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Monday, 2 June 2003
Page: 15593

Mr BALDWIN (3:00 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Would the minister inform the House how much of Australia is still in drought and whether the drought has broken? Is the minister aware of drought assistance being withdrawn from farmers?

Mr TRUSS (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) —I thank the member for Paterson for his question. As the Treasurer mentioned just a few moments ago, the drought in Australia is far from over. There is some welcome rain outside, and in some parts of Australia the wheat planting has been able to commence—particularly in Western Australia but there has also been some quite good plantings in parts of the eastern states—but in other areas there has not yet been adequate rain to enable planting to commence. In other places, the crops that have just come up are already starting to face some stress.

So whilst there has been rain in some places—indeed, in some of the city areas and on the coast, quite generous rain—the reality is that most of the drought stricken areas of Australia are still facing significant difficulties. The Commonwealth is continuing to assist drought stricken farmers. On the latest figures I have received, 14,600 Australian farm families are now receiving income support and 3,480 are receiving interest assistance. The Commonwealth remains committed to helping drought stricken farmers through these difficult times.

The honourable member asked whether other benefits are being withdrawn. I have already reported to the House on a number of occasions that the Victorian government, as soon as the state election was over, revoked drought assistance in the state of Victoria—a despicable action which demonstrated that Victoria's drought assistance was all about election stunts, not about providing real assistance to farmers.

I can recall warning, before the New South Wales state election, that a similar thing was likely to happen in New South Wales. I am sorry to report to the House that that indeed is precisely what is happening. Not with any fanfare, but quietly and secretly, the New South Wales government have been delisting areas that were previously eligible to receive drought assistance. On their web site over the last four to six weeks, you see that New South Wales have delisted from areas eligible to receive drought assistance parts of the Tweed-Lismore area, parts of Kempsey, parts of Gloucester, parts of Moree, parts of Tamworth, parts of the Walgett Rural Lands Protection Board and all of the Narrabri, Northern Slopes and Maitland Rural Lands Protection Boards. The farmers in those areas are no longer eligible to receive any assistance from the New South Wales government.

This was all done quietly on their web site. Indeed, the farmers in Tamworth were reported in the Northern Daily Leader on Friday as saying that they were not told about the fact that the drought relief had been axed until three weeks later—when I made it clear in their local media that it had been withdrawn by the New South Wales government. The New South Wales government did not even have the courage to tell them that they had axed their drought relief. This is an area that is receiving exceptional circumstances assistance from the Commonwealth. Indeed, some of the other areas where the New South Wales government have axed their relief are, we are told, going to be the subject of new EC applications. So New South Wales is asking the Commonwealth to declare these areas to be in exceptional circumstances while they are quietly revoking their eligibility for state assistance.

What a contrast that is with the occasions when the drought assistance was announced. Premier Carr was rushing around New South Wales with plane loads of journalists to make announcement after announcement about drought assistance for the farmers. I am told there were over 50 announcements. Most of them were pretty empty and provided very little assistance, but there he was with all these journalists from outer Sydney and the metropolitan media to announce drought assistance for the farmers. But is Premier Carr travelling around the drought stricken areas of New South Wales to announce he has revoked the assistance?

The reality is that we are seeing the collapse of the facade of care for drought affected areas. As soon as the state elections were over, the Labor Party were no longer interested in the concerns of drought affected farmers. This is a despicable action by the New South Wales state government—following on the lead of Victoria. They have no concern for farmers. This roll back of drought aid is the only roll-back we have heard from Labor for a long time, and they ought to be ashamed of it.