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Tuesday, 20 September 1994
Page: 1010

Senator WOODS (5.50 p.m.) —I raise today the obscenity of a Prime Minister being so hopelessly out of touch with the people of this great country. He is so preoccupied with the view from the windows of his bedroom at Kirribilli House in Sydney that he cannot see the ravages of the drought as it ruins vast tracts of country areas in Australia, particularly New South Wales and Queensland.

  At a time when country areas of New South Wales are literally dying for help, he has had the arrogance and the insensitivity over the last few weeks to offer $150 million to demolish the Cahill Expressway. Many of us believe that the Cahill Expressway is an eyesore. It probably should never have been built but it was—I might add, by a Labor government.

   But how out of touch can one get to believe that this should be a priority for New South Wales. That we should spend $150 million of taxpayers' money on this at any time is monstrous because at any time there are pressing needs in the areas of heath care, homelessness, education and a range of other important issues which need to be addressed and which are crying out to be addressed.

  But now in particular, when New South Wales is in the grip of one of the worst droughts in recent history, it is simply obscene. Make no mistake, it is the worst drought for many, many years. In many areas of New South Wales and Queensland it has been going on for four years or more—the crop losses, the starvation, and the impact on farmers and small businesses in country towns is just appalling; it is a major disaster.

  But wait, one might say, do we not have a program for natural disasters—a natural disaster relief policy? Will the government not cover this? Sadly, of course, the answer is no. Why? It so happens that on 1 July 1989 the Labor government decided that droughts were not natural disasters. It is unbelievable but true. What are they? Are they unnatural disasters or are they not disasters? Surely nobody can claim that this is not a disaster.

  It is crazy. The impact of this is that the natural disaster base money fund around Australia, some $200 million in round figures that could be lent to struggling farmers and small businesses at 2.75 per cent interest, is not available. It is available if there is a fire, a flood, a cyclone, an earthquake or even a storm but it is not available as a result of this government's deliberate policy decision. It is not available for what is one of the most serious disasters to affect this country—drought.

  What has the government done? So far it has done almost nothing about the drought. It essentially insulted farmers by offering $2 million, and then subsequently raising it to $14 million. The Prime Minister, Mr Keating, has this week been dragged screaming into the rural areas to see the magnitude of the disaster. Hopefully he has now realised that something concrete not only needs to be done but also has to be done to save the backbone of this country.

  His ministers do not seem to agree. As recently as 1 September, the Minister for Social Security, Mr Baldwin, was saying that the most important thing to do was to let the farmers know what was available under social security benefits, that a publicity campaign would be launched and that the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Senator Collins, would address this in November. This was at the beginning of September. Fortunately, it seems that Senator Collins is a little more aware than Mr Baldwin. Apparently he will take some measures to cabinet to resolve some of these issues. But the mere fact that only two or three weeks ago the main aims of the government were to put forward a publicity campaign and to see what things were like in November indicates its complete ignorance and lack of understanding of one of the great natural disasters we are facing.

  There are some lessons to be learnt. In 1983 Peter Nixon, who was the primary industry minister under Fraser, announced spending of $356 million. Probably in today's money it is something like double that amount. Compare that with what has been offered by the government so far—$2 million and $14 million. It is insulting to think of those sorts of amounts.

  What Peter Nixon wanted to do and in fact implemented was to pay 75 per cent of the transport costs of fodder, a supplement for water cartage costs, a subsidy to ensure that appropriate bores were drilled in various areas and carry-on loans capped at four per cent interest for small businesses as well as for farmers—the small businesses in the towns are just as badly affected in many areas as the farms which they supply—and it worked. It kept farmers on the land and, more importantly in many ways, it preserved the breeding herds. The government should clearly take a leaf out of the coalition book.

  A short time ago John Anderson, Deputy Leader of the National Party, released the new drought policy from the coalition. I have to say that I applaud it. Some of those elements from 1983 are included in it. The policy includes, for example, a fodder subsidy very similar to that introduced by Nixon in 1982-83. It includes support for a debt reconstruction for farmers. It includes a return of the drought condition to the natural disaster relief arrangements. How on earth that was ever taken out is beyond anybody with any nous.

  Perhaps importantly, one of the recommendations of the coalition policy is a suspension of the assets test for welfare payments such as jobsearch and family payments for those farmers who are suffering extreme financial hardship as a result of events, including in this case such a severe drought. The policy includes a provision of farm household support as family income support for a period of 12 months for eligible farmers. It includes lifting the present 12-month limit on assistance under the RAS drought exceptional circumstances provisions, making it available for up to a year after a drought declaration has been revoked. It lifts the restriction of one re-establishment grant per farming enterprise to allow full grants to be paid to two or more eligible families who are currently dependent upon an enterprise. The coalition has promised to improve the income equalisation deposit scheme to encourage farmers to set aside income in good years to be used during the bad years.

  These are real changes. These are changes which will be effective and which will help farmers to get through these terrible years. It is not just the farmers; it is the small businesses and people living in rural areas. But of course we have to look also to the longer term. The government has been dragged screaming already and will eventually have to make an announcement. We all pray that, when it does, it will be a worthwhile one and so we urge the government to consider drought minimisation schemes. They were there ready to go under the Fraser government. They were scrapped by the Labor government, by Prime Minister Hawke, because basically there are no votes in such long-term schemes. This government always looks to the short term and to the reward of the votes of the public.

  I just thank goodness that in New South Wales John Fahey has had the good commonsense to turn down the $150 million bribe to improve the Prime Minister's view by getting rid of the Cahill Expressway and to focus on the real problems facing New South Wales, as he has done so excellently over the last two or three years. John Fahey has down-to-earth commonsense rather than Paul Keating's grandiose so-called vision, which is essentially irrelevant to day-to-day living in this country.

  Farmers are the backbone of Australia. They have a human problem and they have an economic problem. For both of these reasons we need action, we need action now, we need sensible action and we need to focus on this problem, not on the aesthetics from the Prime Minister's front window.