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Tuesday, 23 August 1994
Page: 1

Senator TAMBLING —My question is addressed to the Minister representing the Prime Minister and relates to drought. Can the minister explain the Prime Minister's inconsistencies and the government's lack of understanding of the extent of severe drought in Australia? Why did Mr Keating last month state that the current severe drought is almost part of managing rural enterprise, is not an intermittent disaster and is a normal recurrence of rural life? If Senator Evans agrees with the Prime Minister when he said that crying crocodile tears about drought affected areas is not going to help people, how will the paltry assistance so far announced by the government provide genuine relief assistance for the entire communities and the rural families affected by the severe drought and not be merely bandaid measures?

Senator GARETH EVANS —The substance of the question is about the government's response to the drought situation and the range of remedial measures that we are putting in place to respond to that. Accordingly, I think the question is better addressed to the responsible minister, Senator Collins, and I ask him to respond.

Senator Hill —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. Mr President, I know that you cannot direct ministers how to answer questions, but I remind you that this question called for the Leader of the Government, representing the Prime Minister, to explain the Prime Minister's comments. Why did the Prime Minister say that this is just a normal recurrence of rural life when, in fact, this drought is a record drought? It is not a normal occurrence of rural life. The question asked for an explanation of what the Prime Minister was saying.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Hill, you were correct in your first statement; I am in no position to direct the minister. Minister, do you want to respond to that?

Senator COLLINS —The front page that said it all and provided the most comprehensive answer to Senator Tambling's, as usual, pompous question was the front page of the Australian newspaper in July which was headlined, `PM pledges aid for drought'. I might add that that assistance was promptly forthcoming and warmly welcomed by the primary industry sector. In fact, the newly elected President of the National Farmers Federation, Mr McGauchie, was quoted on the front page of the same newspaper welcoming the Prime Minister's statement. The Prime Minister, in fact, was responding to a question about whether drought should be removed from the current arrangements in the exceptional circumstances provisions of the rural adjustment scheme and go back to the old procedure of simply defining it as a natural disaster.

Senator Crane —When are you going to respond to this, Bob?

Senator COLLINS —Senator Crane has waved around to my astonishment, presumably in support of this question, the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs on a national drought policy, which report positively recommends that drought not be returned to the natural disasters category. Instead of waving these things around, why does he not read them? It is a big ask, I agree.

  The Prime Minister's statement that drought, along with fires and floods, is a natural and normal part of the cycles of the Australian pastoral landscape is unarguably correct. What is also true is that the drought, particularly in respect of Queensland, and now, regrettably, in significant areas of northern New South Wales, has reached the point of being exceptional and not able to be considered as part of, if you like—and this is an expression that is commonly used in the bush, although it has been a long time since Senator Tambling has been there—natural and normal drought where the exceptional circumstances provisions of RAS apply.

  Mr President, you may be interested to know that during my recent visits to Queensland and, indeed, other parts of Australia where this issue was firmly placed on the table by me, and I had an absolutely open mind about it, not only was there not a single suggestion from the pastoral industry itself that anyone wanted to see this return to where it was before, which was what the Prime Minister was addressing, but also there were positive assertions that people wanted it to remain where it is—within the rural adjustment scheme.

Senator TAMBLING —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I am not particularly fussed who answers this question. It can be the Leader of the Government in the Senate, who throws around all his foreign aid on bridges across the rivers in the Mekong, which bears no comparison in financial terms to the amount of money that is being given to drought situations. My question, which was not answered, is: how will the paltry assistance—give us some figures; compare it to the Mekong bridge, if you like—so far announced give genuine relief for the entire communities and rural families affected by drought relief and not be merely a bandaid measure? Does the minister support the Prime Minister, or does he support the thousands of struggling farmers who know first-hand of this drought and of the catastrophic effects it is having on the farming community? The minister did not address, in any part of his rambling answer, any of the specific details that are so important.

Senator COLLINS —You ignoramus! This so-called senator has had the absolute hide—

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Collins, will you withdraw that comment. It is unnecessary.

Senator COLLINS —I will withdraw, Mr President. He has had the absolute hide to denigrate the assistance Australia gave to an Asian nation for the construction of the friendship bridge. Let me tell Senator Tambling this: trade is a two-way street. Senator Tambling may be interested to know that China is currently the biggest single customer for Australian wool in the world. Our trade with Asia is currently the most important trade that Australia has in agriculture and primary industry. A large number of ministers are engaged at the moment in extremely important dialogue with ministers from Indonesia about that trade. Trade is a two-way street, not a one-way street. Senator Tambling cannot, on the one hand, applaud our relationship with Asia and, on the other hand, denigrate the assistance we provide to the region.