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Thursday, 1 September 1994
Page: 841

Senator O'CHEE (6.21 p.m.) —If one had listened to what passed for an impassioned speech by Senator West, one might have come to the conclusion that Senator West was concerned about the result of the drought. But, of course, it is a matter of record that Senator West is opposing the motion which has been moved by Senator Crane today. She is opposing the motion which condemns this government for its heartless and callous attitude towards those affected by drought. She is opposing the motion moved by Senator Crane which, amongst other things, calls for better provisions in terms of educational and social benefits and a suspension of the assets test and the income test while the drought continues.

  We can see that the arguments by those on the other side of the chamber are hollow arguments indeed. They come before us, they beat their chests, they cry their crocodile tears, but at the end of the day their principal interest is in defending themselves and defending their lamentable record in relation to this drought.

  Senator West told us during her speech that we had to bear some consideration for the communities—some consideration for the people in the communities affected by drought. I agree with that comment. But what Senator West omitted to recognise was the congratulations which the coalition's position on drought has already received—for example, from the Small Business Combined Association of New South Wales. I take the opportunity to read the press release which it issued today:

  The President of the Small Business Combined Association of New South Wales, Mr Geoffrey Hughes, today welcomed the news that the Coalition is establishing a sub-committee to investigate options for farm and small business debt reconstruction in areas of Australia affected by "severe" drought.

. . . . . . . . .

  "Small businesses that service rural areas and are dependent on the viability of agriculture are in need of suitable assistance in order to retain the infrastructure and provide employment in these rural areas.

The country can ill afford to consign many of these businesses and their workers to the scrap heap because of a situation beyond their control."

What does the government say in response to that? The government says, `We do not want to listen to what the coalition has suggested in relation to drought,' because, as Senator Crane pointed out, this government has no feeling for the people in the bush. It has no understanding of how its policies have exacerbated an already bad situation. Senator Crane spoke at great length and in great detail on the ways in which this government's policy have made the crisis brought on by drought even worse.

  Yet the government's interest is not in helping the farmers, the government's interest is not in helping the small businesses, the government's interest, for all its crocodile tears, is not in helping the community; the government's interest is in its own political hide. It will apply the de minimus principle; it will do the bare minimum of what it has to do to appear to be concerned with the drought.

  If honourable senators are not persuaded by the words of the Small Business Combined Association of New South Wales, I turn to the New South Wales Farmers press release dated 31 August. What does the New South Wales Farmers association say in relation to the coalition's policy? It says:

" The Coalition drought initiatives just released are vital in order to address both the immediate problems and the long term effects of the drought. The Government should be encouraged to adopt the measures put forward by the Coalition in a bi-partisan solution to the drought problem that threatens every Australian, whether in the country or the city,"

Is there any bipartisanship from this government?

Senator Crane —No.

Senator O'CHEE —No, as Senator Crane says. Did the government even pay the slightest attention to the option which the coalition has put up as a blueprint to find our way out of the drought and start to save this country's economy? Was the government concerned to listen? Did it take a constructive ear and bend it towards these solutions? The answer, as Senator Crane has already said, is no.

  What we received today and the other day in question time from the minister was a blatant misrepresentation of the position of the coalition, and in particular the position of the shadow minister for primary industries, Mr Anderson, when it comes to debt write-off of farmers who are drought affected. Because the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Senator Collins, came in here and deliberately misled the Senate yet again in suggesting that the coalition would have a third of all farm debt written-off. Yesterday we heard the preposterous and absurd suggestion that $5 billion or $6 billion—

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator West)—Senator O'Chee, it is a bit unparliamentary to suggest that the minister has deliberately misled the Senate.

Senator O'CHEE —I withdraw that remark. Obviously, the minister would never mislead. He is totally and utterly incapable of reading. I take the opportunity, because the minister is so ignorant and so incapable of reading, to read to honourable senators exactly what the transcript of the press conference in question said. The shadow minister was asked how much debt should be forgiven or restructured—sort of debt moratoriums—and he said:

Well, I don't know that we're talking about debt moratoriums. But it is plainly the case that lenders from time to time in the current circumstances are forgoing debt and current taxation arrangements do actually allow for that.

That is, in fact, the truth. It is, I have to say, rather difficult to know the extent to which that will be necessary in the future but, plainly, if we allow mass farm failures in certain areas we are going to have a lot of debt loss. The important bit is this:

As a rule of thumb, I would have thought, that if you look at that portion of debt which is directly attributable to severe drought—

That is not total debt. It continues:

—in places like the Downs, then I would suggest that we're looking at a need probably relieve something like a third of that portion of the debt load.

Yet the minister, instead of taking Mr Anderson's constructive comments and listening and saying, `Yes, let's see what we can do about this problem,' sought to dissemble. He sought to dissemble in this parliament. That is shameful and it is shows the lack of regard that this government has for this matter. Lest any other government senator should similarly seek to dissemble I seek the leave of the Senate to table the transcript of the conference which Mr Anderson held on 31 August.

  Leave granted.

  I now move to the subjective issue of the motion, as I understand that the Democrats are seeking to amend the motion and to delete paragraph (a). I find that disappointing. I would have thought that at a time when the bush needs help the Democrats would have the good sense to support the coalition and to recognise that it will only come if pressure is brought to bear on this government, because this government has been recalcitrant, to say the least, when it comes to helping farmers and helping those in need on the land.

  Yet the Democrats, for their own political purposes, do not wish to condemn the government. That is a decision which they are going to have to live with. I say to Senator Bell and Senator Spindler that that is lamentable and sad. However, I recognise the fact that they are supporting the motion as amended and I thank them for that. So the government is now looking down the barrel of the fact that it will be called upon to do something it has been loath to do—provide some assistance.

  In particular, it will be called upon to provide more realistic and effective assistance to preserve the national breeding flock and herd, to suspend the assets test on the various educational and social benefits and to apply only the ordinary income test while the drought continues. We on this side of the chamber consider that to be the barest minimum. We can see from Mr Anderson's media release outlining the coalition's policy that our policy goes further and is a policy of consideration, compassion and humanity. More importantly, our policy of keeping farmers on the land and preserving the herd and flock provides the means for recovering more quickly from drought.

  We must remember that everything we do in this country is derived from our resources and our primary industries. So it is not just the people in the bush who benefit, but also the people in the city who process the things that we dig out of the ground, or grow, or raise. That is why it is so important that we support our farmers. That is why it is so important that we protect and preserve our rural and regional communities. That is why this government has failed and why it should answer the call which Senator Crane has made today in his motion.

  Amendment agreed to.

  Original question—as amended—resolved in the affirmative.