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RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA
- Parl No.
Forshaw, Sen Michael
DEPUTY PRESIDENT, The
Heffernan, Sen Bill
Patterson, Sen Kay
- Question No.
Ferris, Sen Jeannie
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- Start of Business
- PAPUA NEW GUINEA: AID
- COMPREHENSIVE NUCLEAR TEST BAN TREATY
- WORLD SUICIDE PREVENTION DAY
- HEALTH: SMOKING
- SPORT: ANTHONY MUNDINE
- ENVIRONMENT: BARROW ISLAND
- PARLIAMENT: INDIGENOUS REPRESENTATION
- HUMAN RIGHTS: CHILE
- BILLS RETURNED FROM THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
- BILLS RETURNED FROM THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
- WORKPLACE RELATIONS AMENDMENT (IMPROVED REMEDIES FOR UNPROTECTED ACTION) BILL 2002
- TAXATION LAWS AMENDMENT BILL (NO. 7) 2003
- SEX DISCRIMINATION AMENDMENT (PREGNANCY AND WORK) BILL 2002
- NON-PROLIFERATION LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL 2003
- AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL TRAINING AUTHORITY AMENDMENT BILL 2003
MIGRATION LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (SPONSORSHIP MEASURES) BILL 2003
- Second Reading
- In Committee
- Third Reading
- WORKPLACE RELATIONS AMENDMENT (FAIR TERMINATION) BILL 2002
- VOCATIONAL EDUCATION AND TRAINING FUNDING AMENDMENT BILL 2003
QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE
(Faulkner, Sen John, Hill, Sen Robert)
(Ferguson, Sen Alan, Ellison, Sen Chris)
(McLucas, Sen Jan, Patterson, Sen Kay)
(Chapman, Sen Grant, Hill, Sen Robert)
(Cook, Sen Peter, Hill, Sen Robert)
(Allison, Sen Lyn, Patterson, Sen Kay)
Defence: Shipbuilding Industry
(Carr, Sen Kim, Hill, Sen Robert)
Education: Language, Literacy and Numeracy Program
(Nettle, Sen Kerry, Alston, Sen Richard)
Defence: Health Services
(Marshall, Sen Gavin, Hill, Sen Robert)
(Colbeck, Sen Richard, Minchin, Sen Nick)
(Crossin, Sen Trish, Hill, Sen Robert)
(Lees, Sen Meg, Vanstone, Sen Amanda)
Defence: Parliamentary Library
(Wong, Sen Penny, Hill, Sen Robert)
(Tchen, Sen Tsebin, Patterson, Sen Kay)
- National Security
- ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON NOTICE
- QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE: TAKE NOTE OF ANSWERS
- RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA
QUESTIONS ON NOTICE
Attorney-General's: Legal Assistance
(Brown, Sen Bob, Ellison, Sen Chris)
Education, Science and Training: Anderson Report
(McLucas, Sen Jan, Alston, Sen Richard)
Defence: Point Nepean
(Marshall, Sen Gavin, Hill, Sen Robert)
Australia Post: Sandgate, Queensland
(Santoro, Sen Santo, Alston, Sen Richard)
Defence: P3 Orion Flight
(Collins, Sen Jacinta, Hill, Sen Robert)
Tasmania: Global Education Strategy
(Brown, Sen Bob, Hill, Sen Robert)
Veterans: Dental Health
(Bishop, Sen Mark, Hill, Sen Robert)
Defence: Project AIR 5375
(Evans, Sen Chris, Hill, Sen Robert)
Defence: Project AIR 5333
(Evans, Sen Chris, Hill, Sen Robert)
Light Metals and Renewable Energy Action Agendas
(Brown, Sen Bob, Minchin, Sen Nick)
United Nations Human Rights Commission
(Ludwig, Sen Joe, Ellison, Sen Chris)
Nauru: Father Frank Brennan
(Brown, Sen Bob, Ellison, Sen Chris)
- Attorney-General's: Legal Assistance
Thursday, 11 September 2003
Senator FERRIS (3:47 PM) —On 13 November last year, the shadow minister for agriculture, Senator Kerry O'Brien, gave a notice of motion to the Senate. That notice of motion, which we are debating today, sought to address the crisis he claimed was enveloping rural and regional Australia. That motion condemned the government for allegedly neglecting to provide support for rural and regional communities in the growing drought. Today, 46 parliamentary sitting days later—and in the absence of Senator Kerry O'Brien, the shadow minister for agriculture—this motion is being debated. When I say `debated', I am not sure that the spray about the National Party by Senator Forshaw could actually be characterised as a debate, but let us be generous and say that that was a modest contribution by Senator Forshaw.
When Senator O'Brien moved this motion, No. 258 on the Notice Paper, there was no doubt that Australia was in the grip of the worst drought in 100 years. The country was in the grip of a long, hot, dry spring and similarly the summer that followed. For most of Australia, there was no harvest. The Senate this morning considered motion No. 583—325 motions later—and, in the absence of the shadow minister, those opposite decided to debate a motion on what was then a dreadful drought. Today the Labor Party is simply going through the motions.
Senator Forshaw said that this is a very timely debate. It was timely when Australia was in the worst drought in 100 years. Senator Forshaw said that the opposition was gravely concerned. We were all gravely concerned last November. Today's speech had not a single skerrick of policy on the drought, rural Australia, regional Australia, exceptional circumstances or pretty much anything else. What was Senator O'Brien doing in November last year, when this motion was first listed on the Notice Paper as a matter of some urgency because Australia was approaching what then turned out to be one of the worst droughts in 100 years?
On 19 November, just a week after this motion was listed on the Notice Paper, Labor released a six-point national drought plan which included calls to `cut through the red tape' and to `stop the buck passing and squabbling'. The plan said that we want to `work with the states to streamline the exceptional circumstances application process' and `to ensure a whole-of-government approach to drought policy'. Very commendable words—and if Senator O'Brien were here today I would congratulate him on those words. But what was Senator O'Brien doing—not just saying—to ensure the Labor states were working to stop the buck-passing, to get rid of the squabbling, to cut through the red tape and to help Australia's suffering farmers? He was doing nothing—absolutely nothing. Two days before this motion was moved back in November, AAP reported the following:
Not one cent of EC money has flowed from Canberra, and farmers were hurting.
That was Bob Carr, soon to be Labor leader in Canberra. But within hours Bob Carr had back-flipped, and the AAP said:
The only action by the federal government has seen just 17 households assisted in the whole of NSW with $170 a week payments from the Newstart allowance.
The following morning, on 12 November, Mr Carr told Steve Price's breakfast show that the farmers of Brewarrina and Bourke had received not a cent in drought relief. Plain wrong again. The truth of the matter was that Bourke and Brewarrina farmers were receiving exceptional circumstances assistance. They were getting relief payments backdated to 19 September, just a week after New South Wales submitted their only application for exceptional circumstances to that date. Talk about buck-passing! Talk about red tape and squabbling! And talk about Labor policy paralysis! Talk about no action—just empty words.
At the time, EC drought relief payments were flowing to more than 1,300 farmers in four states, with a further 1,000 receiving welfare assistance under the Farm Help program. Had Senator O'Brien been pushing Mr Carr and other Labor premiers then to sign up to the federal government's exceptional circumstances reform, the system would have been—as Senator Carr now calls for in his 10-month-old motion—more streamlined and more generous. By the release of Labor's six-point plan, the states had promised only $55 million and spent much less over the life of the drought. Senator O'Brien and Mr Crean should have been directing their efforts in encouraging the states to get rid of the buck-passing, the squabbling and the red tape but, instead, what were they doing? Absolutely nothing. By the end of last year, the state governments—Senator O'Brien's political friends—had committed only $1 for every $25 offered by the Commonwealth. Shame, Senator Forshaw, shame!
And what was Senator O'Brien doing at this time to ensure that state governments gave more to farmers? What was he doing to address the red tape, the squabbling and the buck-passing? Absolutely nothing, Senator Forshaw—absolutely nothing. What was Senator O'Brien doing to ensure state governments acted to turn around their tardiness on exceptional circumstances applications? Nothing—absolutely nothing. When Premier Carr arrives in Canberra to take over this disenchanted opposition, maybe he and Senator O'Brien, when he returns, can not just sit down and have a chat about how they can actually deliver something—not just get on the ABC or Steve Price's breakfast program or put out a press release or ring up AAP—but sit down together and do something about it so that never again do farmers in this country have to put up with the scraping and the begging that went on to our state governments while they kept their purses firmly shut. It was a shameful performance.
Let us not forget that many of these state governments at this time were not only providing paltry or no assistance to farmers in need but—
Senator Forshaw —Poultry? Poultry?
Senator FERRIS —in most instances, they were imposing new taxes and charges on drought stricken farmers at a time when they could least afford it.
Senator Forshaw —I think you might have Newcastle disease.
Senator FERRIS —You can laugh, Senator Forshaw. You can sit there and laugh as we talk about people who contribute to the wealth of this country. They contribute to the wealth of this country—and if you think, Senator Forshaw, that that is a laughing matter, you go out to the country and you laugh at them.
Senator Forshaw —I rise on a point of order, Mr Deputy President. Senator Ferris should be directing her remarks through you, the chair.
The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Forshaw, resume your seat. There is no point of order. Senator Ferris, your comments should be addressed to the chair.
Senator FERRIS —Quite so, Mr Deputy President.
Senator Heffernan —I rise on a point of order, Mr Deputy President. If Senator Forshaw cannot stand the pressure from this ferocious attack, he should leave the chamber instead of making points of order.
The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Heffernan, you know there is no point of order there.
Senator Patterson —Paltry—it was a paltry one.
Senator Forshaw —A poultry one?
The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Forshaw, Senator Ferris deserves to be heard in silence.
Senator FERRIS —If Senator Forshaw were to go out into the country, he would be a plucked duck.
The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Ferris, I ask you to withdraw that imputation on Senator Forshaw.
Senator FERRIS —I withdraw.
The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Thank you, Senator Ferris.
Senator FERRIS —The last Victorian state budget included increases in 300 state taxes, many of which fell very heavily on farmers. A recent report in Queensland sets out over 800 new taxes and tax rises that the Queensland government has introduced since the election of Premier Beattie. Many of these taxes were particularly targeted at farmers, and now the Queensland state government has introduced a new charge for farmers moving their cattle from one property to another.
These are political colleagues of Senator O'Brien and Senator Forshaw, and these are the senators who are talking about relief for farmers. There are increased freight rates for moving precious hay and fodder to drought stricken areas and an incredible new tax on farm dams. Can you believe that? Many farm dams are absolutely empty because of the drought—and Premier Beattie has imposed a new government tax. Is this a man that cares about the wealth generators of this country? Hang your head, Senator Forshaw. Why won't Senator O'Brien and those opposite stand up to those Labor colleagues, those political mates, and demand a better deal for farmers—and indeed for all Australian regional taxpayers?
Let us look at what the Howard government actually did provide during the worst drought in 100 years: the much needed relief for drought stricken farm families and those in the regional towns who very importantly provide the services for regional and rural Australians. When the responses of the state governments were so disappointing, not only in relation to their own drought assistance measures but also in their unwillingness to support drought policy reform, the federal government pressed ahead. We moved quickly to enhance those parts of EC policy to assist rural families to cope with the worsening drought and to provide speedy relief to the neediest farmers. These enhancements included the provision of immediate income support, once an EC application had been referred to the National Rural Advisory Council for assessment, and the use of predictive analysis in the assessment process—a very important streamlining of the NRAC provisions.
As a result, over the last eight months, the Australian government has processed and supported an unprecedented number of exceptional circumstances applications. In all, 59 applications—a record number—were made nationally since September 2002 and decisions have been made on 45 of them so far. The remaining applications have been received only in the last eight weeks. Decisions are expected shortly on the outstanding applications as the average time currently required for full assessment is about eight weeks from the date of the application, which is around half the time taken to assess and make decisions on EC applications in previous years when those opposite were in government and claiming to be caring for farmers and our country. Hang your heads.
Of the 45 EC applications that have been assessed, 35 areas are now EC declared and eligible farmers in these areas are receiving fortnightly income support, special access to health care cards, family payments, youth allowance—where it is appropriate—and Austudy as well as business support through interest rate subsidies of up to 50 per cent. For the current drought, the most recent figures show that over 23,000 applications for income support under EC arrangements and the 9 December package of last year have now been approved. More than 6,700 applications for interest rate subsidies have also been approved. The Australian government's current expenditure for needy farmers amounts to—listen to this, Senator Forshaw—$249 million. That is no paltry amount, I might say.
The number of recipients and the level of Australian government commitment will continue to rise strongly as new applications are processed. I ask Senator Forshaw to listen carefully to these figures, because I think they demonstrate more clearly than anything else does the commitment of this government to rural and regional Australia. Together with other initiatives announced last year, drought assistance and existing exceptional circumstances arrangements are expected to cost the Australian government around $1 billion over three to four years. I repeat: $1 billion. Overall, more than 29,700 applications for interim income support, EC relief payments or interest rate subsidies have now been approved and the number is still growing as the drought continues to affect those parts of Australia still desperately looking for rain.
The drought assistance packages and existing EC arrangements are expected to cost the Australian government around 10 times the amount of funding that all state Labor governments—the political colleagues of those opposite—have announced in total. The Labor Party has the cheek to come in here and criticise this government for the expenditure on drought relief measures. Hang your head, Senator Forshaw. Already, a quarter of a billion dollars has been spent and expenditure on drought assistance is running at $10 million every week to regional and rural families still in the grip of drought; still looking for rain so that they can have a harvest, feed their stock and get some water in their dams.
In addition, in response to the drought, the Australian government has relaxed the 12-month waiting time for access to farm management deposits for farmers eligible for EC assistance. This was a most important policy initiative introduced by this government when we came to office in 1996 and was welcomed by the farming community. The total farm management deposits cost concessions to the government have been estimated by Treasury to be worth a further $470 million.
Other Australian government initiatives include a $14 million package announced last November to assist in the delivery of personal counselling services, drought related environmental and pest eradication projects, and emergency assistance through the Country Women's Association. So, at the time when Senator O'Brien gave notice of this motion to the Senate calling on the government to address the issues confronting rural and regional Australia, we were putting together—and subsequently announced—a $14 million package covering personal counselling and environmental and pest eradication projects, which is something perhaps that Senator O'Brien would like to address when he returns.
As well, in September last year, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry announced other significant new measures to apply permanently to EC to streamline the flow of Australian government assistance. Interim support is now available in application areas from the day it is deemed that a prima facie case has been established by the applicant state. Prior to this, farmers had to wait until NRAC completed a full assessment—that was under your government, Senator Forshaw. Predictive modelling is now being used where possible to enable applications to be considered more quickly. An early warning system has been developed by government to help farmers in future by alerting them to oncoming dry spells. The federal government will spend $700,000 to fund these two programs.
Senator Forshaw, you have come in here and given the National Party a spray, pretending that you are gravely concerned and trying to claim that a nine-month-old notice of motion, hundreds of motions ago, is timely. It is a joke which rural Australia will be onto like a shot. I notice that Senator O'Brien's senior adviser, a well-known and very competent speech writer, was in here with what looked suspiciously like a speech for you. That was very generous of Senator O'Brien, given his absence. I have no doubt that if Senator O'Brien had been here he would have addressed the issue of this drought and the timely circumstances in which the government confronted it and not come in and given a silly, ill-conceived and ill-deserved spray to the National Party.