Monday, 23 March 2020
Farm Household Support Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2020; Second Reading
The Farm Household Support Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2020 before the house will make two sets of amendments dealing with how income affects farm household allowance recipients. The first set of amendments is to remove the provisions that give rise to business income reconciliation. The second set of amendments is to remove the 28-day time limit for conducting a farm financial assessment.
With regard to the first amendment, the minister's speech explained that that bill removes provisions that currently require FHA recipients to reconcile the prediction of annual income with the actual amount received. Labor understands that for many farmers predicting income can be difficult. Once this legislation passes the parliament an estimate of current income will be used to calculate the rate of payment, and farmers can update the estimates as often as needed during the year; however, if the estimate is incorrect, farmers will not incur a debt at the end of the year through the business income reconciliation process. The government claims that regular sampling of records will be undertaken to ensure the right person received the right payment at the right time. However, the government is seeking to reduce regulatory burden on drought affected farmers.
All members in this place should note that this third-term government could have made this simple change six years ago, but it chose not to act swiftly. This amendment does nothing to assist drought affected farmers who continue to struggle to obtain the FHA payment or, indeed, drought affected farmers who have been kicked off the FHA regardless of whether they continue to face prolonged drought conditions.
The second amendment is another minor amendment which may assist farmers who are seeking to obtain the FHA. The 28-day time period to complete the farm financial assessment should have been removed six years ago. This third-term Liberal-National government should be embarrassed that this is their 14th amendment to the farm household support measure. This is the government—full of rural members—who claim they understand and are working for the benefit of our farmers. However, the fact that this government continue to dribble out minor amendments, to appear like they are acting, is fooling no-one.
Those living with the reality of drought and organisations doing their very best to assist drought affected farmers are disappointed that assistance for farmers has been difficult to obtain. While some farmers have received good rain over the last few weeks and months, there continue to be farmers who are experiencing drought conditions or will need further follow-up rain.
Labor has supported all FHA measures proposed to assist our farmers but is critical of the coalition government's ad hoc approach. Labor has been calling for the Morrison government to undertake a bipartisan approach and develop a national comprehensive drought policy via a drought cabinet. Obviously, the current focus for the nation is the response to the coronavirus, but this cannot be an excuse for our farmers to be forgotten as they work through ongoing challenges. Labor stands ready to work in a constructive and meaningful manner to ensure the long-term sustainable and profitable future of our agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors.
I rise to make a contribution on the Farm Household Support Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2020. I'm speaking for Senator Rice, who as we know isn't here today and is our agriculture portfolio holder. This bill removes the business income reconciliation process—whereby farm household allowance recipients' income estimates would be checked against their tax returns and full financial statements in order to verify their eligibility for the FHA for them to receive the correct payment amount—and removes the legislated time limit for FHA claimants to complete their farm finance assessment, which is an eligibility requirement for FHA. The current limit is 28 days, with extensions of a further 28 days granted in some circumstances. A time limit will still apply, but it will be determined on an individual basis.
As we meet here in this place, we aren't even 100 days into the new year, but we have already experienced the horrific tragedy of this summer's bushfires and now, of course, the unfolding of the coronavirus pandemic—millions of hectares burnt, millions of animals dead and dozens of people killed. And again we send our condolences to their families. That's what's unfolded this bushfire season. It has been a fire season unlike any we have seen before, with damage across the country. There is a climate emergency playing out in front of our eyes. In any other year, we would have had a chance to mourn, to grieve and to begin to come to terms with the tragedy that unfolded earlier this year. But, tragically, the bushfires had barely passed before we were faced with the new crisis: COVID-19, a global pandemic that has already infected hundreds of thousands of people and claimed many, many lives. The Director-General of the World Health Organization has called it the defining global health crisis of our time. For our farmers, these crises come on top of another challenge: drought. Some farmers have experienced the driest stretches on record in recent years. Drought can devastate crops, livestock and every aspect of a farm's operation. Farmers have struggled to keep their farms afloat in incredibly challenging circumstances. It's good today to see at least some small steps being taken to support farmers, and this bill does two things, as I've just articulated. We support these changes and we hope that they provide some support to farmers, some of whom have fought a drought, a bushfire season and are now facing such a new, massive threat.
Today is about so much more than responding to drought, however. We'd like to quote again from the Director-General of the World Health Organization:
The days, weeks and months ahead will be a test of our resolve, a test of our trust in science, and a test of solidarity.
Crises like this tend to bring out the best and worst in humanity.
How we respond to this crisis defines who we are as a community, and the decisions we take now in the midst of a crisis are a real test of what we value and who we will fight for when it is hardest. We've all seen the concerns in the news about people hoarding things that others are desperate for. If your only response in a crisis is to think about how you can benefit yourself then that's a shame. We've seen the heartwarming stories too of people overcoming their fear to care for their neighbours and those around them. We've made food drops and provided support to the vulnerable, which is truly showing their resilience, courage and compassion in the midst of this crisis. This bill, of course, particularly relates to the issues around the farm household allowance. As people articulated, our farmers will be playing a critical role in supplying food to this nation, and we thank them for that and support them. The Greens support this bill.
As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I support the Farm Household Support Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2020. The reform to make the farm household allowance a flat rate paid on current income helps to reduce the regulatory burden on farmers, who already work long hours for decreasing rewards. These income audits were a massive distraction, so this is a good move from the government—a welcome move. The extension of time for conducting an assessment helps farmers involve their accountants or bookkeepers in a process that was previously an ordeal.
My concern, in light of current events, is that COVID-19 assistance is targeted at urban and not rural areas. Our farmers have come through the worst drought in 100 years, and the drought may or may not be ending. What we do know is that the rivers are full but the dams are empty. Farmers are watching this bounty of water running down rivers and out to sea. General security water licence holders are still on zero allocation. They have no confidence that irrigation licences will be honoured. If international trade is being disrupted, we need to grow food. We need to allow more water to be taken for irrigation. The environment has had a drink—a bellyful—from recent rains. It's now the farmers' turn. What good is farm assistance if farmers go broke because we took too much water for the environment and not enough for food and fibre?
And I'd like to talk about the productive capacity of our country, especially the rural productive capacity. We have destroyed it in the past 20 years. Farmers have had their ability—their right—to use the land taken from them, stolen from them, to comply with international agreements, starting with the UN's Kyoto protocol. We need that back and all farmers paid compensation for the loss of their rights.
Secondly, while I've just touched on water, we need to have investment in water infrastructure to make sure that farmers have that water, because it's essential for food. And we need energy prices to be lowered. We have the world's biggest exports of natural gas and coal, yet we have amongst the highest prices of electricity in this country. We have farmers who are not able to irrigate because they can't afford the electricity to pump water—in a country that's blessed with energy. What is going on? We have to restore the productive capacity of our country, which means getting back to sensible energy policies so that we once again have the lowest prices in the world and the best policies. We now have the worst. Restoring the productive capacity will also involve other sectors, including education. But it starts with land use—the right to use the land that farmers have bought—and then there's the right to access water at sensible prices, free of corruption, and the right to electricity at reasonable prices.
I also want to talk about one other aspect, and that is that we have fallen for the globalist trap of interdependence. But that is really dependence, because when we're interdependent with someone else, around the globe, and they shut down, we're suddenly dependent on them. Australia has abundant minerals, abundant energy and abundant agricultural resources. We're not using these resources. Australia has enormous potential with its people, with its resources and with its opportunities, and we need to rekindle these and get back to putting Australia first—no more interdependence, because that is simply dependence. We need to become independent, as we were. When we were independent, we thrived. When we restore our independence we will restore our economic resilience and we'll also restore our productive capacity. So we compliment the government on this initiative, but we need to go much, much further to restore the productive capacity and economic resilience of our country.
I thank everyone for their contribution on the Farm Household Support Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2020 and commend it to the Senate.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.