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Monday, 22 June 2009
Page: 6763

Mr FORREST (7:47 PM) —I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on the Rural Adjustment Amendment Bill 2009. To the uninitiated, it probably seems like a very simple piece of legislation. There are really only two effective pages, but it is designed to allow NRAC, the National Rural Advisory Council, to continue their appointments beyond the current limitation of two years. I think that is a good thing. NRAC have been playing a valuable role in providing important advice to government for many years now, most particularly in response to drought and exceptional circumstances. In addition, advice on rural adjustment and regional issues has been vital. Members of the council are appointed by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and I am pleased the minister has recognised the importance of the role of current members to extend their appointment for one more term. Council members have built up a considerable pool of knowledge over two terms and it is important that that corporate knowledge is retained. Rural Australia is in a very fragile state at this stage and that important knowledge will be very useful as the government struggles with the challenges with which it tells us it is confronted. But there are some more significant comments I would like to contribute on the issue of EC and drought and this bill provides that opportunity.

Quite a number of my farming communities out there, especially in dryland agriculture, as they finish their cropping season are probably listening to this debate as we speak. We have had some rain across my constituency, which has created new hope, a new positive feeling, after seven years and in some areas nearly nine years of drought. In fact, a real grain crop across the north-west of Victoria has not really been achieved since the mid-eighties. So rural Australia, particularly the part I represent, is in a very vulnerable state. Proper advice on ongoing future policy directions will be paramount. I support the minister in his intention to give current members another term.

Trying not to be cynical about the circumstances in which we find ourselves, the government, particularly this minister, has made it quite clear that its ambition is to dismantle exceptional circumstances. It has not been able to tell us yet what it intends to replace it with. In fact, this was all well described 12 months ago, but the minister could not resolve the difficulties with which he was confronted and he extended all existing EC regions until about April of next year. The whole of my electoral division, the entire electorate of Mallee, has been in exceptional circumstances for four years with some of the smaller areas even longer than that.

There are a number of pointers to the government’s intentions and the minister’s own comments of his intentions are pretty clear. The second is in regard to the budget papers. In fact, if you go to page 60 of the portfolio budget statements, you see that there is absolutely no equivocation. I have heard the minister try to defend this situation, that it is because drought funding is considered in each term, but the reality of the words has terrified the people I represent. Page 60 of the portfolio budget statements says:

The reduction in expenses between 2009-10 and 2010-11 is due to the cessation of drought programs.

Those are the words that my constituents read in the budget papers. If you add to that the recommendations of the Productivity Commission—which has to be quite an economically dry organisation—it quite strongly recommends the termination of drought EC, the termination of interest rate subsidies, the termination of income support and the termination of the whole way the EC declaration process operates. It also recommends in the Productivity Commission report that no new areas of EC be declared either for full or even interim declarations.

I am convinced a little bit more about the cynical view of the minister. It defies credibility that he sat on that Productivity Commission report from as early as February this year. In fact he did not publicly release it until budget day itself. I imagine he thought the release of a report of such significance to the people of my constituency might have been missed and gone under the radar given the media focus on the budget itself. I have made this plea in this place to the minister on other important legislation in this place: he must adopt a much more sympathetic attitude to that sector of the Australian economy that he purports to represent. We are dealing with real people—real working families who are beside themselves in the circumstances they are confronted with.

Every day I am confronted with people’s uncertainty when they come into my electoral office about what they quite clearly see as the government’s intention to abandon the safety net—the support base—and which they have had to accept. Given that the people of the north-west of Victoria are a very determined, resilient and quite proud people, the minister needs to get into the family environment and understand how it makes them feel that their only option is to rely on social security when they have had generations of independence and support from their own industry. I am asking the minister and making that plea loud and clear: please understand you are dealing with real people.

I will give you an example that happened to me last Friday week. I had an appointment with an agent from Telstra to tutor me in the replacement of my PDA. I was quite content with the jazz jams facility I had but the department told me I had to now accept what they allege is better technology—the Blackberry. I insisted that somebody come out and convince me that it was going to work in my remote region.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—From the chair, I can say that it is much better.

Mr FORREST —He drove all the way up from Melbourne for an appointment on the Friday afternoon at 2.30. At about 2.45 I got a phone call from a desperate family who could not find their father. They were extremely concerned about his welfare. This is a family that has their financier on their case and threatening to send the sheriff in, foreclose, throw them out of their home and property and take complete possession of their entire possessions. I did not hesitate. I jumped in the car with my old phone because I knew that was still working and drove like a mad thing—thankfully his property is only 20 minutes away—hoping that I would not find him hanging in his shed. That is the sort of thing that members from my part of the world and so many of my colleagues are confronted with. I was just so grateful to catch some of his family on the phone. By the time I arrived there, his granddaughters were with him just to let him know that somebody cared. I am not going to have that on my conscience.

That is happening consistently. Minister Burke, that is the kind of state of mind that many of my primary producers are in and they expect you to make a stand and fight for them. They did not see that in the outcomes from the budget a month or so ago. What they saw was the very support base that would assist them to cope with the challenges of climate change being dragged from under their feet. The only department subjected to productivity gains was the department that you, Minister Burke, are responsible for—the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

Last year’s budget was bad enough, when we saw $60 million slashed out of the CSIRO’s research funding. Within a month we saw the CSIRO try to adjust their monetary and financial circumstances to that scenario by closing five research facilities. That process is well in place. One of those facilities is located at Merbein, in Mildura, and provides assistance to horticulturists not only with the challenges of climate change but also in planting and inventing new varieties to help them compete in the very competitive export market.

The government’s announcement that it wants to make adjustments to exceptional circumstances might be acceptable to the desperate people that I represent but it needs to say early what it intends to replace it with. I was quite impressed with the member for O’Connor’s contribution to the potential replacement tools. They are quite diverse. This minister has not given us any indication that we can relay to the constituents we represent that he is thinking along these lines. The member for O’Connor has made some suggestions on multiperil crop insurance for broadacre agriculture. It is not easy to achieve. Other nations have tried something like this, particularly Canada, and we are told that the capacity for industry to participate on the scale that is needed to support such an insurance based system has some challenges. That is true.

Each commodity that is produced is different but consider today how we have irrigators along the Murray Valley, particularly in my constituency, who have been on EC and are into their third year on it because of circumstances beyond their control. The water supply system that served them well for over 100 years because of judicious investment has failed them and for the third year in a row the initial allocation of their water entitlement at the start of the allocation season, which they have bought and paid for every year, is zero. Just in the last month that announcement has been made of zero allocation. It is true that in the last two years that allocation has progressively increased as we have had more rainfall in the upper catchment to augment the storages. But for two years in a row it has only got to the mid-thirties in percentage terms. There is still the uncertainty on a month-by-month basis. It is no way to run a business. You cannot prepare a business plan, particularly if you are engaged in irrigation horticulture, if the first announcement is of a zero allocation. How do you go to your banker and ask for some finance to engage in pruning or harvesting or the installation of a more efficient irrigation system when you have to say to him, ‘Oh, well, we don’t have any water at this stage but we might have some later’? That is no way to plan a business with that absolute uncertainty. What is happening in Sunraysia now is many are giving up. In fact, I remember the member for Denison, who is sitting opposite, met me in the street of Mildura one day and said how delighted he was to come to such a vibrant community. Do you remember that, Duncan?

Mr Kerr —No.

Mr FORREST —I do. I will never forget it. If you were to visit Mildura today you would have a different perspective. You would see dead vines and you would see dead citrus trees as farming families, hard-struggling working families, have given up. Their only source of any significant income is to trade their water on the annual water market. So what these communities are looking for is some absolute certainty from this minister. Minister, don’t leave them dangling on the fishhook of uncertainty about what the government’s intentions are and what it wants to replace EC with. Get out there, like some of us are doing and, as the member for O’Connor has indicated, talk to people.

In Victoria I have been talking with the Victorian Farmers Federation about options for some sort of insurance basis or commodity funded multiperil insurance. We have got to offer these people some certainty that this government has their interests at heart. But we are not getting those signals from the minister so I will make this plea one more time. In fact on a couple of occasions in the corridors I have invited him to come to Mildura. He says he has been there. But it was not a visit long enough for him to get a comprehensive impression of what has been happening to the district. If you close down horticulture around a strong provincial centre like Mildura, Swan Hill or even the other provincial centre in Mallee, which is Horsham, that has an impact on the small businesses that are associated with the economic activity that goes on around the centre. So, Minister, we are talking about real people. We are talking about human beings in situations which city based people have not yet established the capacity to even understand.

Take the challenges they are confronted with in getting their children through to the tertiary level of education. They were delivered another body blow by the budget. I have never seen before such a strong reaction from country youngsters as their recent reaction to the budget’s intentions for youth allowance. If we want these children to fix the various challenges that our generation did not confront, we need to ensure they come back to our regions with a strong tertiary education, yet the process by which country youngsters have been doing that over the last period of time has been withdrawn from them. Worse than that, the goalposts have been slightly shifted for those who were working their way through their gap year and wanted to go on to university and create for themselves the capacity to consolidate their future.

So, Minister, my last challenge to you, and I have received this request from my constituents, is to please fight for your portfolio. Get into cabinet and argue your case and do not be the minister presiding over the only Commonwealth government department that has to endure productivity gain constraints which will ultimately reduce the numerical size of their department—in this case, the department of agriculture—and its capacity to provide ongoing positive advice to meet the challenges faced by these people. Don’t let the economic review committee shave the budget to the extent that we lose important research, particularly into land and water. Fight for the constituency you are allegedly trying to represent. Send them a signal that this government cares. Don’t wait for the eleventh hour before you make announcements about what the government intends to replace the exceptional circumstances system with. It has served a very good and useful purpose. It has cushioned the impacts of the drought that has affected the whole country. It has been coming since the mid-seventies and my primary producers are fairly well convinced by now that climate change is upon us all and they want to see some positive action to address that.

Mr Shorten interjecting

Mr FORREST —The parliamentary secretary interjects about the CPRS. I am not getting much strong support about that, because that will be another body blow to horticulture and agriculture in general, which this minister purports to represent. So he should fight in cabinet and stop this erosion of the resources that are going to assist our country people and our primary producers to get through the challenges that confront them.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—Given that it is after 8 pm, I will now deal with the division that was called after 6.30 pm. I took the view that the deferred division should not be proceeded with until the member speaking at 8 pm, the honourable member for Mallee, had completed his speech, and so I did not interrupt the member. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for a later hour.