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Monday, 19 September 1994
Page: 883

Senator TIERNEY (3.15 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Senator Collins), to a question without notice asked by Senator Burns this day, relating to the economic impact of the drought in the eastern States.

Senator Collins, in his answer, focused totally on the effects of the economy. We heard about the impact the drought is having on the GDP; we heard about the effects on the export incomes; we heard about the impact on various crops. That is all very important. We are facing a situation where many of our rural products are being devastated and so the national economy is losing potential income. What the minister very carefully skirted around, however, was the sheer human misery that has been created by what is possibly the worst drought this century—not only on the farms, where the direct effect is on 10,000 families, but also in the towns that those farms support.

  What these families need is immediate cash aid. This came home very clearly, I am sure, to everyone in this chamber when Ray Martin conducted the `Farm Hand—Best for the Bush' concert. During that night we heard countless stories of the hardship that has been caused by this drought. The Australian people, in their usual generosity, responded magnificently and $3 1/2 million was raised on that night.

  I believe it is to the eternal shame of this government that it took that sort of a response to spur it into some sort of action. Where has the government been on this issue for the last four years? We have in some areas of the country eight crops in succession failing. Yet when the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) gets out of his very comfortable surroundings in the Lodge and in Kirribilli House, where does he tend to go? He does not very often go out the back.

  When I was acting shadow minister for regional development in July, I was in North Queensland, where the Prime Minister was talking to groups in Cairns and Townsville. On national radio I challenged him to leave Cairns and Townsville and go out the back to Longreach and see what is happening and how people are suffering from this drought. That went unheeded. But he would have flown over that sort of territory to get to Cairns and Townsville. I flew over it on a clear day—it was very clear because droughts tend to do that—and I could see the devastating effect on the land and how the rivers were not flowing and algae blooms were developing. He did not necessarily need to be on the ground to see that. That should have been enough to shock him into action. But it was not until we had the Farm Hand concert that this government, in its very slow way, proposed to do something about it. So we will await with great interest what the government does.

  I wrote an open letter in the paper to Minister Baldwin indicating the sorts of social security measures that he should be adopting on the drought at this time. I would be very interested to see whether the cabinet submission of Minister Collins and what comes out of it on Wednesday contain any of those measures, because what is desperately needed in our rural areas at this time is cash income support. Everyone else in Australia who loses a job or does not have any means of support is quite entitled to some sort of benefit from the government. This government has refused to recognise that we do not have a normal drought that can be provided for by prudent financial management. We have an extraordinary situation that no prudent measures could account for. On that basis, the government should provide income support for these people.

  I predict the government will not do it, and the reason is twofold: firstly, it will blow out the unemployment figures; and, secondly, it will blow out a budget that is already huge. But why should these people not be entitled to this sort of income support? Today I plead with the government on behalf of these people who have no cash flow, no income at all, that during this extraordinary drought—the worst this century and probably the worst since European civilisation—it do the right thing by these people and give them the support that other Australians are entitled to receive.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.