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Thursday, 1 September 1994
Page: 839

Senator WEST (6.11 p.m.) —Drought would have to be, without a doubt, one of the most horrific experiences that anybody on the land has to live through. It is insidious. It creeps up and one never knows when it is going to end. I think that if people on the land knew when it was going to end, a lot more of them would be able to cope. Some areas that are normally safe agricultural areas are in their fourth year of drought and people are experiencing even greater stresses and strains upon them.  The government has introduced a number of programs to assist these people. The minister has outlined them. They have been in existence for some considerable time.

Senator Kemp —Too little, too late.

Senator WEST —It is fine for Senator Kemp to talk about drought, but I am guessing that he has never experienced one. Until he has, he can sit here and make comments like that, but that sort of point scoring is not the sort of thing that is needed. I am quite familiar with drought, having grown up on the land. I remember the 1956 drought very vividly. I remember my parents carting water. I also remember working in the rural areas of New South Wales in the 1982 drought. I remember having to drive from one clinic to another with headlights on in the middle of the day because of the dust storms caused by the wind blowing the soil away. I am familiar with it and I know that severe droughts are horrific things.

  When one is looking at the provision of services in drought, one always has the problem of defining drought. This was an issue at the inquiry that Senator Bell spoke of. How do we identify and define what is a severe drought and the cut-in point for assistance for the farmers? The opposition has not defined it. I have not heard any ideas from the opposition as to how it would define severe drought.

  The issue that I think needs never to be forgotten with drought is that it affects the whole community. It affects the country towns and small villages within the rural set-up. It affects the whole community because there is less work for those who rely upon farming for work. Therefore, there is a higher unemployment rate, or lower full employment rate. That places a strain on the government to provide unemployment benefits and it is not a particularly edifying way for people to live. It also affects most markedly those people who are in the small business area in the towns: the food providers, the food shops, the agricultural machinery distributors and fuel distributors. They are affected to a very significant degree.

  I have heard a lot of discussion from the opposition today about what should be done for the farmers, but I wonder how we assist only one part of a community. That would divide a community. The whole of the community has to be looked at, and the opposition has chosen not to do that. I feel particularly sorry and sad about that.

  The media commented that the coalition was also suggesting that about one-third of debt be waived for farmers in debt. What happens to those farmers who are relatively debt free? Are we not sending the wrong message to those who have not been good managers? Presumably, no assessment is done as to which farmers have made business decisions which have coincided with the drought. These farmers will certainly survive, but they need assistance under the RAS to tie them over. There is a difference between these farmers and those farmers who are not good businessmen and who do not have business plans. We do not seem to be asking people to assist those who are most in need. We need to target those people if we are to go down this path. We cannot just give everybody something.

  The opposition keeps talking about waiving the debt of farmers. As I said before, the whole community suffers: the tractor and the farm machinery dealers suffer; the grocery shop owners suffer; and the clothing shop owners suffer. The whole community suffers, unless it is of significant size. Towns such as Bathurst, Orange and Dubbo have significant sized industries. As there is a critical mass in those areas, there is a wide scatter of employment prospects which offers communities a buffer. The smaller communities comprise single manufacturing and single commodity enterprises. The towns are dependent upon one commodity. When that commodity hits a hard time, the whole community hits a hard time.

  I heard the comment that there has not been an increase in the number of rural counsellors. That is the greatest load of garbage that I have ever heard. There has been a significant increase in the number of rural counsellors. Also, the existing rural counsellors have had their contracts extended or renewed. They have a particularly hard task to undertake.

  At the inquiry, we kept hearing that it is not just what we are doing that is impacting upon these people; it is what the states are doing. If we are to provide fodder relief and freight assistance, I suggest that it would be much easier if we had a railway line that went from Nyngan to Bourke via Cobar. The Cobar railway line still exists, although they want to flog it off. Bourke has been in drought for four years. The only way fodder can get there is by road. The reduction in services by the New South Wales government is having a huge impact upon these rural communities. In this time of drought—

Senator Bell —It's the same in Victoria.

Senator WEST —It is the same in Victoria, and I guess South Australia and Western Australia are about to follow suit. The last thing that we want state governments to do to these communities is to strip away these services. During the hearings of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs, which is inquiring into the rural assistance scheme, I have been asking how easy it is for rural counsellors to get their clients, who may be experiencing financial and emotional or psychological problems or who may be feeling stressed, to see a counsellor who is better able to deal with their problems. Some of them said that it takes them three to four weeks to access any counselling with a social worker or psychologist for support for their clients who are in crisis. That is not very good, but these are the sorts of problems that stressed rural communities are facing.

  State governments have a responsibility as well to ensure that those infrastructure supports do not get eroded and are maintained. That appears not to be happening. The other group that I would like to talk about and for whom I feel a great deal of empathy is the wives of the male rural producers. Over one-third of farmers are women. That is a figure that is often forgotten. We keep hearing people talk about men but it is the wives who often are responsible for doing the books. They know what the cash flow is—or, more likely, is not—and they are more able to communicate, to discuss, to vocalise their problems, their feelings and what they see as issues.

  Unfortunately, the men tend to come from a background of stiff-upper-lip, good British stock who do not complain. But that is not what is needed for people who are under stress. They need to be able to communicate. Stress is being imposed upon the women by their husbands who are feeling inadequate, who are feeling that they have not supported their families adequately and who feel that they have not been good farmers. This pressure that is being felt by the women is extremely large but is something that I do not think is being acknowledged as well as it should be. Certainly, because of the lack of infrastructure by the state governments in the health fields in particular, women are not able to access assistance from these areas.

  I know there are a number of areas in which women have set up support groups and self-help groups. That is fine, but they should not be left alone and unsupported to do this. They do need the states to be conscious of the infrastructure needs of their communities and the infrastructure needs associated with the supporting of these communities in a time of severe drought.