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Wednesday, 4 May 1994
Page: 239

Senator WOODLEY (6.26 p.m.) —The Primary Industries and Energy Legislation Amendment Bill 1994 contains a number of measures, but I want to concentrate my remarks on just two areas: firstly, the amendments relating to the Quarantine Act; and, secondly, the amendments to the Rural Adjustment Scheme Act. Broadly speaking, amendments in this bill to the Quarantine Act will allow Australia's Quarantine and Inspection Service to more closely focus its attention on imports of highest risk. This will be done by providing legislative backing for quality assurance compliance agreements between the director of quarantine and those in industry to ensure that quarantine protection is maintained for all low to medium risk imports. The bill will also provide backing for the electronic entry and processing of imports for quarantine purposes.

  I understand that there has been a cooperative effort on the part of industry, customs and the quarantine service in the development of systems for the electronic entry of goods and, indeed, these systems are currently being put in place around the country. The government has given us an assurance that there is to be no risk to the level of quarantine security brought about by these amendments, and I certainly welcome that assurance.

  I turn now to the amendments to the Rural Adjustment Scheme Act. In his second reading speech, the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Senator Collins) said that the act—

will be amended to make the annual reporting arrangements for the Rural Adjustment Advisory Council more appropriate.

In particular, the current requirement for the council to conform to the relevant division of the Audit Act 1901 is to be repealed. Instead the chair of the council will be required to submit an annual report to the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, and that report will be tabled in the parliament. The report will contain not only a report on the advisory council but also on the operation of the rural adjustment scheme itself. As honourable senators will know, the Rural Adjustment Advisory Council is responsible for monitoring the operation of the rural adjustment scheme and for making recommendations to the government as to the future direction of the scheme and the amount of funding that is seen as appropriate for it.

  Over the past 10 months in my role as a senator, and for a good many years prior to that, I spent a lot of time travelling around country areas of Australia—mainly in my home state of Queensland, but also in some of the hardest hit regions of South Australia and Victoria. The message I continue to get from these people living in rural Australia is that the so-called process of adjustment is a very painful one for all involved. It seems to me that the very word `adjustment' is yet another highly clinical term that comes from behind a desk in Canberra. It in no way conveys the despair of many of our farmers, or the utter hopelessness that they sometimes feel in going through the process of adjustment.

  Australian farmers have a tradition of passing farms from one generation to another. In some cases the ownership of a farm is passed down through five or even six generations. During all those years those farms were viable, but the farmers arrive in the 1990s to be told that their farms are no longer so. Given this, one can only try to imagine the horror of a family realising that its farm may no longer be viable and that it may have to be handed over to the banks to be disposed of as quickly as possible—in other words, for that family to be adjusted out of the industry.

  With the release of a number of positive economic indicators recently, and reports of growing business confidence, the plight of those in rural Australia seems to be dropping off the agenda. As such, I am very pleased that I am to be involved with the inquiry to be conducted by the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs. This inquiry will look specifically at the adequacy of the rural adjustment scheme and at the extent of rural debt. I pay tribute to Senator Ron Boswell, who raised this reference in the first instance with me. We certainly supported the reference to the committee. Just as important, in my opinion, is that the inquiry will also examine the social, economic and ecological consequences of that rural debt, and recommend mechanisms for managing rural reconstruction. I am pleased that this inquiry will help to put the crisis of rural debt back on the public agenda where it most certainly deserves to be.

  In Queensland, while the rains earlier this year were great news for some of our primary producers they certainly do not mean the end of their troubles. Average farm debts for grain growers in Queensland are in excess of $250,000 per farm; for graziers, well over $200,000; and, for cane growers, around $150,000. Statistics collected by rural counsellors show that across South Australia average farm debt is nearly a quarter of a million dollars. In some parts, the debt was as high as $335,000. Indeed, more than a third of that state's farmers are currently living below the poverty line.

  There are many aspects to the farm debt crisis. The human side of it is the one that I am particularly conscious of and concerned about. There is clearly a great need for governments, banks, rural counsellors and farmers organisations to work together to find solutions to the farm debt crisis. There are some valuable suggestions coming from farmers groups. I urge the Rural Adjustment Scheme Advisory Council to look at them.

  I draw attention to the Queensland Grain Growers' proposal for a rural adjustment unit to be set up—a unit which would draw together in one place rural organisations; rural counsellors; community organisations such as Lifeline; state, federal, and local governments; and especially, and above all else, banking and other financial institutions, so that they can sit down and deal individually, case by case, with properties under the threat of foreclosure. I will certainly be looking for the council's report later this year to provide some concrete suggestions as to how this debt crisis for family farmers can be addressed.