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Tuesday, 16 June 2009
Page: 6231

Mr BURKE (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (7:59 PM) —I want to thank the member for Page for the question. There have been a couple of times now—one on my own and one with the PM as well—where I have had the opportunity to meet farmers within the electorate of Page, together with the member for Page. There is some extraordinarily modern production and some innovative methods that go on in that part of the country. That is in the face of having received some of the best and some of the worst of what the weather and the climate have to offer.

What I would like to focus on in response to the issues that have just been raised is what the budget is doing within the agriculture appropriations with respect to exceptional circumstances payments. There has been some mischief—I could use the word ‘mischief’, but I will not be so unkind—in the reporting and complaining about what has happened with forward appropriations on drought payments. I would like to take the opportunity that has been given to me by the member for Page to explain how it works. Essentially in this budget, with the exception of one change, it works the way it always has, which is that forward appropriations appear in the budget papers for EC payments to the extent that there are current declarations in place. Anything beyond that does not appear in the forward appropriations. That is the way the previous government handled EC, and that is the way we have continued to handle that in the way it is appropriated in the budget papers.

There is one minor change, where some money now appears in the Treasury budget papers as opposed to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry budget papers. That is a change that was part of a COAG agreement, and so there is a further extent to which the amount which appears in the budget papers before the Main Committee at the moment is a lower dollar figure than you would have seen in the way that that was budgeted for under the previous government. In terms of total dollar amounts for farmers, there is no change. There is no change in how that actually works. But there is a difference in the formalities of how that is recorded in the budget papers.

The only other reason that the amounts which are in these budget papers for drought assistance are lower is a really good reason, and that is that big parts of Australia have come out of drought. I acknowledge the presence in the chamber of the member for Riverina, whose farmers are probably doing it tougher than in almost any other part of the country. From the Riverina, through Sunraysia and down into the Riverland area, the irrigation drought has hit people in a way that previous droughts just have not. There have been particular difficulties there. But for much of the country, particularly the north of the country, there have been welcome rains. Some within the electorate of Page came all at once, in ways that were not necessarily so welcome. But areas like New England, and some areas throughout Queensland as well, are having some of the best seasons they have ever had. That means that, after the National Rural Advisory Council conducted their assessment, some areas have come out of EC. That means that those amounts do not appear in the forward appropriations anymore.

There was also a range of further drought support programs that deal with mental health support, financial information and other services that were expiring programs at the end of next year. These are programs that get renewed from time to time. We have extended those for 12 months only. The reason we have extended them for 12 months only is that, in the hope that we can arrive with industry at a new drought policy, those programs are very likely to be replaced by a different suite of programs doing very similar work but possibly organised in a different fashion.