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Monday, 23 September 2002
Page: 4692

Senator STEPHENS (10:00 PM) —I would like to begin this evening by congratulating the government on last Thursday's announcement providing immediate changes to the exceptional circumstances program to assist drought affected farmers. This is a timely breakthrough for rural Australia. However, one announcement is not enough to dismiss months of abandonment—months of politicising the drought in order to attack state governments. I do not seek to detract from the announcement of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry last Thursday; however, this single announcement is not adequate compensation for the neglect that this government has imposed on rural communities.

On the 14th and 15th of this month, New South Wales Country Labor held its annual conference in Cooma. The conference, which comprises over 200 delegates, provides Country Labor men and women an opportunity to debate current state and federal policy and directions. Without doubt, the most overwhelming condemnation of current government policy was of the Howard government's total lack of action surrounding the exceptional circumstances claims. Delegates noted the extensive relief packages that the state Labor governments had provided for drought affected communities and yet were baffled at the federal government's wait-and-see policy on the drought. Thankfully, last week that policy was altered.

Facing drought is an inevitable aspect of a rural Australian existence. A year ago we knew the drought was on its way, and when this drought ends another will, in time, follow it. The key to weathering droughts, as with most instances of hardship in life, is through solidarity: looking past the differences to acknowledge our common threats and goals—in this case, the threat of drought and the goal of assisting our rural communities to survive it. Our state governments acknowledged the drought many months ago and have been working together to combat its devastating effects. Our federal government, sadly, only began to take this course of action last Thursday. This is not a sign of leadership.

Treasurer Costello first played down the issue of drought, claiming that agriculture was only a small part of the nation's GDP and so any downturn would have a marginal impact on Australia's economic bottom line. He then changed his mind and went bush, but he avoided visiting any drought affected property, defending his actions by stating, `We talked to everyone in all of the towns that we passed.' He concluded, `The areas that we have been through are dry and people are hoping for rain.' Thank heavens Peter Costello now understands the fundamentals of a drought: it is dry, and people need rain.

It concerns me, however, that the National Party have not been able to convince their Liberal colleagues to deliver for rural Australia. Instead, they were reduced to a media based defence of the federal government, claiming that the reason the federal government has done absolutely nothing to assist drought affected communities and farmers in Australia is that the state governments would not help them enough. The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Mr Truss, criticised the state Labor governments, claiming that they were playing political games with the drought issue. Curiously, this is the same minister whose media release on 2 September was headed `Labor states turn their backs on drought stricken farmers'. That was followed the very next day by another press release headed `Farmers scorched by Labor's media strategy on the drought'. In that particular release, Mr Truss stated:

The new scheme would help to depoliticise the EC process, but Labor agriculture ministers clearly are cruelly set on using farmers as political weapons. They are not interested in good policy.

Of course, Mr Truss's idea of good policy is to let everyone else do the work. The fact is that it is the state governments that have acted. The state Labor governments put money on the table months ago, and the first sign of action from the federal government came last Thursday.

New South Wales, my home state, is the state worst affected by drought. Thankfully, it has a Labor government focused on helping farmers in drought affected communities. On 18 July in Bourke, the Premier of New South Wales announced a package for farmers in drought for 12 months or more. It included a subsidy for the transport of domestic water, a subsidy for transporting stock to slaughter, the announcement of the drought inquiry hotline, the facilitation of meetings with welfare agencies, a commitment to provide additional funds to rural financial counsellors, the considered deferral of Rural Assistance Authority loan repayments and the announcement that New South Wales Agriculture and the New South Wales Farmers Association would work with the government on exceptional circumstances applications, particularly to gather data.

While this package was being announced to farmers, the federal government sat on its hands and sniped at it. A little over a week later, as the drought worsened, the package was revised: the assistance eligibility rule was revised so that farmers in drought for six months would qualify for assistance, lease payments for farmers on western land leases were waived, Wild Dog Destruction Board fees were waived, $1 million was allocated for an emergency feral pig and fox eradication program in the Western Division, National Parks and Wildlife Service licence requests from drought affected farmers wanting to immediately reduce kangaroos and emus from their properties were fast-tracked, and an investigation into the easing of restrictions applying to B-double trucks on rural council roads in drought affected areas began.

For rural land protection boards that were drought affected for six months, transport subsidies were introduced for the transporting of fodder and water to feed drought affected core breeding stock, for the cost of transporting drought affected core breeding stock to and from agistment and from drought affected properties to slaughter and for the cost of transporting domestic water to assist isolated land holders. These subsidies were then backdated for 11 rural land protection boards. On 26 August, Mal Peters, President of New South Wales Farmers Association, joined the New South Wales government in extending transport, water and fodder subsidies to include core production stock. They broadened the eligibility criteria for the special conservation loans to include dam de-silting, major repairs to stock water systems, piping and storage of stock water and planting of perennial species such as lucerne. This was to help to drought-protect future properties.

On 30 August, in my home town of Goulburn, the package was expanded even further to include 50 per cent transport subsidies for commercial beekeepers. Following this, a drought assistance package to help country businesses through crises was announced. Under this state funded package, country businesses which rely on farm income can apply for payroll tax relief. They can also apply for one-off grants for expert advice on keeping their operations sustainable through the drought.

The list continues: 15,000 copies of the drought booklet `Managing Drought' have been produced and distributed across New South Wales, drought management field days have been run for farmers in drought affected areas and a fodder database listing supplies of donated fodder or fodder for sale has been launched by New South Wales Agriculture. Last week the Premier announced further concessions, noting that farmers in eastern New South Wales were suffering as a result of a 1,500-kilometre restriction on subsidies for the transportation of fodder. It has now been removed.

Although Victoria is significantly less affected by drought, the Bracks government has also acted to ease the impact of drought on regional Victoria. A seasonal conditions task force has been established to coordinate and communicate the response to dry seasonal conditions facing farmers in the north and north-west. This task force includes representation from drought affected areas, the Victorian Farmers Federation, local governments and state government departments, and acts as a central point of advice for the Victorian government.

In Queensland, the Beattie government has assisted farmers with generous subsidies of up to 50 per cent on the transport of fodder and stock drinking water, the transport of livestock returning from agistment and restocking for producers in drought affected areas. It has provided funding for farm business support for producers in exceptional circumstance areas, while the federal government has provided nothing. In addition, the Queensland government offers interest rate subsidies to non-farm businesses in drought affected areas, recognising the impact drought has on the community at large.

When Simon Crean was the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, he negotiated the exceptional circumstances drought package framework. He did this when seven of the eight state and territory governments were from the opposing side. He did not play party politics with them and he did not attempt to use the situation for one-upmanship; he sat down at the table and worked out a package for our farmers. It took the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry until last Thursday to do the same.

Recently, Senator Ian Macdonald questioned the veracity of exceptional circumstances assistance claims, asking which claims were questionable and which drought stricken communities begging for Commonwealth support we should question. As a country Labor senator, I am pleased to represent those country areas disillusioned by a National Party unable to stand up to the Liberals and whose impact in the cabinet room is not enough to win support for their constituents. The government are in no position to sit around and congratulate themselves on their recent announcements. They have ignored drought affected areas for so long that they must work extremely hard to reverse the pain. (Time expired)