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Tuesday, 2 June 1998
Page: 4469

Mr RUDDOCK (Immigration and Multicultural Affairs) (9:00 PM) —in reply—I thank the honourable members who have participated in the debate on the Social Security and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Retirement Assistance for Farmers) Bill 1998 . I did hear something of the comments by the honourable member for Burke (Mr O'Keefe) before dinner. He has been ably supported in this debate by the member for O'Connor (Mr Tuckey), the member for Calare (Mr Andren), the member for Leichhardt (Mr Entsch), the member for Gippsland (Mr McGauran), the member for Lyons (Mr Adams), the member for Jagajaga (Ms Macklin), the member for Murray (Mrs Stone) and the member for Hunter (Mr Fitzgibbon).

We welcome the opposition's indications of support for the bill. Obviously, this is a bill which for the first time gives low income farm families struggling to feed two or three generations from one property a window of opportunity to reorganise their affairs so that their farm is able to prosper and grow. It is the first opportunity that people have had to take advantage of opportunities that are provided by this legislation. In a real sense, it is regrettable that, for many years, succession planning has been a very low priority for farm families. They have not ensured that farms are passed to the younger generation in an orderly way that ensures the older generation can retire in dignity.

This bill says to rural families that they have three years in which to catch up on succession planning: to talk to their accountants, their lawyers, Centrelink's financial information officers and others who may be able to assist them in structuring their finances properly. In the context of the opposition's criticisms on the detail of the scheme, I can only repeat the words of the member for Calare: this is the first time a government has initiated such a move. Labor had 13 years to do something—

Mr Fitzgibbon interjecting

Mr RUDDOCK —Labor did have 13 years to do something, and it did nothing in that time. Obviously, I have heard the new, feigned interest in these matters. But I can guarantee that, if there had been no attempt to deal with this issue in the way in which we have, we would not have heard any comments from the Labor Party about this matter. I think it needs to be seen in that context.

In relation to the specifics of the comments by the member for Burke, I reject his claim that the take-up of this scheme is as low as 14 families. I am told that, since the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Mr Anderson) announced this scheme last year, 1,500 families have inquired about the scheme and 500 have actually registered their interest in claiming once this legislation has passed; this is before Centrelink has distributed any significant publicity material. I think it is important to note that, as the member for Gippsland pointed out, the figure of 14 that the member for Burke quoted is actually the number of claimants for re-establishment grants—a completely separate part of the package which has nothing to do with this new retirement assistance scheme for farmers. I would encourage the member for Burke to correct the record in relation to this matter.

Mr O'Keefe —Would you give me indulgence to take a minute to do it?

Mr RUDDOCK —No, I would not give you indulgence. But I would think that at the first available opportunity you would want to ensure the record is corrected in relation to that matter.

The fact is that the honourable member for Burke also claimed that the government had undertaken a cruel rural hoax in relation to this matter. This, again, is completely false. When the scheme was announced, the government stated that 10,000 families could potentially benefit as they had sufficiently low incomes. The government has always stated that, once compliance with the assets test and other tests is factored in, 2,100 families would qualify—1,800 in the social security portfolio and 300 in the veterans' affairs portfolio.

The issue that has been most controversial here tonight is the level of the assets threshold. I want to stress that this scheme is clearly one which is targeted at low income, low asset farm families. In other words, it meets the framework tests which we generally apply to social security eligibility. It is not intended to give general access to the pension to all farmers, irrespective of their ability to provide for themselves in retirement. Rather, it is to be seen as a welfare measure focusing on the farmers who have lower incomes and lower asset levels. But there has been some misunderstanding as to how the half million test works. Firstly, it is a net figure. If a farm is worth $800,000 but has a mortgage of $300,000 on it, then the net value is half a million dollars and this family may qualify. Secondly, it is only that share of the farm which the parents own which is counted. If a $1 million dollar farm is held in partnership between two generations, then the parents' share is worth half a million dollars and they would thus qualify. The other conditions of this scheme, such as the income test and the connection which both the older and younger generations must have with the land, are all fair measures which ensure the benefits fall as they are aimed.

In conclusion, I respond to the endorsement by the member for Calare of the amendments proposed to this bill by Senator Woodley. Due to the intransigence of the opposition, the Democrats and other parties in the Senate, that chamber has a large backlog of legislation waiting to be considered. The practical effect of this is that this bill may well not be considered this sitting in the Senate and will therefore be delayed until August and possibly later. This is a huge problem for those farm families who are desperately hanging on and waiting for the legislation to pass. The one solution to this impasse is for the bill to go through the Senate as non-controversial.

If Senator Woodley does not press his amendments, this bill could be passed within two weeks. But, if he insists on them, struggling families in the bush will have to wait many more months before these beneficial measures are in place. That really puts the ball right back in the court of the opposition and the Democrats. They can pass the bill unamended or they can allow farm families who are eligible to go without access to these beneficial measures. It will be a measure of the extent to which the opposition has any interest in relation to—

Mr O'Keefe —It is not a testosterone test. We've already said we'll support it.

Mr RUDDOCK —We are making it very clear. The bill will be treated as non-controversial in the Senate? Give encouragement to the Democrats and we will ensure it is dealt with in that way. We look forward to your cooperation in that effort as well.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.