Wednesday, 20 February 2019
Future Drought Fund Bill 2018, Future Drought Fund (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2018; Second Reading
I, on behalf of the Australian Labor Party and the opposition, congratulate the member for Higgins, who has just given her last speech. We wish her all the very best for her and her family, and acknowledge her contribution and the sacrifice that families make when people chose to enter this House, so my very best wishes and that of everyone in this chamber.
I rise to speak on the Future Drought Fund Bill 2018. Let me begin by saying that Labor certainly supports government action to help farmers make their operations more resilient in the face of drought. Drought has been a reality of life in this nation for a very long time. Given the harsh nature of our environment in this part of the world, it is a tribute to the tenacity and, indeed, the skill of our farmers that they have been so successful. They are tough, hardworking and efficient. Their task is being made even more difficult by climate change, which the experts agree is leading to an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. We see the evidence of this on our TV screens with dispiriting regularity. We see honest people struggling hard against the elements and facing crises on an increasingly regular basis.
It's not all about climate change, but climate change is a factor. Indeed, after years of denial, even some of those opposite accept the existence of climate change, having been dragged to reality by groups like the National Farmers' Federation in my home state of New South Wales. And it certainly does make sense for the Australian government to work with our agricultural sector on drought resilience. We must assist our producers, who do so much for our nation. However, we must also think carefully about how we fund this important work.
The bill before us is inadequate. It asks us to create the Future Drought Fund for that purpose. Interest from the fund would be used to deliver up to $100 million a year in project grants from 2020-2021. But it wouldn't be established by the government making an appropriation from government funds in the normal way in which it would for a purpose that it viewed to be valuable on its merits. It would be created by abolishing the existing Building Australia Fund. This was created by the former Labor government as one of our first pieces of legislation after we were sworn in on 2 December 2007 in legislation that I introduced to this chamber. The Building Australia Fund is a vital part of the Infrastructure Australia framework, because it can only be used for the purpose of projects that have been approved by Infrastructure Australia and put on the priority list.
Now, when it comes to funding infrastructure, this government regards integrity and transparency with horror. This is the third attempt to abolish the Building Australia Fund. First, we were told this was a necessary component of the asset recycling scheme, which the government set up to provide state governments with incentives to privatise public assets. It failed in the Senate. The second occasion was with the National Disability Insurance Scheme, something not linked to infrastructure at all. We were told that we needed to transfer the money from the Building Australia Fund across to the NDIS if we were going to fund disability services. Now we're being told that, in order to fund drought resilience measures by farmers, we need to abolish the Building Australia Fund. It's absurd. There's no link between the two things.
We have committed the same amount of money as the government for a drought fund in the same time frame. The difference is that our money will be real. It doesn't have to be taken from somewhere else with no relationship whatsoever. I was trying to figure out what the relationship between the two issues—the Building Australia Fund and the Future Drought Fund—is. The link is that they're both run by the National Party, in terms of the portfolio. Quite clearly, what's happened in the internal processes is that Minister Littleproud hasn't been able to secure support for the Future Drought Fund in terms of additional funding. So within the National Party they have just had to transfer some money across from one fund to another—from Mr McCormack's responsibilities as the infrastructure minister to Minister Littleproud's responsibility as agriculture minister. That's absurd! What next? Take agriculture funding to fund a new airport? This is not the way to do good public policy.
We could have a consensus in this parliament across both sides about the outcomes and the process if the government just had a bit of common sense and said, 'Well, we'll create a future drought fund, we'll bring in legislation, it will be for that purpose and it will consist of $100 million every year from 2021,' and we'd all agree. It would take 10 minutes and it could be in place. We could even talk about the time frame and maybe bring it forward. But, instead, we have this obsession with getting rid of the Building Australia Fund, simply because the National Party can't use it as a slush fund for whatever projects they want in regional—or marginal, should I say—electorates.
This government is characterised, as we saw in today's question time and in the suspension of standing orders resolution, by a misuse of taxpayers' funds. And what they want now is to create a future drought fund that has no guidelines around it. Once again, instead of having some rigour about the use of taxpayers' funds, we have the National Party back to its old games. Remember the Area Consultative Committees? And the old regional rorts program? On this basis there's no reason to think that the National Party wouldn't be about providing selective assistance to friends and mates rather than on the basis of the interests of farmers, the interests of making a difference and the interests of need.
That's the problem with this. Based upon expert advice we'll look to fund the adoption of new, efficient technology on farm infrastructure projects, such as better water storage, better natural resource management for farms and projects to improve soil management and to build resilience to drought, floods and the changing climate. Within 60 days of taking office we would create a panel of guardians to establish guidelines for the program. We'd include the farmer organisations in that process. The panel would include experts in water, soil and environmental science, and an economist, as well as representatives of the farming sector, local government and the Council of Australian Governments. It would report to the Minister for Agriculture and would be asked to provide a detailed plan concerning the fund within 12 months, if we're successful. Given that the fund doesn't come into operation until 2020-21, that is a practical, sensible suggestion. Establish a rigorous process so that the money wouldn't be invested on political whims but on the genuine resilience projects that will make a real difference.
The government's proposal doesn't see any money flow until the financial year 2020-21. Our project would deliver projects as soon as the panel that I just mentioned finalised their arrangements, within 12 months of becoming government. So let's be very clear: Labor guarantees the same level of funding as the government, delivered sooner to fund projects chosen on the basis of genuine expert advice. That is a much better approach than eliminating the Building Australia Fund, an obsession for those opposite. As part of their attack on Infrastructure Australia, for most of the term since the change of office in 2013, for most of the last 5½ years, Infrastructure Australia hasn't had a CEO. They've had acting CEOs for most of that time. The major cities units, which were part of Infrastructure Australia, were abolished.
The Building Australia Fund was used for great projects like the Regional Rail Link, the biggest single federal investment in public transport infrastructure on record, in our history. It also delivered many projects of direct benefit to the agricultural sector. Take the Ipswich Motorway—in the shadow minister for immigration's area—which is making an enormous difference to the sector to the west of Brisbane, and making an incredible difference in the Lockyer Valley and other areas. There's also the Hunter Expressway, up to that pristine prime land up in the plains of New England and providing that linkage that's there. The reason those projects had high benefit-cost ratios was the freight that goes on those roads—much of it agricultural produce. These projects delivered real change by boosting productivity and helping farmers get their products to market, both domestic and internationally, more quickly.
The government talks about its commitment to agricultural producers but the fact is that its record when it comes to infrastructure investment which will benefit the regions is very poor indeed, when you look at the underspends that are there. The promised spending in budgets on the Northern Australia Beef Roads Program was $145 million over recent years but the actual final budget outcome shows that just $56 million was expended. Sixty-one per cent of the funding was not used—underspent. For the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program, $292 million was promised but the actual delivered was $157 million—a 46 per cent underspend. For the Northern Australia Roads Program, the government committed in budgets, on budget night, $520 million but only $288 million was actually invested—a 44 per cent reduction. With the Bridges Renewal Program—so important to lift productivity in agricultural sectors to allow for goods to get to market—again, only $220 million of the $375 million that was committed in budgets was actually spent, which was a 41 per cent reduction.
Contrast that with what we did in government: creating the Regional Development Australia program; creating the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program; committing to major road and rail infrastructure, including on the Bruce and Pacific highways; rebuilding one-third of the interstate rail freight network, making an enormous difference; and making the first serious investments in the Inland Rail project.
So we think that the government has got the detail of this wrong. We need proper guidelines and rigour, but we also need proper funding for it, because our farmers deserve that proper funding on its merits—not taking it from somewhere else, not taking it from Peter to pay Paul, but making sure that we actually deliver more investment.
I rise to speak on the Future Drought Fund Bill 2018 and related bill. When Scott Morrison became Prime Minister on 24 August 2018 he made it abundantly clear that one of his main priorities was to deal with the ongoing drought. He's shown great attention to that task and more latterly, I must say, he has also shown the same compassion, concern and urgency to finding ways to assist those in the north of Queensland affected by flood. He's to be congratulated.
While the government cannot control the weather, the government has delivered a strong suite of programs to assist farmers and farming communities to cope with the drought. For the first time, as far as I can remember, a government has recognised that drought impacts on more than just farmers. There's a significant effect on local businesses. I'm very pleased that Minister McKenzie was able to respond to my request and deliver $1 million of federal Drought Communities Program grants to 13 councils in my electorate of Grey and 17 in total in South Australia. Many of them have already received approval for their projects and are progressing quickly. These guarantees will help mitigate the severe ripple effects of the drought felt in rural communities and stimulate their local economies.
For farmers directly, the government contributes across a wide range of programs, including farm management deposits, farm household assistance, the Rural Financial Counselling Service, concessional loans for drought and farm business development, assistance to benchmark properties to prepare for multiperil crop insurance and large increases in the resources for mental health services. The Liberal-National government recognises that farming keeps the country economy humming and our rural and regional communities vibrant. It has committed $7 billion in new assistance for drought affected farmers.
This kind of expenditure is unpredictable, generally not budgeted for and presents a real test to any budget. So far, the government has been focusing on addressing the effects of the current drought, and that is right and appropriate. However, also exercising our minds is how we prepare better for droughts in the future and how we build resilience for the long term. We all know that Australia is the land of droughts and flooding plains. As sure as night follows day, when this drought is over, another one will come.
This bill addresses that challenge and will establish the Future Drought Fund and will provide an additional credit of $3.9 billion, which will grow until it reaches $5 billion. Through this fund, funding to the tune of $100 million a year will be available for drought resilience initiatives, while the balance is reinvested in the fund. The Future Drought Fund builds drought resilience through long-term investment in our communities, which will enable our $60 billion farming industry to continue to flourish.
The money from the fund will assist primary producers, non-government organisations and regional communities to prepare for and respond to the impact of drought. It will encourage primary producers, non-government organisations and regional communities to adopt self-reliant approaches to manage exposure to drought. It will provide services and research; assist in the adoption of technology advice and infrastructure to support long-term sustainability in the event of drought, through capital and ongoing initiatives; and enhance the public good—that is, the benefits are not solely for the individual farm entities.
In short, the Future Drought Fund will deliver infrastructure projects, promote the adoption of new technology and help improve environmental and natural resource management on farms. The fund will help give our farmers and regional communities the tools to prepare for, manage and sustain their businesses through drought. It is a far better proposition to invest in resilience than to have to provide bandaids. It is far better for farmers to be able to withstand drought than to have to rely on assistance. It's far better to invest in stronger communities so that they are able to deal with the pressures of drought than to have to resuscitate. Since we know that the challenges of drought vary from farm to farm, district to district and town to town, the fund has flexibility to support local solutions to ensure that we continually adapt and build our capacity in all of our drought-prone communities.
Regrettably, instead of playing a constructive role in helping our farming communities, Labor have continued their long history of attacks on country people. Many of our farming communities clearly remember how Labor butchered the agricultural policies when they were last in government. They haven't improved a lot since then. Once again, they have decided to play politics with the future of our farming communities. Under normal circumstances I would find the behaviour by Labor regrettable; but in the middle of an unprecedented drought, when farmers are at their most vulnerable, it is simply deplorable and destructive. Labor is, as their wont, just playing for cheap political points. What we're trying to do on this side of the House is to establish the long-term solution, a proper preparation for the future.
Among other things, and as the previous speaker has said, Labor have claimed that this important investment in drought resilience is at the expense of important road and rail projects, many of which will benefit our farmers and regional communities. That is absolutely false. Our investment in infrastructure is at record levels. As for the Building Australia Fund, they would learn with just a very small amount of effort that the fund holds $3.9 billion—that is correct—but that all the commitments under the fund have been completed and accounts finalised. There are no more payments required. That's why we're shifting the balance to the Future Drought Fund.
The government has also been accused of raiding the NDIS to shore up the money for the fund, and this too is false. The government had previously suggested that the $3.9 billion sitting idle in the Building Australia Fund be used to fund the NDIS, but, because of opposition from Labor in the Senate, this suggestion never came to fruition. The member Grayndler, just a few moments ago, was complaining about the use of this fund to establish the Future Drought Fund. I have a memory from 2007, when Labor came to government. There was $2 billion in a regional telecommunications fund, the interest of which was to fund the rolling out of new technologies across regional and rural Australia. That is the money that should've been used through the six years of Labor government to actually fund a mobile phone blackspot program, but they chose not to invest. So when the member for Grayndler talks about his care and compassion for rural and regional areas and lists off all the ways that his government—should they be elected—will assist rural and regional Australia, I'm drawn back to that time when we had $2 billion confiscated and put into Kevin Rudd's first attempt at an NBN. It was going to be a $4 billion program. That money, that $100 million to $200 million a year should still be there; it should still be funding the rollout of blackspot towers in rural and regional Australia, but it's not. So their record is not good in this area.
To return to the NDIS, because of the strongly improved budget fortunes brought about by the government, with responsible economic and fiscal management we have instead secured the future of the NDIS through alternative funding. That's a great outcome. It's the same NDIS that Labor left only half funded when it was ousted from office. We can therefore repurpose the funding from the Building Australia Fund without curtailing critical infrastructure projects and without affecting the funding for the NDIS. I strongly encourage Labor to put aside their party politics and support this important bill, to enable farmers and entire communities to droughtproof for that future by supporting them to invest in on-farm water infrastructure and other important infrastructure in rural and regional areas.
Labor does not support the Future Drought Fund Bill 2018, because it does not go far enough; it takes too long to deliver results and it will gut the Building Australia Fund. That's the simple truth. We don't support this bill because it doesn't do enough. Labor proposes an alternative approach that will see money released to more disaster affected communities sooner, and which, critically, does not endanger the vital work undertaken by the Building Australia Fund.
A Labor Shorten government will also help farmers build defences to drought, lift productivity and secure sustainable profitability while also—I emphasise this—building road and rail infrastructure. On this side of the House, we will not raid the Building Australia Fund. We know how vital it is. Yes, New South Wales and Queensland have been ravaged by a long drought and, yes, those communities require assistance. They have required assistance for some time, and we have been in lock step with measures by this parliament to support them, including backing reforms to the Farm Household Allowance, increasing the farm asset threshold, and the Farm Management Deposit Scheme. No-one can be in any doubt that Labor supports drought affected communities.
But as we've seen with the Townsville floods and the Tasmanian bushfires, there is much more to natural disaster in Australia than drought. This bill to create the Future Drought Fund fails at the first hurdle, because it restricts funding to people affected only by drought, locking out many across regional Australia whose livelihoods are just as affected by other natural disasters.
This bill sets out a broad definition for drought resilience projects as being to enhance resilience, preparedness and responsiveness as well as management of exposure to drought, adaptation to the impact of drought, recovery from drought, and the long-term drought related sustainability of farms and communities. In and of themselves, these are laudable goals, but there's more to natural disasters in Australia than drought. Each year from 2020, $100 million will be transferred from the Future Drought Fund to an agriculture future drought resilience account, which the agriculture minister will then tap for drought resilience projects—not bad, except 2021 is a bit late for farmers who require assistance right now. And the requirement that the minister have regard to advice from the Regional Investment Corporation is just weird. The RIC is one of those National Party lovefests. Does the RIC have particular specialised knowledge in drought resilience? If so, we haven't been told how. What is it bringing to the table that existing agencies and experts cannot?
It has to be said that this bill comes off the back of the government's failure to release a revised intergovernmental agreement on drought reform and years of failure in this area. The Prime Minister held a drought summit in October, where he announced the fund on the morning of the summit—before the talking began. That is symptomatic of this government—policy on the run, and politically driven, after six years of failure on the issues of drought resilience and climate change policy.
Labor support the objectives of the Future Drought Fund; we just believe it doesn't go far enough. We believe the mechanism to resource it—by raiding the Building Australia Fund—cannot be supported and that there may not be enough safeguards to ensure that it doesn't become just another National Party slush fund. This bill will have a shameful impact on the Building Australia Fund, a fund whose explicit purpose is to finance critical infrastructure, much of it across regional Australia. The government are playing a shell game here. They want to create the Future Drought Fund by gutting the Building Australia Fund. It's not new money. The Liberals are taking $3.9 billion from a fund that has a proven track record of financing critical infrastructure across regional Australia and putting it into another fund. It will mean the end of the BAF, established in 2008 by Labor, which has financed road and rail networks, and broadband and telecommunications connections. Critically, the BAF follows the recommendations and advice of experts. That's why the Liberals and their friends in the National Party hate it. It's not a pork barrel they can stick their snouts into and use to reward their mates or sandbag their marginals. It's an infrastructure fund that provides infrastructure where it's needed, not because the local MP is in trouble or because the local mayor is a mate and wants a road named after him. That's why they want it gone and why they've tried a few times since 2013 to knock it on the head. It's shameful, absolutely shameful, that they're trying to kill the BAF this time under the cover of providing drought relief for suffering farmers.
Let's look at this government's history. We have a drought envoy, the member for New England, who's spent much of his time since 2013 being the Minister for Agriculture and the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, until his fall from grace last year. Why did he not use the authority of his office as a minister of the Crown and Deputy Prime Minister to do something about disaster relief? Why is it all here in a rush now, six years into their term of government, when over there we have a man who has been, for about five years of this government, Deputy Prime Minister? Warren Truss may have been the minister before that, but, for a good portion of the time, Barnaby Joyce, the member for New England, has been a senior member of the government. Yet nothing was done during his tenure. We know that what the member for New England did do as minister was abolish the Standing Council on Primary Industries, the COAG committee on agricultural matters which had in its orbit the intergovernmental agreement on drought policy reform.
This summer has been particularly hostile to Australia, with extreme weather gripping the country. We've seen more than 200,000 hectares of land, just over three per cent of Tasmania's surface area, burned in my state in recent bushfires. Sadly, it's the second bushfire of this nature to hit my home in a few years. It's gutted many of the communities in my state and largely been started naturally by more than 2,400 lightning strikes hitting Tasmania without rain—dry lightning strikes. The fires, some of which are still burning along, despite the cooler weather, are expected to burn and smoulder for at least another month. They've burned unique Tasmanian landscapes and they not only have damaged the state's natural heritage in my electorate, that of my colleague the member for Braddon and also of our colleague the member for Franklin, but also are impacting on our tourism and, importantly, destroying environments that have been growing untouched for centuries.
Queensland, on the other hand, is under water. Townsville, with a population of 180,000, has been hit by a monsoon strengthened by a low-pressure front resulting in an unprecedented 1½ metres of rain in less than two weeks. I saw on the news this morning that Birdsville is about to be under water. It hasn't seen rain in ages. The rain is destroying homes; is causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to property and public infrastructure, resulting in the deaths of at least two men; and has totally disrupted the Townsville community.
Elsewhere across Australia, particularly in eastern Australia, there is drought, but drought's not the only natural disaster. This Future Drought Fund doesn't help people affected by flood and doesn't help people affected by bushfire. The whole of New South Wales was declared to be in drought in the latter half of 2018, so it's clear that this drought, as we all know, is one of the worst in Australian history. Those on this side of the House stand with those communities. We know they need relief, and they need relief now, not in a year's time. But they're not the only ones who need relief. We need a long-term plan, a long-term fund, for this country that doesn't gut an essential fund that's already in place that funds infrastructure. If we're going to have a long-term natural disaster relief fund, let's make sure it covers more than just drought. It's so important.
There's no doubt that the climate is growing more challenging for our farmers, and drought can no longer be viewed as an exceptional event. A hotter and drier environment should be considered the new normal, and Labor believes there is a role for government in helping farmers adapt to changing weather patterns. This means that, in addition to in-drought policy responses, government must lead the resilience and productivity agenda. That's what we will do in government. It won't just be about drought—we will lead a resilience and productivity agenda about natural disaster. But the policy development must be evidence based and guided by known science. It should focus on a whole-of-industry, productivity and resilience-building agenda. Policies with too great a focus on those farm businesses which are least viable in the hottest and driest of periods can risk being most defined by resource misallocation. It's important that any future response by government takes that into account. It's a hard truth, but we need to take it into account.
These are ambitious goals, and they will not be achieved by this government's proposal, which does appear, on the face of it, to be designed to create a National Party slush fund. There's no other reason I can think of for why this government and their friends in the Nationals have been so determined to get rid of the Building Australia Fund. They've tried a number of times to knock it on the head by finding other purposes for that money, but that money does vital work building infrastructure across Australia, and it's evidence based infrastructure. It's not infrastructure for mates, for your friends on the local council, to prop up your marginal seat or to do a bit of pork-barrelling for the election; it's infrastructure for the right reasons that's evidence based. We know that's why you on the other side don't like it—you have a real problem with that sort of fund. It's the sort of fund Labor is committed to. We could be like them. We could decide, 'Let's just pork-barrel the place and look after our own interests,' but we don't do that. We're not here to look after our own interests. We're here to look after the nation's interests. It's something those opposite sometimes fail to remember and fail to understand.
Importantly, Labor commits to matching the government's funding commitment to the Future Drought Fund, but we will not raid the Building Australia Fund to do it, and we will not wait until 2020-21 to take the decisions on spending measures. We will design policy initiatives for the entire sector based on expert advice ahead of 2020. We will establish a panel of guardians for the farm productivity and sustainable profitability fund. These guardians will advise government on policy design and implementation strategies. We will establish this panel within the first 60 days of office and put it immediately to work. This panel will include a representative of the national farm leadership group, a leading soils and environmental science expert, a water projects and water efficiency expert, a leading economist, a soils advocate, a representative of a natural resource management group, the chair or CEO of the council of RDCs and the secretary of a relevant COAG committee. It will be a panel of experts, a panel of people grounded in science who know what they're talking about; not people who are looking out for themselves and their own political interests. That panel will report to the minister for agriculture and be asked to provide a detailed plan within 12 months.
We do stand here opposed to the government's bill. We stand with them on the need to do something; we just want it done sooner, for the same amount of money and with a better mechanism that will serve more Australians who are suffering from natural disasters. I don't want them getting up and saying, 'Labor's against drought-affected farmers!' Nothing could be further from the truth. We stand with drought-affected farmers and communities. We stand with communities affected by bushfire. We stand with communities affected by flood. It's not either/or; we're all in this together. Those opposite should take a good, hard think about that and, I would suggest, perhaps withdraw the bill and implement something much more akin to what Labor suggests should happen.
It gives me great pride to rise in the House today to support the Future Drought Fund Bill 2018. Before I start I'll just take the member for Lyons up on his comments about the National Party and it being a National Party slush fund. Well, I'm the Liberal member for O'Connor, and I'm very proud to be in the House today with the member for Groom and the member for Farrer, and I follow the member for Grey—all Liberals, all regional Liberals, that support and fight for our communities on a daily basis. Of course, the member for Farrer and the member for Groom would have many constituents in their electorates that are currently being dramatically impacted by the drought. I know that that takes an emotional toll on all of our communities, including on us as the representatives of those communities in this place.
The Future Drought Fund Bill establishes the Future Drought Fund, the Future Drought Fund Special Account and the Agriculture Future Drought Fund Resilience Special Account. The Future Drought Fund includes the Future Drought Fund Special Account, which I've just mentioned. The purpose of the Future Drought Fund (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2018 is to make consequential amendments to a number of existing statutes to extend the Future Fund's board's duties to include managing the Future Drought Fund and to allow for amounts to be transferred between the Future Drought Fund and the Future Fund. There are a fair bit of 'future funds' in there. The initial credit to the FDF Special Account will come from the transfer of the balance of Building Australia Fund, which is estimated to be $3.9 billion. The Future Drought Fund is expected to grow to $5 billion over time.
At the drought summit held in Canberra on 26 October 2018, the Prime Minister announced a package of new initiatives for drought relief, recovery and resilience, including the Future Drought Fund. A comprehensive drought response needs to be met for the immediate needs of those affected and to also look to the future to ensure that our agriculture sector is prepared and resilient. We can do this. Our government is establishing the Future Drought Fund with this initial allocation of $3.9 billion. The Future Drought Fund will provide a sustainable source of funding for drought resilience works preparedness and recovery. It's about helping farmers and their communities to prepare to adapt to the impact of drought. Through the fund, the government will draw down $100 million a year for projects, research and infrastructure to support long-term sustainability. This Future Drought Fund represents the latest in a long line of efforts by governments of all political persuasions to address the complex problems of ongoing drought and its social and economic effects.
Deputy Speaker Goodenough, as a proud Western Australian, as you are too, I want to mention the farmers of my electorate of O'Connor and the farmers across Western Australia generally. We don't have, in Western Australia, the severe droughts that we see occurring on a reasonably, unfortunately, regular basis across the east coast, but we do have pockets within my electorate that have been severely deficient of rainfall this year. But having said that, we have had a large harvest, the second-largest harvest on record by volume, and, actually, the most valuable harvest ever produced in Western Australia. Western Australian farmers do have, as I said, their difficulties, and certainly in the area around the Gardner River in my electorate there were some farmers who didn't harvest a crop this year. They've experienced the same sort of financial and emotional difficulty that many of our colleagues on the east coast have suffered.
I want to commend our farmers for their innovation. Western Australian farmers have been at the forefront in the development of no-till farming, which is a fantastic innovation which allows more of the available moisture to be used. It protects our soils, and it was developed by a farmer in my electorate—a very dear friend and someone who has made an enormous contribution and was recognised recently at an international science award in New York—Ray Harrington, the President of the Shire of Darkan. It was the Harrington knifepoint that was developed in the early 1990s that has basically revolutionised agriculture across Australia. As I say, it is the innovation of the farming community that will ultimately allow us to adapt to what is undoubtedly a drying climate and continue to produce record crops like we saw this year.
The existing measures that this government has introduced to allow people to prepare for drought include instant asset write-offs for fodder storage and water infrastructure. This is very important. Some of this infrastructure can cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars, and to be able to instantly write that off in a year of plenty, in a good year where there's a large tax liability on the farm business to be able to invest in important infrastructure to prepare for dry years and receive a tax deduction immediately, is of huge benefit to farm operations. I know that that will be very much appreciated.
Farm management deposits have been increased from $400,000 to $800,000 per partner in the business, and most farming operations, certainly across my electorate now, are multimillion-dollar businesses. I think that's an important initiative of the government to increase that threshold so that people can prepare financially for those more difficult years.
Another important initiative of the government was to allow interest earned on farm management deposits to be offset against loans against the farm business, and that's been very welcome where it's been able to be implemented across my electorate. We've also given farmers a hand up rather than a handout by extending the Farm Household Allowance scheme to make sure that they can keep food on their table and maintain their dignity in the most difficult times.
In my electorate of O'Connor, the government announced a $140 million water infrastructure project at the Wellington Dam late last year, which will see large amounts of water made available for the coastal plain and the horticultural areas down there, which is a very important project, particularly in the member for Forrest's electorate. But there's a particularly important scheme in my electorate, the Southern Forests Irrigation Scheme. This is based around the Southern Forests area of Manjimup, Pemberton. It is one of the richest, most fertile and most productive farming areas in, certainly, Western Australia, if not in Australia. They are producing some of the world's best horticultural products, particularly, most recently, avocadoes, which are a very lucrative crop. Unfortunately, in the South West of Western Australia the climate is drying. We've seen around a 30 per cent to 40 per cent drop in rainfall since 1960. The existing farm water infrastructure is struggling to keep up and to allow further development.
The Southern Forrest Irrigation Scheme is a project that is around $90 million. That has been funded partly by the owner contributions and partly by a commitment of the previous Western Australian government, which thankfully has been maintained up to date by the new Labor government in Western Australia. There is still $39 million that needs to be found to finish this project. I'm certainly hopeful that the Commonwealth government will be able to assist there through our water infrastructure fund, but this is the sort of project that could be funded by the Future Drought Fund. This particular project will droughtproof the Southern Forests area, and that's particularly important.
Disgracefully, though, I heard today that the state Minister for Regional Development, Alannah MacTiernan, has given the proponents a deadline of June or she will withdraw the state government funding. That is holding a gun to their head, and it is very disappointing. The Commonwealth government granted $1 million late last year for the proponents to complete their planning and complete their approvals—I'm not sure that that process is absolutely finished yet—and yet the state minister is threatening to withdraw the money that has been promised and committed. That is a major blow to those good people down in the Southern Forests.
The second project that I think would fit very, very neatly into the Future Drought Fund program would be the Ravensthorpe-Esperance barrier fence. This is a 700-kilometre fence that would separate the very productive farmland along that south coastal strip between Ravensthorpe and Esperance from the Great Western Woodlands, where we now have a lot of native animals and vermin that are coming into the agricultural areas and causing a lot of problems. The fence is 700 kilometres. It will be emu-proof and dog-proof.
The previous Liberal-National government in Western Australia had committed $7 million to this $11 million project. The Ravensthorpe and Esperance shires have contributed $1.5 million. There's still another $2 million to complete this project. The environmental approvals have been granted for this project, but they are being appealed. I would like to add that, throughout this process, the Commonwealth has been making contributions of up to $3.5 million for dog control.
I take this opportunity to urge Western Australian Minister MacTiernan to allow the proponents of the barrier fence to get on and start building it. It's going to take three years to construct the fence. In the meantime, we will find the extra $2 million from somewhere to complete the fence. Of course, this would be an ideal project for the Future Drought Fund. When there are drought conditions in the rangelands, that's when the feral animals—the camels, the emus and the wild dogs—migrate into the agricultural areas and cause enormous damage.
I say to Minister MacTiernan: please, allow the proponents to get building. Let's get 500 kilometres or 600 kilometres of the fence built, and we'll find the money somewhere. Ultimately, the money might come from the Future Drought Fund to complete it. That is the purpose of this fund; it is to make money available to invest in these sorts of projects in between droughts—not while a drought is happening but in between droughts—to prepare the communities and the agricultural sector for the inevitable droughts that will come. We know that. We live in a country of droughts and flooding plains. I would like to conclude by commending this bill to the House.
I think it's pretty unfair when we have this banter in this place, or if it's outside, where one side says the other doesn't care about farmers or that we don't care about farmers in drought. I think that really needs to stop. I come from a regional area of Tasmania that has suffered significant bushfires because of very dry conditions. I have a very agricultural electorate; some of the members opposite have been to my electorate—not many, but some. My whole state is regional, if you want to look at it that way, and, sadly, a large part of my state has been the victim of bushfires.
I think this is where this Future Drought Fund Bill 2018 is lacking, because it just looks at drought. In previous, recent, years, a lot of my farmers have been dealing with drought conditions, but they've also been dealing with floods. We know what's going on in Northern Queensland, and I think we need to look at a way to assist our farmers that is not just restricted to drought. There is a better way. I think it's absolutely appalling that this government is using the BAF—the Building Australia Fund—to fund something that is quite narrow, because that fund assists infrastructure building in regional communities like mine. These are significant projects which really help regional Australia move; whether it's the high-value product that comes out of our regional economies and regional communities, it's supporting jobs in that way. So there is a better way, and Labor has a better way.
I heard some of the contributions that have been made, and I did feel a little sad when I heard the comments made by the member for Hunter about the most recent years under the previous Minister for Agriculture, the member for New England—I guess, his laziness and incompetence as a minister. I know this from personal experience, because when my farmers were going through issues—you couldn't even bear to talk to them because the dairy crisis was so heartwrenching—I called out to that minister. There were no party politics involved and no strings attached. I invited that minister to come to my state to meet with my farmers. They had been through a drought as well, they were doing it really tough, and that minister at that time ignored my pleas and requests.
I think that's a very bad reflection on him. The member for Hunter can probably talk for days about the incompetence of that minister and where we are now. That minister didn't really lay very good ground to support our farmers over the past few years, and we are where we are now with not a lot actually happening to support them. I have to say that I have more hope for the new agriculture minister. He has been to my state maybe once. He is more than welcome to come to Tasmania, and I have asked him to meet with my farmers—particularly my dairy farmers—to speak with them directly. Again, that is with no strings attached; just come to my state. One of the things that I was once told was that National Party members were not allowed in the state of Tasmania. Well, we have a National Party senator now, and I understand that the National Party has preselected National Party candidates, even against Liberal Party candidates. That is quite extraordinary, to say the least. So I'm sure the new Minister for Agriculture is more than welcome to come to Tasmania.
What we have seen are a number of policy failures by this government which have had a real consequence at the coalface, where farming families have been struggling through drought, flood and fire, and also that dairy price clawback that we saw in 2016. Those things come with massive financial and human costs, and it just breaks your heart to talk to these farmers. I'd like to take this opportunity to put on the record my tribute to services like Rural Business Tasmania and Rural Alive & Well, who have done so much for farming families, not just in my electorate but across the state of Tasmania.
In many ways, Tasmania is blessed with an abundance of water. We have one per cent of Australia's land mass but, on average, 13 per cent of the rainfall. It doesn't rain every day, but on most days it does in one part of our state. But we do have a problem as to where the rain actually falls. I've said this a number of times, and I don't quite know if people believe me when I say it, but Hobart is actually the second-driest capital city in Australia, outside Perth. The east coast and the Midlands, in the electorate of Lyons, are in the rain shadow, with the majority of rain falling on the west coast and the north-west coast, which is in my electorate; hence we have so many wonderful dams. On the north-west coast, farming is different to what you see in Bourke or Coonamble. But when there is a dry season or successive dry seasons, the dams dry up, the irrigators stop pumping and the consequences are the same for our farmers.
A positive for Tasmanian farmers has been the success of state and federal Labor irrigation projects. I stress that it was Labor who invested in our irrigation projects in Tasmania which completely transformed agriculture in our state, and even the landscape has been absolutely astonishing. I'll have more to say about the role irrigation plays in Tasmania for our farmers. As I've said, Tasmania's not immune to drought. I'm not sure why, but drought in Tasmania does not seem to fall on the radar of those opposite. Maybe it's because they don't have any Tasmanian representatives in this House; hopefully it will stay that way, because the Labor representatives here are always supporting our farmers and always talking about what we can do to help them in times of need.
The spring of 2015 was the hottest and driest on record. The dry was followed by, again, bushfires in the summer of 2016 which were then, as I've mentioned, followed by the dairy price clawbacks. And just as night follows day, the drought was broken with the devastating floods of 2016, where, sadly, a few lives were lost in my community. In recent weeks, Tasmanian farmers and also the forestry sector have again been hit with devastating, devastating bushfires. Throughout 2015 and 2016, the coalition were nowhere to be seen. During the dairy crisis, as I said, that minister I invited did not come. But we spoke to those farmers and we've continued to speak to those farmers. It's really pleasing today to have the member for Hunter, our shadow agricultural minister, announce support for our dairy farmers with a floor price to make sure they are going to start making money. And that's really, really important.
The member for Hughes and his friend—I might just point out, there's a number of members on the opposite side talking about today—the member for Warringah are absolutely non-believers in climate change. I think they may still be debating whether the earth is flat or round. I think there are some sceptics as well on the opposite benches because it is not something we hear about from them when we are talking about climate change. I'd like to refer those sceptics when we're seeing these extreme weather events, not just drought but also flood. Let's just remember, it's not just about the warming planet; it's about these extreme weather events that really hit our farmers hard.
I want to put on record an article that was published by Wayne Johnston, who is president of the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association, the TFGA. It was published in last week's edition of Tasmanian Country. It's really important to put this on Hansard. It said:
Fundamentally, one of the key pillars of farming is the weather. We plant to the seasons, we harvest to the seasons, and our success depends upon having reliable and consistent weather patterns.
Anyone farming in Tasmania knows that these fundamentals can no longer be relied upon.
In the past five seasons alone we have seen some of the wettest and the driest and some of the hottest conditions this state has experienced in living memory.
No one farming community in Tasmania is under any illusions about the fact that our climate is changing and the impact on our capacity to produce food is very real.
Accepting climate change has never really been the issue.
It is high time we have some sensible conversations around this issue not only for the present, but for our children and grandchildren's sake.
It does not serve anyone, or the community, for this issue to remain as politicised as it is.
The risks to agriculture alone are significant. Modelling suggests that rainfall patterns and existing seasons will alter.
This alone will directly impact on what we grow and where we grow it.
The biosecurity risks associated with a change in climate are in many ways the most significant. Invasive species such as weeds and animals will find it easier to establish in a warming Tasmanian climate.
And let's not forget the fruit fly issue we had in my electorate in particular; that's because of our warming climate. The TFGA get it that climate change is real. They get it that we will have more extreme weather events. And they get that drought will become more prevalent. It was really pleasing today for me today to attend the launch of a new group, an alliance that was launched in parliament today, Climate Proofing Australia. It is a conservation and industry led alliance of organisations committed to advancing the role of agribusiness, conservation and natural resource management in Australia's climate change and emissions reduction policy. And it was pleasing that the agricultural minister attended this. The members are the Australian Forest Products Association, Farmers For Climate Action, Greening Australia and the Red Meat Advisory Council. They are concerned about climate change and what it means for our farmers. I think it's important that those opposite really get involved with this organisation if they truly believe they represent farmers. That's a very pleasing initiative that the farming community and other industries are taking.
We do welcome the fact that the government has finally woken up to the need to do more to address drought. But, typically, this bill is smoke and mirrors. On the one hand, the Prime Minister wants to be seen to be doing something, but, on the other, the future drought fund which this bill proposes to establish won't come into effect until the year 2020-21. Farmers could be waiting for over two years for any support to help them adapt and tackle drought. This bill does not address the long-term policy and planning that is needed to assist our farmers and rural communities to manage drought.
This side of the House thinks that we can do better. We've already given bipartisan support to the government to increase the farm asset threshold from $2.6 million to $5 million, to increase the Farm Management Deposits scheme to $800,000, to increase the Farm Household Allowance extension from three years to four years and to provide additional supplementary Farm Household Allowance payments of up to $12,000 for eligible allowance recipients. Those are just some of the things, and there have been a lot of issues prior to that. We've had to have massive arguments in this place just to get some support for farmers.
Do they think farmers in financial crisis deserve face-to-face support or do they think they should be tied up for hours on end on the phone? That's one of the issues we heard about with the Farm Household Allowance system. The level that these farmers went through was just absolutely ridiculous, and some actually gave up. I've spoken in this place around what that's meant for some of the farmers who were trying to get some assistance, particularly through the dairy crisis. It was just extraordinary.
I want to move now to irrigation projects. I heard the member for New England taking credit for irrigation projects in Tasmania. I mean, seriously! And he had a crack at the member for Lyons, who was sitting in the chamber, saying that he didn't support irrigation. I want to take this House back quite a while. This started under a state Labor government over 10 or 15 years ago, when we started Tasmanian Irrigation. We've had successive irrigation projects rolled out in my state, and they have been funded by Labor. The tranches that were then subsequently funded by this government, which we had to argue for and lobby for—even the state Liberal government had to put pressure on the government to fund it—were all Labor initiatives. For the previous Deputy Prime Minister to say that we don't support irrigation is just utter nonsense, and it's actually quite offensive. It's not just offensive to the Labor members in this place but also offensive to the Labor members of the state parliament, current and former. It's also offensive to the farmers who have invested their own money in those schemes—absolutely offensive! Every single irrigation project that is currently operational in Tasmania is a Labor project, funded and delivered by Labor or planned by Labor.
Those opposite talk up a big game when it comes to drought proofing through irrigation, but their record in Tasmania has been abysmal. Under this government, we have had almost six years of no action and no vision. We already know that they're not serious about climate change. I really do hope that changes, but I don't have a lot of hope, sadly. They can't agree on an energy policy, for starters. They are also not serious about irrigation in Tasmania, nor are they serious about boosting the productivity of, and value adding to, the agricultural sector.
Further evidence of the mismanagement of the decisions made by the previous member—there's a lot that he did that was not in the best interests of agriculture at all—is the abolition of the Standing Council on Primary Industries, or SCoPI. SCoPI was the COAG community for agricultural issues and was responsible for progressing the intergovernmental agreement on drought policy reform. It's so important to have that state and Commonwealth relationship. For the minister to abolish that was absolutely a terrible, terrible decision. The only people who got hurt in that were our farmers and our agricultural sector. That's something that I know that we will be supporting once we get back into government. I'm not sure which genius thought he could progress national drought policy without working with the states. That's the process to do that. (Time expired)
What an omnishambles of a response to an important policy measure this Labor Party response to our Future Drought Fund Bill 2018 is. I've listened with amazement. How could a group of people that purports to represent the whole country—our entire nation cares about drought—be about to vote against a bill that has an initial $3.9 billion investment, building to $5 billion, that will disperse $100 million a year to fund important water infrastructure and drought resilience projects, and that is carefully managed by a plan, a consultation process, published reviews and all the assurances you'd expect, and that includes encouraging farmers to adopt sustainable management practices? I don't know that anyone opposite would complain about the architecture of our Medical Research Future Fund, which is exactly the same as this drought fund. I can't believe it. I'm sure it won't happen that people in the Labor Party will come into this place and vote against this bill. Because if you've represented rural Australia for as long as I have—and I'm not the only one who has; there is the minister at the table and others on the benches behind me—you absolutely understand that one of the things that farmers talk about all the time is sustainability of support and funding. Sustainability of support and funding means that, when a crisis hits, and we know that it will—whether it be drought, flood or other circumstances such as, in my electorate in particular, the lack of irrigation water—there is a fund, there is a measured approach and the money is there. We can't always trust Labor when they're managing the economy to have the money there. So let's set this fund up now, and let's give our farmers the confidence to know that there is a safety net there for them. It matters a great deal.
I would like to take this opportunity to talk about how the drought is affecting my electorate of Farrer. Like many other parts of the country, we're running out of water—water for stock and water that normally falls from the sky and irrigates dryland cropping. But the biggest hurt that we're experiencing in the Murray-Darling Basin is the lack of irrigation water. Every season is different, but there's no argument that this one is shaping up to be the worst. We know that the basin is the life blood of so many of the communities in the New South Wales Murray and Murrumbidgee valleys. This area is the food bowl of our nation.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is meant to be about governments working with the people to make sure that farmers and regions are viable and sustainable, the sorts of things that the Future Drought Fund Bill is going to do. But the circumstances in my electorate are not happy. There is a water allocation crisis and the use of environmental water has left many angry and frustrated. When we see environmental water used to good effect, there's a positive return to everyone—we love it—but that has been lacking. What is needed is a stronger and more meaningful engagement with communities, with a focus on improving the plan and reflecting on how it might better look after our needs, and that means for everyone in every community in the basin, and the environment as well.
In August last year, I spoke about the desperation expressed by so many in my electorate struggling with the drought, with zero water allocations and with so many different issues and problems. Drought is felt by all in regional Australia. Some are saying up to 300 positions are being impacted by the SunRice restructure. The rice mill in Deniliquin is, effectively, closed down because there is no rice being grown. Workers and families are in pretty desperate straits. Low water allocations and high water prices are to blame. Water buybacks have been a catastrophe. The Labor Party spent $2.2 billion on non-strategic, non-targeted buybacks, with a devastating effect. Buybacks have never been Liberal or National Party policy. While in opposition, I gained a commitment from then opposition leader Tony Abbott, which was later legislated, to ensure that this type of buyback—in fact, any buyback—would never happen again. In 2015, the Water Amendment Bill imposed a 1,500-gigalitre statutory limit on Commonwealth buybacks. At the time, we moved an amendment to make sure that farm infrastructure expenditure could not be used for buybacks.
I'm terribly disappointed, because it was bipartisan—and we have heard Labor Party members talk about the bipartisan nature of the plan—but unfortunately it is not bipartisan any longer. Under pressure, wriggling around in almost the final fortnight of this parliament, Labor have introduced a private member's bill, I understand, and have certainly stated that it's their policy to lift the cap on buybacks, thus signalling to a group of their supporters—who clearly do not live, work, raise a family and depend on the basin for their future—that somehow they have better environmental credentials than we do. So the bipartisanship on the Basin Plan is unravelling rapidly before our very eyes, and this worries me enormously. It worries me because it really is the last straw for us. If that buyback cap goes, then any remaining shred of credibility that this plan has in the communities that I represent goes with it. And, I have to say, I'll stand with them at that point in time.
Last year, when Labor were playing silly games in the Senate about a disallowance motion for the northern basin, I had conversations with state ministers about New South Wales, my state, exiting the plan, because we could see what was starting to happen—the same thing that's starting to happen now, with Labor crab-walking away from a previous commitment. I went on a long trip around my electorate and asked everyone, 'What do you want me to do?' and the response was: 'Stick with the plan, stay with it. We know it's not perfect. We know the damage is done, but we also know that it's there for everyone in the basin, and everyone doesn't always agree with us.' So there was an extremely positive, or, I should say, constructive—they were not always positive about the plan; how could they be?—approach at that point in time. So we stuck with the plan. That was what my communities wanted me to do.
I suggested that we work up a system where environmental water that wasn't used in the current watering season be allocated to farmers to save their crops, and that hit a wall of bureaucracy between state and federal organisations, not least the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. I was very disappointed by that. I know that it could have saved some of those crops.
I'm calling for an assessment of allocations and entitlements, something that is very much focused at the New South Wales level but does need to happen because we are seeing a reduction in yield on delivery entitlements. So, if you have lost water, sold water, been bought out and you're still farming and you have some delivery entitlements, you've got an expectation of a general security allocation, which means you don't get all the water all the time—we understand that—but your yield will be of a certain value. It allows you to plan and invest, and it maintains the value of your asset, your farm, your livelihood. But that yield is falling, and something is not right.
We need, therefore, to bring to this all the data and all the expertise, independently. We're an open book to anyone who wants to come and examine our circumstances, because I know they'll find that the experiences that I talk about in parliament are the experiences that are happening each and every day; they're real, they're not imagined and they're really, really hurting us. There are catastrophes that hit, like drought and fire, and my communities hurt with those communities. But they also want some attention, because the slow strangulation that they're experiencing unfortunately only ends in one place. So there is a level of emergency about this. We've got an election in New South Wales, and, with that as a backdrop, our New South Wales water minister was in Griffith last night, I understand, and gave people a lot of heart by saying, 'If that 1,500-gigalitre cap goes, Canberra Labor Party people, we in New South Wales will have to seriously consider withdrawing from the plan.'
I'm now being approached by many who have voluntarily given their lives to this cause—because it's pretty complicated when you're talking about water; explaining it to people who don't live in the basin, trying to get your message heard, trying to gather the necessary information to really make your case—and there is a strong initiative to pause the plan. From where we were in August last year, we've come a long way, but unfortunately it's a long way in the wrong direction. I understand it. I feel complete sympathy with that point of view. People are saying, 'We must pause the plan, because look what it's doing to us.' When I look at the long list of people who have signed on to this and see significant local government regions, significant industries and individuals all in that frame of mind, I just want to say to them: I stand with you. Because you know what? If you stand for everything, as Labor does, you stand for nothing. What's wrong with coming into this parliament to talk about drought in this bill and to talk about regional policy in another bill, and acknowledging that the Murray-Darling Basin is the food bowl of our nation? They are not just pretty words. They mean that our contribution to the national accounts, to our export industries, to feeding our people, feeding our nearest neighbours, feeding the world and building our foundations in agricultural trade are very much in the regions that I represent.
We want people to look closely at what's happening and to recognise that, as I said before, while it isn't a fire and it isn't a flood, and you don't see, necessarily, starving stock in a paddock, you do see paddocks that should be green and growing with food and fibre that have nothing and, unfortunately, are facing the prospect of three seasons of zero allocation. Can you imagine what that means? That means three growing seasons where you've no income, and sometimes you go backwards.
Consider if you're a dairy farmer. I thank our Agriculture Minister for the supportive comments he made and the steps he's making towards addressing the needs of dairy farmers. Dairy farmers in my electorate who rely on irrigation water are going backwards by about $1,000 a cow a year. So if you milk 500 cows—that's a fairly moderate number—you're losing $500,000. Imagine getting up every day and going to work knowing that's what you're going to lose. We, in the Murray-Darling Basin, want to play our part—work constructively, talk to governments, talk to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and talk to the Environmental Water Holder and work with them—to deliver the flexibility and the adaptability that we know the plan should contain and does contain, but the review, which I think is in 2026, is a little bit too far down the track.
Harold Clapham, from Mainland Finance Deniliquin, who's been working with my community, said to me this week, 'You are in fact looking at the gravest manifestation of the failure of the plan, and it has divided regions, split communities, broken life-long friendships and destroyed totally all trust and goodwill in the political system.' When good friends of mine, who are moderate and careful and constructive, deliver that message to me, I know that this is really, really serious. Along with the communities of the New South Wales Murray and Murrumbidgee, the lower Darling, while not necessarily in the food bowl part of the basin, is really, really hurting. When I know that the attention of the nation is on all of us, I hope it comes clear that we, on this side of the parliament, understand your pain, feel what you're going through and desperately want to help you get to where you need to go. No-one wants to leave their farms. No-one wants to stop farming. No-one wants to have their children decide to grow up in another part of the country. We know that we can contribute enormously to this country's future.
Thank you to so many who've contributed so much to their communities in these tough times. Resilience is an easy word that gets bandied around here, but you really see it in action when there's drought and when people are struggling, particularly in small communities. I always say that great people come from small towns. There are some great people in my electorate of Farrer, and I want them to stay strong.
In my addressing this legislation tonight, the Future Drought Fund Bill 2018, I'd like to take the House through some of my concerns about the bill, look at the process of accountability for the minister in spending the dividend and outline areas where I will be making amendments. Secondly, I would like to talk about the missed opportunity in this bill for the government to resolve its thinking about our regional communities and the lack of opportunity to give voice to, listen to and act on the priorities for rural and regional communities.
The purpose of these Future Drought Fund bills appears to be relatively straightforward: to establish a Future Drought Fund that will support drought resilience measures into the future. It talks of an investment of $3.6 billion that will return a dividend of $100 million a year from July 2020, next year, with that dividend to be spent on drought resilience measures as the minister sees fit so long as they are consistent with the drought resilience funding plan. Colleagues, while I support the intent of the bill, I feel the bill was rushed out to meet the drought summit time line. I feel it's loosely drafted and does not represent good governance and, in its current form, I'm unable to support the bill.
Consequently, I will be moving amendments to the bill in the consideration in detail stage. In these amendments I will cover the operations of the fund, to make it more transparent, and propose that the minister becomes accountable to the parliament for spending, that we see good governance designed into the development of the plan and that proper process is followed in the expenditure of the dividends. The amendments I propose pick up the concerns raised by the Scrutiny of Bills Committee, by the Senate committee inquiry into the bill and by the proposed improvements recommended by the National Farmers Federation as part of that inquiry—no small group of people to support me in my amendments.
Let me talk about the process of accountability. As it currently stands, the bill lacks accountability to the parliament. It gives all the power to the minister, and there are no checks and balances—that minister can basically just say, 'Trust me.' The minister has the power to spend $100 million a year on loosely defined drought resilience objectives, as long as the spend is consistent with the drought resilience funding plan. The only check on this consistency is by the government's Regional Investment Corporation. The government's Regional Investment Corporation is a bank. The drought resilience funding plan guiding this investment will be developed by the government's department and it currently only involves a 20-day consultation period with the community. So $100 million a year, a complex plan, and all we get are bankers to oversee it.
The drought resilience funding plan will be reviewed every four years, but there's no mechanism in the review to check its effectiveness. In fact, there's no mechanism anywhere to account for effectiveness and delivery. The drought resilience funding plan is to be a legislative instrument, but it's not disallowable. So parliament is not able to disagree with the minister. The parliament will have no opportunity to hold the minister to account for the content of the plan. So, after this bill is passed, the only chance the parliament will have to review the effectiveness of the fund would be a review after 10 years of operation. But, even then, as the bill is drafted, the report is not required to be tabled in the parliament or published. So, after 10 years of population, it can be reviewed, but the review doesn't have to be published.
All Australians should be concerned by the lack of transparency and accountability of $100 million a year. I'm concerned, and it's not just me that's concerned—though, clearly, it's pretty important that I am, given that this is my background and my interest. In preparing for tonight's debate, we connected with that wonderful group called the National Farmers Federation—not exactly a radical socialised group supporting government expenditure. In their input to the Senate committee inquiry, the NFF raised concerns about the funding plan and expenditure. They wanted the views of drought and related issues experts incorporated—so not just bankers; let's have someone involved who gets rural and regional Australia. As member for Farrer just said, let's have someone who actually understands agriculture. The NFF recommended that the bill be amended to establish a future drought fund consultative committee and, at the very least, to get some professional agricultural rural knowledge and skill into the process. I agree, and I'll be proposing that this committee be established as part of the process.
I would also like to briefly talk about some of the recommendations from Standing Committee on the Scrutiny of Bills. What a wonderful thing this is—a standing committee on the scrutiny of bills. They talk about broad discretionary powers, and they basically say that 'the expenditure should be subject to at least some level of parliamentary scrutiny'—at least some level; I agree. The committee went on to say, 'In this regard, the committee is concerned that the bill contains no guidance on its face as to the terms or conditions that would be attached to the financial assistance granted.' So that's pretty interesting, and I would say, 'Well, what's the role for parliament here?' I will be moving some amendments along those lines. The committee also talks about merits review and says:
So we've got no idea about what the merits are of the people who get the grant and of the minister who spends $100 million, other than a plan that's been approved by a banking organisation. So there's no link in there at all to how agricultural outcomes or drought resilience will be achieved. Further, the report of the committee stated:
The committee's consistent view is that significant matters relating to a legislative scheme, such as how grants and agreements under the relevant scheme are to be administered, should be included in primary legislation (or at least in legislative instruments subject to parliamentary disallowance and sunsetting) unless a sound justification for using non-disallowable delegated legislation is provided.
That certainly has not been provided in this legislation. The report continued:
The committee requests the minister's advice as to why it is considered necessary and appropriate to confer on the Agriculture Minister a broad power to make grants of financial assistance, in the absence of any guidance on the face of the bill as to how this power is to be exercised.
I agree. There's more in that report, but I won't spend all my time talking about it. It is well worth a read.
I would like to talk about the issues that we have. I have to say that it is not just me that thinks that there are problems here; there's a large body of people who think that we could do better and we should do better. I will be moving amendments to the bill proposing that we look at a review mechanism; that we look at checks and balances and expenditure; and that we look to the Productivity Commission to become involved to address the effectiveness of it. The review would occur, ideally, before the plan is reviewed every four years, so that review can then be considered as part of the renewal. I will also ask in my amendments that the Productivity Commission be asked to review the effectiveness of the fund having regard to economic outcomes but also social and environment outcomes. All of us know that drought affects the economy, it affects the environment, and it affects the communities. So we've got to look at how this money is actually used across those three areas.
Colleagues, I'd briefly like to talk about the amendments, but I'd also like to talk about a missed opportunity in this legislation—and not only the poor governance aspect of it. What a golden opportunity for rural and regional Australia this is—$100 million a year and the idea of a plan. If we can get a consultative committee in place, what a difference this money could make to our communities. But if it's only spent on a pipe, what a lost opportunity that would be. If it's only spent on infrastructure and we don't pay attention to the impacts on the environment or the community, what a lost opportunity it would be. So I want to talk a little bit about the opportunity for leadership in rural and regional Australia, the opportunity to work with real people in real places—exactly like the member for Farrer talked about in her speech—and the opportunity that this money gives us not only to work with resilience and build people's resilience physically, emotionally and environmentally but to position ourselves for future droughts, which will come, by working with local government and community groups to say, 'Well, it's going to happen. How do we work together to plan for the future?'
Let me talk a little bit about planning. It's so much money. It could make such a difference if we plan around the integration of government policy. One of the failings I see in this bill is that we don't actually talk about how it fits in with other government policy. The one I know so much about is our policy on rural and regional Australia. I've been part of the committee looking at the future of regional development and decentralisation. Surely, a policy that's looking at drought has to look at regional development and decentralisation. One of the recommendations in that particular report is that we come up with what we called 'regional plans'. A regional plan gets everybody in the community together to look at Commonwealth, state and local government funding. We look at what we've got, and we see where there's duplication and how we can use more of it. Imagine if we were to develop these regional plans and then, together, we were able to link to some of this drought resilience money and say, 'Here's how this money can add value to the whole.' What a difference that would make! But it requires government to work across portfolios. I really encourage the minister to give some consideration to how we can value-add this money and get much better bang for our buck by looking at a strategic approach to significant planning—not just planning for the $100 million but planning for regional Australia and our long-term prosperity.
Not only do we have a problem, then, with missed opportunity around regional planning; I also want to talk a little bit about what I want to see in my own electorate of Albury-Wodonga, which, as the member for Farrer has just said, is in the Murray-Darling Basin. We've got this drought at the moment, and we've also got a problem with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. There is a huge opportunity to use funding like this to bring communities together across difference—an opportunity to work with the communities of the Murray-Darling Basin. I just have to take issue with the member for Farrer. While she's the member for the New South Wales side of the river, I just want to say: it's a valley, and a valley knows no political boundaries. So we've actually got to work together across the New South Wales-Victorian boundary and also across the political boundaries that we have. That means working across both sides of parliament, and that's why I think this bill is so important. We actually need to think about how that money is going to be spent to give us the greatest bang for our buck.
I'm just going to bring my comments to a close and, in speaking tonight, I want to talk a little bit about my decision-making framework. This is a really important piece of legislation. This has the potential to be absolutely fundamental to the future of our rural and regional communities and, in particular, to help our farming communities manage drought. But there are so many problems at the moment. There are problems with grants. There are problems with review. I've mentioned them. I was thinking tonight about my approach to how I was voting. Is this legislation right in its concepts? I think it is. I think $100 million and a good way of working will make a really big difference. Could this legislation be good for Indi? Absolutely. And good for Australia? Absolutely.
The third thing in my decision-making framework is: is this legislation exhibiting good governance? I don't think so. Consequently, I'll be making some amendments. Are there any unintended consequences attached to this bill? Yes, I think there are. The stakeholders include the NFF, whom I've just quoted. The NFF thinks there are problems. Landcare thinks we could do it better. And I'm sure, if we opened it up wider, there would be many, many really good stakeholders who could value-add and tell us about the unintended consequences. An unregulated grants program will always cause us problems.
In my closing comments, I would like to acknowledge the departmental staff and the advisers here. You've been an absolute delight to work with, and I look forward to working with you on the amendments and, hopefully, on making this legislation the best legislation it can be so that I can support it and have the benefits come to my community and to Australia, just as we hope will happen.
I do take great pleasure in joining the debate on the Future Drought Fund Bill 2018 and recognise from the outset the work by the minister in bringing together the coalition government's focus on making sure the farmers in our communities are well prepared for the inevitability of future droughts in our country. I'll be making a few comments in a moment's time about the existing drought which is affecting Gippsland farmers, but for now I want to reflect on the fact that this legislation for the Future Drought Fund will provide for a long-term investment to build drought resistance in Australian communities, which is desperately needed, and to enable our $60 billion industry to reach new heights through improved performance.
The Future Drought Fund will provide additional support for our farming families and our communities, with the aim of bolstering drought resilience right across our nation. Importantly, the fund will be available to support research, development and innovation—key areas for our farming families as they adapt to the variability of the climate—and make sure we continue to play an important role in meeting the food and fibre needs not just of our own community but of our export markets. It also helps deliver infrastructure projects to promote the adoption of technology and support improved environmental and natural resource management to encourage sustainable agricultural practices.
I want to reflect for a moment on that point. Our farmers are at the absolute front line when it comes to practical environmental management. It's our farmers who tend to be the ones who join the Landcare organisations and who, with the backing of good technical support, are prepared to invest in their own properties to make sure they're more viable in the longer term. I only need to reflect on the Macalister Irrigation District in my seat, where, with the benefit of whole-of-farm management plans, our farming families have been investing in improved irrigation technology to make sure that they reduce the amount of nutrient running off their properties and into the nearby streams and down to the Gippsland Lakes, which obviously has an impact on the potential for algal blooms. Obviously the farmers themselves don't want to see those nutrients running off their property; they want them to get back on the grass to grow more pasture for their dairy herds. The investments we've seen in Gippsland over the past 10 years, backed up by good research, have been incredibly important to achieve good outcomes for my farming communities.
I want to point out that one of the key aspects of this legislation before the House is that it will provide for a drawdown of $100 million per year to invest in important drought resilience projects. I'm hopeful this legislation gets through as quickly as possible, because I've got a few projects in my own electorate, and I'm sure people will be coming forward to co-invest with government on projects that will make a real difference. I want to refer specifically to the Lindenow flats on the banks of the Mitchell River. The farmers on the Lindenow flats are incredibly important in terms of providing the salad and vegetable needs along the whole east coast of Australia. Every summer they're severely impacted by their capacity to draw down on their entitlements—they actually pay for these entitlements—from the Mitchell River. They're having to come up with a whole range of their own solutions in terms of storing water throughout the heavier flows in winter and then having access to that water in the summer months to finish their crops off. We're going to need to find ways to help those farmers deal with the variability of the flows on the Mitchell River. These farmers are coming to me saying they're not after greater entitlement; they're simply trying to get the entitlement they've actually paid for, which is very difficult to achieve in these current dry conditions.
I can't stand here this evening and talk on this bill without reflecting for some time on the drought which is affecting many families in my community. I've got to say, Deputy Speaker Hastie—I know you've been here for a few years now yourself—when you see your community struggling, and it's often in a rural, regional or peri-urban seat, your community may struggle for a range of reasons. In Gippsland, it's all the natural disasters you would expect. We're exposed to fire, flood and drought. I've had all of those in the 10 years I've been in this place. I have to say that, of all of those, I find drought the most exhausting and insidious of natural disasters. It erodes at the hope of the farming community. It undermines the viability of our agribusinesses. Every sunny day, every windy day, every dry day, it's corrosive throughout the community as it takes away from people's confidence in the future.
Droughts are times of decisions around when to sell, which of your stock to keep, how you're going to purchase feed, where you're going to access that feed from, and other decisions around when you re-sow pastures, and taking a punt on the seasonal break which hopefully comes this autumn. I've got to say there are many in my community who feel that our drought—the Gippsland drought—has been the forgotten drought. That's not meant to be derogatory to anyone in this place or derogatory to the broader community; we know that western Queensland, in particular, has suffered enormously, and large parts of New South Wales have been gripped by drought for a long period of time now.
Gippsland is renowned as a place of rolling green hills and fast-flowing rivers, and people just seem to expect that it's always like that in Gippsland. Well, the farmers I've been talking to over the summer break are telling me that in some parts of my region it is the worst conditions in 100 years. People who've been on the same property for 100 years have rainfall records their families have kept reliably, and they tell me they're experiencing the worst rainfall conditions in 100 years. I've got to say to the people of Gippsland: we haven't forgotten them in this place, and I certainly haven't forgotten them. We need to make sure we're doing everything we can to support them as much as possible to ensure they're viable in the longer term.
I had the opportunity just a couple of weeks ago to catch up with a few of my old mates in the agricultural industry, and in tow I had the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, my good friend Michael McCormack. As we met with farmers and travelled through the area south of Sale around Giffard and Mcloughlins Beach, he was able to see for himself just how poorly the country was doing in that part of my region. In the two weeks since, though, conditions there, which were already very bad, have deteriorated enormously. Wind storms have resulted in paddocks blowing badly, and farmers are watching their prized asset—their topsoil—blowing away before their eyes. There is a sense of helplessness in the face of these dry conditions and a sense of frustration as well as they recognise the very severe economic consequences for their own financial situation and the environmental consequences for their properties—and these are well-managed properties. The environmental consequences are quite severe.
But it also has a huge social impact on the structure of little communities like Giffard, Stradbroke and Mcloughlins Beach; further east in my electorate, areas around the townships of Briagolong, Bengworden and Meerlieu; and all the way out to Orbost, which is famous for its Snowy River flats and being very productive country. All are in very poor condition. And then go into the high country like Ensay, Swifts Creek and Dargo; and that region is affected as well. It's dry across the East Gippsland and Wellington shires, and I have to acknowledge that the government did include both of those shires in its support for local government.
So it's basically affecting just about all the dryland country in my community. As I said, some are reporting the worst conditions in nearly a century. Parts of East Gippsland have received their lowest rainfall on record. At the same time, farmers on irrigated land are preparing for water shortages as well. Unfortunately, the most recent Bureau of Meteorology drought statements, from February this year, are showing a 22-month rainfall deficiency and serious or severe rainfall deficiencies continuing across much of eastern Victoria. Again the January rainfall in Gippsland was below average. It's a crisis situation which, as I said just a moment ago, has deteriorated in the last couple of weeks. We do need to see all levels of government working together in these very challenging times. I commend the work that I've already seen by the federal government, but I've got to say I'm looking for more in terms of local and state coordination of our efforts to respond to this crisis.
In the order of 380 farmers across the region are receiving the farm household allowance—260 of those are in the East Gippsland area alone. I know measures have been taken to try to improve the eligibility criteria to reduce red tape, but the feedback I'm receiving on the ground is that there's still more work to be done in that regard. It is still extraordinarily difficult, time-consuming and frustrating for our farming families to access that household allowance. It's an important payment, though, because it does help to put food on the table. It's a modest payment, but it's certainly something that those who are eligible for greatly appreciate. There have been two special lump-sum payments for the eligible families. One was paid last September, and I think in April this year there will be another payment made available. I think it's in the order of $12,000 for couples and $7,200 for singles. Again, these are important payments for those eligible for them.
The concern that's been raised with me is that, if a farming family takes initiative and starts securing off-farm income, it then becomes very difficult to actually access some of the support that we're making available to them. We're, effectively, punishing people who have the capacity, the wherewithal and the get up and go to try to keep their farm viable by seeking off-farm income. It's something I've raised with the minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
I had been frustrated in the early stages by the Victorian government's lack of action on the drought but I spoke with the state agriculture minister over the weekend and received assurances that she will be visiting the drought-impacted area of my community in the coming days. Victoria is yet to announce that it will sign up to the $50 million On-Farm Emergency Water Infrastructure Rebate Scheme, which is frustrating for some of the farmers in my community who see the benefits flowing to their New South Wales colleagues across the border, and they're waiting for Victoria to actually sign up for the scheme.
There's a lot of demand within my community for the Victorian government to take action in relation to municipal rates. The biggest challenge that farmers have as they deal with this drought is, as I said before, making these important decisions. But the basic cost structure of their business makes it hard for them to make sure they're viable for when better conditions return. Help with municipal rates is something that just about every farmer I've spoken to over the last couple of months has raised with me. They want to see more assistance with other basic household costs and the fixed costs around registration of vehicles. They also want to see whether there's more we could be doing to provide the technical support and perhaps even financial support to help them re-establish pastures, which are blowing away at the moment. These are farms that have been sustainably and very well managed for generations. They're seeing conditions and experiencing challenges that they've never dealt with before. Some will require additional technical support—agronomist and other specialist advice on how they re-establish these pastures when the better conditions return. We need to make sure that these farming businesses, which have been viable for decades, remain viable in the future.
The federal government itself deserves some credit for what's already been invested in working with the drought-affected communities across our nation. The Drought Communities Program has been extended from, I think, 60 local communities to 81, providing them with $1 million each to keep people employed and to help businesses to keep running. I doubt that that's going to be enough. A million dollars will go very quickly. I know in the Wellington Shire right now, one of the decisions they made was to subsidise the water cartage costs for people to fill their tanks for domestic use. I think that money's going to run out fairly quickly across many municipalities, so I doubt that will be enough, and we'll probably have to revisit that issue in the week and months ahead if conditions don't improve.
I mentioned before the On-Farm Emergency Water Infrastructure Rebate Scheme, which has been well-received, I understand, in New South Wales, but to the best of my knowledge Victoria hasn't signed up at this point. There's been increased funding for mental health, which is very important and something that reflects on the way this place and our community have learnt a great deal about the impact of trauma on the mental wellbeing of our communities, and having additional resources available is very important. I would simply encourage, on that point, our farming communities and also people in the towns who may not be aware of how tough it is out on the farms to reach out to their mates on the land and make sure they're not trying to go through this alone.
As a local member, I've raised my concerns directly with the Prime Minister both late last year and again this year. I have been seeking a whole-of-government approach to help our farming communities. As I said, the Deputy Prime Minister has already visited my region, and the agriculture minister will be there in a couple of weeks' time. My message, to put it simply, is: while we have done a lot and we can be proud of what we've done in this place, and the government and the cabinet can be proud of what we've done already, there's still a lot more to be done.
I'm afraid that the support is not necessarily getting out there to all of the families who need it. The bureaucracy and red tape we put in the road of people when they're already in difficult circumstances undermines the value of the funding that's already been announced. We've got to find ways to cut through the red tape. I face it in my own Department of Veterans' Affairs on a daily basis. When people are at their most vulnerable, when they're struggling with the economic and social challenges that go with drought, they're not in the best place to be filling out piles of paperwork. So my message to my farming families is to look after each other in these difficult times, look after themselves and make sure they're seeking any assistance if they need it, and getting out and about as much as they possibly can. We do have a great history of providing food and fibre in Gippsland, but we also have a great future in the agricultural sector.
I rise to speak on the Future Drought Fund Bill 2018 and the Future Drought Fund (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2018. At the commencement of this year, 58.1 per cent of the land area of Queensland was drought-declared. That's about one million square kilometres, or about the size of France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined. That is 23 councils and five part-council areas drought-declared. This is devastating for regional Queensland. Some of these communities have faced their seventh consecutive year of drought.
I'm from western Queensland—not far western Queensland—from the town of St George on the Balonne River. I've seen what drought looks like, how it affects country towns and how it can be a drain on communities. I know that there are people out there doing it tough. Some of my friends still work on farms and have been doing it tough for a long time now, but their resilience is an inspiration. We need to support drought-affected farmers in Queensland, and obviously right across Australia, and we need to support their communities.
Labor has always supported farmers. I don't just mean in the rollout of needs based education funding, which particularly benefits the bush, or Medicare, which obviously particularly benefits the bush as well, or the NBN, which is a great leap forward for bush communities. In fact, I would suggest those three policies have done more for the bush than the National Party has ever done in the history of Federation, with all respect to my colleagues from the National Party.
With all due respect! I'll take that from the minister at the table. But Labor has supported the few drought measures put forward by the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments. Those measures included an additional supplementary farm household allowance payment of up to $12,000 for eligible recipients, increasing the farm household allowance extension from three years to four years, increasing the farm assets threshold from $2.6 million to $5 million and increasing the Farm Management Deposits Scheme to $800,000. Now we see the Morrison government is reviewing the farm household allowance because many farmers are choosing not to apply for it or, if they do apply, are found to be ineligible.
We're still waiting for the Morrison government to release a new, revised Intergovernmental Agreement on National Drought Program Reform. The previous, inaugural intergovernmental agreement on drought reform was established by the previous Labor government. Now we have the coalition government halfway through its sixth year of governing, and, during that time, what has it done for regional Australia? It has failed to introduce any meaningful policy that would relieve the pressure on farmers and their communities who have been suffering through a seemingly endless drought.
In October last year, the new Prime Minister called a Drought Summit. He announced the Future Drought Fund on the morning of the summit. This was one of the Prime Minister's special 'policy on-the-run' announcements. The Prime Minister turned a summit to discuss the very livelihood of farmers into a cheap political opportunity, thus showing the advertising-man blood that courses through his Bronte veins.
What these bills do is establish the Future Drought Fund that was announced by the Prime Minister as part of the Drought Summit on 26 October last year. The fund will be managed by the Future Fund and credited with $3.9 billion on its establishment. The fund is expected to grow to $5 billion by 2028-29. From 2020-21, an amount of up to $100 million will be able to be drawn each year to pay for drought resilience projects, with the remainder accumulating in the fund. The projects that may be eligible could include infrastructure projects, adoption of technology, improved environmental and natural resource management, and research development and innovation. The Treasurer and the finance minister will be responsible for the fund. The agriculture minister would be responsible for providing grants on the advice of the Regional Investment Corporation, in line with the Drought Resilience Funding Plan.
But where does the money come from to set up this Future Drought Fund? The initial $3.9 billion comes from the abolition of the Building Australia Fund. So they've decided to stop building Australia. The BAF was established in 2008 by Labor and is managed by the Future Fund. Withdrawals and expenditure from the BAF are overseen by independent advisory boards and measured against the nation-building funds evaluation criteria. Sadly, we see that the coalition governments, under three prime ministers, have never drawn from the BAF—never!
In 2017, they attempted to abolish the BAF as part of their attack on NDIS funding. Thankfully, Labor were able to block that attack.
The BAF was established to fund critical national transport and communications infrastructure, including rail, road, ports and broadband that is not being provided by the private sector or the states, so it's something that particularly benefits the bush. Important infrastructure across Australia has been undertaken through investment from the BAF, including the Ipswich Motorway in Queensland, which is a great link to the Lockyer Valley and the west; the Hunter Expressway in New South Wales; and the Regional Rail Link in Victoria. But the Building Australia Fund will be abolished by this short-sighted Morrison government.
Labor is also concerned that the proposed Future Drought Fund, set up with funds from the Building Australia Fund, may end up being another National Party slush fund. The Future Drought Fund is really just a plan to spend money on something in 2020 but with only a very vague idea of what that may be. They've had more than five years to make investments in technology adoption and natural resource management, but they've showed no interest in doing anything about those things in that time. Now, on the eve of an election, suddenly the coalition are running around and throwing money at drought-affected farmers—although they're not really. As I said, it's a vague plan to spend some money in 2020.
Also concerning is that the Morrison government says it will take advice on how to spend the money from the Regional Investment Corporation, also known as the 'Barnaby bank'. The Regional Investment Corporation has no expertise in these matters. It is located in the central west of New South Wales—not in Queensland, where the worst drought affected areas are. Australian farmers deserve a government that is forward thinking, a government that plans for the actual future, not an imaginary fairytale from the 1950s where droughts don't exist. It is a reality that we're going to see more extreme weather events in Australia, including extreme drought.
The BoM, or the Bureau of Meteorology, report State of the climate 2018 reveals:
I'm sorry for the Western Australians here:
Across the same region May- July rainfall—
the so-called Mediterranean climate—
has seen the largest decrease, by around 20 per cent since 1970.
It also says the south-east of Australia has seen a decline of April-October rainfall of around 11 per cent since the late 1990s. However, rainfall has increased across parts of northern Australia since the 1970s. There's been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather, and in the duration of the fire season, across large parts of Australia. The BoM report also discusses why we are seeing these changes. It says:
Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide and methane, make it harder for the Earth to radiate this heat, so increase the temperature of the Earth's surface, ocean and atmosphere.
The report also says:
Australia is projected to experience:
… … …
This is the Morrison government's own report that says we're going to see more of these extreme weather events, including more time in drought because of global warming, yet the coalition government has done nothing to address this growing crisis in the nearly six years they've been in office.
Labor believes that there is a role for government to help farmers adapt to changing weather patterns. I wonder sometimes if the National Party ever talks to actual farmers, rather than—what have we got? We've got economists. We've got journalists. We've got reporters. We don't seem to have any fair dinkum farmers left in the National Party. Labor believes all policy development must be evidence based. It must be guided by known science and should focus on a whole-of-industry productivity and resilience-building agenda. This is ambitious. It won't be achieved by the proposal put forward by the Morrison government that is contained in these bills. However, Labor commits to matching the Morrison government's funding commitments to its Future Drought Fund.
But Labor won't wait until 2020-21 to take decisions on spending measures. We will take expert advice and design policy initiatives for the whole sector ahead of 2020. Labor will establish a farm productivity and sustainable profitability fund. A panel of guardians will be convened to advise the government on policy design and implementation strategies. If elected, a Shorten Labor government will establish the panel within the first 60 days of office, and the panel will be immediately put to work. The panel will include a representative of a national farm leadership group, a leading soils and environmental science expert, a water projects and water efficiency expert, a leading economist, a soils advocate, a representative of a natural resource management group, the chair or CEO of the Council of Rural Research and Development Corporations and the secretary of the relevant COAG committee. The panel will report to the minister for agriculture and will be asked to provide a detailed plan within 12 months. Labor will also restore the Standing Council on Primary Industries, a COAG committee for agricultural matters that was charged with progressing the Intergovernmental Agreement on National Drought Program Reform. That COAG committee was abolished by the Abbott government as soon as it took office. Labor will restore that committee and put drought policy reform back on track.
Labor has many concerns about the bills currently before the House. Labor will not rush this legislation through parliament. It should be carefully considered by a Senate committee. Given no money will be spent until 2020-21, there's plenty of time for a Senate committee to scrutinise this legislation, to test the government's motivation in establishing the fund and to consider what the government plans to spend the money on.
We see a government that has ignored regional Australia for too long. Their drought policy response has been non-existent. They have come up with on-the-run policy reform at the eleventh hour and expect it to be waved through parliament. Australian farmers and regional communities deserve better. They deserve a government that understands the issues they are facing and will help them prepare for the challenging conditions they're going to face in the future. They deserve a government that has a real plan for whole-of-industry productivity and a resilience-building agenda. They deserve a Shorten Labor government that will work with regional Australia and prepare for the future.
I rise to support the Future Drought Fund Bill 2018, a very important piece of legislation. I support it because it's all about backing our agricultural sector. The Future Drought Fund helps build resilience in the farm sector. It will help the sector prepare for drought and it will help the it recover from drought. We know that droughts are going to come again, and this helps preparedness and readiness. It provides an additional credit of $3.9 billion, which will grow until it reaches $5 billion. Then, from 1 July 2020, the government will draw down $100 million per year to invest in drought resilience projects.
This fund looks to the future of agriculture. In this country, we need to ask ourselves: do we back agriculture or don't we? On this side of the House, the answer is yes, we back agriculture. We support its future and we want it to build and continue to be that key plank of the Australian economy, because, if you think back just a year or two ago to when the Australian economy was struggling a little bit, it was agriculture that got us through. It powered this nation through a very difficult time. If we want a viable farm sector, then we have to back it, and we have to back it to the hilt. That's why this Future Drought Fund and the Future Drought Fund Bill are so important.
I was very disturbed when I heard the member for Hunter say in this House earlier that the opposition wasn't going to back it. It was an extraordinary thing for him to say. But perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised, because in that speech I'm pretty sure I heard him say that we should be surfing the waves of activism. That's what he said. I thought, 'What a ridiculous piece of blather that was, saying to our farmers who are struggling with drought: "Surf the waves of activism!"' In a very difficult time, that's not what they want to hear from their elected representatives in this place. But I guess, with respect to the member for Hunter, and the opposition generally, we shouldn't really be too surprised, when you consider that they're going to strip the retirement savings of 6,500 Calare retirees, including farmers. And, as I've been around this electorate, it's quite clear that the retirees who are going to be affected are not fat cats. These are people you see in your local Lions Club and in Men's Sheds. They are going to lose thousands of dollars. Many of them would not be what you'd call traditional coalition voters, either. But they're not happy, and farmers are amongst those who are going to be hit.
Look at the opposition's approach to decentralisation. We've had some extraordinary decentralisation success stories in this state and in this nation, none more so than the decentralisation of the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries to Orange. And recently we had another part of that success story, with the Regional Investment Corporation, which is soon to have its official opening. It's going to bring 25 to 30 jobs to an area which has been hit by drought, the central west of New South Wales. Everyone in our region gets a shot at those jobs. The Regional Investment Corporation is providing concessional loans to farmers; it's providing funding for water infrastructure projects. These are the types of things that governments—governments of all political persuasions—should be doing. Yet, what has the member for Hunter pledged to do? He pledges to tear it apart and dismantle it. On his side of the House, they profess, at times, to be the champions of government jobs. Yet, when we get a few more jobs in our neck of the woods, they want to rip them out and take them away and shut down a brand new decentralised department.
I guess it's no wonder that the member for Hunter is often called the shadow minister for recentralisation, because he wants to undo all the decentralisation work of this government. I think if there's one thing that people do understand out in the bush, Deputy Speaker Hastie, as you would well know, it's the value of jobs and the value of decentralisation. So, when the member for Hunter tries to put everything back to Sydney, Melbourne or Canberra that gets people's backs up. And it also gets their backs up when not only the member for Hunter but the Labor candidates in the field profess to be the friends of farmers. They say, 'We support farmers, even though we want them to surf the waves of activism,' whatever that blather means. But when they go around our communities and say, 'We support farmers in drought,' they can't explain to the farmers why the Regional Investment Corporation and the jobs it brings to our area is going to be, potentially, torn down if they take over the government benches. They can't explain to farmers why they're not supporting initiatives like the Future Drought Fund. They can't explain it.
Here's another good example: the recent union proposal to dismantle the working holiday visa scheme. In our neck of the woods, we've got a good little orchard industry and we're trying to expand it. We've been working hard to give them better opportunities for export and we've just had some great wins in terms of getting export access around Asia for our stone fruit growers. But, the sad truth is that in order to harvest those crops they rely on backpackers to do it. Years ago, you could get Australian workers to do it, but, and I've seen it over the last few years, slowly but surely, unfortunately, less Australians want to work. So we've just announced the 3-year working holiday visa scheme, yet there is a union proposal, again, to tear it apart—to wreck it. Under this ACTU proposal, they would abolish years 2 and 3 and severely curtail the numbers under year 1. What will that mean? It will mean that fruit will rot on trees and vines and vegetables will rot in paddocks around the country. But they don't seem to be able to front up to the farmers and explain to them why this is happening. They gloss over it with motherhood statements or slogans like 'Don't worry about it; just get out there and surf the waves of activism.' It's an insult. The way they treat the farm sector is an insult.
If I look around my local area, I see so many people working so hard to bring relief to our farmers. This drought has been awful and it's still going on. I look around our local area and I see heroes who are out there working hard, bringing relief to their fellow Australians—people like Anne Jones and Peter Perry, who are from the Geurie Lions Club, just out of Wellington. The Geurie Lions are working with the Wellington Lions to bring a huge amount of relief to our farmers through Lions International. Anne and Peter have a property called Old Station, which is located at Gollan. Anne and Peter have distributed more than 4,685 bales of hay to 554 farming families since July last year. It's an extraordinary effort.
Along with the hay, farmers in need have also received donations of 427 food hampers, 840 stock lick blocks, over 5,000 containers of soft drinks and water, over 500 personal care items, 484 dog food packages and 573 Lions Christmas cakes. This is what our country communities are made of. When the chips are down, one of the great things about country Australia is that we look out for each other, we care for each other and we pass the hat around. In 2011, Anne was Disaster Relief Director for the Lions Club overseeing the distribution of funds to those impacted by the Warrumbungles fire and then again during the Forbes floods in 2016. It's community members like Anne that our country communities rely on.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the Kandos Rylstone Men's Shed raised $1,300 for a farm charity. The funds were raised through a raffle which was well supported by the local community. First prize was a 49-inch TV donated by a local businessman who wanted to remain anonymous. To John Medcalf, who is the president, Fred Hoy, the secretary, and Robert Holmes, the vice-president, and the entire team, I'd like to say thank you for your efforts. These are smaller country communities who are doing great things to help their fellow Australians.
The Gulgong Red Cross raised an incredible $900 for the Australian Red Cross Drought Appeal through a street stall on a single day. I met Helen Oakley at the show just a few days ago, and she pointed out that Gulgong has been a member of the Red Cross for 105 years. I think she's been a member for 36. So well done to President Helen and her team, Secretary Bonnie Denning and Treasurer Benison Rodd. We certainly appreciate all of the work that you're doing out there for our country communities.
I was at Lithgow for Australia Day, and they had a dunk tank at the aquatic centre. Kymberley Wilson organised the dunk tank. It was a great way to cool off. I did have a turn on the dunk tank. About $300 was raised. Again, these are country communities coming together to help their fellow Australians. Kymberley was ably assisted by Abby Wilson and Melissa McManus. These are salt of the earth people which our country communities rely on. I mentioned those examples because they are examples of our communities coming together. They are just some of the many that I could talk about.
While our country communities are coming together to battle the drought, so too should our national representatives. They really should be coming together and working together to support initiatives like the Future Drought Fund—but they are not. I think it's a very disappointing thing that you would have the member for Hunter blindly walk into this place and tell our farmers that they should be surfing the waves of activism while trying to destroy yet another key piece of legislation that will help people on the land, people in the bush, who desperately need it at the moment.
The choices are very clear as we head towards this next election. Do you support farmers or don't you? Do you stand with growth and prosperity in country areas or don't you? As I've said many times, it's all very well and good for the member for Hunter to kick around this place in RM Williams boots, but you've got to do more than that. There's got to be more substance to it. You can't do that and have the heart of a socks-and-sandals man—you just cannot do that. But, with legislation like this, I think our farm sector can be assured that those on this side of the House are backing them, and they are backing them with billions of dollars. This drought relief effort is now the biggest in Australia's history, and we are not out of it yet. More is probably going to be needed if the rains don't come. We're going to have to back them again, and on this side of the House we will be there for them when they need us, and we will back them.
Already my colleagues are discussing ways in which we can continue the help if the rains don't come. As I said, the choices are very clear. Those on this side of the House stand with agriculture, and those on that side of the House do not, and I think it's a very disappointing thing. But rest assured that farmers know who's backing them—they know who is backing up the talk with legislation and, most importantly, funding like this. Together we will get through this drought, and the opposition needs to get on board.
With the whole of New South Wales declared 'in drought' during the latter half of last year, 2018, this drought will be recorded as one of the more significant in Australia's history, ranking alongside the Millennium Drought, the drought in the 1960s and the World War II and Federation droughts. But of all of those droughts, only the Millennium Drought saw similar accompanying high temperatures. That's because eight of the 10 warmest years on record in Australia have occurred since 2005, and 2018 is on course to be the fourth warmest year on record. January of this year was our hottest month on record—not our hottest January on record but our hottest month on record. In fact, on 15 January this year, Australia was home to all 15 of the world's hottest temperatures.
This is a sign of things to come. This is what is going to become a much more regular occurrence if we don't tackle climate change. And what does this government do? It comes in here and pretends to be on the side of farmers, but at the same time it's doing everything it can to make global warming worse—to set us on track for a 92 per cent decline in the Murray-Darling Basin by the end of the century and to ensure that we hit that 1½ degree threshold of dangerous global warming as early as 2030.
This government is doing everything it can to make global warming worse. At the very same time as farmers in our country are suffering through this very, very harsh drought, they are doing everything they can to use taxpayers' money to fund coal-fired power stations before the election. They are doing everything they can to see new coalmines opened at the same time as the world's scientists are telling us that by 2030 we have to be getting out of coal. Two-thirds of the world's coal-fired power stations have to shut down by 2030, but this government says, 'How can we make global warming worse,' and uses public money to dig more coal up, have the Adani coalmine opened and, in fact, perhaps open the whole of the Galilee Basin. This government is spitting in the eye of farmers. This government is giving the middle finger to farmers.
If this government actually cared about what is happening on the land and if this government actually wanted to make sure that we can have sustainable agriculture in this country for the remainder of this century, this government would be listening to the scientists and would be pulling out all stops to ensure that by as soon as 2030 we are not tipping over into a dangerous 1½ degrees of global warming.
But what do we have instead? We've got a Prime Minister who comes in here and cradles lumps of coal. He might as well be throwing that straight at every farmer in Australia. He might as well be going to every farmer and saying, 'I don't want you to have a future.' Not only did the Prime Minister and the government come in here and cradle lumps of coal but then they come in here and chortle when thousands of school students—more than 15,000 last year and there will be even more on 15 March—say: 'Hey! We've been paying attention in school. We see this drought that is happening right around the country. We see these extreme weather events. We see the fact that in Tasmania we have just had fires during summer that have destroyed some of the forest that has been there since Gondwanaland and is not going to be able to recuperate, because it's not used to fire. We see all this and we don't want to have to deal it because you are so beholden to the coal lobby that you're going to make the problem worse.'
When they say: 'We now feel that this is a climate emergency and we are going to do what we can as students, because we don't have the right to vote. We're going to take time off school, we're going to go on strike and we're going to march to say, "Help us stop these droughts becoming a regular occurrence, help us stop floods becoming a regular occurrence and help us stop bushfires becoming something that happens to us every Christmas holidays,"' this government turns around and laughs at them as well. It laughs at them and says, 'They have no right to stand up.' Well, people are standing up to this government and saying, 'Enough is enough; stop screwing our future!' Students are saying it, people right across our cities are saying it, people right across the regions are saying it and farmers are saying it. Farmers For Climate Action were here today in this building, saying that they are committed to making sure that parts of their sector are carbon neutral by 2030. What an ambition!
And what does this government do? This government says, 'How can we build more coal fired power station by 2030?' Pollution is going up and up and up on this government's watch at a time when it should be coming down. And so when they come in here and say, 'Oh, please, we'll pretend that we care because we're announcing a future drought fund where we're going to rob the money from some other section of the budget and put it into a bucket where it's not going to be targeted in any particular way and where we can't guarantee that it is actually going to help any farmers in particular,' it's no wonder that the parliament, like the Australia people, is standing up to this government and saying, 'We no longer believe you.'
When you start treating climate change as an optional extra, something you can thumb your nose at, then people will rise up. It's no wonder, and it should come as no surprise, that the reason we are in this minority parliament, where the government faces losing votes on things like climate change, is because they rolled their own Prime Minister over the question of climate change and because he wasn't doing enough to back in the coal-huggers.
The coal-huggers continue to run this government. We see that with this bill. We see it in their lack of action on climate change and their lack of even mentioning climate change. We hear it in the contempt that they show for students, for farmers and for the people who live right around this country every time they stand up and demand a decent climate change policy. I say to the government: it is one of the reasons you are on the verge of being turfed out. It is one of the reasons that the Australian people will say in a few short weeks—and it can't come soon enough—that enough is enough; it is time to take action on climate change. If we care about the drought then we will stop the digging up, the burning and the exporting of coal, because that is one thing that is within our control and it is one thing we must do.