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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5485

Senator O'BRIEN (3:08 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Forestry and Conservation (Senator Ian Macdonald) and the Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer (Senator Coonan) to questions without notice asked by opposition senators today relating to drought assistance and to a proposed tax on sugar.

The Howard government's inaction in relation to the current drought—it is perhaps the worst drought in 100 years—as evidenced by those answers particularly, is nothing short of breathtaking. The drought is having a devastating impact on the cropping and livestock sectors—I have seen that impact first-hand— and it is now eating into the viability of key intensive industries such as the poultry, pork and beef feedlot industries. The poultry industry employs 35,000 people directly, while indirect employment is about five times that number; the pork industry generates about the same number of regional jobs; and the beef feedlot industry generates about 6,000 jobs. If the crisis in those sectors worsens, there will be a further negative impact on the local businesses that supply them. Tragically, many areas of rural Australia are now in a downward spiral, but you have to say that to date there has been precious little help from Minister Truss, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. In relation to intensive industries, his view seems to be that everything is fine. Last week, in response to my call for a national grain audit, he said that there is no problem in relation to feed grain. Senator Macdonald told the Senate today that he thought that the minister would not have refused to do that but, contrary to that, he did.

It is clearly not the view of those industries or of major grain traders such as Grainco that there is no problem; the problem was referred to by Grainco over the weekend. But I understand that the minister is about to take action in relation to drought. In fact, his antidrought strategy might already have commenced. He is going to run an advertising campaign. I have a copy of his advertisement and can give interested senators a sneak preview. It is headed `Commonwealth drought assistance'. There are two big problems with that advertisement. Firstly, three of the programs identified attract a substantial level of funding from the states. The states provide funding for both the Rural Financial Counselling Service and the FarmBis program. Local rural communities also make a contribution to the counselling service in either cash or kind. The states provide funding to farmers through the exceptional circumstances program. Those programs represent not only Commonwealth drought assistance but Commonwealth, state and, in part, industry drought assistance. Secondly, farmers do not need yet another Howard government political advertising campaign; they need help.

That was an embarrassing response by Mr Truss, I must say. He was not prepared to recognise, in his usual reactive way, that there was a problem until it was pushed under his nose. Contrary, as I have said, to what Senator Macdonald said in answer to my question today, when he doubted that Mr Truss would have refused to commission the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics to find out just how much grain was available and what the potential problem was, that is exactly what he did. He has said that he will not be commissioning ABARE to inquire into the state of grain reserves in this country.

I am sure that the pork, chicken and beef feedlot industries are amazed that there is such a cavalier approach to matters that are of fundamental interest to them. You do not have to take my word for it; look at the major rural publications in this country. In the leading few pages of every paper there are articles about the problems that these intensive industries face because of the cost of grain in this country. The cost of grain is increasing because of the shortage that has been occasioned by the drought—something that the Commonwealth government, in their advertising campaign, seem to be trying to tell people that they are concerned about, but the reality is that all they are concerned about is public perception, not the interests of the farmers and communities whose livelihoods and welfare are being so dramatically affected by the shortage of rainfall and whose very industries and livelihoods may be curtailed because of these policies. (Time expired)