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Thursday, 14 August 2003
Page: 18598

Ms PANOPOULOS (3:24 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Would the minister advise the House of recent exceptional circumstances drought declarations? How many farm families are now receiving direct income support? How much assistance is the federal government expecting to provide in total to drought-affected areas?

Mr TRUSS (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) —I thank the honourable member for Indi for her question and acknowledge the effort that she has put in to ensuring that the farmers in her area receive proper assistance during this difficult drought. It has been good to hear reports of significant rainfall around Australia over the last week or two, and that is encouraging. But there are still significant areas of Australia that are facing serious drought. Indeed, around 65 per cent of all agricultural land in Australia is currently receiving federal exceptional circumstances or interim assistance. Since the House last met, there have been a number of new declarations of exceptional circumstances, including central and south-east Victoria; Forbes, Armidale and northern New England; the southern Murweh shire in Queensland; for beef, cattle and sheep producers in the greater Shepparton area; the Campaspe and Moira regions of northern Victoria; and the central north-east and other parts of the Western Australia wheat belt. The addition of those areas to the EC-declared areas has added close to another 10,000 farm families and businesses who can now apply for exceptional circumstances aid.

Currently, more than 20,000 Australian farm families have received Commonwealth exceptional circumstances assistance—some 20,600 applications for income support have been approved and a further almost 6,000 approved for interest rate subsidy. This represents a very significant effort. The Commonwealth's commitment to drought would now exceed a billion dollars of real and practical assistance to farmers. I might add that that is actual payments to farmers. It is not a kind of drought aid or bureaucrat salaries dressed up as drought aid—the types of things that some of the states have been endeavouring to demonstrate as their drought aid.

In the last 10 months, the Commonwealth has received 53 applications for exceptional circumstances and 42 of those have been processed; the other 11 are at an advanced stage of consideration. Therefore, it is obvious that the Commonwealth is taking this drought seriously and is providing meaningful assistance to farmers in need. Indeed, the effort of the Commonwealth really contrasts markedly with the appalling performance of Labor state governments during this drought. For every $1 that the states are providing for drought assistance, the Commonwealth is providing at least $10 and probably $20. We have got states jointly complaining about the way in which they have been treated but who are doing nothing themselves.

In New South Wales, Minister Macdonald has regular press conferences to tell everybody about how serious the drought is. But whilst he is telling everybody about the drought, he is secretly withdrawing the state declarations. In fact, on 4 July in New South Wales the state government revoked drought eligibility for Walgett, Nyngan and Coonamble and the rural lands protection boards. That followed earlier revoking in the areas of Tweed Heads, Lismore, Tamworth, Gloucester, Kempsey, Moree, the northern slopes, Maitland and Narrabri. He revokes the assistance and it is perhaps ironic that, for some of those areas for which he is revoking assistance, he is now demanding the Commonwealth provide exceptional assistance.

There is a bit of hypocrisy in that the states think the drought is over and yet they demand that the Commonwealth provides more aid. Of course, in Victoria, which had quite a generous and good scheme for farmers, they axed it immediately the state election was over. From their perspective, once you have not got an election you no longer have a drought. They have got the hypocrisy to be running around demanding again and again that, in electorates like Indi and other places, the Commonwealth provides assistance where the states do absolutely nothing. Shame on Labor for its unwillingness to provide any assistance to farmers in need. We will stand by farmers. We hope the rain continues to spread across the country and provide the best possible relief but, in the interim, we will be there to work with them to ensure that they are able to respond positively and rebuild their businesses after the drought breaks.