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Wednesday, 9 March 2005
Page: 39


Senator COLBECK (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (12:19 PM) —The Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2005 will give effect to amendments that aim to improve the effectiveness and the administration of the Australian government’s Farm Help program and to further ensure that it reaches low-income farmers most in need of assistance. The purpose of the bill is to reinforce the structural adjustment focus of the Farm Help Supporting Families Through Change program. It seeks to clarify the provisions for entry to the Farm Help program and to enable ongoing communication with Farm Help re-establishment grant recipients to confirm that recipients meet their undertakings not to re-enter farming and to notify of a change of address.

The assistance provided through Farm Help is flexible and can be tailored to meet the needs of each farm family. The program provides up to 12 months income support at the Newstart allowance rate, a grant of up to $5,500 for professional advice and training, the development of an activity plan customised to each farm family and a re-establishment grant of up to $50,000 for people who have decided to leave farming and sell the farm. Applications for the Farm Help program close on 30 June 2007. Farm Help has a long record of achievement and since the program commenced on 1 December 1997 over 9,000 farmers have received Farm Help income support, almost 8,000 farmers have taken up advice and training sessions and over 1,000 farmers have received re-establishment assistance. To date, the Australian government has expended $178 million on the Farm Help program, with an estimated $8.7 million in the current financial year—a positive commitment to strengthening the resilience of rural and regional Australia.

The following changes will be reflected in the Farm Household Support Act 1992, the act’s disallowable instruments, the Farm Help advice and training scheme 1997 and the Farm Help re-establishment grants scheme 1997. To ensure that the Farm Help program and the exceptional circumstances relief payment are consistent in their definition of ‘farmer’, the definition will be amended to ‘a person who has a right or interest in the land used for the purposes of a farm enterprise’. The distinction between target groups for the two programs is then made in the specific qualification provisions for each program. This amendment will not affect the eligibility criteria for a person applying for the exceptional circumstances relief payment. To avoid any impact of the changed definition on the exceptional circumstances relief payment, the definition of ‘farmer’ will be moved from the general definition in the Farm Household Support Act 1992 to the more specific qualification provisions for the exceptional circumstances relief payment.

For the purposes of Farm Help, a ‘farmer’ is currently defined under the act as ‘a person who has a right or interest in the land used for the purposes of the farm enterprise’ and ‘derives a significant part of his or her income from the farm enterprise’. However, this does not clearly state what ‘significant’ is, and this is necessary to provide clarity to all parties, including applicants, decision makers, courts and tribunals. A new qualification provision for the Farm Help program will define ‘significant’ for the purposes of Farm Help—that is, for a continuous period of at least two years immediately before they apply for entry to the Farm Help program the applicant has been a farmer, has derived more than 50 per cent of his or her gross income from the farm enterprise, has contributed more than 50 per cent of his or her capital to the farm enterprise and has spent more than 50 per cent of his or her working hours on the farm enterprise.

I want to ensure that the revised income test does not prevent low-income farmers from accessing the program if they experience a serious event outside their control. For example, a person may be unable to satisfy the income test because during the two-year period the person had experienced a drought, flood, bushfire or some other natural disaster or unforeseen extreme variation in seasonal norms, a market collapse or a serious illness or disability. Accordingly, a person will be considered a full-time farmer if they can demonstrate that they meet these circumstances and satisfy other qualification criteria.

Other amendments to the Farm Household Support Act will enable reviews to be conducted of re-establishment grant recipients to confirm that they are complying with their undertakings not to re-enter farming within five years of receiving the re-establishment grant and to notify of a change in address. Provisions have been developed which enable the Australian government to apply penalties to a person who fails to advise that they have re-entered farming and to apply a penalty to those who fail to advise of their change of address within five years of receiving the grant. These provisions will not be retrospective.

The government remains committed to the development of self-reliant, competitive, sustainable rural industries. The passage of this bill will clarify the qualification of farmers for the Farm Help program, ensuring that assistance goes to low-income farmers who are most in need. It will also ensure that re-establishment grants are being used for the purposes intended: to provide assistance to persons in severe financial difficulty to leave farming should they choose to do so.

The Farm Help program is an important part of the Agriculture Advancing Australia, AAA, package. AAA reflects the government’s overarching commitment to all farmers and our ongoing commitment to the development of self-reliant, competitive and sustainable rural industries. AAA was introduced in 1997 and in seven years has contributed over $1 billion to help assure the long-term prosperity of Australian agriculture and rural communities. Over 150,000 primary producers, representing more than half of the Australian agricultural sector, have directly benefited from the package. AAA was renewed in the 2004-05 federal budget due to its success as a trigger for positive change in rural and regional Australia and in recognition of the considerable assistance it is providing to farming families.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight a couple of recent successes of AAA. The Rural Financial Counselling Service responded promptly after the devastating January bushfires on the Eyre Peninsula. The Eastern Eyre Rural Counselling Service—located at Tumby Bay, north of the disaster area, and most affected by the bushfire—is still providing a focal point for general assistance with the disaster response. Through the South Australian Association of Rural Counselling Services, additional counsellors were deployed to the affected area on a rotational basis—from Kangaroo Island and other South Australian counselling services. The Rural Financial Counselling Service has been reviewed with a view to further improving the efficiency, timeliness and sustainability of the program and its delivery.

FarmBis continues to be a key element of the AAA package and last year was renewed for a further four years, with a government commitment of up to $66.7 million. The government has been working closely with the states on new program arrangements and has finalised agreements with Western Australia, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia. I call on New South Wales and the Northern Territory to formalise their respective funding commitments to the program as soon as possible. This will ensure that primary producers and rural land managers continue to benefit from the training opportunities in business and natural resource management skills that the FarmBis program provides.

The AAA Industry Partnerships program is encouraging industries to be proactive in responding to challenges and opportunities. It is working in partnership with Australia’s agriculture, fisheries and forestry industries to assist them to improve their resilience and self-reliance. A key part of the Industry Partnerships program is the successful Young People in Rural Industries Program, to which since 2001 the government has provided over $2 million in funding to further the skills, knowledge and participation of young people in rural industries. A further success of AAA is the Farm Help program. It continues to provide assistance for farmers working towards adjustment. Farm Help has a long record of achievement. Since the program commenced on 1 December 1997, over 9,000 farmers have received Farm Help income support, almost 8,000 farmers have taken up advice and training sessions and over 1,000 farmers have received re-establishment assistance.

The purpose of the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2005 is to reinforce the structural adjustment focus of the Farm Help program. The bill seeks to do this by clarifying the qualification provisions for entry to the Farm Help program and enabling ongoing communication with Farm Help re-establishment grant recipients regarding their undertakings not to re-enter farming and to notify a change of address. Farm Help is an evolving program which responds to the needs of farmers where possible. The need to clarify the qualification provisions for entry to the Farm Help program has arisen due to recent needs by decision makers, courts and tribunals for clarity on who is considered a full-time farmer.

The amendments will ensure that government funding is going to the target audience of Farm Help, which is low-income, full-time farmers. These provisions also aim to improve the effectiveness and the administration of the Farm Help program by allowing for follow-up to determine whether the program has assisted farmers to re-establish out of farming successfully. They are also to ensure that they comply with their agreement not to return to farming within five years of receiving the establishment grant.

I will just comment on a couple of items raised by Senator O’Brien. He referred to the government’s election commitment to extend and enhance the Farm Help program. This in fact came into effect on 1 July 2004. In respect of expenditure, the Farm Help program is a demand driven program and, as such, the expenditure is depended upon those who are seeking the program. I would like to thank all those who have made a contribution to the bill and commend it to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.