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Wednesday, 23 June 2010
Page: 6318

Dr KELLY (Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support and Parliamentary Secretary for Water) (1:36 PM) —I thank the member for O’Connor for his comments. I would like to echo what he has had to say in relation to the exceptional circumstances regime, based on the experiences of my own region. I would also like to congratulate the minister, Minister Burke; he has been an outstanding Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. He has tremendous competence, and his straight talking and honesty have been well-received by all the men and women on the land who I talk to.

This Farm Household Support Amendment (Ancillary Benefits) Bill 2010 is very welcome, setting up this pilot project. It is a pilot of drought policy or risk policy, if you like, because we need to move away from an exceptional circumstances system that is based on consequence management to a risk management approach to better arm our farmers for the future. As has been mentioned, this trial will be operating in Western Australia from 1 July this year to 30 June 2011. They will have access to the same welfare related ancillary benefits as those receiving exceptional circumstances relief payments. All this includes the automatically issued healthcare card and concessional income and asset testing for youth allowance—so important, as you would know, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, in relation to rural and regional areas in particular—and the farm family support scheme will be demand driven.

As part of the trial, we will continue to provide income support to help eligible farmers facing hardship to meet basic household expenses. That support is provided under the farm family support measure. The assistance is available regardless of the cause of hardship, which is another important point. Due to the complex nature of the income support legislation and the short-term nature of the program, farm family support payments will be delivered through an executive scheme arrangement under the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997. This bill will amend the Farm Household Support Act 1992 to effectively treat—that is, deem—farm family support as if it were exceptional circumstances relief payments for the purpose of providing access to a range of measures.

The farm support scheme that we are introducing in this trial includes farm family support, which is income support for basic household expenses, and farm social support, which will be directed towards stronger social networks for mental health and other social needs—mental health being a huge issue in the rural and regional areas, especially during these stressful years of the drought that we have had. For farm planning, farmers will be able to access $7,500 to undertake training to develop or to produce a strategic plan for their farm business. Building on that we will have funding available for grants of up to $60,000 for on-farm investments identified as a consequence of the strategic planning that will help them apply that strategic plan. We also support stronger rural communities, so there will be grants to local councils for activities that make rural communities more resilient during the agricultural downturns that they may experience. If the worse comes to the worst, we will have the farm exit support grants of up to $170,000 for farmers who decide to sell their farms because they are no longer viable. Then we have a beyond farming component, which puts current and former farmers in touch to discuss opportunities outside of farming and help to make that transition much easier.

This is far superior to what we have had with exceptional circumstances. My region is a perfect illustration of the downfalls of that system. It is important to note, though, that that system will continue as this trial progresses, so all those receiving exceptional circumstances support now will continue to receive that support until we can determine how well this trial has gone and where we need to go from there. In my region, we suffered badly from the blunt instrument approach of exceptional circumstances. Partly this is because you tend to reinforce failure by not having an approach that looks at the real reasons for why particular farms might be in debt and whether or not they are in fact viable, but it is also because of the artificial lines on maps. In my region, which is now totally drought affected or marginally affected, you had boundaries that were drawn all the way up to the Sydney Basin, where the rainfall was much greater than was occurring in the Bega Valley or the Eurobodalla shire, for example. In fact, last year was the driest year on record in the Bega Valley. This has been compounded, of course, by the effects of climate change because the increasing temperatures have affected ground moisture quite severely. So whatever rain that was falling was rapidly evapotranspirating or not being soaked into the soil, which also gets back to another factor in the degradation of our soils through the loss of carbon in the soil. I will come back to that.

We also have the situation where, having tried to refine it a little more, we managed to get the Bega Valley under an exceptional circumstances declaration but the Eurobodalla farmers missed out. So you would have a qualifying farm that would effectively be right next door to a farm in the Bega Valley that would not qualify for exceptional circumstances relief because of the artificial lines on the maps. These are just a couple of illustrations of why the system was just dysfunctional and not worth continuing with. There must be a better way and this trial will help lead us there.

It is part of a raft of support measures this government has taken to support the men and women on the land. We truly have become the farmer’s friend through these many measures. Through Australia’s Farming Future, for example, we have a four-year initiative that features four programs delivering research and development, training, capacity building, adjustment advice and assistance. We have the Climate Change Research Program, which funds research development and demonstration projects to help primary producers to manage climate change, reduce emissions and improve productivity—and quite often these measures relating to climate change are associated with better productivity. We have the FarmReady program supporting training opportunities for primary producers, enabling industry to develop strategies to deal with the impacts of climate change. I will come back to that. We will have the community networks and capacity building aspect, which aims to build the leadership and representative capacity of target groups to strengthen community resilience and the productivity of primary industries. These groups include women, youth and Indigenous Australians. Under the Climate Change Adjustment Program, there is professional advice available and training delivered to individuals to help tailor individual farm businesses to adjust to climate change, set goals and develop action plans to improve their financial circumstances, either within or outside of agriculture.

There is also the Caring for our Country scheme, which carries over $2 billion of funding over its first five years and is particularly aimed at natural resource management. It seeks to achieve an environment that is healthy, better protected, well managed and resilient and provides essential ecosystem services in a changing climate. Caring for our Country is delivered in partnership with a wide range of stakeholders. The Australian government encourages information sharing and cooperation at individual, regional and national levels through this program. It focuses in particular on six national priority areas. These include national reserve systems; biodiversity and natural icons; coastal environments and critical aquatic habitats; sustainable farm practices, very importantly, including through the Landcare mechanisms; natural resource management in remote and Northern Australia; and community skills, knowledge and engagement. The Caring for our Country sustainable farm practices national priority area in particular seeks to assist farmers and fishers to increase their uptake of sustainable resource management practices that deliver improved ecosystem services; increase the number of farmers adopting stewardship and covenanting property management plans or other arrangements to improve the environment both on farm and off farm; and improve the knowledge, skills and engagement of Landcare managers, farmers and fishers in managing our natural resources and the environment.

The Landcare component covers off on many different areas, and these include Landcare projects—specifically, community based projects—also sustainable practice projects, the national network of Landcare facilitators, a $2.6 million program over four years to support the uptake of sustainable fisheries practices, and the community action grants. There was a bit of a scare campaign running at one point that the Landcare budget had been reduced in this year’s budget. This should be laid to rest very clearly. That is simply not the case. The Landcare budget increased from $35 million in last year’s budget to $36 million in 2010-11 and to $39 million in the further out-years. Caring for our Country funding also increased for next financial year by $15 million to $423 million for that year. So the Landcare funding situation is well and truly secure.

Our FarmReady training program—this is a particularly good program which many farmers in New South Wales are taking advantage of—provides $1,500 each year for farmers and their families, with extra funding for travel, accommodation and child care, and equips primary producers with tools to manage and adapt to the impacts of climate change. The sorts of courses that are available address particular key learning areas, and these include the implications of climate change, integrating new techniques, natural resource planning, farm business management, on-farm research and analysis, strategic planning, holistic whole-farm planning, financial management and human resource management. Under this scheme there are 500 courses now approved nationally; 225 are available on demand anywhere in Australia. More than 12,300 farmers had signed up as of 9 April this year. It is a very successful program. I know that in New South Wales alone 120 courses have been created targeting regional New South Wales. This includes face-to-face and online support by phone or email. It covers a vast range of areas which include dairy; risk management; compost tea—I have never tried any of that, but it sounds interesting; farm planning; computerised mapping; quality and food safety; grains; healthy soils; water management; weed control; permaculture; organic farming; irrigated lucerne; environmental performance; managing people and projects; transition to resilience; and profiting from soil carbon, among many others.

I am also very proud of what we have done in relation to the weeds threat. This is something that just simply is not well understood in metropolitan Australia—but I am sure you understand it very well, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott. It is a big challenge for my region. We face issues to do with the serrated tussock, African lovegrass, St John’s wort, Paterson’s curse and in particular the insidious threat of fireweed. Fireweed is a particular problem because it is a toxic plant that will kill not only animals but people as well. Originating from southern Africa, it has been given a leg-up by the drier conditions in recent years. If it were to spread more widely in Australia it could create a dire threat to our agricultural sector. I have seen estimates that range from $4 billion for the cost to our agricultural sector of weeds annually. So it was a big problem and I was distressed—and no doubt there were members on the other side who would have been distressed—that the weeds CRC was going to be canned under the Howard policy.

I am very proud that through heavy lobbying I have managed to save a scheme targeting weeds, which is the $15.3 million that we have allocated over four years to establish the new comprehensive National Weeds and Productivity Research program, which will reduce the impact of invasive plants on farm and forestry productivity and also, importantly, on biodiversity. The program focuses on improving the management of invasive plants in agriculture, forests, pastures and native vegetation by investigating the most serious invasive plant problems in Australia, uniting national experts, land managers and stakeholders to improve the understanding of how to manage the risks associated with invasive plants. It also ensures better coordination and information exchange between researchers, land managers and regulatory agencies for the management of invasive plants. Also, I am very proud that under this productivity research program we have already funded 39 weed research projects worth nearly $3.6 million. These projects build on existing work and also enhance the innovation of approaches to the management of weeds. I am particularly pleased that I was able to secure $300,000 specifically for the fireweed problem. Many of my own family are dairy farmers down in the Bega Valley, which seems to be the epicentre of the fireweed problem. So this $300,000 will help build on the research that had been previously undertaken into this insidious threat.

This brings us back to a focus on where this challenge is emanating from for our farmers. It certainly comes back to climate change but also to the isolation of the challenge farmers face in dealing with dry conditions from crises over the years. So what we need to get to—from my old military background—is a situation of planning for the worst-case scenario, enabling our farmers to survive and profit or to be able to take advantage of the good times and sustain their operations during the bad times. In the eastern half of Australia we experienced a long, dry situation from 1895 to 1948, and it got wetter from 1948 through to 1976. But now we have been on this downward cycle. It has been compounded by the higher temperatures of climate change which, as I mentioned, has affected this ground moisture situation.

There is a debate about whether rainfall is affected by climate change. This is an ongoing debate and an open question. I did note that the CSIRO recently did research which revealed that the subtropical ridge—which is affecting south-east Australia in particular and the Murray-Darling Basin and my region—had been intensifying and resulting in lower rainfall. The only way that they could replicate that effect in their modelling was by introducing human-induced or anthropogenic carbon emissions, climate change factors. So there seems to be some suggestion that that may well be the case. But, as I mention, whatever the case, the higher temperatures are having a dramatic impact on ground moisture.

I also mentioned previously that the situation has been exacerbated in that respect by the deterioration of the carbon content of our soil. Carbon in the soil helps to retain the moisture. It also, of course, is a nutrient for our crops. I know from my own family’s experience that they are having to lay on more phosphate than previously to get the same results from their pastures. This is a direct result of the deterioration of carbon in our soil. So we are having this combined effect of the higher temperatures, greater evapotranspiration and deterioration of carbon in the soil.

My farmers are not sitting still. On their own initiative they are doing some great work out there. There is a fantastic group called Monaro Farming Systems. This is a group of farmers who have gathered together to combine with the CSIRO to develop a modelling tool called Grassgro to help them manage their properties. This tool enables them to examine strategic decisions on their farming systems and to look at the effect of anticipated weather conditions over long cycles so that they can plan their herd sizes and their pasture management around that. It is proving to be a powerful facility for analysing risk. This has given my farmers great mental reassurance because one of their problems was not knowing what to do. Uncertainty was creating even more mental stress. So this tool is not only helping them plan better as a business but also helping them deal with the mental stress emerging from the challenge that they are facing. I salute the team—David Mitchell and the crew and the CSIRO—for their support for Monaro Farming Systems. I am looking forward to having the minister meet with the group soon. I would hope to network this initiative in order to get the information and the strategies that these farmers are engaged in more widely known in the broader farming community. It will show that there is something that we can do to plan for these circumstances and that there is information out there on how to manage the risk.

Another great initiative in my region is the Bega Cheese environmental management systems project.

Ms Plibersek —The Bega factory.

Dr KELLY —Our Bega Cheese factory is a wonderful icon for the country and for our region.

Ms Plibersek —The trade visitors centre.

Dr KELLY —There is a beautiful visitors centre, with wonderful pictures on the wall that include a photo of my great, great-grandfather who founded the Bega Cheese Co-op and who was its first chairman. It is a wonderful part of our community and history. The Bega Cheese environmental management systems project is doing wonderful stuff with all of the members of the former co-op and now publicly listed company. They have identified environmental risks on 22 dairy farms. They have invested $2 million of public money and leveraged $6 million of private money. They have delivered approximately 75 on-ground projects, including 83 kilometres of riparian wetland fencing to protect approximately 300 hectares of riparian land; 124 hectares of revegetation and remnant vegetation management; 197 off-stream watering points; remediation of 13 priority erosion sites; 23 dairy laneway upgrades; 17 stream-crossing upgrades; 37 effluent systems upgrades; soil testing and nutrient mapping across 90 farms; and a very exciting dung beetle assessment across 22 properties. That is a really interesting outcome from those projects.

I salute what Bega Cheese and the farmers who are participating in that program have done. I was lucky enough to be at the presentation ceremonies of certificates to the farmers for what they have done under that scheme. There are things that farmers can do and are doing for themselves—and we should not think that they are not and that they are not alert to the challenges of climate change.

Finally, I come back to the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. We need to come back to this in the new parliament because it will help us to address this carbon in the soil issue. We need to unlock the investment that will flow from the CPRS and invest it programs that will help to get that carbon back into the soil. Various techniques and possibilities exist out there for helping us to achieve that. We need to get the CPRS in there to unleash all that potential investment, including in relation to reforestation. It will assist in this as well. It could also help with a range of other things like the wingless grasshopper problem that I had just recently, which gets a leg-up from the lack of vegetation in the area. We must take on board the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BC Scott)—Order! The time of the parliamentary secretary with the cheesy grin from Bega has expired. I had to put that one in for you!