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Monday, 22 June 2009
Page: 6752

Mr ADAMS (6:51 PM) —The Rural Adjustment Amendment Bill 2009 amends clause 7 of the Rural Adjustment Act 1992 to allow for the appointment of National Rural Advisory Council, NRAC, members for three terms. The National Rural Advisory Council is a skill based independent advisory council to the Australian government Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. The NRAC was established in December 1999 as a statutory consultative body, following legislative changes to the Rural Adjustment Act 1992. It replaced the Rural Adjustment Scheme Advisory Council and expanded the range of roles and functions of the original council. The NRAC advises the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry on rural issues, including the exceptional circumstances applications and the extensions to EC declarations.

The proposed amendment will remove the current provision that a person may, on one occasion only, be reappointed as a member. The Rural Adjustment Act 1992 specifies that the NRAC’s main role is to provide advice on rural adjustment and regional issues, including whether areas should be assessed as being exceptional circumstances areas. This bill will ensure that current or previous members who have developed considerable expertise in understanding exceptional circumstances assessments through membership for two terms can serve a third term and continue to contribute to the NRAC.

Currently the NRAC consists of a chairperson and not more than seven other members. The members are appointed by the minister on a part-time basis. At least one member is appointed to represent the states; at least one member is an officer of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, who is appointed to represent the Commonwealth; one member is appointed to represent the National Farmers Federation; and the other members are appointed because of their expertise in economics, financial administration, banking, sustainable agriculture, regional adjustment, regional development, farm management or training.

When the Australian government receives an application for EC the minister may refer it to the NRAC for assessment, if he agrees that a prima facie case has been established. As part of its assessment, the NRAC may conduct an inspection tour of the affected region. On completion of the assessment, the NRAC presents its recommendations to the minister, who, after consulting with the Australian government, has responsibility for declaring whether or not a particular area is experiencing exceptional circumstances.

A streamlined review process was introduced by the last government to make it easier for farmers who have not experienced a break in the drought to have their EC declaration assessed for a possible extension. Under the review process the NRAC reviews exceptional circumstances declared areas before their expiry date to assess whether an extension to the declaration is warranted. As part of the review the NRAC assesses information from a number of sources, including the National Agriculture Monitoring System, analysis provided by the Bureau of Rural Sciences, the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resources Economics, state and local governments and local producers. Additionally, the NRAC may undertake an inspection tour of the area. If the NRAC assesses an area as no longer being an exceptional circumstances area and the minister accepts the advice not to extend the declaration, assistance ceases on the date the declaration ends. If the NRAC supports extending the declaration and the minister agrees, assistance continues until the new declaration end date comes about.

The definition of ‘exceptional circumstances’ is that it must be rare, not having occurred more than once in an average of 20 to 25 years. So one can see that we are looking at changing that into the future with the advice we are receiving on climate change. It must result in a rare and severe downturn in farm income over a prolonged period of time—for example, greater than 12 months. It cannot be planned for or managed as part of the farmer’s normal risk management strategies, and it must be a discrete event that is not part of long-term structural adjustment process or normal fluctuations in commodity prices.

It is important to keep some continuing process going for the NRAC so that there is uniformity in decision making and so that the members of the council are fully familiar with previous decisions and how to read the exceptional circumstances situation. I am sure the member for Barker would agree with me.

Mr Secker —Hear, hear!

Mr ADAMS —On first appearances, Tasmania would not seem to be a possibility for being drought affected. But it is, and it has been for many years. On 25 September 2007, farmers and small businesses operating in full exceptional circumstances declared areas of Tasmania became eligible to apply for the full range of EC assistance measures, including exceptional circumstances relief payments, which are available through Centrelink, and the exceptional circumstances interest rate subsidy, the ECIRS. The EC declaration expires on 30 April 2010 and of course we hope that things can be back to some normality by that time.

Further, the federal Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry announced on 12 February 2009 an extension of the exceptional circumstances declared areas of Tasmania to 30 April 2010. This includes Flinders Island and the previously EC declared areas of the central midlands and the east coast, but it excludes the north-east area of the mainland of Tasmania, including Clarke and Cape Baron islands, which expired on 31 March 2009. Eligible primary producers and small businesses in the extended areas will continue to receive EC relief payments and be able to apply for interest rate subsidies for the extended term.

This advisory council has recognised that we have been facing extraordinarily dry circumstances across Australia over the last three or four years, some areas for much longer. Now the worm has turned a bit and we are getting back to normal in some areas, although the soil is still surprisingly dry at depth. I think we have to be realistic and say in these times of climatic change and strong fluctuations that we will need to approach issues such as exceptional circumstances in a different way into the future. This advisory council will have an important role to play in helping farmers start the process of adapting to change as part of its role in assessing the risk to farm sustainability. At the moment, the government helps by providing Centrelink style payments and advice; however, sometimes there may need to be more drastic decisions made. This can only be done by the individual farmer and the enterprise itself, and there have to be ways to help them revise the way they operate their business or ways to be able to move into something more sustainable. I hope the member for Barker agrees with that as well.

The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Primary Industries and Resources is currently conducting an inquiry into the current and prospective adaptations to the impacts of climate change on agriculture and the potential impacts on downstream processing. We are also looking at the role of government in augmenting the shift towards farming practices which promote resilience in the farm sector in the face of climate change. It will also look at promoting research, extension and training which assist the farm sector to better adapt to climate change, particularly through rural research. The evidence we are receiving shows that there are a lot of interesting developments in the rural sector, ranging from new ways of irrigating in order to use less water to changes in plant types to looking at drought resistant species as well as whole-farm practices dealing with climate change. It is very much a new era in the rural sector and we must be prepared more than at any time before to deal with floods, drought, fire and tempest.

To cope with these extreme climatic events, the key is to ensure that we have more reliable and specific forecasting information. However, in 2007 a survey to assess the forecasting needs of farmers found that 17 per cent still did not use forecasts to make decisions. One of the two main reasons for this result was the perception that the information was not reliable or specific enough for their region for them to make decisions. The sort of information we need is rainfall amount and intensity that can be collated so that people can get regular monthly pictures or, of course, pictures more often than monthly. Information should also include air temperature, frost occurrence and wind types. So there are many areas which need to take a new approach, many of which will involve the collection of specific and localised data which people can use as tools to make decisions. However, enterprises need to take that on board and make those decisions. They have to be the ones that adapt.

Giving this advisory council members who have the expertise to enhance their role for longer is a really good concept. They have a lot of expertise and are assisting a lot of people. In my electorate, some farming families have done it very hard over a very long time. A lot of people—and I do mention the Rotary club of Evandale—work very hard in assisting many people in this way and there have been many others. Aussie Helpers have been great. I remember the distribution of hay in the Oatlands district. These were all positive and wonderful ways of assisting people. But the future is new ways of thinking. There are some commodities that are not going to carry forward into the future on some of the properties that make up my electorate. We certainly need the economic activity within these regions coming from the farms to add to the wellbeing of those country towns and the future of many young people.

Another area is the research that is being done by Forestry Tasmania in the Warra silvicultural systems trial. It has been the focus of very intensive long-term research into the responses of a number of biodiversity elements to several alternative silviculture schemes. The objective is to assess the degree to which mature forest diversity can be maintained within coupes harvested by various systems. The Warra has been, and still is, a good example of how long-term research can be used to develop new ways of dealing with environmental and climatic issues as they present themselves.

This advisory council will be continuing to play an essential role as we all debate the changes going on in our world, and its members will benefit from it with their continuing presence and by developing their knowledge and skills base. This is a very good option that is before the parliament, and I commend the bill to the House.