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Wednesday, 8 November 2000
Page: 22514

Mr SECKER (11:04 AM) —I did enjoy tasting some wines last night with the member for Corio, but I hasten to add that, while I may wander around like he did, it will not be due to the overimbibing that happened last night. It is interesting that two of the most lovely red wines that we enjoyed as guests of the wine industry came from my electorate. So I am very proud to continue to support the wine industry in my electorate. The fact that the wine industry has grown so much over the last 10 years has certainly helped a lot of people in my electorate who have had to leave their farm. They have found jobs in an industry where they are still involved in an agricultural sense. The marketplace has worked itself out very well: people have not had to go through the social security system but have found quite satisfying jobs in the agricultural industry, although often of a different type.

It is my pleasure to speak in support of the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2000. This bill amends the Farm Household Support Act 1992 in order to: change the name of the Farm Family Restart Scheme to Farm Help—Supporting Families through Change; extend the Farm Help income support application deadline to 30 November 2003—an extra two years—and the income support closing date to 30 November 2004, 12 months later; introduce a mandatory requirement for farmers assessed as non-viable to develop activity plans. I will speak on that much later. The bill also makes consequential amendments to other legislation to give effect to the name change.

It will be useful to give some background to the bill. Farm poverty in Australia is not new. It has been a feature of Australian agriculture for many years. Farm poverty was drawn to the attention of the wider community during the severe drought experienced by much of eastern Australia in the early 1990s. Although there has been poverty among farming families for many years, the drought both exacerbated and highlighted the problem, particularly drawing attention to the inadequacies of the standard social security safety net for farm families.

Other factors such as drought and poor commodity prices, which vary with each commodity in severity and the length of time, have also had a marked effect on farm poverty in Australia. Wool, for example, has been in the doldrums for some 10 years. Beef, not that long ago, was in the doldrums itself for a couple of years. Who can forget, during 1998, the hard times that the pork producers of Australia were going through. As the honourable member for Corio commented, dairying will cause some problems in the restructuring process.

Last night we had the privilege of enjoying some of the best wines in Australia—some of us in small quantities, I might add—but some years ago the wine industry had a vine pull because of overproduction. In the last decade the wine industry put a lot more emphasis on the export of their product, and they have been very successful. Some 10 years ago they were exporting only $100 million worth of wine a year; this year we have already exported $1.5 billion worth of wine. That is just one of the amazing statistics of the wine industry, which with its success provides a lot of jobs and wealth for the whole area and in rural and regional areas in many parts of Australia. Certainly, in my electorate, there are areas that have expanded quite a lot—Padthaway, Naracoorte, Wrattonbully, Mount Benson, Langhorne Creek, Southern Vales and even a lot of the boutique wineries in the southern Fleurieu Peninsula and Kangaroo Island. Five years ago many of them did not exist but, as a result of the success of the industry, that health and vitality are certainly out there.

I disagree with the member for Corio, however, who suggested that dairy deregulation was due to the federal government. Of course, that is a nonsense. Deregulation was done by the state legislatures; it is not federal legislation. We, as a federal government and as federal members, had two choices. We had the choice of doing nothing—which would have made the whole restructuring process a lot more painful: a lot more people would have left the industry and it certainly would not have given those that were in the industry the hope to plan and to make decisions for the future—or we could have taken the other decision, which was to actually work with the industry.

I note that the member for Corio's neighbour, the honourable member for Corangamite, put in an enormous amount of work with the dairy industry to set up the restructuring package. We freely admit that it was the right thing for it not to be at the taxpayers' expense. It was a very soundly funded proposal, and it gives a lot of people in the dairy industry some hope for the future. It shows the difference between this side of the House and the other side of the House. Their suggestion was that the government should come in and set targets for the dairy industry, whereas we actually believe that the dairy industry people should set their own targets and make up their own minds about where their industry is going.

In recent years, governments have addressed the issue of farm poverty through a number of initiatives, including the drought relief payment, the Farm Household Support Scheme and, most recently, the Farm Family Restart Scheme. This bill proposes to introduce Farm Help, a program which renames the Farm Family Restart Scheme to better reflect its intention—which is, in the minister's words, `to provide support, addressing the individual needs of farming families, whether they choose to remain on the farm or exit agriculture'.

The government announced in the 2000-01 budget context that it would be providing $111.2 million over four years to continue the Farm Family Restart Scheme in order to ensure that farm families in difficulties continue to have access to appropriate family support payments and other assistance. Enhancements to the program were announced later, including a retraining grant of $3,500 available to those farmers and their spouses who receive a re-establishment grant, case management of Farm Help clients—including the mandatory requirement that an activity plan be developed for farmers assessed as non-viable—and an increase of $10,000 in the net asset threshold for re-establishment grant recipients.

Rural counselling services have played a very large part in helping those farmers make a decision on whether they can actually go on with their farming operation or whether it is best to leave the farm with dignity. In my own electorate of Barker, these rural counselling services work very well and have a very good success rate in helping people. Their funding has been increased this year, so I am not quite sure what the honourable member for Corio, the shadow minister, was talking about.

Firstly, the unique nature of the family farm, which so closely combines business, household and lifestyle issues, can make the standard approaches to delivering income support quite different from the normal social security set-up. Secondly, the application of the assets test to benefits under Australia's social security system impacts on the family farm quite disproportionately because of the fact that they are often asset rich but cash poor. So we have addressed that issue. I thank the member for Corio for congratulating the government for taking that up. Thirdly, the Howard government has responded to drought and other events—for example, the drought relief payment provided relatively generous income support to farmers in designated areas.

However, farmers in poverty outside those areas designated by the government to be in exceptional circumstances missed out. The Farm Family Restart Scheme was announced on 14 September 1997 as part of the government's integrated rural policy package entitled AgricultureAdvancing Australia. It was described there as the government's key program for delivering improved welfare support to the farm sector as well as providing adjustment assistance to farmers who wished to leave the land.

The key features of the Family Farm Restart Scheme include income support at the Newstart allowance level, and this payment is available for a maximum period of 12 months, and recipients do not have to satisfy an activity test. But, as a government, we recognised that there was a need for an activity test and I think that has gained wide support from all around the government and the opposition.

There was a review of the Farm Family Restart Scheme. In summary, it found that farmers in three states—Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland—were more likely to participate in the scheme relative to the state's share of farming population, whilst farmers in my home state, South Australia, and in Western Australia were very low users of the scheme. At least 28 per cent of the clients had previously accessed exceptional circumstances relief payments. As I previously mentioned, drought and low commodity prices, because they contributed to the debt problems, were the most significant factors cited by farmers for accessing the scheme.

The distribution of the income support recipients was: dairying, 26 per cent; sheep and wool, 23 per cent; and beef cattle, 23 per cent. Interestingly enough, 30 per cent of the income support recipients had farms of less than 100 hectares. There would hardly be what I would call a genuine farm in my whole electorate that is less than, say, 400 hectares, so I find it interesting that we have this figure of 30 per cent of recipients who had farms of less than 100 hectares. Then we came to what was happening with the re-establishment grant recipients. The distribution of these grants was: dairy cattle, 37 per cent; fruit and vegetables, 19 per cent; beef cattle, 14 per cent; and sheep wool, seven per cent. That last figure is interesting because wool has been in the doldrums for so long, yet only seven per cent have been receiving the grants. Interestingly enough, Victorian dairy farmers accounted for 82 per cent of the dairy farmer grant recipients and for 30 per cent of all re-establishment grants. Obviously Victorians were doing very well, and I do not knock that, but it just shows that the grants certainly seem to be pushed in some areas more than others.

It was interesting that nearly three-quarters of farmers exiting their farms resided within the same postcode after leaving the farm, with almost half expecting re-employment in the agricultural industry. That proves what I was saying earlier in relation to the wine industry, where a lot of people still wanted to stay in the area. They had to leave the farm due to their circumstances, but they were able to remain where their families and friends were and find jobs elsewhere in the wine industry. So there were a lot of suggestions that came out of that review.

Schedule 1 of this bill contains the many amendments to the Farm Household Support Act 1992 to give effect to the program's change of name from Farm Family Restart Scheme to Farm Help. This is done simply by omitting the word `Restart' wherever it occurs in the legislation and substituting `Farm Help'. Item 2 renames the Restart Advice Scheme, which is set up by delegated legislation made under section 52 of the principal act. The renamed Farm Help Advice Scheme will commence on the proclamation date. The effect of item 16—this is a fairly important part of the legislation—is to extend the deadline for Farm Help income support applications from 30 November 2001 to 30 November 2003, so we have given an extra two years of commitment to that. Of course, because that income support is paid for a period of up to 12 months, item 17 extends the Farm Help income support closing date to 30 November.

This is a very important piece of legislation for Australia. Many farms have been in the same family for several generations, and this sort of heritage is so important to many farming families. It has been in many cases a quite heart-wrenching problem for families and, dare I say it, too many suicides have occurred because people have had to leave their farms and they have felt that they have let down their families and their children to come. This sort of help to either continue farming in a viable way or get them through that hard period can only be commended. I support the bill and I commend it to the House.