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Thursday, 2 June 1994
Page: 1219

Senator BROWNHILL (Deputy Leader of the National Party of Australia) (4.07 p.m.) —In the last 11 years Australia has been brought to the brink of financial ruin by policies from a party that is supposed to be the champion of the underdog. While the government can gloat in the present regime of low interest rates and low inflation figures and look smug about current growth rate figures, one has only to look a little behind these figures to see the truth of how Australia is really faring. I think Senator Sherry was saying that we should look behind the figures.

  We have to look at our interest bill on our foreign debt increasing every day and creating a legacy for not only our children but also our grandchildren. We have to listen to the concerns of economists, who are not arguing whether or not interest rates will go up, but when they are going to go up. We have to listen to businesses that want to invest but are bogged down by government red tape or lack of incentives. Successive Labor government policies have hit those in rural Australia the hardest. Farm viability has slumped across a number of commodities, and the rural underclass is growing faster than any other class in Australia.

  When Labor came to power in 1983 average farm debt was $62,000. By 1992-93 this had risen to nearly $115,000, an increase of 84 per cent. Do those opposite feel pleased about that? Look at what they have done to the people on the land.   Some industries have fared a little worse than others. For example, for mixed farms in New South Wales average debt in 1982-83 was $62,000, and by 1992 this had soared to $143,000, an increase of 130 per cent on the total debt on those farms. Those in the Labor Party can look smug, but that is what they have done to rural Australia—if they want to look behind the figures, as Senator Sherry has said.

  Farm debt has increased by 41 per cent for beef producers, an industry that has supposedly received better than average prices for most of that period. The debt for sheep producers has doubled, and that, of course, does not take into account those who have literally walked off the farms or have been sold up by the banks. These people are Australia's new poor. They are part of the new underclass in Australia's society, a class created by inappropriate policies of this Keating Labor government.

Senator Burns —What about bad management?

Senator BROWNHILL —Senator Burns can yell as much as he likes. He is a part of it. Members of the Labor Party are the ones who pushed this on to the rural economy. They are the ones who have done this to the farmers of Australia. God bless the Labor government for not trying to do something about it because it will allow us to win the next election. Rural people have been hit in employment, education, health, transport, social security, communication, taxation—almost every facet of living. While the national unemployment rate is regarded as being around 10 per cent, in areas out in the country such as Lismore it is closer to 19 per cent. In Coffs Harbour it is very close to 18.7 per cent. In Taree it is something like 17 per cent.

  In Tamworth shoplifting among young people is now so prevalent that the supermarkets are pressing charges every day against mostly young people who are bored, broke and look on shoplifting as something to relieve the boredom. What has this Labor Party done about those people? What has it done to get back full employment? The answer is that it has thrown the towel in and said, `We cannot get back full employment. In fact, you will have to stay out of work. We are making policies to make you stay out of work.' Despite the hype of Working Nation and the Kelty and McKinsey reports, there is little of real benefit that will create real jobs and start real businesses in any of these towns.

  Education for rural families is almost an unaffordable luxury as any, particularly in the remote areas. For many it is now totally unaffordable. Sending children away for their education has become too expensive for many, and parents are forced to become the schoolteacher. In many cases, farm labour has long become unaffordable and wives and children are now farm labourers in between school and other work. This is creating an enormous pool of undereducated rural children who, because of their limited educational opportunities and the high rate of demand for tertiary places, are forced to stay at home on the farm to take menial work because they are not qualified for anything else.

  Getting Austudy is increasingly difficult for rural families because the value of farm assets exceeds the limits for eligibility, and pleas for a more equitable treatment of assets have fallen on deaf ears. In fact, we in the country are most probably asset rich and income poor. We have recently seen just how conscious this government is of the financial delicate state of agriculture. At a time when Queensland and New South Wales have been in drought—New South Wales is 23 per cent drought declared—we do not even have a natural disaster program to look after those farmers affected.

  While this has been going on, the government has imposed increases on vital farm ingredients such as diesel fuel which have kept the rural poor even poorer. In this year's budget, the government has decreased road funding by $200 million, and farmers face the fuel tax hike. Wholesale sales taxes have collected something like $11 billion, and rural services have been cut. Wholesale sales taxes take $11 billion from the community every year.

  Farmers are forced to pay fringe benefits tax on shearers' quarters, on housing for employees. They face capital gains tax if they do not dispose of their farms in an appropriate way. Just at a time when there is a modest recovery, and just when some farmers have started to believe they might be able to afford investment in new plant and equipment, the farmers are now hit by the removal of the investment allowance. It is very likely that if they do still buy they will be caught in the upward interest rate spiral. These are all policies that this government has foisted on the Australian people and that have given us a class of underprivileged and overpoor people in the rural economy. Years ago every town had a bank, a post office, a railway station and telegrams. This government has taken all those away, so again it has made the rural people the underprivileged.

  The ABARE conference this year suggested that the rural sector had bottomed out and it was starting to recover but as a result of the recession up to another 20 per cent of farmers would be leaving their properties. Again, I say that I support Senator Short's matter of public importance, which basically says that the policies of the Labor government have widened the gap between the rich and the poor and entrenched a permanent underclass in Australia. The underclass in the rural communities is something for which this government should stand condemned. (Time expired)