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Wednesday, 13 November 2002
Page: 8920

Mr FITZGIBBON (3:18 PM) —Before I ask my question, with your indulgence, I am sure you will allow me to thank the minister for responding to my call yesterday to grant immediate assistance to those farmers in Peak Downs. My question is again to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. I remind him again of the Prime Minister's promise of 6 September to consider, in all cases, immediate assistance to people in exceptional circumstances. Given that the New South Wales government submitted an exceptional circumstances application on 10 September, why has it taken 64 days for the government to finally accept that this drought is an exceptional event? Can the minister guarantee that the assistance now available to Bourke and Brewarrina farmers and their families will be immediately available and not subject to another day's delay? Can the minister also guarantee that further applications for exceptional circumstances assistance will be dealt with immediately and will not have to wait more than 60 days?

Mr TRUSS (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) —All of the applications that are received, whether they be from New South Wales or other states, will be considered promptly but on their merits. Naturally I cannot give an assurance that an application that I have not even read, or that has not even been presented yet, will be approved the next day. Clearly it will depend on the merits of the case put forward and on a clear demonstration that the state has made a reasonable effort to provide assistance to the farmers in that area and are not just simply attempting to shift the full cost burden onto federal taxpayers. Bear in mind that the Commonwealth taxpayers pay about 95 per cent of the total cost.

Mr Crean —You change it as you go along. Give the money to farmers.

The SPEAKER —The Leader of the Opposition is under precisely the same obligations as everybody else to hear the minister without interjection. The Leader of the Opposition will recognise standing order 55 or I will deal with him.

Mr TRUSS —Under the arrangements that have applied for exceptional circumstances for many years now, including arrangements that were negotiated years ago involving all of the Labor state governments and agreed to by them, for a region to be in exceptional circumstances it has to be experiencing abnormal seasonal conditions and well below average incomes for a period of more than a year. Had that criteria been applied to the Bourke and Brewarrina applications, they could not have been approved until well into next year. We have made significant changes to speed up that process— without any cooperation, I might add, from the Labor state governments. We have agreed to use predictive modelling to bring forward the consideration of those applications. That has enabled the Bourke and Brewarrina applications to be processed and benefits to be provided now and to be announced several months earlier than would otherwise have been the case. We have also moved to provide welfare benefits during the consideration period—something that has never been done in the past, something that Labor never did when it was in government and something that I think has been greatly appreciated by the farmers of Bourke and Brewarrina.

The announcements that I have made today in relation to Peak Downs essentially mean that farmers in that region can now obtain welfare benefits for six months while their application is under consideration. During that particular time we will look at the merits of the application and seek to process it. I do not expect it will take anything like six months to complete the consideration. We will do it as quickly as we possibly can. But what the farmers of Australia know is that this government has moved quickly to provide benefits when applications are received—in stark contrast to the New South Wales government, which requires farmers to wait six months after an area has been declared before it pays a single cent. We are paying money before the declaration; New South Wales requires them to wait six months. I think that the hypocrisy being demonstrated by the New South Wales Premier, aided and abetted by people on the opposite side of the House, is deplorable. It is a disgraceful attempt to use the suffering and misery of farmers for political advantage and it is a disgraceful approach that they should take in these sorts of issues.