Monday, 2 December 2019
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister for Agriculture, Senator McKenzie. Minister, farmers are here en masse and want answers to these questions they gave my office: the major storage dams of the lower Murray-Darling Basin are currently holding about 7,500 gigalitres of water, which is 7.5 trillion litres, yet farmers along the Basin in New South Wales and Victoria are receiving zero allocation for general security water. I'll say it again: these farmers can visit their water in their dams. They can watch water flow past their properties on the way to irrigate forests. They just can't have any. Minister, will you release 1,000 gigalitres, just 13 per cent of the water in storage, to the states for general security water so our farmers can grow food and fibre for Australia and the world?
I might answer this in my capacity as representing the minister for water, Minister Littleproud. The two million Australians who live and work throughout the Murray-Darling Basin system are actually providing food and fibre not just to our entire country but to the world. It is a hub of clean, green, safe, sustainable food production. It is also—in Shepparton, through the Goulburn Valley, in my home state of Victoria, and in other areas, particularly in New South Wales—the hub of food manufacturing. There are tens of thousands of Australians in these communities, on farm and off farm, who rely on water to be able to ensure they can continue to do what they have been doing for decades—and, in many cases, generations.
We know that these communities are under pressure. I was one of the first people in this place coming back from the election to be talking about the heartache, when you are a farmer in drought, of seeing water flow right past your front gate to water an environmental asset far, far away. It is heartbreaking. These farmers have had to come to parliament, and that's why we have been making changes since we came to parliament—
Mr President, with just over 30 seconds left, the minister is not answering the question. Will they release 1,000 gigalitres of water to the farming sector? She has not even touched on that part of the question. Waffling isn't enough.
Can I go to the point of direct relevance. I again ask senators not to simply restate a preferred part of the question but to bring the point of order to that of direct relevance. Can I remind the senator what direct relevance means in contrast to what relevance used to mean. It used to mean, to quote a ruling of President Baker, that if, for example, a question concerned the state of the economy, the minister's answer is relevant if it refers to the state of the economy. President Beahan said relevance means relevance to the subject matter of the question. The Senate changed the standing orders to require answers to be directly relevant. In my view, to be directly relevant means that an answer must directly refer to or address, including challenging, material or assertions contained in a question or any preamble—that is, it is a narrower test than simply dealing with the same subject matter. It shouldn't deal with the motives of people asking questions unless those motives are assigned in the question itself and, therefore, it would be in order for a minister to challenge those. I just want to remind senators of that because direct relevance is a narrower test than relevance, which was the old subject matter. Minister, Senator Hanson highlighted part of her question. I can't direct you how to answer a question, as long as you are directly relevant to part of the question. And it was a lengthy question in this case, with a preamble, Senator Hanson. So I will listen carefully to the minister and ask her to continue.
I took the question to mean that we need more water in basin communities who are suffering from drought and near-zero allocations in some states and very low allocations in others. In these conditions what water there is for the environment is being used cautiously to minimise irreversible damage. At the beginning of August the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder commenced the delivery of the southern spring flow targeting environmental outcomes. I think it's useful to note that the Water Act does not allow water set aside for the environment to be given to farmers either as a loan or as a gift.
Thank you, Mr President. Minister, if this water is too important to give to farmers for food and fibre for Australians and the world, can you tell this place what that water is reserved for? If farmers are not going to get that 7.5 gigalitres, that 7.5 trillion litres, who is?
This is one of the tragedies of this situation. Going to Senator Pratt's point: without water from the skies, it is very hard to create new water in the system. We are building water infrastructure. We are the side of politics that actually put a halt to buybacks, that sought to get any more efficiencies out of this system through investing in on-farm infrastructure. If the other team had been elected, they'd be getting their cheque book right now and walking on farms taking water. We refused to do that. It was we who capped it. It was we who put in the socioeconomic criteria so that you cannot remove one more gigalitre from these communities. We know, because we live in these communities, the reprehensible damage that removing one more gigalitre from the Murray-Darling Basin communities will actually do to not just farmers' productive capacity but also their own local communities' sustainability.
Minister, an agriculture minister who fails to help agriculture, whether on her own account or that of her party, is, by any definition, a failure. Will you resign?
An incident having occurred in the gallery—
No, Senator Roberts, I won't be resigning. It is actually our side of government that backs agriculture and mining communities throughout regional Australia to deliver for them. Your party seeks to stop free trade agreements which have led to—
An incident having occurred in the gallery—
Sorry, Senator McKenzie. Is someone up there in the gallery going to have the courage to own up? Are you going to have the courage to own up or are you going to hide? Please remove the gentleman. It is not appropriate. He is utterly inappropriate. It is completely disrespectful to your fellow citizens to behave that way. Senator McKenzie, please continue.
Thank you very much, Mr President. It is our side of politics, myself included, that backs accessing more markets for our farmers, who export 70 per cent of what they grow. One in five Australians owes their job to our status as a trading nation, so we back free trade rather than close ourselves off to markets of the world. We are the side of politics that put $22 million on the table at the election to support Australian dairy farmers, not just through a mandatory code of conduct to ensure that the very unique and challenged dairy industry regions in this country come together and support a mandatory code of conduct to stop the egregious behaviour of milk processors against farmers— (Time expired)
My question is to the Minister for Agriculture. I myself am a senator who lives in the regions, in an area where we are on zero per cent allocation, and who understands exactly how hard and how frustrating it is for our people. Can you explain to the chamber what the Liberals and Nationals in government are doing to take practical steps during this drought, including how we are making water available to farmers to support livestock and breeding herds, in order to improve recovery when the drought breaks?
Thank you, Senator Davey. You know better than anyone in this place, as an irrigator yourself, just how hard it is out there at the moment. The Nationals and Liberals in government are acting to help drought affected farmers to ensure access to water to grow fodder and to help farmers elsewhere suffering from drought to keep their breeding stock alive and protect the years they've invested in developing their genetics.
As part of our government's last round of support for drought affected farmers, Commonwealth and South Australian governments have struck a deal to secure 100 gigalitres of water so that farmers can grow fodder, silage and pasture at a discounted rate. By ramping up production, the South Australian government has agreed to sell up to 100 gigalitres of water allocations from the metropolitan account drawn from the River Murray to drought affected farmers. This means that water provided to farmers under the Water for Fodder program will be completely replaced by water produced by the Adelaide Desalination Plant. That is great for farmers up and down the river. It will mean an extra 120,000 tonnes more feed will be available than if we'd not worked with the South Australian government to deliver this program.
As a condition of applying for the program, irrigators will need to agree that they will not on-sell the water and will only grow fodder and pasture with the water they receive. Applicants will be required to provide evidence that they've grown the fodder where they said they would. At $100 a megalitre, this water is incredibly heavily discounted. Farmers can apply from the second week of December, and water will start to flow before Christmas. This water must be used to produce fodder or pasture. Farmers can buy water in up to 50-megalitre lots, with a maximum purchase of 100 megalitres.
The Water for Fodder program will make a meaningful difference for farmers in need and will help improve fodder production for drought affected stock throughout the country. For those who decided to agist their breeding stock in areas less affected by the drought, there's $1 billion worth of loans available to them and small businesses, interest- and repayment-free for at least two years.
Thank you very much, Senator Davey. The Liberal and Nationals government supports farmers and rural communities to build resilience and preparedness for drought. Our drought strategy comes in three parts: immediate support for those affected, support for regional communities, and building for long-term resilience. We're making immediate support available through the farm household allowance; additional financial counselling services; drought community support programs; mental health and wellbeing programs; interest-free concessional loans, which can see farm businesses save up to $150,000 in interest and repayments alone; and generous tax measures. Our three-point plan will help make sure our rural industries get through and recover from this drought so that they can make the most of our growing global market access and our strong reputation as a trader.
The Water and Fodder program is one example of the direct support we are providing for our farmers. It will also not reduce the security of water supply in South Australia, so it's a win for farmers up and down the basin.
Opposition senators interjecting—
On a point of order: Mr President, interjections are always disorderly. The level of interjection coming from the Labor Party is completely and utterly unacceptable. In fact, it's bordering on bullying.
Opposition senators interjecting—
Order on my left!
Opposition senators interjecting—
Order! If I'm making a ruling, be quiet! Where we've had interjections from the gallery it is particularly unhelpful for senators to be encouraging or otherwise acknowledging that, for the dignity of the chamber and all senators as well as for our fellow citizens here watching this. Senator Davey, a final supplementary question?
Can the minister inform the Senate when the Water for Fodder program will be open? More importantly: other than the idea of taking a bulk water volume from our bulk water resources which are owned by someone and undermining the property right of water, which farmers have fought so hard for, are there any alternative approaches to get water to our farmers?
The Water for Fodder program guidelines were released yesterday, which will enable our farmers to access 50 megs of water at the heavily discounted price of $100 a meg. Of the 100 gigalitres now available in the Murray-Darling Basin, there will be 40 gigalitres of water available under the program in round 1 for use in this water year, 2019-20. Applications for this real water open on 9 December this year.
Farmers will be able to apply for 50 megalitres of water in each allocation account they hold. When you hold more than two allocation accounts, you can submit a maximum of two applications. We'll then make 60 gigalitres available in round 2 for use in the next water year, which is 2020-21. Farmers will be able to apply for the second instalment of the program in April next year. This is a new and innovative approach to making new and additional water available in the basin during times of drought. It has never been done before. It highlights what's possible when basin states work together. It's part of us ensuring that our breeding herd is sustained.