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Thursday, 13 February 2003
Page: 11909

Mrs GASH (12:54 PM) —If you have ever driven from the Hume Highway through my electorate down to the coast, you would have been struck by the scenery. You pass through the townships of Wingello, Bundanoon, Exeter, Sutton Forest, Moss Vale, Fitzroy Falls and Kangaroo Valley and into Nowra; or Robertson, Jamberoo and Kiama, if you take the alternative road over the escarpment. Lush, rolling fields and picturesque rural settings give rise to a sense of longing to live there. But the scenery hides the reality of life, and none more stark than under a drought. No-one really appreciates the devastation of a drought unless they themselves have experienced it first-hand.

Every day you go outside and see the hot, dry parchment of your land. You look at your property slowly but surely running down, but you cannot afford to pay for those things necessary to keep it going. The drought does not just impact on farmers, and its effects are never direct or immediate. Over the course of the last few months I have listened to farmers affected by the drought, I have read their letters and I have spoken to businesses who service those farmers. The drought is speeding up the economic decline of rural communities, thereby accelerating population movement from the country to the city.

It seems to be a mystery to a city-centric government such as the present New South Wales government as to how they should respond. According to the New South Wales Farmers Association last year, up to 5,100 jobs could be lost in the city and up to $2 billion could be lost to New South Wales based agricultural businesses. The 1982-83 drought cost Australia $3 billion; yet today the farmers are talking about $2 billion in New South Wales alone so far. All of New South Wales was granted one-off interim assistance from 9 December, and that assistance will continue until June this year, even if an area is not fully declared for exceptional circumstances support. That means that every farmer in New South Wales is eligible to apply for support of up to around $300 a week to help put food on the table and pay for day-to-day essentials. About 1,200 farmers in New South Wales alone are already receiving assistance. The most recent Rabobank rural confidence survey for New South Wales quotes PIBA state manager Mr Patrick Lally as saying:

“Although the weather conditions have been severe, many producers have made use of Farm Management Deposits and early de-stocking to assist the drought preparedness. [Federal] Government-provided exceptional circumstances payments are also becoming available, and these types of initiatives and activities are likely to be contributing to the arrest in the decline of overall farmer sentiment.”

The Rabobank rural confidence survey is the first survey of its type in Australia and is assessed quarterly using an independent research organisation interviewing a panel of over 2,200 farmers throughout the country.

In all, the federal government expects to give at least $522 million in direct assistance to drought-affected farmers in New South Wales, and this is out of a national estimate of $900 million. It is clear from the federal government's response to the drought that we are serious about providing support. Farmers in the Southern Highlands cannot wait until the New South Wales election for a response from Premier Carr. We need an application now. Although farmers in those areas not declared to be in exceptional circumstances still have access to welfare assistance and some interest subsidies, once exceptional circumstances are declared farmers and small business operators can access interest rate subsidies of up to $100,000 a year.

I call on the Sydney Labor government not only to match the federal government's commitment to New South Wales farmers but to lodge an exceptional circumstances application for the Southern Highlands immediately. Why is it taking so long? Farmers and small business operators in the Southern Highlands should not have to wait any longer. The electorate of Gilmore is still waiting for the New South Wales government to lodge an application for exceptional circumstances. The Southern Highlands district is crying out for assistance. Although I am advised that the New South Wales government is planning to submit an application for the Southern Highlands, to date we have seen nothing.

We have seen Premier Carr last week spreading untruths about the Commonwealth government's supposed inaction on drought. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every application for exceptional circumstances assistance in New South Wales has been finalised, and that is precisely why the federal government acted before Christmas, on 9 December, to declare all of New South Wales and much of the rest of Australia eligible for one-off interim assistance. Regions included in a one-off announcement still require a full exceptional circumstances application to be lodged by their respective state government for full exceptional circumstances assistance to be granted. I call on the New South Wales government to lodge an application for the Southern Highlands in the Gilmore electorate as soon as possible.

Main Committee adjourned at 1.00 p.m.