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Monday, 21 November 2011
Page: 13125

Mr FORREST (Mallee) (18:53): I have to say to the member for Lyons that I am just a bit disappointed. I am on my feet to make an appeal, which I have been making ever since 10 August, to the government. I am going to talk about real people, real families. I agree with some of the contribution that the member for Lyons has made; we have to move on, but at the moment I am trying to deal with 13 real families who, in good faith, went about the process of selling their farm, with all the emotional steps that takes. Often it is a third-generation farmer, and they have to get over thinking about what grandad would say. They brought themselves and their families to the position of entering into an irrevocable contract of sale. They have taken a deposit and, in two cases, have used that deposit to enter into another irrevocable contract of sale to buy a house in town; they have to live somewhere once the farm has been sold up. My purpose is to appeal to the government on this, with all the advice it has had from the department that the drought is over and the package is not needed anymore. At the moment the member for Murray and I are dealing with real families. In fact, in one case the head of the house is 71 years of age. He now has to borrow to fund the house he has contracted to buy, because he cannot get out of it—it is an irrevocable contract for sale. I just do not understand Centrelink saying that it is not an effective sale until settlement occurs. It is just not true. It does not happen in any other part of the business world.

I raised this matter in the House on 17 August and since then I have placed questions on the Notice Paper and I have written to the minister, Senator Ludwig, twice, on 12 August and 29 August. To this day I have received no response. I did receive a response to the question on the Notice Paper, but it was completely inadequate. It is very poor form, especially when I am dealing with real people, people who are emotionally stressed and wondering what they are going to do. Sitting at their kitchen tables we have people, grown men, crying, 'What have we done?' Well, you have not done anything; the government has let you down.

So, this is an appeal. There are plenty of processes the government can use. I think the member for Murray has half a dozen such constituents, and I have 13. There are a lot more who are complaining but are not caught in the circumstances, but I want to help them. An act of grace is an opportunity for the government here. Seven of my constituents have already applied for that through Minister Gray. My purpose for being here on my feet is to confirm this appeal. It is not right to stand behind what the bureaucratic departments have advised. The member for Murray and I have to deal with real people who have families, and they are distressed and in poor emotional shape.

I express my disappointment that the member for Lyons has not understood that point. He knows me well enough to realise that I well understand the points he makes about the need for a better safety net for the primary producers around the nation. Nobody in this place has fought harder than me to do that. At the moment we are dealing with real people in real distress, and the member for Murray and I expect a positive response. Perhaps it could be a phone call from the minister, as a result of this contribution tonight, saying, 'All right, give me the information,' or whatever. But to not respond is very poor form. My constituents do not feel as positive about the Labor government as the member for Lyons has suggested. They feel very let down and disappointed.

I am advised by a number of my constituents that the senator has responded to their correspondence. This was facilitated through my office, but I felt they might get their message through better if they wrote and told their torturous story, rather than doing it via me, because the government might think I was playing some silly political game here. They were offered act of grace payments. They have been back into my office and we have assisted them with filling out the application forms.

I think the government needs to eat some humble pie here and maybe even apologise to some of my constituents. A blunder has been made. The member for Murray and I want to know how long before 10 August the government knew that it would not honour the program beyond that date. The rural councillors in my electorate, who put an enormous effort into assisting families like those we are talking about tonight, told me that at 4.30 on 10 August they received an email saying that if settlements had not occurred by 5 pm that day the exit grant would not be honoured. That is despite the fact that all of the constituents looking for some assistance here had letters of commitment from the department, from Centrelink. They were acting in good faith. Maybe it did not happen as fast as the department wanted it to, but it takes a lot of time to sell a farm, especially horticultural farms. Most of the families I am trying to help here are engaged in horticulture to do with Sunraysia, Robinvale and to some extent Swan Hill. Horticulture is not in good shape at the moment, so it takes a lot of time to set up a purchase. The department obviously does not realise that that is the difficulty. But they have kept at it and in most cases, if they received an offer, accepted a lesser value for their property, knowing that the $150,000 exit grant would help them transition into their new future.

Some of these cases are worse than that. Sundry debtors now look like they are not going to be paid a settlement. These are the people who supply chemicals, fertilisers, machinery parts and so forth. They have been waiting patiently, persuaded by the imprimatur that the government is facilitating an exit grant sale here and that it will be paid. Imagine how these farmers now feel, having given commitments like that. They are so embarrassed. They are out of small communities. They made a commitment: 'If you give me some space I'll pay you out of what's left of the exit grant.' It is a real mess. I am hoping the government responds positively and constructively, and I hope that other government members who are listed here to speak will give a much more passionate response to the appeal that the member for Murray and I are making. The member for Lyons did, and I am expecting big things from that. I hope my appeal for compassion has been heard and that act-of-grace payments will be delivered.