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Wednesday, 23 June 2010
Page: 6405

Mr GRAY (Parliamentary Secretary for Western and Northern Australia) (7:22 PM) —I rise this evening to speak in support of the Farm Household Support Amendment (Ancillary Benefits) Bill 2010. The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry announced a trial of drought policy reform measures in Perth on 5 May with the Western Australian Minister for Agriculture and Food, Terry Redman MLA. The trial represents a new chapter in a long history of Australian governments grappling with the challenge to farming by a harsh climate. On 6 May in an Australian Financial Review article, National Farmers Federation President David Crombie is quoted as saying that the pilot is a ‘sensible, practical and forward-looking approach that takes account of climate risks and proactively manages them’.

In Western Australia this bill has widespread support. The Western Australian Farmers Federation President, Mike Norton, in a press release on the same day, welcomed the trial and noted, ‘It represents a good opportunity for WA’s farmers.’ WA’s Liberal Mental Health Minister, Dr Graham Jacobs, stated: ‘Difficult times on the farm can be very traumatic, even soul destroying. This bill offers more support to meet the mental health social needs of the farming community.’ Tony Crook, the Nationals’ candidate for O’Connor, stated, ‘I am very proud that Western Australia is at the forefront of a program that could revolutionise the way Australia tackles drought in the future.’ And the WA minister for agriculture, Terry Redman, stated, ‘We need to move to a mindset of being proactive rather than reactive when it comes to tough times in agriculture.’

Western Australia will remain the world leader in agricultural production and continue to grow productive farming industries despite the challenges of climate. As a Western Australian. I am aware of the significance of this bill to the farmers who take the risk to put a crop in. It is a bill that will support farming communities and farming families. In this place we hear a lot about working families. This bill is about farming families.

WA has a strong history of agricultural achievement in challenging conditions. Colonists arrived in WA in 1829 and planted wheat they had brought from England. European farmers recorded their first wheat harvests in WA in 1831. Of course, the wheat had been developed in English conditions and frequently failed to provide reliable and substantial crops. The failure of these first crops was inevitable. In isolated areas such as the Victoria District, at Champion Bay near Geraldton, it was even known that ‘starvation deaths’ followed crop failure—I quote from Sister Mary Albertus Bain. By the end of 1873 it could correctly be claimed that there had been only one good season since 1867. The most promising harvest since that date had that year been attacked again by red dust and almost the entire crop in the district was a failure. Malnutrition, worry and heat gradually took its toll on the district. The greatest number of deaths from 1870 to 1894 was amongst the children, and the most common cause was marasmus—inability to thrive due to a protein deficiency.

Such was the skill of successive generations of farmers in the WA grain belt that from failed crops and starvation has grown a sophisticated, science based, machine driven, satellite guided export industry. The first mechanical harvesting was done with a reaper. Heaps were forked into a thresher and then bagged by hand and shovel. But from the 1920s to the 1960s there was significant improvement in Western Australian grain yields through the use of superphosphate fertiliser and identification and amelioration of deficiencies of trace elements such as zinc, copper and manganese. The benefits were dramatic on the sandy soils that dominate the WA grain belt. The WA grain belt contains some of the driest consistently farmed land in the world. Soils are generally ancient, shallow and naturally infertile. Taken together, these factors create a challenging farming environment, amongst the most difficult in the world.

WA agriculture prides itself on being science based. There can be no better example of science based agriculture anywhere else in the world. Combined with improved farm practices and the advent of wheat varieties better adapted to the Western Australia environment, yields have trended upwards. The 1970s saw the beginning of minimum tillage—that is, seeding into uncultivated land, especially when it had carried a crop in the previous year. From the year 2000, WA has had a run of erratic seasons, with widespread drought and some severe localised frosts in spring downgrading grain quality. The 2003-04 grain harvest, however, heralded a record-breaking 14.7 million tonnes of grain.

WA is Australia’s export state. We export minerals, ore, hydrocarbons—and grain. The WA wheat belt not only supports WA’s food needs but also creates an exportable surplus representing 90 per cent of our total grain production. WA produces the bulk of Australia’s export grain, and an annual crop of 10 million tonnes is usual. Today, Western Australia’s grain is exported to over 20 countries, with major shipments to Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, Vietnam and China.

In Western Australia as we speak, many farmers have completed seeding in often very dry conditions. Growing season rainfall is commonly less than 200 millimetres per annum—eight inches in the old scale—in the important period of May to September. So far the 2010 season has had a slow start. Rain has been patchy; however, a good 15 millimetres last week has provided some relief.

In years of severe drought farmers turn to the Commonwealth and state governments for support. Commonwealth assistance evolved in a haphazard way, with states taking the lead on drought policy. In the early 1970s drought was recognised under a joint Commonwealth-state natural disaster relief arrangement. Within two decades that approach was abandoned in favour of stand-alone drought policy separate to natural disaster relief. In 1992 a formal national drought policy to encourage self-reliance for primary producers and protect the nation’s farming sector from an unprecedented climate impact was determined. In 1984 the then agriculture minister, Simon Crean, introduced drought income support payments and interest rate subsidies for farmers within areas defined as facing exceptional circumstances or EC. Exceptional circumstances relief has evolved significantly as successive governments have tried to find the best way to help build more resilient farming communities. Exceptional circumstances support is available for farmers affected by drought events that must not have occurred more than once, on average, every 20 to 25 years. But, with current rainfall uncertainty, few believe the next drought will be a one in 20- to 25-year event. Some farmers have reached the interest rate subsidy limit of $500,000.

Farmers in the most debt receive the most assistance and we fail to recognise good farmers who have made tough business decisions to stay out of debt. Assistance is based on arbitrary lines on a map, meaning that one farmer may be eligible while their neighbour is not. We are getting it wrong. We get it wrong in agriculture when we fail to take hard, pro-business decisions. So I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the contribution that Dr Henry Schapper made to the great agriculture industry of Western Australia through agricultural economics, public policy, farm management and strong business practices in farming. Dr Schapper was an articulate and determined man who recently lost his battle with illness, on 27 April this year. He fought his battle in the same way that he lived.

Debate interrupted.