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Monday, 25 June 2001
Page: 24954

Senator HARRIS (1:26 PM) —I rise sadly today to speak to the Dairy Produce Legislation Amendment (Supplementary Assistance) Bill 2001. I say `sadly' because of the necessity to be doing this. Two issues are encompassed by that: firstly, that we are here in an attempt to assist the dairy industry in its demise; and, secondly, that the government could have got the situation so wrong in its initial legislation to assist the dairy industry. It may sound glib and smug to say to the government, `I told you so,' but so many senators raised so many issues in relation to the deregulation of the dairy industry that that is the case. I do not expect the implementation of this bill, in its present form or amended form, to achieve any benefit for those who are seriously lacking justice. I realise that the department's reply will be sloppily placatory and totally bureaucratic. However, this will not deter me from doing my duty in attempting to achieve justice for all unfortunate enough to be caught up in this deregulation.

This whole sorry saga can be placed wholly at the feet of the national competition policy, in collusion with the highly controversial and damaging GATT agreements and our obligations under those agreements. As representatives of the Australian people, I believe that the government's obligation should be to the benefit of the Australian people and Australian business. To date, sadly, that has not been the case. It is obvious that the government and Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party do not operate under the same criteria. While I am entrusted with my present duties, my sole desire is to direct my total efforts to working entirely and tirelessly for the benefits of this nation and its wonderful citizens.

The object of this bill is to introduce additional financial assistance—that is, $1.78 million—to those who have been more adversely affected than others by the implementation of the dairy industry adjustment package. Those found to be in particular need come from Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia. That is not to the exclusion of all the producers in Victoria and Tasmania, but the officers who are assisting with the implementation of this extra supplementary assistance tabled documents at the Senate hearing very clearly setting out that no-one from Victoria or Tasmania would benefit from this supplementary assistance.

In particular, the states of Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia have been greatly affected. There is an assessment of farm gate price reductions of up to 30 per cent for their milk, consequently flowing on to a 50 per cent decrease in farm income. Queensland farmers have gone from an average income level of $80,350 down to $47,517, while Western Australia has suffered even more devastatingly. Its average has gone from $127,185 down to $55,823. The question I ask is: have the departmental heads who largely advised the government on the implementation of this program suffered an equal degree of financial loss to the one that has been inflicted on what is now a very suspicious, manipulated dairy industry? It is estimated that 3,100 dairy farm enterprises have been involved in the payment scheme related to this bill. I can, however, find no mention of another less obvious partner in the dairy farm process, and that is the lessors, who are as necessary a part of the industry as the cows. Without the land and its infrastructure, there is no dairy enterprise. We have all heard the many pleas of the lessors, but this bill totally fails to recognise their rights and acknowledge the invaluable part they play in this industry.

These additional payments are to be directed to farmers with a market milk portion of 35 per cent and above, and the payments will be capped at $60,000. There have been many pleas and requests for the floor level of these payments to be adjusted down the scale to approximately 20 per cent. The department has received many requests for these figures, but as yet these have not been made available to enable the chamber to fully assess the details and thus accurately evaluate just what we should do for the benefit of these farmers and their local communities. This is an extremely important point. We are being asked to make decisions in relation to this additional supplementary assistance, but at this point in time the department will not even disclose to this chamber the additional number of producers which would fall into this process if the 35 per cent market milk portion were reduced to 20 per cent. I believe the Democrats will be moving amendments to reduce that to 18 per cent. There seems to be strong opposition by both the government and the department to any additional payments to producers who fall below the present 35 per cent, and I believe this is purely based on incurring additional costs.

In its manifesto, the ACCC fails to acknowledge the necessary participation of the farmers in producing the product that the almighty consumer requires. The ACCC also miserably fails to acknowledge the blatant fact that these farmers require a profit in order to exist and in order for their enterprises to remain viable and continue to operate. The national competition policy is a blatantly biased piece of propaganda, the evidence of which is arising with great and potent force throughout this country. I find it quite distressing that, in the lead-up to and during the implementation of the dairy deregulation, the Australian Dairy Industry Council played such a devastating part in the destruction of so many dairy farmers and the dairy industry within Australia. No doubt those remaining in the industry will exert just retribution on the present industry leaders.

The ACCC has made claims that the questionable benefits to the consumer outweigh the costs that the farmers have to adjust to—that is, the loss of income in conjunction with the gross devaluation of their farms, if not the unsaleability of their enterprises. We must as a community weigh up the ideology that the ACCC espouses and evaluate whether one sector of the community is to benefit at the cost of another sector of the community. There are further claims by the ACCC that the scheme is in the interests of Australian consumers and that this exonerates the imposition of this piece of legislation—that is, the national competition policy—upon these farmers.

The ACCC states that by maintaining the current strength and competitiveness of the dairy industry it can be expected that the cost savings to the consumer following deregulation, estimated at about $118 million per year, can be sustained. What the ACCC is clearly saying is that, because there is a benefit of $118 million per annum to the economy, they can impose on the dairy farmers of Australia this legislation and morally walk away justified. I ask the question: can it be justified? I believe the answer is no.

There was an open letter that I believe was sent to all senators. I would like to read the content of that open letter because it raises a substantial number of the issues that present dairy farmers have. The letter reads:

The $45,000 Dairy Exit Payment Grant which Mr Howard stood up on TV and came over news broadcasts throughout Australia, gave the impression to the normal listener we were going to be looked after. This DEP is impossible to get due to the fact assets and the sale of the family farm. If the farm is now judged unviable due to deregulation, farmers should then be able to access the Grant whether the farm is sold or not. The Dairy Structural Adjustment Package should not be deemed an asset for the 8 years as this stops farmers from getting the normal welfare assistance available to others. There are cases where banks have grabbed the DSAP and the farm. Now these people cannot draw unemployment benefits because of an asset they really don't have. Dairy farmers of pension age cannot get the aged pension for the same reason. Retraining programs put in place are unavailable unless the farm is sold. It is hard to believe our great Agricultural, Fisheries and Forestry Department put these stupid conditions in place so Centrelink can have great fun enforcing them. The Grants now being handed out to districts affected by dairy deregulation are a joke! Grants going to the likes of Sprout Farms, Abattoirs, Chicken Farms, Building Industries and other non Dairy related business while we are left with no help for a lifetime business and work which we now have lost. I used to wonder why in this great country we had homeless people living on the streets, but now I can see how it can all come about. My family is headed for the same bleak future.

We received a considerable amount of information from lessors at the Senate committee hearing. In one case—and this was the case of the actual person before the committee—a lessor stated that she had had a lessee on her property for 55 days prior to the starting date for the deregulation and that person had subsequently broken that lease agreement, having received $150,000 in restructured payment. We were also told of lessees who were in actuality in default of their lease agreement—some of them having been in default for up to three months—and yet they were still paid out under the dairy adjustment package.

I moved amendments to the original legislation in an attempt to tie the dairy adjustment package to the property. Those amendments were voted down by both the government and the opposition. Had they not been voted down, this sector of the dairy industry—the lessors—would be in a far better position today both financially and also in their ability to stay within the dairy industry. The government continually tells us that this entire adjustment package is to assist those staying within the industry, and yet a disproportional number of the people who were supposed to have been assisted to stay in the industry are opting out.

We also have an anomaly with this legislation, as a result of the legal term of an agreement, under which people can be disadvantaged. The difference lies in the definition of a share farmer agreement, which is a legal document that is signed by the property owner and the person operating the dairy on that property. In the case of a share farmer, the owner of that property receives up to 50 per cent of the adjustment package and the operator obviously receives the benefit of the balance. But where there is a lessor/lessee agreement—no more legally binding and which, in actuality, in many cases has been transposed word for word from being a share farmer agreement—there is the anomaly that the lessee can in some cases receive up to 98 per cent of the adjustment package. Evidence has been given that in some cases property owners have reverted from lessor/lessee agreements to share farming, and I conjecture that that was purely based upon knowledge of what the outcome was going to be.

In summing up, I would like to refer briefly to some other information from some farmers in Tasmania. They raised the issue where a particular farmer as a result of suffering from a brain tumour was required to lease his property and where the lessee got $100,000 from the package while the lessor received $4,000. At the age of approximately 70 years the farmer with the brain tumour now finds himself having to lease a new herd and go back to operating his property. This is but one example of the injustices of the deregulation of the dairy industry. I now formally move my second reading amendment:

At the end of the motion, add:

“but the Senate is of the view that the bill should be amended to provide for the following:

(a) that, if a dairy farm became unviable after deregulation, the farmer be permitted to receive the $45,000 Dairy Exit Payment irrespective of whether the farmer continues to own the farm;

(b) that dairy farmers who ran viable enterprises before deregulation but whose enterprises became unviable after deregulation be granted access, free of charge, to retraining programs, irrespective of whether the farmers continues to own their farms;

(c) that dairy farmers who are of pensionable age and who ran viable enterprises before deregulation but whose enterprises became unviable after deregulation be given full access to the age pension and that their farms be excluded from the assets test, with a period of up to three years allowed for those farmers to dispose of their farms;

(d) that dairy farmers whose farms have been resumed by the banks following mortgage foreclosures be given normal access to welfare payments; and

(e) that, in relation to lessors:

(i) all income received by lessors, other than what is applicable to the lease arrangement on the dairy farm, be excluded from the criteria for lessors; and

(ii) that hardship be removed as a criterion for lessors”.