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Wednesday, 28 May 1997
Page: 3924

Senator WOODLEY(6.51 p.m.) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

This is a very important report and it would have been great if we could have had it before it was tabled, so that we could make a more intelligent response. As always with these reports, because we do not have it before us much before the tabling of it, we labour under a disadvantage. I wanted to comment on a number of things that are in the report—particularly the discussion about drought—and to underline some of the Democrats' concerns about the report and the direction the government is taking in drought funding.

One of the things happening next week is another meeting of ARMCANZ. I hope that next week ARMCANZ will reconsider the proposal to drop drought exceptional circumstances from the planned new national drought policy. This is absolutely critical. Once again, farmers wonder what on earth this government is doing, having been elected on a sort of slogan of being the friend of farmers.

The problem with dropping drought exceptional circumstances—unless the new policy, when we get it, has something in it that has not been signalled—is that we are dropping a trigger that people can use when there is a drought to get the government to respond to their situation. The Senate will remember that the previous Labor government dropped the definition of drought under the heading of `natural disaster'—I believe that was a retrograde step—and put in place the drought exceptional circumstances program to enable farmers and state and regional governments to trigger aid when there is a drought.

The problem is that if we do not regard drought as a natural disaster but as an exceptional circumstance and then drop that, we are saying, `Well, there is no drought really. It is just something that happens. And when it happens, we can address the problem.' It do not think that is good enough; it is letting down our farmers. I hope that, in its national drought policy, the government will address this and have put in place something to replace drought exceptional circumstances. Otherwise, farmers and state and local governments, whenever a drought occurs, are going to have to come cap in hand to Canberra and beg for assistance.

Drought in Australia is not something which is exceptional. It is something which is part of the cycle of our climate, and that is why I believe the government needs to take account of this. I note that several drought stricken shires around Australia are due to lose their drought relief next month. I am concerned that, although those shires may have had some rain, they are still a long way from recovery and many have not had any crop at all yet.

Tonight, in speaking to this report, I call on the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, John Anderson, to extend drought exceptional circumstances funding from 10 June—the date it is due to run out—until the government's planned new integrated rural policy is implemented, because there is going to be a gap there which could be quite serious. I see the parliamentary secretary, Senator Brownhill, shaking his head. I take that as a reassurance, which I think will be a great relief to those farmers who are affected. I hope that Senator Brownhill actually puts something on the record as well; I think that would help. (Time expired)