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Thursday, 29 May 2003
Page: 15469

Mr JOHN COBB (2:45 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Has the minister seen claims by state governments about their expenditure on drought assistance? Would the minister inform the House of the comprehensive payments being made by the Commonwealth as the drought continues?

Mr TRUSS (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) —I thank the honourable member for Parkes for his question and his ongoing interest in the drought which affects virtually all of his electorate, where many farmers are obviously facing particular difficulties. The Commonwealth has moved to provide significant and comprehensive financial support for farmers during these difficult times. We have moved where states have failed to act. We are providing a range of assistance measures, many of which have never been offered in a drought situation before. We are also processing applications much faster than ever before. Indeed, as soon as a prima facie case has been established, farmers are eligible to receive interim assistance while their case is under consideration. We are taking about one-third as long as occurred in the past to consider the detailed applications. This has already meant that significant assistance is flowing to Australian farm communities.

In relation to the applications already before and agreed to by the federal government, we have committed expenditure of around $950 million over three years. Indeed, no federal government in any drought in our history has made a contribution anything like that amount. We have recognised the severity of the situation and, whilst those numbers sound big when they are all added together—and they are indeed a very significant contribution from the Commonwealth—we know that each application is dealing with a personal tragedy and that a personal situation of great difficulty is confronting an Australian farm family. We have been prepared to stand by them and to offer as much assistance as we possibly can.

In addition, there has been substantial revenue forgone under the Farm Management Deposits scheme. Since 1997, we have provided around $800 million under the AAA Farm Innovation Program—which provides support for farm training—for the Farm Family Restart Scheme and for rural financial counsellors, who have been especially in demand over recent times. If you compare that commitment with what has been offered by the states during this arguably worst drought in our nation's history, the comparisons are light and dark. Compared with our almost $1 billion already committed to relief assistance in this drought, the states between them have managed something less than $60 million. It is really a pathetic effort.

In states like Victoria and Western Australia, the assistance is actually cut off as soon as Commonwealth assistance is available under the exceptional circumstances program. Around 50 EC applications have either been lodged or are projected, and some of those applications are being lodged by states that have made absolutely no financial assistance available to farmers in the region. They demand Commonwealth help while they are prepared to do nothing themselves. Many of these applications have covered huge areas, areas that have meant that it has been very difficult for the independent arbiter, the National Rural Advisory Council, to make a decision about whether or not the area qualifies. They cover such a range of industry areas and geographical circumstances that some areas may qualify and others may not.

When an application is declined because the state case has not been strong enough, we have state ministers actually going out and criticising the Commonwealth government because their application has failed. They would be far better off putting their time and energy into providing meaningful practical assistance at the local level and developing applications that are likely to meet the criteria—criteria which they signed off on four or five years ago and which they were party to the development of. It is important that there is cooperation between the Commonwealth and the states in developing the applications and in then considering the appropriate method of assistance to be provided in cases where there is severe drought.

I want to emphasis that, unfortunately, because of the nature of the cases that have been presented or the circumstances in certain areas, some of the applications have not been successful. But in every instance the Commonwealth and the National Rural Advisory Council has recommended that we review the case in the months ahead. So there will be a constant review of the circumstances of people in areas where applications have not been accepted, and as soon as it is clear that an area meets the criteria we will be willing to reconsider and to make that kind of declaration. The states have a role in providing up-to-date information to ensure that those matters can be considered promptly. Instead of criticism and empty words from the states, we certainly need a bit of performance—a bit of caring about the needs of farmers and a desire to actually ensure that benefits flow as quickly as possible.

Finally, the Commonwealth is aware of the fact that the current EC arrangements leave a lot to be desired. We have been trying to reform them now for more than two years and getting no cooperation from any of the states. What is important is that there is a spirit of cooperation and a willingness to try to provide benefits in the most effective way. States have never done less in a drought—never talked more, but never done less—but we have not been prepared to have farmers suffer just because they have uncaring state governments. We have been prepared to move in and provide realistic assistance, and we will do that until the drought is over.