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Monday, 22 June 2009
Page: 6755


Mr SECKER (7:07 PM) —It is always a pleasure to follow my friend the member for Lyons. He often makes quite good sense. In fact, I have had the pleasure of serving on committees with the member for Lyons ever since I have been in this parliament. We have certainly seen a lot of this country together and met a lot of people along the way. It is very interesting that my electorate, which is a little bit bigger than the whole of Tasmania, was all declared in drought for the first time a year ago. When I first came into this parliament we had never had an area declared drought affected in the way that it has been in eastern states. I have always had a bit of concern with the way that the EC applications are assessed, because in my electorate we actually have a drought every year: it is called summer and autumn. It is quite normal for us to not receive any rain of any use between, say, the months of November and April. We always look forward to and hope for rain around Anzac Day, which we got this year. In fact, in many parts of my electorate it rained on Anzac Day. We have five months of dry every year.

The way that the system was originally set up was based on eastern states’ climate criteria. The fact is they have a quite different climate to South Australia. We have a Mediterranean climate which, as I said before, is dry in summer and cold and wet in winter, whereas the eastern states, with the north-east trades and the south-east trades, tend to have a greater spread of rainfall over the whole year. So when they miss out for five months, like we do, they declare it a drought. We do not because that is normal and we have adapted to that sort of climate in South Australia, as indeed has your state of Western Australia, Mr Deputy Speaker Washer.

I think we have always been a bit behind the eight ball when it comes to getting assessed as EC affected. The fact is that one of my areas in the lower south-east, Mount Gambier, has actually lost it this year, even though I would have considered the conditions tough. As I understand it, it was because of a rainfall event in December. I can tell you that, from my experience, rainfall in December in my electorate is useless. It is about as useful as a wheel on a walking stick—absolutely useless. Obviously it will help an irrigated area, but in a normal dry crop area, when you get rainfall in December, January or February, it actually causes the dry feed to go off a lot quicker than it would have. I think it is as a result of that that we lost the EC assessment for the lower south-east. I will talk much more about that later.

The National Rural Advisory Council, or NRAC—you will hear that phrase used a lot in this debate—was established by the Howard government in 1999 as a statutory legislative body. It is a skills based, independent advisory council to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. It advises the minister on rural issues, including exceptional circumstance applications and extensions to EC declarations. The Rural Adjustment Amendment Bill 2009 removes the current provision that a person may only be reappointed once and will ensure that the current or previous members who have served two terms can serve an additional term. I also think that we should beware of keeping people in the same position for too long. I agree with this legislation in that we have some flexibility to allow those people to be reappointed if the minister thinks that would be a useful exercise. It seems logical that we would want to extend the current members’ terms, given the expertise and skills of the members, which cover a broad range of areas including economics, financial administration, banking, sustainable agriculture, reasonable adjustment, reasonable development, farm management training and more.

I might add that I am a little surprised that the Rudd Labor government has not simply changed the name of NRAC—rebadging it and pronouncing it a new initiative—because that seems to be the norm lately in this government. Perhaps I should not tempt fate by suggesting it. One of the roles undertaken by NRAC is a recommendation to the minister regarding drought declaration. In so doing, NRAC draws information from a number of sources, including National Agriculture Monitoring System analysis provided by the Bureau of Rural Sciences and the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics, or ABARE, state and local governments, and local producers.

Frequently NRAC may undertake an inspection tour of an area. I have certainly welcomed them to my electorate. They have obviously seen it firsthand. It is very important that we do not just make decisions by looking at a piece of paper but actually have people visiting the area. I think you get a better understanding by talking to people who are directly involved.

Drought impacts on individuals and communities, creating significant financial and personal hardship. Hardship experienced as a result of drought also brings communities together to support each other, but mutual support alone is not enough. Government policy and legislation are generally based on the expectations that farmers will prepare for and manage a risk inherent in farming and, as far as possible, have self-reliant strategies for coping with changes in fortune. I agree with that. In fact, I was brought up to say that you should put two years worth of hay away. If you get the opportunity to make enough hay you should make at least enough for two years in case the following year you do not get much hay production. If it so happens, perhaps in that second year you could actually sell some of the hay if you have been able to upgrade your hay stocks.

However, the policy must recognise that circumstances of extended drought such as we are experiencing now are exceptional circumstances which require both financial assistance and support in coordinating efforts to reduce its impact and ensure a rapid recovery when circumstances improve. To give you an example of this, where my farm is at Keith I think that it had about a two per cent chance of going into drought. We had our dry years and we had our wet years but we had never really experienced a drought in my lifetime. Came 2006 and the world changed. We got opening rain in about the first week in May and it forgot to rain after that. I have never experienced anything like that before in my life in that area, which was noted as a very reliable area.

It was the Howard government that introduced a significant number of Commonwealth programs to assist people who were experiencing difficulties as a result of drought. Of course we also added small business into that, because if the farmers are not doing too well then the small businesses in the towns suffer as well. I think that was a great initiative which I put forward with other members of the coalition and it certainly was well accepted and well intentioned and greeted with a lot of applause.

We included programs such as EC, interim drought support, Farm Help, FarmBis, tax relief, drought concessions and more. Exceptional Circumstances Assistance was the Howard government’s key program for providing direct assistance to farmers experiencing drought, and EC support has been provided to ensure that farmers with long-term prospects for viability would not be forced to leave the land because of short-term events beyond their ability to manage. EC was never lightly given. I think it was about 2004 when farmers had had a couple of really bad years that they got interim support but in the end missed out on getting the full support, which meant that they could not get the interest rate subsidies.

Nor was EC assistance available for all adverse events. In fact we had areas that suffered very badly from frost two or three years in a row, but that was not enough to get them the EC support. I might add that farmers in my area are very good risk managers. Those in the Mallee, for example, which is a fairly dry area to say the least, have always been very good at saving for the future. Earlier this year when the minister made the unfathomable decision to discontinue the EC declaration to the south-east of South Australia—and as I told the minister at the time there was simply no reason for the lower south-east of South Australia to be denied this support and this funding—they continued to experience the worst drought in a century. They cut very little hay there last spring because it was a very bad finish to the year. In fact the Bureau of Meteorology reported that for South Australia rainfall was mostly ‘very much below average’ with many locations recording their lowest or equal lowest rainfall amounts for January, and many locations recorded no rainfall at all.

The bureau further reported that rainfalls over the agricultural districts were predominantly very much below average with many places recording no rainfall. Widespread heatwave conditions were recorded in both January and February with the highest ever maximum and minimum temperatures in several places. The minister’s decision created hardship for the farmers in the lower south-east. It was even more unfathomable because the adjoining region across the border—same climate, same area—still received the EC support. They were in exactly the same climatic conditions. There is only a border, a line on a map, that stops one side of the border getting EC support and the other side not getting it. That is just crazy.

There are ways to get around that. You could have put the South Australian side into an area where each farmer could still be judged according to their conditions, whilst the whole area was not considered to be in full EC conditions. The fact is there are farmers that have got land on both sides of the border. They can get EC support on one side of the border but not on the other. How ridiculous is that! It is the same climate, the same rainfall—the same climatic conditions.

Three months later the drought is still not over. The drought statement issued just three weeks ago on 31 May 2009 by the Bureau of Meteorology’s National Climate Centre states that the rainfall was ‘below to very much below average across most of the continent during May 2009’. That report goes on to say:

Another month of low rainfall for southern Australia exacerbated already dry conditions—

which is what the member for Lyons was referring to. The report continues:

Victoria has now experienced its third driest start to the year on record and southwestern WA its fifth driest since reliable records commenced in 1900. Short-term rainfall deficits are now evident over most of southeast and southwestern Australia—

as is much of my electorate of Barker, and has been for many years now. The National Climate Centre report of 31 May 2009 states:

Most notably, rainfall has been below average across much of southwest and southeast Australia since 1997—

12 years—

while the Murray Darling Basin has experienced below average rainfall since 2002.

The current drought is like no other one I have experienced. It is not a one in 25 year drought. It is now a one in 100 year drought, and I believe it would be getting very close to the severity of the Federation drought from 1895 to 1903. In fact I think it could be argued that that was worse than the one we have now, but whatever the judgement is we are going through very tough conditions.

The decision to abolish crucial drought support has to be one of the lowest acts yet perpetrated by the Rudd government. I pleaded with the minister to no avail. The budget papers show very clearly that there has not been one cent allocated to drought support from July 2010 onwards. Indeed on page 60 of the portfolio budget statement for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, it unequivocally states that the reduction in expenses between 2009-10 and 2010-11 is due to the cessation of drought programs. So there will not be any of that support.

I spend a great deal of time in my electorate listening to the hardship of growers in the Riverland, the Mallee, the Barossa, the Murraylands and the south-east arising from the drought. On budget night I was gobsmacked that the Rudd government could be so callous. We have a social and economic catastrophe in parts of my electorate, as in other areas of Australia, after seven years of drought. Record low water inflows in the Murray-Darling Basin are leading to extremely low irrigation water entitlements. It is actually two per cent at the moment for all of my estate, and, of course, that is exacerbated by the collapse in commodity prices, particularly in milk. I am extremely worried not only about farmers but also about communities reliant on agriculture. Coming back to the milk issue, the fact is that most of that milk is produced in the lower south-east of my electorate—that is where it is mostly produced—and that is the only area in my electorate where people have had the EC taken away from them. So they are getting the double whammy—no support from EC and the collapsing of their milk prices.

Australia’s food bowl in good times not only provides us with the best food in the world—and I do not think there would be anyone in this chamber who would disagree with that—but it also supports thousands of food manufacturing and processing jobs as well as generating billions of dollars of export revenue. When it continues to need our help as the drought goes on, it gets a slap in the face. When the Labor Party needs to make cuts it is the usual victims who get hit: the self-funded retirees, people with private health care, business, exporters, and, of course, those who live outside the capital cities. They copped a $1 billion hit in last year’s budget—and that was in good times—and they copped it again in last month’s budget.

Even the students copped it with changes that have been made to the independent youth allowance, which will mean that hundreds of country children have had their dreams of a university education shattered. That is an absolute disgrace. They have no capacity to find the money somewhere else. The children of drought stricken farmers and others will not get youth allowance and the injustice that is already there in relation to country education will be further increased.

There is no new Regional Partnerships program, even though Labor promised there would be one. The government axed the area consultative committees across the nation even though Minister Albanese promised only a couple of months ago—to their face—that their jobs were safe and the network would be continued. In last month’s budget the Labor government announced $460 million in new programs to help farmers not in Australia but in other parts of the world. They are spending $460 million in new programs to help farmers in other parts of the world whilst they rip $900 million out of the assistance for Australian farmers. What are the priorities of this government?

Their priorities are all about seats on the United Nations and the future of the Prime Minister. They could not care less about the debt being inflicted on people around this country. Small block irrigators exit grants are to cease.  The EC has been extended to 31 March next year in my electorate but the government is getting rid of the exit grants. There is a lot of concern about that. In fact, the Riverland Futures Taskforce have said that this decision should change. I support them in that. The package is intended to assist small block irrigators in the Murray-Darling Basin who are affected by drought and climate change and who wish to cease irrigated farming. The package is intended to assist small block irrigators, in particular horticultural producers in the Murray-Darling Basin, who own irrigation properties of 40 hectares or less and wish to exit irrigated farming. The exit grant is a one-off payment for irrigators, but as I said, it will cease on 30 June this year—just a few days away. One of the conditions for receiving the exit grant is that you are willing to give an undertaking that neither you nor your farmland will be involved in irrigated farming for at least five years after the exit grant is paid. Many Riverland growers and small business operators have strived to stay in business despite ongoing drought and reduced water flows. For many, the nonviability of their operation will not become evident until well after 30 June 2009, when financial records are finally annualised and acquitted. What will happen after 30 June 2009? This is a city-centric, eastern seaboard focused government. Rural and regional Australia is not a priority— (Time expired)