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Thursday, 29 May 2008
Page: 3865


Mr BURKE (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (5:31 PM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Introduction

The Farm Household Support Act 1992 (FHS Act) was introduced in 1993 and allows farmers and some small business operators to access financial support or exceptional circumstances relief payments (ECRP) to help them manage through the drought.

Changes broadening access to the ECRP were introduced in September 2007.

We supported the former government’s introduction of these changes while we were in opposition and we will now honour that commitment by formalising them in legislation.

This bill will provide the legislative basis for these changes and will validate the payments people have received between then and when this legislation passes.

This bill amends the FHS Act to help more small rural businesses, who are suffering a downturn because of the drought, access relief payments. This not only supports rural business but also the communities that rely on them.

The bill will increase the income exemption for the ECRP income test from $10,000 to $20,000. This effectively doubles the amount of off-farm or non-business salary and wages that farmers and small business operators can earn without reducing their payment. This recognises that during this prolonged drought many farmers have had to seek some off-farm income to keep their business viable.

The bill will also remove an inequity between the treatment of Newstart allowance recipients and recipients of the ECRP. Currently Newstart allowance recipients may travel overseas for a limited number of humanitarian or family reasons and still receive their payments; ECRP recipients can not.

We see education and the welfare of young Australians as vital to the economic prosperity of this country. By amending the Social Security Act 1991 (SS Act), this bill will provide concessions under the Austudy and youth allowance means tests for newly eligible recipients of the ECRP. It will also ensure that all newly eligible recipients receive a health care card.

The bill

Exceptional circumstances assistance continues to be the Australian government’s primary vehicle for providing direct assistance to eligible farmers and small business operators impacted by rare and severe (‘exceptional’) events, including drought events, which lie outside the scope of farmers’ and small business operators’ normal risk management strategies.

Extending the ECRP to more farmers and small rural business operators

This bill will amend the FHS Act to allow more farmers and small business operators to access the ECRP and the associated ancillary benefits. It will do this by increasing the level of exempted off-farm or non-business salary and wages earned by the applicant and their partner from $10,000 to $20,000.

It will also amend the eligibility criteria to extend the ECRP to more small business operators. These small business operators must be located in towns that have a population of 10,000 or less, are located in exceptional circumstances, prima facie, or interim assistance areas, and are substantially reliant on income sourced from providing products and/or services to farms, farmers, farm workers, or their families.

These small business operators must also show they have experienced a significant downturn because of the drought.

Validation clause

This bill will amend the FHS Act by validating the payments made between the announcement on 25 September 2007 and the date the bill receives royal assent. This validation clause will provide a legislative basis to make these ECRP payments as if the bill commenced on 25 September 2007.

The validation clause will also provide a legislative basis for the provision of ancillary benefits such as the health care card and exemptions from the Austudy and youth allowance means tests provided to recipients between 25 September 2007 and royal assent of the bill. Specifically, these amended provisions will provide automatic access to the health care card to newly eligible recipients of the ECRP and exempt the Austudy and youth allowance payments of the dependent children of recipients of the ECRP from reductions through means testing of their parents.

Removal of the requirement to be ‘in Australia’ to receive ECRP

The bill will amend the FHS Act to allow ECRP recipients to continue to receive payments while temporarily absent from Australia for specific family or humanitarian reasons.

This measure treats ECRP recipients in the same way as those in receipt of the Newstart allowance and means they can continue to receive benefits while they are overseas if their reason for travel is covered by an exemption.

Conclusion

The government will continue to support farmers and small business operators throughout the drought and give them the opportunity to have a sustained recovery. We want to maintain the long-term viability of our farming families, rural small businesses and our rural and regional communities.

The effects of climate change, prolonged drought and structural change present critical challenges faced by our farmers every day. Through the exceptional circumstances assistance measures, the Australian government will enable the sector to meet and actively manage these challenges into the future.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Haase) adjourned.