing the Regional Investment Corporation and expressing joy about the difference it's making in their lives. What a load of rubbish! As if farmers in the immediate district have somehow been beneficiaries of a corporation that is barely up and running, that has no permanent CEO, that has skeleton staff and that has no real home. This is a motion full of self-congratulation about what this government has done on drought for the last five years. But let me tell you what it has really done—
Don't worry about Jess Jennings! Jess Jennings is a very good candidate for Labor in Calare, who happens to be an academic with expertise in farm extension.
Mr Gee interjecting—
You could learn something from him. The reason you put this motion up tonight is that you're scared of Jess Jennings. You know Jess Jennings is coming to get you in Calare. That's what this is really about.
Mr Gee interjecting—
The climate is changing in the most challenging way for our farmers. Dry spells are becoming more protracted; the temperature is getting hotter. Government can do three things, and those opposite have hardly done any of it in the last five years. First, we can act to mitigate climate change, something the government are unprepared to commit to. Second, we can give drought assistance, assisting farmers who are struggling most with drought in times of protracted dry spells however and wherever we can. Third, we can work with farmers to help them build that resilience and better prepare themselves for drought. But unless we are doing all of those things, we are failing our farming community, we are failing farming families and we are failing, very importantly, the Australian economy.
Governments, plural, and political parties, plural—including the two major parties in this country—agreed more than five years ago that all the old exceptional circumstances initiatives were not working; they were a failure. It was universally agreed that we would tear it all up and all the moral hazards involved and start again. In 2013, something of a miracle was achieved: the states and the Commonwealth, with bipartisan political support across the spectrum, agreed to a new intergovernmental agreement, recognising the failure of past drought policies and the need to redirect our attention and resources mainly to resilience, business models et cetera—things that would help farmers treat drought as a regular event which can be managed within the business cycle. But what did those opposite do on their election? The then Minister for Agriculture, the member for New England, abolished the COAG committee which was charged with progressing these reforms and turning them from principles into something meaningful.
Now, more than five years on, they want us to believe that they now realise that resilience is part of the equation, and that they are going to do something about it! As always, they have enhanced or embellished the look of their spending, by putting it into a future fund, which they can say is a $5 billion fund. But, importantly, they are only spending $100 million a year, not ad infinitum but only for the first four years—sensibly, because whatever they do should be reviewed after four years. So those opposite are slow coming to the party, but for many farmers it is too late, quite frankly. Those opposite need to apologise to those who have not been given the assistance they need to better adapt to a changing and more challenging climate; instead of congratulating themselves they should be hanging their heads in shame.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I'm not allowed to debate the issue of whether leave is granted, but the mistake is unfortunate, and I regret the fact that the member for Calare was denied the time. But my problem now—and leave is the purview of the opposition—is that the member for Calare is now going to use it as a right of reply to the comments I have made, and on that basis leave is refused.
I must say that I'm disappointed in that attitude from the shadow minister for agriculture. This is an important issue and it was clear that the member had a 10-minute speaking session.
Drought is trying, but it is part of the Australian landscape. I'm a strong supporter of the positive measures this government, the coalition government, has provided over a period of time for farmers to prepare for drought—none better of course than the FMDs, which were established by the Howard government. Following lobbying by me and a number of other members from rural areas, the investment limits were doubled in the last two years. Another measure is the immediate tax write-off for fodder storage. Nothing could be more important in preparing for drought than having more grain sheds and more hay sheds to hold more fodder. There is also the immediate write-off for water infrastructure and fencing. These schemes are supporting farmers to prepare for drought—to make their properties drought-proof, if you like.
But sometimes, beyond any ability of rural businesses and individual businesses to cope, the droughts go on. In that regard, this government has been very responsive, with the Farm Household Support Allowance extra $12,000 cash payment and the farm business improvement and drought concessional loans. Other speakers spoke briefly about the Regional Investment Corporation. I must say, from a South Australian point of view, that we had always been disappointed with our South Australian department, PIRSA, in managing these drought loans, and we are very pleased to see these loans brought into the national level. In addition, the Rural Financial Counselling Service, which of course is available to farmers, has had its budget substantially increased to deal with the load. There is also support for farmers seeking to engage in multi-peril crop insurance.
In South Australia, more lately, I petitioned Minister McKenzie, Minister McCormack and the Prime Minister to extend to the Drought Communities Program from the eastern states to South Australia. Sixty councils in New South Wales and Queensland have received or are eligible to receive up to $1 million each. I thank Minister McKenzie for making $17 million available to 17 regional councils in South Australia—13 in my electorate of Grey. It is a real shot in the arm for local businesses, and I am looking forward to those projects rolling out. I have a couple of councils that I think were a little unfortunate to miss the criteria, and I continue to speak to the minister about those councils.
I thank Rural Aid and their Buy a Bale for coming to South Australia. In early August, I contacted Wayne Thomson from Rural Aid about bringing that program to South Australia to allow South Australian donors to support South Australian farmers and allow South Australians farmers to register their requirements on their website. That is exactly what they have done, and there have been deliveries of hay into South Australia. I was very pleased to be with Wayne Thomson in a drought affected paddock east of Eudunda a few weeks ago when they dropped off a load. The farmers are visibly moved, not just by the hay supplies but by the fact that they know that people care and want to help them out. That is very rewarding. I congratulate Steve Willas from EP Grain and Mentally Fit EP for their effort in collecting and distributing hay on the Eyre Peninsula.
I was out inspecting properties at Worlds End and Geranium Plains with Steph and Simon Schmidt. Steph mentioned to me that the NAB had raised the prospect of giving interest rate reductions to drought affected farmers in areas that were drought declared. I was a bit concerned about this, as she was, as South Australia does not have drought declarations. I met with NAB subsequently in the parliament here. They changed the wording of the availability of that help for farmers and are using a PIRSA map for South Australia now. That has put South Australia on exactly the same footing as the other states when it comes to NAB. I subsequently contacted Anna Bligh from the Australian Banking Association and said, 'Do you think you could press the rest of your major banks to deliver a similar service?' She said, 'Yes, I will try,' and within two weeks we had a letter from the ABA committing just that, which I have been furnishing to farmers and other people within the electorate to make sure that when they go in and negotiate with their banks they know that their banks are committed to helping them through this tough time. I thank them for that support.
It's not just Labor that's saying this, but farmers, reporters, communities, councils: you cannot just talk about drought; you need to also talk about climate change. If you don't talk about the two together you are, quite frankly, not doing your job. Farmers For Climate Action have been loud and vocal on this issue for quite some time, calling on the people in this place, and in particular their elected representatives, the government, to make sure that we have real action on climate change and that we are getting ready to tackle drought. That is why it is disappointing that the government have not acknowledged their mistakes in the past. As the member for Hunter said, it was this government, when they first came to office in 2013, that axed the COAG process that established an agreement between the states to develop drought resilience policies, working together at a state and federal level. Just imagine where we'd be today if we had continued that work, if this government hadn't been blinded by their ideology and abolished that process? Imagine where we'd be today, helping those farmers and their communities to adapt to climate change, to make sure that we're ready and that we're tackling it? Agricultural issues and climate change across states—that's the cooperation that's needed.
I do get disappointed that you hear from the Nationals all the time, 'What about the farmers?' They are important, but what they never raise in this debate is the impact on people who work on the farm, the impact on the supply chain jobs. Just take what is happening to our rice industry in the Riverina. I've been there and spoken to those farmers. I been up on the header and spoken to them. I also visited SunRice and spoke to a number of the workers there. Unfortunately, because of the impact of drought in the Riverina and the cost of water on the temporary market—it's gone up to $400—they are now scaling back their operations. A hundred jobs in the supply chain of SunRice will go. That is a big impact on that community in food manufacturing. When we have a drought, because we haven't acted sooner, it does have an impact throughout the supply chain. It's not just the food manufacturing jobs that are impacted by drought; a lot of the businesses that support farmers also go through tough times.
If we are going to be a country that grows things, we need to be a country that has long-term drought preparedness policies. We need to look at carbon farming. We need to look at ways that farmers can diversify. We need to share experiences about how to best use the resources that we have. Everybody agrees that you need water to grow things. The way in which we manage water going forward needs to be calm and methodical. You can't just throw cash at it. There needs to be science involved in this. We need to work towards it.
One of the previous speakers spoke about the RIC, as it's called, the Regional Investment Corporation. I want to acknowledge the role that the Bendigo Bank is playing, as a lot of this work has been outsourced and subcontracted to it. Through its community banks and through its own rural finance corporation, Bendigo Bank works closely with farmers, ensuring that they have the capital to do these investments and—most importantly, because cash flow is low—working on hardship with them.
The previous speaker also mentioned the importance of rural financial counsellors, and I completely agree. That's why it was so disappointing that one of the things this government did was sack all of the rural financial counsellors in my electorate. They closed that office down. They sacked those rural financial counsellors because we were past the drought, not realising that the next one was just around the corner.
When we talk about decentralisation and the need for jobs, let's not forget that they also sacked the 60 workers at the Australian Emergency Management Institute in the Macedon Ranges. So, for all the talk about the jobs they're creating, they're not talking about the jobs that they've axed, the people they've sacked in regional areas. Farmers and communities are also complaining about the complex process and the delays in getting through to Centrelink, trying to get their farm household assistance—there's no mention of that failure in this motion.
If we are serious about supporting farmers, the workers in the agricultural industry and the supply chain then we need to restore and rebuild the agreement that was reached with the states back before this government came to office.
Mr Acting Deputy Speaker Gee, it's a great pleasure to stand and speak to this motion by you, the member for Calare, because this motion emphasises the commitment of the government to supporting our farming communities through this current drought. It emphasises, though, that the government is looking well beyond that to long-term resilience, certainly to provide immediate support but to look at ongoing support for Australian farmers, their families and their communities into the future. This is most certainly about better preparation and the ability to manage through droughts and of course to recover from them in the interests of farmers, their communities and their families into the long term.
Many in this chamber have been involved in debate about drought management over many, many years. Of course, we know that drought is a feature of the climate here in this great Australian continent and that drought is something that our regional communities have had to face up to time and time again over many generations. We continue to fine-tune and better direct support and policy into the future for the support of those communities so that they can prepare for and respond to the impact of drought. This government particularly wants to encourage self-reliance, more so than ever before, in farming communities, grazing communities, the organisations that support them—both from a government and non-government perspective—and, as I've said a number of times, those communities that make up regional Australia. So to look at an approach that is properly focused on the services of support, the research necessary in the long term and the adoption of technology—whether that be in water management, as some speakers have spoken about, or in crop management and livestock management—is as essential as the infrastructure that will support long-term sustainability for our regional communities.
A number of speakers, particularly the previous speakers on this side of the chamber, have spoken about the elements within the current government drought support program, farm household allowance; the support for investment allowances in terms of water infrastructure, feed and fodder provision; mental health support in various parts of the community; and the Drought Communities Program, which, as the member for Grey said earlier, is providing much-needed assistance through local governments in regional communities. This is a drought not only on the farm; it's also a drought on the main street of town. Again, the focus has been on preparedness as well as the immediate response challenge. We need to help those who need it but recognise, at the same time, as many of us have seen, that there are those who are unable to ask or don't feel they're in a position to ask. The minister for agriculture certainly encourages us always to make sure people are not self-assessing in terms of the support that's available but are putting their hand up and getting the assistance.
Previous speakers on this side of the House have emphasised that the funding program at present is up to $7 billion. That is a record amount. That is in stark contrast to what the Productivity Commission said all of those years ago in reviewing drought policy—to get away from just a reactionary approach to a preparedness approach. I've heard some comment about that. I've heard the comment about COAG. I profess to know a little bit about it because I was one of the state ministers who sat around the table at that time. I can confirm from the perspective as a regional member of this parliament that the current drought package and, more particularly now, the support going forward is breaking the mould. This is finally delivering what we need for regional communities around the country. It's not just about government response, obviously, and it's not just about industry response; the community response continues throughout the communities that we represent. I can mention so many people, but I mention most particularly my good mate Bill Manton, who runs drought fodder drives and support into western Queensland. He is doing a sterling job, as are so many people around the country who are truly interested in the fortunes of regional Australia.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that the newest slogan for the Morrison government is 'Better late than never', and the Future Drought Fund is no exception to this, sadly. For years, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments buried their heads in the very dry earth of Australia, hoping that the drought would simply go away, but rain has not fallen in sufficient quantity, produce is not growing as we would have it, dams are certainly not overflowing and our farmers are still struggling. I only have to have a quick flick through my Facebook feed to see a number of people whom I am friends with still out feeding stock and taking photos of withering dams. It is still a tragedy.
Finally, the coalition government has decided to do something about this crisis. Once again, it is better late than never. The Future Drought Fund was announced on the morning of the Drought Summit held in October this year. It was announced without consideration for the discussions that were about to take place at that summit. It was announced, curiously, without listening to any of the experts on the day—any of the drought affected farmers who had travelled from all over Australia to give their opinions at that summit. The Future Drought Fund was announced and then the Morrison government used the Drought Summit as a photo op, really, rather than a well overdue discussion with the people who are actually living through this disaster.
This is a government that have acted on impulse after they finally realised the drought wouldn't just go away—the rain wouldn't just miraculously come. As much as we can wish and hope, that has not been the case. The bill to establish the Future Drought Fund was only introduced in parliament last week and the $5 billion concept the government speakers are patting themselves on the back about might not even be a reality until 2029. That's over 10 years away. Instead of high-fiving each other, I encourage the government to take a leaf out of Labor's book. The first Intergovernmental Agreement on National Drought Program Reform was established by a Labor government. It expired on 1 July this year and we are yet to see a new agreement.
In question time today, the minister for agriculture said this is 'a drought that is spreading like a cancer'. I say to the minister and the government: our farming communities need more than platitudes and slogans to get them through this crisis and crises to come. They need a forward-thinking government that is willing to govern. This is not the first drought Australian farmers have experienced and, sadly, we know it won't be the last. The Morrison government, just like the Abbott and Turnbull governments before it, refuses to acknowledge that climate change will impact on our agricultural sectors. They continue to ignore our young farmers, who readily embrace the science and the concept and who know we need to make significant and deep changes to agriculture in this country. They continue to ignore Australia's changing climate and they keep slapping bandaids on the suffering of drought affected farmers and the communities that support them. These communities know it needs to be deeper and broader than what is being projected by this current government. Australia needs a long-term solution, a comprehensive drought policy that supports farmers into the future.
I want to take this opportunity to congratulate TheMaitland Mercury journalist Belinda-Jane Davis on her incredible coverage of the drought in a campaign titled 'The big dry' for Fairfax papers. Her comprehensive reporting earned her a prestigious Walkley Award in the last couple of weeks for excellence in journalism, an accolade that is well deserved. In the words of Belinda-Jane, I say to farmers across Australia who are affected by this disaster: together we will get through this difficult time. BJ, thank you for your work. You raised the issue so energetically in our community and you never turned your back on our farmers. But it's going to take more than awareness campaigns. It's going to take action, it's going to take evidence and it's going to take experience that we do need to take into account. But, more than ever, it's going to take the effort of a government that will produce some action rather than just slogans.
Deputy Speaker, there was a mistake made earlier in this particular debate. The proposer was given 10 minutes to speak. Like all members of parliament, we watch the clock to see how long we've got to go. He adhered to what the clock was saying and finished his speech after five minutes. He actually had 10, and I hope that the chamber will think it reasonable enough for the member to once again seek leave to finish his comments.
Leave is granted, although I will be seeking some clarification around the 10-minute ruling, because it has not been the case that every single proposer of a motion has been given 10 minutes in this chamber. The Selection Committee makes various decisions, and it is not an automatic right to get 10 minutes. But I acknowledge that the speaker had assumed he had 10 minutes and, for whatever reason, the clocks have not worked as they should have. So leave is granted, but it should not be assumed that this is an automatic right to all movers.
I thank the Chamber. I just ask the Chamber to bear with me. I've already sought advice from the clerk. I'll just do that again, if you'll bear with me. The clerk advises it is appropriate and in line with Selection Committee decisions previously.
Again, I seek leave to conclude my remarks, Deputy Speaker.
I thank the members opposite. I wanted to mention the importance of the Drought Communities Program, which provides grants to eligible local governments to support local community infrastructure and other drought relief projects for communities impacted by drought. As we know, each council will receive up to $1 million for eligible projects, with the government recently extending the number of councils eligible from 60 to 81. The important thing about the Drought Communities Program is it recognises that the impact of drought isn't just at the farm gate; it's in country communities throughout Australia, and many of them are smaller country communities too. In the electorate of Calare, for example, the Blayney, Oberon, Mid-Western and Dubbo regional councils and Cabonne Council are all eligible for the funding, and a number of projects have already been identified.
One great project which Dubbo Regional Council has identified, through Mayor Ben Shields, is $560,000 for a water supply for Stuart Town. The allocation of a water source for Stuart Town would allow a bore and storage tank to be installed to provide water for the 250 residents of the village. In the Blayney shire, projects identified include $80,000 for a refurbishment of water bores for stock in the Blayney community; $400,000 to enhance the Blayney Showground; and $46,000 for an upgrade of the kitchen at the Mandurama hall. I believe that improvements are planned for Carcoar as well. The list is considerable. All of these projects will make a real difference to the lives of people in those communities who've been hit hard—because, when drought hits, it might not be just the farmer who's affected; it might be the tyre fitter or the folks who run the grocery store. The knock-on effect is absolutely huge.
I mentioned the Regional Investment Corporation. The member for Hunter made some rather unkind comments about the corporation. On Saturday night I was in Wellington, which is part of the great food basket of New South Wales and Australia, and I was speaking to Norm Smith. Norman and Pip run a merino farm just outside Wellington, on Twelve Mile Road. Farmers are already talking about the RIC. Norman was relaying the story of one farmer with very, very positive things to say about the investment funds available through the Regional Investment Corporation. Norm also mentioned a couple who were in the process of acquiring farming country in the Peak Hill area; they were going to use funds provided by the RIC to basically transform that farm, including droughtproofing it. Again, the story was a very positive one about their experience with the Regional Investment Corporation. They're just two stories about a corporation which is just starting out, and, if this is the experience of the first few customers of the Regional Investment Corporation, I think it bodes very well for the future.
I really think the member for Hunter should take a less antagonistic and more positive approach and work with us on projects like the Regional Investment Corporation, because they will actually make a real difference to the lives of people in country Australia. It's not political. If the member for Hunter looks at the last election results in and around Orange, we were lucky enough to be successful in every single booth in Orange. If you look at Cabonne, which is the farming area—
An opposition member interjecting—
no, federal and state—again, we won every booth when I was the state member, and I was lucky enough to do that as the federal member as well. If you look at the Gulgong and Mudgee areas, the story was the same at the last federal election and when I was lucky enough to run as the state candidate. When I was the state candidate for Forbes and Parkes, we won every booth in those areas, including booths that had never traditionally been coalition-voting booths.
The RIC is not political, and it is making a real difference to the lives of people in country Australia already. If the member for Hunter wants to kick around here in R&M Williams boots, he has to walk the walk, not just talk the talk and sell out country Australia— (Time expired)