Senate debates

Tuesday, 30 July 2019


Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2019; Second Reading

12:01 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

The Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2019 amends the Farm Household Support Act 2014.

The Bill proposes to maintain the temporary increase to the farm assets value limit for Farm Household Assistance at $5 million. It also ensures allowable deductions are applied against the relevant income type for those deductions.

The government recognises the significant contribution of agriculture to the Australian economy and regional communities. We are committed to strengthening the sector to ensure it continues to be profitable, competitive, resilient and sustainable.

The government wants all Australians to prosper, to be able to inject capital into their businesses, save for their retirement, and to support their children to succeed. We also want farmers to have the supports to assess and safeguard their long-term financial security and Farm Household Allowance does this.

It is more than a social security payment – it is a package of assistance comprising income support, ancillary allowances, an independent financial assessment of the farm business, an activity supplement that pays for advice and training, and individualised case management.

To date, Farm Household Allowance has helped nearly 12,000 farmers, and almost 7,000 are receiving the payment now. We have paid more than $330 million in fortnightly payments and related supplements and allowances. Over $43 million of this was in the FHA Supplement which added up to $12,000 per household last financial year.

As this is a support payment Farm Household Allowance is aligned with mainstream social security, unless there are good reasons for departure. The most significant departure is the two tier asset test. Farmers have access to a significantly higher threshold for assets than other payments. This setting recognises that a farmer's biggest asset is their land, but in times of hardship that land is not capable of generating a return that sustains the family.

The book value of a farmer's assets often excludes them from other income support payments, yet they cannot realise those assets for self-support without taking away some, or all, of the longer-term income producing capacity of the farm enterprise.

In September 2018, the government increased its support for farmers and farming communities, by temporarily increasing the threshold for farm assets to $5 million. This was an increase of almost $2.4 million and opened up the program to many more farm households experiencing hardship.

But the government is going one step further, and from 1 July 2019, the farm assets value limit will be retrospectively maintained at $5 million. Farmers and farm households can be assured that the government stands with them and their communities to generate wealth, and build strength, prosperity, and resilience.

The Bill also seeks to amend the treatment of allowable deductions so that they can be claimed against related income – that is, either on-farm or off-farm income earned by a Farm Household Allowance recipient.

Allowable deductions will relate to the income they apply to. That is, allowable deductions associated with on-farm business income will be able to be deducted from that income and off-farm deductions will be associated with off-farm income. The exception is for people in very straitened circumstances who may offset their off-farm income from their on-farm loss. This offset has been available since 1 July 2014 and remains unchanged.

This Bill amends the Farm Household Support Act to ensure allowable deductions can be claimed against the income that they relate to.

These amendments accord with the underlying objective of the Farm Household Allowance program, and help paint as accurate a picture as possible of a recipient's farm enterprise, its viability, and possible options for improvement.

These amendments will not change income thresholds or eligibility for Farm Household Allowance.

In seeking to maintain the farm assets value limit at $5 million and amend the Farm Household Support Act 2014 to ensure allowable deductions can be claimed against related income, this Bill further demonstrates this Government's responsiveness and commitment to the needs of farmers, farming communities, and rural and regional Australia.

12:02 pm

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to contribute to the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2019. It will maintain the Farm Household Support Act 2014 farm assets value limit at $5 million, and amend the treatment of income from business such that allowable deductions can be claimed against related income—that is, either income from the farm enterprise, which is on-farm income, or income from a business other than the farm enterprise, which is off-farm income that is income earned by a farm household allowance recipient.

Labor is supporting the bill, but it is important for the Senate to note that the changes to the Farm Household Support Act 2014 aim to make access to the farm household allowance easier for drought-affected farmers. In September last year the government actually did increase the assets threshold from $2.6 million to $5 million. This bill maintains that increase. Labor has supported each drought measure the government has put forward over the past six years, including: additional supplementary farm household allowance payments of up to $12,000 for eligible farm household allowance recipients; increasing the farm household allowance extension from three years to four years; increasing the farm asset threshold from $2.6 million to $5 million, which I did mention earlier; and increasing the farm management deposits scheme to $800,000.

This bill is another example of the ad hoc approach this government has taken towards drought support and reform for the past six years. It is why I will be moving the following second reading amendment, to ensure that the Senate is fully aware of the failing of the government, and of its lack of action to assist drought-affected farmers, including those who have experienced difficulty accessing farm household allowance since the scheme commenced in 2014. I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

", but the Senate condemns the Government's lack of action to assist drought-affected farmers including those who have experienced difficulty accessing the Farm Household Allowance since the scheme's commencement in July 2014."

The government has failed to recognise the ongoing difficulty drought-affected farmers are facing when applying to access the farm household allowance.

The allowance was one measure in a suite of measures in the historical intergovernmental agreement, which is termed the IGA, on drought reform that was developed during the 43rd Parliament and signed in May 2013—six years ago—in a bipartisan manner between the then Labor government and the state and territory governments. The inaugural IGA on drought reform was developed via the COAG Standing Council on Primary Industries, which is referred to as SCoPI. The objectives of the agreement are to:

a. assist farm families and primary producers adapt to and prepare for the impacts of increased climate variability

b. encourage farm families and primary producers to adopt self–reliant approaches to manage their business risks

c. ensure that farm families in hardship have access to a household support payment that recognises the special circumstances of farmers

d. ensure that appropriate social support services are accessible to farm families

e. provide a framework for jurisdictions’ responses to needs during periods of drought.

Sadly, however, one of the first acts of the previous Minister for Agriculture—well, one of the previous ministers for agriculture; I forgot that there have been a few of them—Mr Joyce, was to abolish SCoPI. SCoPI brought together federal, state and territory agricultural ministers for regularly scheduled discussions on important issues, such as national drought policy reform, intergovernmental biosecurity arrangements, a foot and mouth disease action plan, and other pest and disease eradication programs. On 17 December 2013 Mr Joyce—I will refer to him as the member for New England—said that he meets with his fellow ministers on an ad hoc basis to discuss those issues probably, likely, once a year. I'm not making this up with. That's what he said. Everyone in this place would agree that drought reform policy is an important policy area that requires more than an ad hoc get together maybe once a year.

The member for New England claimed that the decision to abolish SCoPI was a cost saving measure. The irony of that statement in light of the member for New England's recent comments about how he survives on a salary of only $200,000 plus per annum is absolutely insulting to farmers on the allowance payments. The fact that the member for New England can compare his hardship, which is of his own making, to those on Newstart and those living, essentially, on the farm household allowance payments is another example of, unfortunately, how out of touch the member for New England is.

In turn, so is the current Prime Minister who appointed the member for New England as no less than the drought enjoy last year. We asked the following questions at Senate estimates. What actually what his role as a drought envoy? No-one knows. Was there a report from the drought envoy? Who knows? It is important to go back to 20 October 2014 when the shadow minister for agriculture, Mr Fitzgibbon asked a simple, simple question about the Farm Household Allowance to the member for New England. This was the question:

Minister, it is now eight months since you announced with some fanfare your drought assistance package for farmers. How much has the government actually paid in drought assistance to farming families, and how many farming families have benefited from that drought assistance?

That is a very simple, straightforward question, which resulted in what many in this place will remember as Hansard-gate. The answer provided to the House on 20 October 2014 was doctored. As the saying goes, which we all know very well in this place, the cover-up is usually greater than the crime. We asked: why was there a cover-up? It was because the assistance for farmers back then wasn't working and many farmers today continue to find it difficult to access assistance. It is why we constantly see amendments to the FHA, such as the bill currently before the Senate. The reality is this government has not been focused on progressing drought policy.

During Senate estimates on 24 May 2018 the Labor Party again asked questions about the farm household allowance. We knew that many farmers were still finding it difficult to access the payment. Former Senator Ketter from Queensland asked what can only be described a very simple question about whether, on the basis of the IGA drought reform review, there were 'any emerging themes as to concerns about the drought measures from stakeholders'. The departmental officer at the table came back with, 'I would not characterise them as concerns.' Seriously, for our new senators, get ready for it; this is what actually happens in Senate estimates. Senator Ketter then asked:

Were concerns raised in the review about farming families that have exhausted the Farm Household Allowance and are still facing drought conditions?

It's a fair question. The departmental official said: 'I would have to take that on notice. I do not recall them.' Someone who is no stranger to this chamber, former Senator O'Sullivan, I have to tell you, was energised by the department's apparent lack of understanding as to what the actual reality for farmers was, saying: 'I can help you. The answer to that is "yes". It is very widespread.'

Unfortunately, it gets worse. The minister at the table—who I have the greatest of respect for—was Senator Ruston, who was also a very, very active member in the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee before she was promoted. I had the privilege of working alongside Senator Ruston, and we know her commitment to rural Australia. She was hamstrung. She had to defend the nonsense of inactive ministers. She was only the minister at the table representing the member for New England. She said:

I will give a little bit of background to where everything is happening at the moment in discussions with the minister and the minister's office about this particular program. I am advised that this issue has only really come to his attention in very recent times.

This was in May 2018.

Post the estimates hearings we saw the government finally acknowledge that there is a problem with the farm household allowance, and they instigated a review in September 2018, with an independent panel appointed to review the farm household allowance program. The report was presented to the government in February 2019—this year—and made six recommendations. I acknowledge you're here, Minister, which is great, because I'm hoping you can answer some of my questions. It made six recommendations to which the government is yet to respond in full. I hope, Senator McKenzie, as the new Minister, that you are across the reality for farmers on the ground. I know you always stand up and talk about them. I'm really looking forward to having the answers on what the position of the government is on those recommendations. Based on the track record of previous agriculture ministers—not you, Senator McKenzie, but previous agriculture ministers—they really like to talk a lot of talk but, unfortunately, as crappy as the saying goes, they're not walking the walk. I couldn't think of anything else. Let's just say there's been so much inaction, and I'm looking forward to someone actually grabbing the reins and steering.

The government needs to take the reality facing drought affected farmers seriously. Six years on, at a recent Bush Summit on 18 July the Prime Minister stated:

The recent independent review of the Allowance found that the current arrangements need to be improved to better align with the reality that farming in Australia is very volatile.

Correct. He went on:

It recommended that FHA be available to farming families for four years in every 10 and that's coming before Government and their going to get a very good hearing on that.

Minister Littleproud is working with the industry on the long-term drought strategy and we'll have more to say on that in the coming months.

Farmers should never be used as political footballs. I'm looking forward to hearing the Minister for Agriculture providing information to the Senate as to when the government will respond to all recommendations made in the Farm Household Allowance Review. There are many, many more questions that need to be answered, such as how will the government actually progress the development of drought policy, as promised by the Prime Minister? Also, which minister will attend AGMIN? That is, unfortunately, the one I call the ad hoc committee that replaced SCoPI. Will it be Minister McKenzie? I'm getting a nod. Or will it be Minister Littleproud? I can take it from the nod it will be you, Minister McKenzie?

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

And while you're at it, Minister, can you tell us when AGMIN will actually meet? We, Labor, are supporting the bill, as we have done with every other drought assistance initiative. It is not an unfair request to ask the government to at least provide honest, prompt answers to the questions proposed by Labor. I look forward to the government's prompt response. As I did say, Minister, I flagged that I will be moving a second reading amendment, which I am reliably told has been distributed in the Senate.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

You have moved that.

12:16 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2019. This bill addresses some of the recommendations around the assets test and income test from the independent review of the farm household allowance that the government commissioned late last year. Firstly, this bill will extend the temporary increase of the on-farm asset limit from $2.685 million to $5 million. The review panel have been quite clear in arguing that increasing this asset limit will open the program to a number of still very financially distressed farm asset holders who have previously been excluded from the farm household allowance. This is particularly businesses in the cropping sector, who carry larger asset levels. The bills digest notes that the extension will mean that about 8,000 farmers will retain eligibility for the scheme. They also note that the government has ignored the recommendations from the review to index the asset limit to CPI. It does make me worried that we will have to have new legislation in this chamber within only a few years, again to adjust the asset limit.

The second thing that this bill does is to separate and decouple on-farm from off-farm allowable income deductions. The complexity around these measures has been overwhelming for many farmers looking to access the scheme. While these changes may help, it is very clear, not only from the review, but from the broader community outcry, that there is still an awful lot of work that needs to be done on improving accessibility to these support payments and simplifying the application and reporting process.

I would like to note here that certain members of this chamber and the other place have been accusing the Greens of hating farmers or hating regional Australia. This is obviously a flat-out lie.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

I never said that to you.

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

No, not you, Senator Sterle. I want to make crystal clear that when good legislation comes through this parliament that supports the need of our farmers and our farming communities, we will support it. And we will be supporting this bill. What we won't support and what we haven't supported is a government committed to driving through laws that rip up the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. What we won't support is laws that rip billions of dollars out of our infrastructure budget, laws that criminalise journalism, laws that criminalise the right to organise and the right to protest, and laws that have been written to score political points off the back of the crisis in our regional communities and are designed to entrench the power of the government and their big business allies. The Greens make no apology for standing up to the government when they want to divide the community, one sector of the community against another.

While the Greens wholeheartedly agree that we need to continue to support farmers experiencing financial hardship, it would be remiss of me not to point out the government's odd and unexplained selectivity when it comes to income support. It's clear from this bill and the adjustment of the deeming rate for pensioners that the government can understand that some Australians really are doing it tough and need some extra support. So I ask why the government is being selectively blind to other Australians needing help. The government is happy to support farmers, and it's happy to support pensioners, but when it is clear that almost 715,000 Australians are struggling to survive on Newstart, on under $40 a day, the government is nowhere to be found. Earlier this month, The Age published a story about Alex Phillips, a Melbourne local who has been living on Newstart for six years. This is how he managed to do it:

In order to maintain the $288 per week rent on his one-bedroom flat, and pay for utilities and food, he turned off his fridge and heating. He lived on two-minute noodles, 65-cent cans of baked beans, packet soups and bread—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Rice, could you resume your seat, please. Senator McKenzie on a point of order.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

We're debating the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill. I know the Greens find it hard to identify with regional Australian farming communities, but the senator has not even been able to spend three minutes focused on our farmers and their needs before resorting to a topic that really is much better suited to her constituency in the city of Melbourne.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

I've been listening carefully to Senator Rice. She is making comparisons around the bill. I do remind senators that, while it is a broad-ranging debate, the debate is around the farm bill, but I believe that Senator Rice has been relevant to date.

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I've been absolutely relevant, Senator McKenzie, in pointing out the selective blindness of the government. We support the government in supporting farmers. The Greens support farmers. But there is selective blindness. There is inequity in the system. We are very happy to support the government in supporting farmers, but we call upon the government to support other people in our community who are doing it tough—people such as Alex Phillips, who can't afford margarine. The article continued:

He showered at the Salvos to save on water and heating and rather than use his washing machine for bed linen, he slept on his couch in an overcoat.

That is how over 700,000 people in Australia, in this richest country in the world, are being forced to live. Everybody in this chamber acknowledges that farmers are doing it tough and that they need support to weather times of drought or financial stress, but so are many, many more Australians. So why does the government give help to some people but not to others? It's baffling. We need an answer from the government. Why are you punishing some Australians while lifting others up? Didn't the Prime Minister declare that he was going to govern for all Australians? What happened to that? We have to stop treating income support payments like a political football. Newstart has not been increased in over 25 years. Both the government and Labor are ignoring people who are living in poverty. If we can afford to give those who are earning the highest incomes in the country a massive tax cut we can afford to increase Newstart as well as supporting our farmers.

While the Greens continued to be deeply concerned about this selective approach to income support, we will be supporting this bill today. Despite the consistent attacks of the government on the Greens for defending good governance and critical political rights and for providing opposition when it pushes its agenda to entrench power for the powerful, we will be supporting this bill, because it is absolutely critical that we provide timely relief for our farming community, particularly those dealing with the record-breaking drought. So I commend this bill to the Senate.

12:24 pm

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This isn't my first speech, but this is an issue that is very important in my home region, in the New South Wales southern Riverina, and right across eastern Australia where this drought is hitting. I and many of my colleagues across regional New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria are all in the grip of this terrible drought.

Last week in this place, we passed legislation establishing the Future Drought Fund. That's a measure to help our farmers and communities better manage, prepare and sustain their businesses in future drought. But this Farm Household Support Amendment Bill is about supporting our farmers now. It's about providing assistance to farmers and their partners right now during this current drought. This drought is the worst on record in the north of my state, New South Wales, and in the south of the state, it is doing its best to equal, if not overtake, the millennium drought. Often I hear people say, 'Drought happens and farmers need to prepare.' I agree with the principle, and so do most farmers I know. But I know farmers who have prepared for seasons of drought—one, two, sometimes even three bad seasons. They store fodder and grain, and they manage their pastures to make sure they don't overgraze. Croppers evaluate season by season to assess when and what to plant. Irrigators manage their water holdings across seasons where possible. But preparedness can never be indefinite. And, after one bad season, farmers have to reassess and re-evaluate just what they can achieve with the remaining on-farm stores and resources. After two bad years, resources have been pushed to the limit, if not completely depleted. And, after three or four years, as has happened in northern New South Wales, I challenge anyone to be prepared for that. That is why the Nationals have made drought a national priority. That is why we are working in government to invest over $6.3 billion in drought support.

In addition to the Future Drought Fund, which I touched upon before, we are taking other practical steps to support our communities in this current drought. We have the Drought Communities Program, which is an example of how we can stimulate our communities to provide immediate economic stimulus and keep them going through the drought. In my home state of New South Wales, rural and regional communities are seeing the benefit of this program. Fifty-two local government areas are eligible for funding under this program, and councils from all across the state—from Balranald to Bathurst, Carrathool to Cobar, Leeton to Lithgow and many places in between—are delivering infrastructure projects and activities to boost their local economies to support local jobs and address local community needs in a time when we really need the moral support. In the New England area, Armidale Regional Council is improving its local road network and delivering upgrade roads on the Kempsey Road, while Tamworth council is upgrading cattle grids and installing seven new bulk water refill stations. In the north-west, Narrabri Shire Council is undertaking much-needed infrastructure improvements to the racecourse, and Walgett Shire Council is delivering beautification programs in the main streets of both Lightning Ridge and Walgett. All of these projects are injecting money into the local communities to keep those communities alive. But drought-affected communities also feel the pain of their farmers who are struggling to make ends meet. And that is what this bill is for.

This bill is part of the drought assistance package that, like our Drought Communities Program, aims to support farmers and the communities that depend on their agricultural economy, as the flow-on impacts of this ongoing drought really start to hit home. And hit home it will, because a drought as severe as this current drought affects everyone. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences is estimating a decline in livestock production, down by six per cent. And while they do optimistically note the better start to the winter cropping season than we've had in a couple of years, they still expect winter cropping production to be down by around 10 per cent below the 10-year average, and production of irrigated crops, particularly broadacre irrigation, is expected to remain very low due to the ongoing conditions. And without a break in the drought, don't expect to have a summer irrigation program across any of New South Wales.

Overall, the forecast shows a decline in the net value of farm production of 12 per cent, and the net farm cash income declining by over eight per cent. Now, this impacts on the capacity of farmers to spend and to employ; and therefore it affects local contractors, local businesses, who all suffer as farmers tighten their belts. And importantly, it affects local productivity, which affects the price that consumers pay for their food at the end of the day. This drought will affect all of us in some way.

As a government, we can't make it rain. We can't make crops grow on dry dirt and we can't make livestock live off air. But, as a government, we can support our farmers so that when it does rain they are still there and they are ready to pick up the pieces and get going again. When that happens, we, in government, have established a restocking and replanting concessional loan through the Regional Investment Corporation so they can immediately rebuild and restore their business, because the hardest thing for a farmer at the end of a drought is if they can't access the funds to get going again. But those concessional loans are dependent on having farm businesses to rebuild, and that's what this bill that is before us today is about. It is designed to help our farmers get through the worst of it so that, at the other end, they are still there and ready to get going again.

Now, we have had the farm household allowance since 2014. Since its introduction, nearly 12,000 farmers have received assistance. Almost 7,000 are receiving payments now. We've paid over $330 million in fortnightly payments and related supplements and allowances. And while those receiving farm household assistance appreciate the support, we have heard that it's a difficult process. We have heard that some of the policy settings, including eligibility tests and assessment arrangements, aren't quite right, and that's what this bill is about. Where we can make it fairer and easier to access, we are making changes.

In September 2018, then minister David Littleproud, in his capacity as the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, appointed an independent panel to undertake a review of the farm household allowance—and on that note, I would like to acknowledge the efforts of panel members, including Michele Lawrence, Georgie Somerset and Professor Robert Slonim. The panel undertook extensive consultation, involving face-to-face and targeted stakeholder engagement, and they spoke to people from a range of organisations and interest groups, including both successful and unsuccessful applicants, farmers and industry groups, government agencies, accountants, bankers, financial counsellors, the Country Women's Association and the Isolated Children Parents Association. I'd like to thank all those who contributed to that review.

The panel's report, which was handed down earlier this year, provides us with a blueprint to rebuild the farm household allowance to ensure the program remains fit for purpose and continues to meet its objectives of providing income support and assisting structural change. While we've already taken some steps to implement the panel's recommendations, including changing the treatment of income from the forced sale of livestock, this bill goes further in progressing those recommendations. The farm household support amendment will maintain the net farm asset thresholds at $5 million, as recommended by the independent panel. It also clarifies the treatment of allowable deductions for the farm household allowance recipients.

The increase to the threshold will give more farmers access to it farm household allowance during times of hardship. It is what farmers have been telling us they need, because it will mean that they do not have to sell their assets and risk taking away some, or all, of their future income-producing capacity from their farm businesses. It also recognises that farm assets can be difficult to sell quickly and during tough times, and often, if they can do so, they do so well below what they're actually worth. It also means that farming businesses, such as cropping businesses, which typically carry larger asset levels, will now be able to access support under the farm household allowance. Businesses carrying larger levels of asset can still experience financial difficulty if they don't have sufficient cashflow, so this reform is particularly important across all agricultural communities.

The bill will also amend the treatment of income from business so allowable deductions can be claimed against related income. That is, allowable deductions associated with on-farm business income will be able to be deducted from that income, while off-farm deductions will be associated with the off-farm income. As a government we have already taken steps to increase the net asset threshold; however, that temporary measure ceased on 30 June. By passing this bill today, we can ensure that it applies retrospectively so all future applicants can access backdated payments to ensure no-one misses out. I urge the Senate today, as we all hope and pray for rain, to pass this bill to stand by our farmers as they struggle through this long, long dry and stand with our farmers so that, when it does rain, as a nation we're ready to rebuild.

12:36 pm

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak, as a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, on the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2019. This bill, commendably, formalises arrangements that have already been in place for a year, and extends and broadens other arrangements, so we commend the government for this as this time of need in the bush.

We have some reservations, and, on that matter, Senator Hanson and I will be writing to the minister, as I've told the minister. Firstly, the value of the farm assets will depend, of course, upon the location of the farm. So that's one thing that needs to be considered—a patch of dirt in one area is more valuable than in another area. Secondly, we want the minister to consider, in making regulations, the broadening of the exclusions to remove some of the vital assets and, particularly, to make sure the water licences and water entitlements are not counted in those assets, because those assets—the water entitlements and licences—can fluctuate enormously in price.

We recognise the details in the bill, and we commend the minister for that. There's been a lot of thought that's gone into this and an understanding of farming. We recognise that farmers are asset rich and cash poor, and that goes to the heart of this bill. However, farmers don't like welfare, and farmers are proud and honest people. What we would rather see, in addition to this, is that government fixes its policies so that farmers don't need welfare. We agree with Senator Davey that the government cannot make it rain and the government cannot make crops grow on dry dirt, but welfare wouldn't be necessary if the government stopped locking up land by stealing farmers' property rights without compensation, stopped the high power prices and excessive regulation, and stopped the high water prices.

The bush is inherently a great place for living and for raising families—for example, ask people right across Queensland, New South Wales and, I'm sure, the other states. But with regional centres being such wonderful communities, we may wonder why the regions are declining. The answer is easy: as I said last night, livelihoods in the rural areas are being gutted. Their productive capacity is being gutted, and what's doing that is Labor and Liberal policies for the last few decades at state and federal level. That economic mismanagement is occurring in several forms.

There are the high electricity prices, artificially inflated by the policies pushed by the Greens, the Labor Party and the Liberal Party. We have a drought, and yet farmers are not planting fodder crops because of electricity prices being so high that it precludes pumping of water. We have water policies that are destroying the productive capacity of the land. We have capricious federal government policies under both the Labor and Liberal parties. We have the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We have the live cattle export ban under the Labor party. Property rights are being stolen. That was initiated by the Howard government in agreement with the Borbidge National Party government in Queensland, followed by the Beattie government, the Bligh government and the Palaszczuk-Trad government, and, of course, paralleled by Bob Carr's government in New South Wales—all pushing the UN's policies that stole farmers' property rights.

Also I want to make note of a comment from farmer Dan McDonald near Charleville. He told me quite frankly and bluntly—a wonderful family—that every input to his farm is now regulated, which means that we have a nationalised farming sector, and that is the recipe for disaster longer term. We need farmers to be able to use their initiative, their brains and their practicality and apply that to their resources and assets to make a decent livelihood and living. Farmers like Rick Gurnett have known what I'm about to say for many, many years. He knows, like his neighbour Dan McDonald knows, that they're in this mess as a result of federal agreements with UN treaties, protocols, declarations and agreements, such as the 1975 Lima declaration signed by Gough Whitlam's Labor government in 1975, ratified the following year by Whitlam's archenemy, Malcolm Fraser. In 1992, the UN Rio declaration was signed for 21st century global governance by Paul Keating, the Labor prime minister. In 1996, the UN Kyoto protocol was not signed but John Howard publically admitted that he would do everything he could to comply with it, and that included stealing farmers' rights, which I have detailed elsewhere, and which deliberately goes against the constitutional provision for paying compensation to farmers. In 2015, the Abbott and Turnbull government signed the UN Paris agreement, and that was not even an agreement; it was merely a pseudo-arrangement that every nation would do whatever it wanted. And what did we do in this country? We followed the loony Greens' policies and legislated severe restrictions on electricity pricing. We made those cuts to our carbon dioxide output while China, the largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world, said it would consider doing something maybe in 30 years. Meanwhile we're exporting our jobs, our industry, our economy to the Chinese and to others.

Then we also have lunatic policies from the Rudd government, from the Liberal governments, from the Greens. We have carbon farming.

Senator Sterle interjecting

Ah, I can't forget the Nats. They pushed carbon farming too. That's another leftover Greens' policy. Carbon farming means locking up land and letting the land go feral. Feral animals and noxious weeds take over, and who pays for the cost of that additional management? The neighbouring farmers, and it drives them out of business. So we have a multiplier effect here. Just as Rick Gurnett at Charleville said, just as Marty Bella said in recent months—both echoing what Senator Hanson has said for 23 years—there is an ideological assault on rural Australia due to the UN's Agenda 21. And I've just itemised some of the agreements, protocols, treaties and declarations that have caused that.

Secure property rights are fundamental to freedom yet are destroyed through ignorance, cowardliness and gutlessness. I've had senior ministers in the current government tell me that they understand that John Howard's government stole property rights, but they're not doing anything. So much for today's so-called Liberals! They're ignoring and opposing the classical liberalism of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Frederic Bastiat and many others. These ministers hero John Howard's government but that's the very government that stole farmers' property rights to implement socialist UN policies. Worse still, as I said a minute ago, they did it in a way that deceitfully bypasses the Constitution to avoid paying farmers compensation. It's why we keep calling for restoration or compensation. These are the real issues.

I want to commend the government, though, for this bill and the provisions. Clearly, thought has gone into this bill, and One Nation is pleased to support it and to work with the Liberal and Labor parties to restore our nation's productive capacity.

12:44 pm

Photo of Sam McMahonSam McMahon (NT, Country Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Please note that this is not my first speech. We often refer to Australia as the lucky country, and I certainly believe we are, but we are not without our challenges. We are known around the world for our magnificent sandy beaches, our stunning wooded high country, our iconic reefs and all the other natural wonders we are fortunate to enjoy as part of our backyard. In terms of biomes, our country encompasses the broadest of diversity, from the lush tropics in the north to the harsh, often cold, cliffs of the Great Australian Bight in the south. As a Territorian, I have a particular love for the beauty of our country's vast interior, where desert meets desert and where the notion of finding arable land seems impossible. But, true to the nature of our country and our people, it is possible.

Over the decades, Australians have ventured into remote areas of our great country, and they have established farms on land that is often a hard struggle to make viable. Indeed, I would argue that our famed Aussie tenacity and ingenuity are attributes born of generations of farmers facing great adversity as they fought to survive and thrive in our often harsh land. Adversity is the plight of Aussie farmers. They work their land through fires, floods, droughts and other disasters, with dogged determination and unsurmountable hope. It takes a very special person to be a farmer.

This Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2019 demonstrates this government's dedication to the needs of farming communities in rural and regional Australia. The bill proposes to maintain the temporary increase of the farm assets value limits for farm household assistance at $5 million. This makes this temporary limit permanent. It also ensures that allowable deductions are applied against the relevant type of income for those deductions.

As a veterinary surgeon, one of my former roles—and that of many of my professional colleagues—was to provide veterinary services to primary producers. Some of these services include disease investigations, addressing production issues, reproductive improvement, genetic improvement, animal welfare, farm biosecurity, assessing management practices, and providing training in skills of management, medications and chemical handling—all of which is designed to improve production and profit to the primary producer. The majority of this work naturally involves animal production enterprises, but often there are also mixed cropping and farming systems. In this role, we see many farmers affected by factors often totally beyond their control. We are all very well aware of the effect of natural disasters and cyclical weather events, such as droughts, fires, floods and storms. There are also many other things that cause hardship and can lead to temporary or permanent loss of income. Some of these include fluctuating prices and loss of market access. With my other hat on, as a mango producer I can tell you the disappointment of seeing what should have been an $80,000 crop reduced to just $2,500 purely due to extreme market forces.

We also know our primary producers are subject to things such as pestilence and disease outbreaks, which can wipe out an entire year's crops or even the enterprise's entire genetic stock. I have seen the impact of this firsthand during the foot-and-mouth outbreak in the UK. I have personally endured the extremely distressing experience of having a woman clinging to me, screaming hysterically that her husband was on their neighbouring farm with a gun pointed to his head at the prospect of having all their animals culled in the disease outbreak response.

It is therefore vitally important that we, as a government and a nation, provide support to our producers in times of need and hardship. They should not be any worse off in terms of social security than any other ordinary Australian.

The farm household allowance is representative of a package of assistance measures that helps our hard-working farmers contend with the financial pressures they are sometimes forces to endure, an obvious example of which is those farmers currently caught in the drought. The key elements of the farm household allowance are income support for up to four cumulative years. At times when farmers do not know, and cannot know, when the drought will break, this support offers them a means by which to continue working the land. But it does more than that. Farmers will also have a sense of security and confidence, allowing them to better focus on their jobs and enjoy times with their families.

This package gives up to $1,500 to complete a farm financial assessment of the farm enterprise by a financial professional. Such assessments provide farmers with the data they need to make informed, strategic decisions in the management of their farms, which is a critical tool in times of hardship. It also provides up to $4,000 for each person in activity supplements, up to 17 one-on-one case management meetings, and things such as a healthcare card and pharmaceutical allowance, rent assistance, telephone allowance and remote area allowance, where applicable. These are things people in the city are entitled to and often, indeed, take for granted. Why should our farmers not enjoy the same support and benefits in times of hardship?

On 1 July 2018 the farm assets value limit was increased to $2.638 million. However, between 1 September 2018 and 30 June 2019, the farm assets value limit was increased on a temporary basis to $5 million. The temporary increase was affected by the amendments to the FHS Act and the Farm Household Support (Farm Assets Value Limit) Minister's Rules 2018. This limit lapsed on 30 June 2019. The amendments will maintain the temporary farm assets value limit at $5 million. This limit acknowledges that farmers cannot easily convert assets for self-support without impacting the ability of their farm business to produce income. Five million dollars might sound like a lot of assets, but you need to take into account that these assets are not always easy to sell for fair value, particularly during times of adverse events and hardship, and that there are often large liabilities against those assets; and then you have people with no employment, no income and no ability to get back into their chosen profession of farming for many years, or even permanently.

This bill engages and promotes the right to social security enshrined in article 9 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the right to social security. I commend this bill to the Senate.

12:53 pm

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2019. Right across Australia, right now, there are farmers and graziers and small business operators staring down the barrel of another dry winter following no break in the season last summer. These people can be hundreds of kilometres from their small town, or they can be close to a major centre, but in every case they share the same challenge.

There are few more important jobs in this country than farming—growing the food and fibre that feeds this nation and a good part of the world surrounding us. And it's not just farmers; it is those businesses that support farming families. Farmers are under constant attack. They have to sell at wholesale prices and buy at retail prices. Regional and remote businesses pay more for everyday items like fuel and groceries. They pay for additional transport. In addition, no matter how good a farmer can be, you cannot plan for years of extended drought. The farm household bill provides cash to farms, for households to spend in the local communities to support the small businesses who cannot diversify, who cannot attract more consumers.

In my short time in the Senate, I've felt privileged to be a part of the federal government that has shown that it not only hears the concerns of primary producers; it listens, but, more importantly, it acts. Already, we've seen the passing of the Future Drought Fund bill, we've established the National Water Grid and we're close to enacting tougher punishments on extremist farm trespassers. We're investing $100 million in beef roads, and Scott Morrison's North Queensland Livestock Industry Recovery Agency represents the government's firm commitment to rebuild the region and help the people of north-west Queensland after floods decimated homes, businesses and cattle stations near my home region of Cloncurry and Julia Creek this year.

The North Queensland Livestock Industry Recovery Agency has already helped more than 1,200 producers and more than 550 small businesses and not-for-profits access grants to get back on their feet. The agency has been ably let by Shane Stone, who comes from the Northern Territory and understands these challenges as well as anyone. But, in the north-west, it was 15 days of rain, cold temperatures and strong winds that had a devastating impact, destroying fences, killing thousands of cattle and devastating families. I was with the Prime Minister when he visited the area even before the floods had receded, and I saw scenes that will stay with me for life. There was little time to dwell on the enormity of this catastrophe, though—what it means not just to those local communities but also to the businesses and jobs that flow away from the regions and into the cities and coastlines of Australia.

The North Queensland Livestock Industry Recovery Agency recently highlighted the case of Nigel and Cat Simmons whose Clarafield property in McInlay Shire near Julia Creek was affected. They are one example of a family who've already made use of the Morrison government $75,000 grant to repair fences and restock livestock, and we are seeing the beneficial flown-on effects of this grant in their local community. The words 'flow-on effect' are very important, because having prosperous farms doesn't just help people on the land; it supports whole towns and districts.

Successful farmers are very important to successful rural and regional towns. It's very fair to say that most profits—if there are any—are really spent very quickly. It's quite rare for primary producers to simply put money in the bank. Usually there is farm maintenance to catch up on that was postponed in the lean years. Maybe it's time to replace the tractor that could have done with replacement a few years ago. They are constantly repairing fences, paying transport companies, bringing in new genetics. Then, maybe, just maybe, there's a little bit of something left over for the family. The small list I just mentioned bears deeper thought, because it also applies to the local tractor salesman, the hardware store, the truck drivers, the stock and station agents and, of course, the clothes shop that all benefit from families and farmers with spare money.

When farmers don't have spare money, it is local regional towns that suffer the most. It is vitally important that we keep people in our regions—that we keep people on farms and stations and we keep people in these regional towns. That is why this bill is so important. This allows farmers to implement long-term plans to improve their business. There is no downside to having a financially sound agricultural sector, and this bill goes some way to ensuring that this is the case.

The farm household allowance was introduced in July 2014 and is part of the government's suite of assistance measures for farmers doing it tough. The farm household allowance is a package of assistance that helps farmers and their partners who have financial pressures to stay on their feet. It provides income support for up to four cumulative years, which has been incredibly important in this time of extended dry. Most importantly, it allows for up to $1,500 for a financial professional to complete a farm financial assessment of the farm enterprise. In the last term the agriculture minister added more farm financial counsellors. That is critical. I know from running a small business that when times are tough you don't always know where to go for help. To have these people who are well-trained, capable and available is a critical piece of the puzzle, because if you ask for help and assistance early you have a much better chance of surviving. There is up to $4,000 in activity supplements for each person and up to 17 one-on-one case management meetings, in addition to a healthcare card, pharmaceutical allowances, rent assistance, telephone allowance and, where applicable, remote area allowance. The program is uncapped and demand-driven so that there is no chance that anybody who is eligible will miss out. It is my experience that this has been a very important part not just in the floods in Townsville and the north-west of Queensland but in this drought assistance now. People will often say, 'There are other people worse off than me. I don't want to claim this money, because it might mean that somebody else misses out.' That's not the case. It's an important message that we send to farmers across the country: Please do not self-assess. Go and get some advice and get the application in.

The other thing that I really want to draw to the attention of the chamber is that we often talk about farms as being desperate and in need of help. That is of course the case. But what is really important is keeping the young people in these communities, whether it be in the town or on the farm or the station. It is the young people who are bringing incredible innovation and ideas to agriculture. The growth of science- and technology-based solutions that are happening in Australia is truly exciting and world leading. Whether it be geotech, with geosciences; precision agriculture; genetics; and tracking and drone use in more-remote communities, there are truly exciting things happening in the agriculture industry. We lead the world in this place. It is terrifically important that we provide hope to these communities to stay involved and for the young people not just to see their family struggling but to see that this is an industry that is worth staying involved in. As Senator McMahon said, it is an industry that you come to. It is a calling.

I would encourage people to support the passing of this legislation. It provides a raft of measures that are incredibly important. I have heard people on the other side talk about this not being a perfect solution. That's the world we live in. There is never a silver bullet for any of these problems, but what this government has done and what the minister is bringing is another piece of the puzzle, another solution that works to wards a more-efficient, a more financially stable and a more-effective agriculture industry. I am delighted to speak to this bill, and I hope that it will be passed quickly.

1:04 pm

Photo of Pauline HansonPauline Hanson (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I think it's great to have the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2019 to help the farming sector. Farmers are the backbone of this country and have gone through many hardships over more than 100-plus years since the country first started farming. We've seen a lot of farmers leave the farming sector. About 20 years ago we had about 125,000 farmers. We are down to around 85,000 to 90,000 farmers at the moment. Because of our extreme weather conditions in this country, we face drought quite often, which affects the farming sector and their families. Just recently in Queensland, we've had the floods. I went up to Julia Creek. I saw the devastation that was created through that, with cattle dead in the corner. They estimate it could have been anything up to around 700,000-plus cattle that actually were killed through that flooding and through the freezing weather conditions afterwards.

Farmers that I have met from travelling around quite extensively over the years and having met the farming sectors—very proud people—would be the last to actually line up wanting a helping hand. They are the backbone and the true salt of this nation. When I went on the Burrumbuttock Hay Run—I have been on it three times—through drought conditions, in Northern Queensland, that we travelled from the borders of New South Wales on a couple of hundred trucks carrying the hay to the farmers. Along the way to the destination and when we arrived, people were lining the streets, waving the trucks on. You could see how pleased they were that these people gave up their time to deliver hay to the farming sector. The queue of cars and trailers—whatever they could pick their hay up on—was kilometres long. I watched some of the old codgers, as they call them, and the farming families. They were so grateful for that helping hand. Some, who would never have queued up to get some hay to feed their animals unless they really had to, had tears running down their cheeks because of gratitude.

This would be no different to the gratitude of receiving a few dollars. That's all it is; it's really just a few dollars. Have a look at the payments that they will be receiving. For a single aged under 22 with no dependant children, you're looking at $462. 20. There's an energy supplement of $7 included in that. A partner aged under 22 with dependant children is $507.60 with the energy supplement of $7.70. Let me say that, as of 14 June 2019 more than 11,900 people had received the farming assistance since it was introduced. And there were 6,892 people receiving the farm assistance as at 14 June 2019. Now, remember I said to you that the farming sector is about 85,000 to 90,000 farmers in the country so there are not a whole lot of people that are actually out there collecting it. The estimated actual expenditure providing for the farming assistance packages was $163.4 million, but this was estimated to decrease to $59.7 million in 2019-20.

This money is basically only equivalent to Newstart. For people to receive this, to meet the FHA income tax, the claimant must have income below the cut-off point for Newstart allowance or youth allowance—whichever applies. The cut-off point is the point at which a person's Newstart allowance rate is reduced to zero under the Newstart allowance income test. The current income test cut-off for a single Newstart allowance recipient with no children is $1,069.84 per fortnight. For the partner recipient with no children, it is $979 each. So they are going to change the assets test as well. It is going to go from $2.6 million, basically, up to $5 million. I agree with that; so it should be. A farm can be anything from thousands of acres to a few hundred acres, and the house and land is taken in as an asset. That's going to be exempt. But the land value, apart from that, can actually drive up the price of the assets. Then there is farm machinery. As we know, you could be looking at at least $150,000 or $250,000 for a decent tractor or similar farming equipment, like harvesters. These pieces of equipment that they have to buy can cost in excess of hundreds of thousands of dollars. So raising it to $5 million is not unreasonable.

I think that this needs to be changed to take into consideration those farmers who have water licences. Those water licences, especially in time of drought, can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars—only when in drought. When do these people in the farming sector need that assistance? In times of drought. So, if they hold a water licence, that is going to put them beyond the assets test for being able to get that assistance. If they have to sell their water licence to meet that test, when there are good times, when they can farm, they won't have their water licence. Their farming is going to be destroyed. They won't be able to farm without the water licence. That needs to be taken into consideration. I hope the minister does look at this to extend the assets test to possibly include the water licences, which will be worth a lot of money at the time when they will need that assistance. Other assets that need to be considered include, of course, the cattle or any stock that they may have. It doesn't take much on a farm, especially with the land value, to bring the value up to $5 million. I don't think we're paying out a lot of money. If you have a look at other Australians that receive pensions or Newstart, they can be living in million-dollar mansions on Sydney Harbour or in Melbourne—and I'm not denying them that; that's their home. Because they don't have land around it, their property is worth millions of dollars; yet, if it's a farming sector, we only take out their house and 2½ acres.

In some areas, a lot of these farming properties have been held by families and handed down for generations, and the families can't get assistance because of the asset value of the land. Yet, a lot of places won't allow owners to subdivide or sell off that land so that they can provide for themselves, so they're forced to leave their homes and their communities. I think that needs to be taken into consideration. Some people can't get their healthcare card, and I think that isn't fair. A lot of those in the farming sector cannot get assistance or pensions or healthcare cards because of the price of their properties, and sometimes these properties are worth less than those belonging to people who live in Sydney, Melbourne or even Brisbane, yet those people get those benefits because that's their home. It's the land value that drives up the price.

I need to point out how important it is to assist these people at times, and I know it's not a great sum of money. One story was relayed to me about a family that went through tough times through the droughts. The family had loaded up the cattle to take them to the market. The young boy, who was only 17, loaded up the cattle and was going to take them to market, but they were assessed as being too poor. He had to unload the cattle because they couldn't be transported and taken away through the drought. That same young boy sat around the table with his parents and said he needed a new pair of boots. They said, 'You know we haven't got the money for the boots.' I think it was just the tipping point for that young fellow, because he went around the back of the shed that night and took his own life. This is the devastation that is happening out there. People are actually taking their own lives. They are too proud to ask for a helping hand. The neighbours and the police keep an eye on them. Sometimes we need to look past all these tests.

Another thing here in the bill—I'll just go to the point made here—is that they can only apply for this over a three- or four-year period. Why are we putting a time limit on this? They can only claim this Newstart allowance for three to four years. I can take you to Mount Isa. As I said, I went on the Burrumbuttock hay run. They were facing drought for eight years. The whole of New South Wales, I think, just recently was declared a drought state. Most of Queensland is in drought. We're putting restrictions on them. Do we put restrictions an all other Australians—that they can only claim Newstart for a matter of three or four years? Do we put restrictions on pensioners—that they can only claim it for a few years? I'm sorry, it's not right. I don't agree with this.

In principle, I do think the bill is necessary to support our farming sector, but I don't believe it's been well thought out. This is bandaiding again. This is more legislation that is only bandaiding without really going to the heart of the problem on how to deal with it and what's fair and just for all Australians. I hope the government does look at this. I'm of the opinion that they can actually look at the regulation, including the water licences. Have a really good look at this and at what you can do to improve this bill a little bit to better assist the farming sector. I know they won't be lining up. They are the backbone of this nation. They work extremely hard, but sometimes they need that helping hand. Make sure it's a decent helping hand to ensure that they will be there for the long term, because we need our farmers to provide the food for our nation, and the exports we get from our farming sector keep this country afloat. They do pay their taxes and they work damn hard. I think they are the ones we need to actually stand behind and support. Let's look at this bill and see where we can improve it a little bit to help all Australians.

1:18 pm

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2019. Five years ago, the Liberal-National coalition government introduced the farm household allowance program as part of the suite of measures to assist our farmers who were doing it tough. During this time, we've made a number of changes to ensure the program meets the needs of Australian farming families, whether that be putting food on the table, paying household bills or buying school supplies. Today, we are seeking to make further changes to improve the program to ensure it is fit for purpose.

Farmers are unlike any other recipients of government support. They have a full-time business to run, livestock to care for, crops to market and properties to maintain. I know this personally as someone whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were farmers. Indeed, in my office, which is just on the other side of this wall here, I have an old milk can from my grandparents' dairy farm. On the wall are cane knives that were used by our family. I do this to make sure I never forget how tough it is being a farmer. I also know this as a senator who spends his life on the road, travelling around regional, rural and remote Queensland. Indeed, just this last weekend, on Friday, I went up to the Tully Show, one of the finest agricultural shows in Queensland, where the Liberal-National Party had a stall. I was able to meet many people there and look at the bananas and the sugar cane that was being judged. I would like to acknowledge all those who were winners in the various contests, and can I thank Andrew Cripps and his parents for all work his family do for the community up there. I should acknowledge Paul Scarr also went to the show on Friday afternoon.

On Saturday, I was out in Hughenden. I think senators will be interested to know that Hughenden is the capital of the Flinders Shire Council. The mayor there is Jane McNamara. I was there representing the government, observing the signing of an agreement between the shire council and a company called CNVM Investments to build a meat processing facility and a feedlot in Hughenden. This is something a lot of people have done a lot of work on over many years. They are doing that because the solution to what is happening in rural, remote and regional Australia is not only what is in this bill here today but also in what councils and businesses are doing out in rural, regional and remote Queensland and Australia. When our farmers are doing well, our regional economies are doing well. When our farmers are doing it tough, not only do our regional economies do it tough, but the cities do tough. We must demonstrate our willingness to make sure they get the hand-up they need.

Before I get into the substance of the bill that's before us here today, I want to look at what else the government are doing to support regional Australia because we have got a vision for regional Australia. We want people to move to and live in regional Australia. We want regional Australia to grow. I say that as someone who lives in regional Australia. I live on the Darling Downs. I live on a patch of dirt, just outside of Warwick. Senator McKenzie, your cabinet colleague Minister Littleproud lives on the other side of Warwick. My office is in another region of Queensland, on the Sunshine Coast. We on this side understand regional Australia because we come from it and we want to grow it. We want to back our regional economies. We want to create new and better-paying jobs and give the families the opportunity to keep on living in regional Australia and stop that drain to the cities.

Just a few weeks ago at the Bush Summit in Dubbo, the Prime Minister announced that the Minister for Agriculture will lead a national plan to enable agriculture, fisheries and forestry to become a $100 billion industry by 2030 and that is pretty exciting—very exciting, actually. The Prime Minister announced the government will establish a House select committee that will look at the future of rural and regional Australia, to be chaired by the member for Barker, Mr Tony Pasin MP. It shows that not only are we delivering but we are thinking about where we want to take rural and regional Australia. That is a very important thing that the government is doing. The committee's work will pull together positive stories from across regional Australia, and its work will be vital in it lead-up to a formal statement from the Deputy Prime Minister to the House of Representatives later this year. The government will announce further details on this committee as time moves on.

The government will continue to invest in our regions through major programs like the $841 million of Building Better Regions Fund and through the launch of Regional Deals, which bring together three tiers of government to build a better future for our regions. I want to talk about the BBRF. It is one of the best programs that any government, in my view, has ever done in Australia's history. It is brilliant at enabling small communities to get funds to invest sometimes in big projects—up to $10 million—or very small projects, for example, the Wondai Regional Art Gallery. Senator McKenzie, I know you have been there because you popped into a second-hand store and I had been there two days before! The reason we went to Wondai was because the art gallery in Wondai is one of the best regional art galleries in the country. It got a BBRF fund of about $50,000, which the volunteers were able to use to improve the kitchen facilities for that art gallery. Their annual art show is coming on 4 October—for those who are interested.

Back to Hughenden, the government was able to put $5 million into the construction of the Hughenden Recreational Lake. While I was in Hughenden on Saturday, I was able so inspect the lake and see the work that has gone on there. The federal government put money in through BBRF, the state government put some money in and the council put some money in. It is a brilliant facility for a small country town that has been doing it tough. The grey nomads can go there, spend their money and the kids in town will have somewhere to swim.

Now, as announced in the 2019-20 budget, the government is investing in Regional Deals, providing $172 million as part of the Hinkler Regional Deal. For those who know Keith Pitt, he never takes no for an answer, so he's delivered for his communities in Hinkler and the greater Wide Bay region. We have $45 million with the Barkly Regional Deal in the territory, and $3.2 million for the Albury-Wodonga Regional Deal. This will help respond to local priorities and drive productivity in each of those regions.

Something else the government is doing that is close to my heart is the Rural Financial Counselling Service. After my parents had to sell the family farm, dad became one of the first rural financial counsellors in the country. It is something I have lived through and know about. It is a brilliant thing that the governments have been doing at a federal and state level in terms of trying to help farmers stay on the land to make sure they can run their farms as businesses. This assistance provided through the FHA is complemented by the critical Rural Financial Counselling Service. The coalition government has increased the investment in the service to more than $77 million. It is a brilliant investment. Because our farmers are doing it tough, between 1 July 2018 and 30 June 2019 there were over 6,600 active clients, which is an increase of more than 1,700 client from the previous year. That's why last year the Australian government increased the funding by $5 million from $16.7 million to $21.7 million. Rural financial counsellors provide premium, tailored, invaluable support for farmers in helping them identify financial and business options, assisting with negotiations, and providing referrals and helpful information on available support. The support is tailored to each client's need and is entirely confidential. Rural financial counsellors are highly mobile and can visit on-farm and have a meeting in an office or other mutually convenient location.

What is not said often about the financial counselling service is that often it is the opportunity for Mr and Mrs farmer to have that conversation with someone. It isn't just the bloke or his wife; it is both the farmers, having that conversation with someone about how the farm is going financially. There is always this emotional support that goes there, to sit around that table and have a conversation, sometimes just about life. Especially if you're out working on a farm, and you're out on the tractor or whatever, you don't get to speak to humans too often. For those who are listening on their tractors at the moment—they do listen! Senators may have a giggle, but they do listen to us! I will probably get critiqued on the number of 'ums' I have said in this speech—farmers are some of the most informed contributors to public life in Australia, because they spend so much time listening to Senate debates.

In terms of how we're helping those in rural and regional communities, there is also drought support. This has been touched upon by Senator McDonald, and I acknowledge the comments of Senator Hanson before. Helping our farming families and their communities through the drought is a key priority for the Australian government. Something that some people may not be aware of is that there are children in Queensland—I look at the students in the gallery—who are yet to experience rain. They are yet to experience precipitation falling on their heads, so long has been the drought in their home communities. That is a tragedy for them as young Australians and is a tragedy for their communities.

So we know they are doing it tough, and the government's been listening. We always know we can do more, but I think we are doing a good lot at the moment. As part of the government's ongoing, immediate and long-term drought response, the government is providing more than $7 billion in assistance and concessional loans to support those affected by drought. Our support and assistance measures cover a range of areas, including financial assistance, investment in infrastructure, rural and regional mental health, combating weeds and pests, making information easier to access, and improving existing services such as the farm household allowance, which is what this bill is about, and the Rural Financial Counselling Service.

In relation to pests, one of the things that we are particularly good at doing in Queensland is the wild dog fences, in terms of ensuring that farms can be fenced off from the wild dogs. What we are seeing in parts, especially in south-west Queensland, is that sheep are returning to areas where they were driven out from because of the combination of the drought and, more worryingly, because of what wild dogs were doing. For those who have been behind this program, the wild dog exclusion fencing, it is a brilliant, brilliant program of the government, trying to stop this particular—I won't say invasive species, because everybody loves dogs—but these dogs need to be shot on sight or fenced out from people's properties.

We're providing support to farmers based on preparedness, risk management and support in times of hardship, including drought. It does not depend on where a farmer lives on depend on them being in a particular industry. One of the key investments is through the establishment of the Future Drought Fund, which will provide a secure and sustainable source of funding to strengthen drought resilience. This is making sure that, in the times when it is good, people can make sure they have themselves prepared for when it actually goes bad. Now is the time to fix up the waterways, fix up the dams and fix up that infrastructure that is on people's farms. Following the passage of the Future Drought Fund Bill 2019, $100 million will be invested annually in projects that help Australian farmers and communities to be more prepared for and resilient to the effects of drought.

Now, there are other measures that can assist farmers to stay on the land. Through the Regional Investment Corporation Australian farmers can now access up to $2 million in low-interest loans. That's double the previous limit of $1 million. The government has also doubled the total funding available for low-interest loans in any given year to $500 million. These loans will help farmers in hardship, including those affected by the current drought. The first five years of these loans will remain interest only. Eligible farmers with existing government loans will be able to refinance their loan with the Regional Investment Corporation to access the interest-only period. Recently the government announced additional support for farmers recovering from drought through concessional replanting and restocking loans of up to $200,000, which will be made available through the Regional Investment Corporation.

I'll turn, in the time that is left, to the farm household allowance. The farm household allowance program has a more generous assets test and other special dispensations. The farm household allowance program includes income support for up to four cumulative years, up to $1,500 to have a farm financial assessment of the farm enterprise completed by a financial professional, up to $4,000 for each person in activity supplements and up to 17 one-on-one case management meetings. It also includes a healthcare card, pharmaceutical allowance, rent assistance, telephone allowance and remote area allowance where it's deemed to be applicable. It is uncapped and a demand driven program, ensuring that no-one who is eligible misses out.

Since its commencement, the program has provided support for more than 12,000 Australians and paid more than $340 million. The farm household allowance program is not just a drought measure; it helps all farmers facing financial hardship. But we must ensure that it remains fit for purpose, which is why we are seeking to make a number of improvements to the program. They include extending the program from three to four cumulative years, implementing the supplementary lump sum payments in the 2018-19 financial year, removing the profit from the forced disposal of livestock from the program income test if it is put in a farm management deposit, and simplifying the application form.

Last year, the government temporarily increased the net farm assets test eligibility threshold from $2.6 million to $5 million. This move recognised that, while farmers may have substantial assets, they have no income to meet daily expenses. When you travel around Queensland, this is something that you hear quite often. Farmers have been destocking their properties. They've got no money coming in, they're pulling kids out of school and they're selling off other assets. What that means is that, when it rains—when the good times come again, as they always do—the farmers are unable to restock because they cannot afford to restock, and they are unable to grow their crops because they do not have the money in the bank to make sure that the business can grow.

This move, while recognising that farmers may have substantial assets, as I've said earlier, helps them grow their businesses, and that's very important. As a result of this increase, nearly 280 new recipients have come on to the program, and during the election campaign the Liberal-National coalition government promised to make this change permanent. This was one of the many promises that we made during the election campaign and one of the many promises that we're going to deliver. It formed one of the key components of our election manifesto: supporting farmers in drought.

This bill delivers on that election commitment by amending the Farm Household Support Act 2014 to set the net farm assets threshold at $5 million. This change will allow up to 8,000 more people to access the program above the previous threshold. It means these farmers will not have to sell their assets and risk some or all of the future income-producing capacity of their farm business. It also recognises that farm assets can be difficult to sell quickly and, during tough times, are often sold for less than they're worth. We know that in Queensland. You only have to look at the pages of Country Life in terms of the properties that have appeared a year ago and come back three or six months later. There is no interest in buying these properties, because the properties are drought impacted. We don't want these farmers selling these properties at such a loss that will impact on their ability to retire debt or invest in other businesses.

This bill will also amend the treatment of income from business such that allowable deductions can be claimed against related income—that is, allowable deductions associated with on-farm business income will be able to be deducted from the income, and off-farm deductions will be associated with off-farm income. This clarification is consistent with the policy intent. It will not have any financial consequences for recipients.

The Liberal-National government is providing immediate relief efforts, whether through the farm household allowance or through more direct grants that have been made to councils around the country to support our farmers. I don't want to keep going back to the Flinders Shire Council, but I went to the north-west about six weeks ago and $1 million that had been provided to those drought-impacted councils has been gratefully received by those councils. What is interesting is that—whether it is Longreach, Blackall, Tambo, Winton, Flinders, McKinlay or Richmond—they are all spending their $1 million but they're all spending it in different ways, and that's the best thing. We don't need the federal government telling people how to spend money; those on the ground know what to do with it. This Liberal-National government stands behind farmers in need. We are prepared to provide a genuine, long-term investment in drought resilience and drought-proofing Australia. For that, I commend the bill to the Senate.

1:37 pm

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise just to speak very briefly on the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2019. Obviously, it's another opportunity, Senator Sterle, to demonstrate just what this government is doing for the farmers of Australia—in this case, again, the drought-affected farmers of Australia, a topic I have spoken about in this place, it feels like a few times over the last couple of days. It is a very important mechanism by which we enable farming families to stay in their communities, to stay active in those communities, to continue buying the groceries from the local shop, to continue getting their kids into the local school, to not have to leave a particular area to find off-farm income. So the farm household allowance is a very important measure about sustaining and maintaining communities through what is the toughest possible time. I think all in this place need to understand in their bones how tough it is when—sometimes for year on year on year—the way you make your living, your livelihood, is destroyed in front of your eyes, when the livestock that you have bred and sustained, improved, sometimes over generations, are forced to be sold off, or when the crop withers in the ground.

These times are extraordinarily tough for rural communities, but rural communities are extraordinarily resilient, and they take what the climate throws at them and get on. Western Australia has been blessed with a run of pretty good seasons, in the main. There are always places in Western Australia that don't get the rain that others do, and it's good to see that the system does at least cater for that eventuality. There was always criticism flowing from the Western Australia agricultural community about previous iterations of support for farming communities—the exceptional circumstances was the one I was most involved with when I was with the Pastoralists and Graziers Association. There was the feeling that Western Australia did miss out. Looking down the farm household allowance sheet, there aren't very many receiving farm household allowance in Western Australia, but that is because we have had a run of good seasons. This measure targets assistance to where it is needed, and that is a really fundamental change, a really fundamental part of the government's approach to drought.

Again, I don't want to take up too much of the chamber's time, but I note, with gratitude, the efforts of the government in terms of supporting local government authorities in drought affected areas. Local government is a cornerstone of the bush. It provides a lot of the services and amenities that those in the city take for granted, and in the bush they just would not be there without the local government providing them. Supporting local governments in those communities is a vital way of enabling rural communities to survive and to continue to thrive under what are very difficult circumstances.

Drought isn't the only challenge faced by the bush. I think there are a few other potential problems on the horizon that we also need to start thinking about in the years ahead. There are legal actions against glyphosate, a chemical which is by all scientific analysis known to be a very safe chemical but which has been having a mounting political campaign in other parts of the world. We certainly don't want to see that infect Australia. With the resistance and fear campaigns against modern plant breeding techniques, we need a new green revolution—a green revolution in the agricultural sense I would hasten to add. We need to see the new plant varieties of a future generation that can provide the carbohydrate, the protein and the increasing demand for plant-based protein around the world. We're also seeing a threat in terms of animal activism, which, again, this government has acted swiftly on.

Farmers have the right to undertake their businesses in a safe, secure fashion. They do not deserve to be harassed. They do not deserve to be invaded. They do not deserve to have their property destroyed. They deserve to be able to, as all Australians do, carry on their business as they have for generations.

In conclusion, obviously, I do support this bill. It's a very important part of this government's overall package, a package that includes the Future Drought Fund, a package that includes assistance to local government authority, and a package that includes support for fodder and support for water infrastructure. This is one part of a much larger jigsaw. I commend the bill to the Senate.

1:42 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

In summing up, I would like to thank senators who have contributed to this debate for their very thoughtful contributions. In particular, I would like to thank those senators who have brought their lived experience of either being from a farming community or farmers themselves, and their deep love of regional Australia and the land, to this debate.

Like Senator Hanson, we all recognise that farmers are the backbone of our nation. We are very, very proud of our farming communities. We're proud of the produce that they create and we're proud of the place in which they exist in our economy and in our communities.

This bill demonstrates our government's responsiveness to the needs of farming communities and to rural and regional Australia. It is an election commitment and we are once again delivering on the back of the election promises we made.

The Farm Household Allowance program provides for up to four years of income support, as has been mentioned, so that farmers and their partners can take steps to improve their long-term financial situation. As they are on this payment, they will be supported to look at their farming business and to make tough decisions about whether to change farming practice, so the business is more sustainable going forward or to make the tough decision to enter succession planning to leave the land.

Farmers who are accessing the program are subject to income of on farm and off farm asset thresholds. From 1 September 2018 to 30 June 2019, the on farm assets threshold, known as the farm asset value limit, was temporarily increased from $2.6 million to $5 million. To acknowledge the commentary around today, there is a lot of gear that you use to produce your on-farm income, such as water licences and headers and the like that are expensive. So increasing that threshold permanently to $5 million is absolutely an important part of supporting our farmers.

We also understand that our farmers are asset rich but cash poor and need support to improve their circumstances, particularly if they're experiencing poor climatic conditions. The bill also supports recipients to consider alternative employment or transition away from farming with dignity. The bill clarifies the treatment of deductions and incomes for recipients, and it also goes to a range of other issues, which have been outlined by other senators here today. Essentially, the bill maintains the farm asset value limit at $5 million, clarifies the treatment of deductions and income for recipients and helps farmers and their partners plan for their financial future.

In response to some of the issues raised by Senator Sterle, we have made changes to simplify the application form and process for farmers over this period of time. We've cut the form by a third; it's now five pages shorter. We've grouped together critical eligibility questions at the front so you can very quickly determine whether you're eligible or not. We've actually gone back to farmers to ask if it's user friendly. In response to the issues today, we have obviously had a review. I've read the review; I'm sitting with it, and you'll have a response very shortly from the government. So thank you for continuing to work with us on that.

It does deliver on our election commitment. Our government is resolute in backing Australian farmers to continue to produce their world-class food and fibre. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question negatived.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.