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Monday, 30 May 2011
Page: 5203

Mr FORREST (Mallee) (18:19): There is no doubt that the budget is the principal policy opportunity for the government of the day. This is my 18th budget, the first three in opposition, 11 from government and now four again from opposition. It is an opportunity for the government to set its priorities, where its priorities are going to be. I have to say, contrary to what was said by the previous speaker, the member for Page, that from my constituency's point of view I feel as though on their behalf they have been completely let down. For example, and I will give plenty more in the 15 minutes of this contribution, this budget in the middle of Australia's biggest flood crisis has elected to withdraw exceptional circumstances assistance to my farming communities at the time of their greatest need. It is completely inappropriate. EC money could have been viewed as a stimulatory expenditure we needed to kick-start these important regional economies. Without EC the job will be much harder. In fact, there will be much more pain for my families struggling to save their businesses.

I have been interested to listen to the contributions from government members focusing on expenditure; bold statements that this is the largest level of expenditure on infrastructure that there has ever been. Opposition conservative contributions have been more about where this huge amount of money has come from that is borrowed and reminding their own constituents it has to be paid for. Money does not grow on trees. The ideological differences are remarkable. There seems to be a thought from the government that it does not matter that a nation can transfer, intergenerationally, its debt responsibility to a new generation. I have been raised from a conservative point of view. I support the concept that you borrow, you mortgage to buy your modest home and then you extend that to perhaps borrow again to develop your business, but you keep it at a level that you know you can manage knowing full well that you need to put away for the rainy day. The disaster is going to come. In my experience it was either frost in the dried vine fruit industry or it was hail, and you knew that when you got the good year you did not spend it all but you put it away as one in every seven at least would be a disaster year. I do not believe that a nation should be any different in the way it manages the money it has got custodianship of, which belongs to taxpayers. But that is just the ideological difference between the two arguments I have been listening to for the last week or so as people make their contributions with regard to this budget.

My constituency tell me they feel very badly let down. I think the budget has failed to pick up on the importance of our rural powerhouse, that it has the capacity to make a major contribution to our national economy. It has done so for years and will continue to do so. It just needs a little bit of support as we get through the disasters that it has endured, from Queensland through New South Wales all the way to Victoria. In fact, the Victorian flood circumstances astounded everybody, particularly when you think of the arid nature of the Mallee constituency I represent. It has a notional annual rainfall of 10 inches in the year in the old measurements, 250 millimetres. There was that amount of rainfall in two or three days. At Mildura on 9 March there was 250 millimetres in eight hours. It has completely devastated the viticultural industry there and it is an ongoing struggle. So to have that exceptional circumstance removed at that time was hard. I was corresponding with the relevant minister and, yes, it is an awkward position to be in to have exceptional circumstance financial support for a drought outcome but the implications of the opposite, a flood, are just the same: financial pain and financial insecurity. In my Mallee constituency 183 agricultural constituents reported loss and damage of more than $250,000 each and 400 had losses of more than $100,000 each. This gives a staggering total in the order of $350 million in losses at the farm gate—figures supported by the Victorian Farmers Federation and the Department of Primary Industries in Victoria. And this does not allow for the much higher value-added amount after processing, mostly into food but also into fibre.

I have some of the best farmers and horticulturalists in my constituency, but their balance sheets have been crippled by a decade of drought. Just when they thought that El Dorado was upon them, an opportunity to get them out of trouble with their banks, down came the worst meteorological disaster that the region has probably ever seen. I wrote to the minister on 11 February 2011 imploring him not to abandon EC and to find another option, knowing it was going to finish on 31 March—as recommended by the National Rural Advisory Council. But their advice was put to the minister's office before the rainfall. To this day, I have not had a response to my correspondence—very disappointing. My intention was to provide early advice, not knowing then but suspecting that meteorological outcomes of the nature that were showing up in the Pacific due to the El Nino. My prophecy came to fruition, sadly. Fruit, vegetables, melon and nut crops were all affected. As well, the viticultural and the dried vine fruit sectors were affected. Wine grape growers were already struggling but I thought table grapes in the Murray Valley was one commodity that had the capacity to allow horticulture to carry on, especially after getting formal access to China after many years. But the weather conditions wrecked the crop. The fruit rotted and it got downy mildew, a fungal growth that develops in the bunch because of the high humidity. It was very disappointing. I had hoped that this budget would offer something more to my constituents, but it did not.

Eight out of the nine municipalities in the electorate of Mallee have experienced severe flooding, particularly in January. The community of Charlton was flooded three times in six months, to the extent that 80 per cent of the township was inundated with water up to the height of my chest. The hospital, the aged-care facility and the doctor's surgery were all in one complex which was inundated.

The Charlton community are still struggling to recover from that. Those people are in despair as they try to sleep in this cold weather with no carpets on their floors and the gyprock removed from their walls up to chest height. They are waiting for their insurers to respond positively and honour their claims. I put those insurance companies on notice: if I do not get some positive responses from them in accepting claim responsibilities in Donald and Charlton then I will come into this place and name and shame. If people do not want to insure that is fine, but do not leave those who had insurance hanging by a hook not knowing where to go from here. One of those people is the doctor in Charlton. He is not in a good frame of mind. When you have young children and you cannot live comfortably in your own home, the pressure on a family is devastating. That is the Buloke Shire. Donald also lost its aged-care facility in the flood. Equally as devastating was the news in Queensland but down south they were a little disappointed because whilst no-one was injured and no lives were lost the outcome was the same. The 30 residents at the aged-care facility in Donald had to be relocated across the region. This has created enormous uncertainty and will lead to very poor outcomes from a health point of view. That is why I am so disappointed that this budget will see the closure of the Medicare access facilities in those vital towns spread across the north-west of Victoria in my constituency.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. DGH Adams ): Order! It being 6.30 pm, in accordance with standing order 192 the debate is interrupted. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.