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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5486

Senator FERRIS (3:13 PM) —Senator O'Brien and I were on the committee that took evidence on the egg industry just last Thursday. We heard at first-hand from a representative of the industry association about the difficulties that are confronting that industry as one of the intensive industries that are reliant on feed grains. Anybody who has travelled, or is travelling, in rural and regional Australia can clearly see the extent of the drought and the heartbreak to families in those areas. On Friday morning, when returning to my state of South Australia, I looked out the window of the aircraft to see what previously would have been a most attractive sight: the patchwork of grain awaiting harvest. Normally at this time of the year it is a very attractive sight— the different coloured grains ready for harvest—but on this occasion our Mallee Region, which extends into Victoria, is a very sad and sorry sight. There is very little crop at all, and the crop that has been planted is greatly stressed if not already dying.

There is no doubt that Australia is in the grip of a dreadful drought. Many of the states are now drought declared. I think almost 90 per cent of New South Wales is now drought declared. A couple of weeks ago I took a trip through the middle of Australia—I have spoken about it in this place before—to talk to people living in the drought declared areas and to have a look for myself. I do not remember a drought as bad as this since the 1982 drought in South Australia. However, when compared with those opposite when they were in government, this government has well recognised this drought and has already put in place some significant changes to government programs to deal with drought and to improve arrangements for drought.

The first important thing that this government did was introduce farm management deposits, a policy that we came into government with and implemented some years ago. I am very glad to see that good seasons in this country over the last few years, including five years in South Australia, have meant that a significant amount of money could be put aside in farm management deposits. In South Australia, 6,700 farmers have been able to put aside money to cope with a bad year; they have $337,000. More importantly, a total of just over $2 billion is now held in farm management deposits by 43,000 farmers. As Senator Coonan said in an answer just a few minutes ago, that money can now be taken from those farm management deposits for the running of properties during these very straitened financial times.

There are other federal government initiatives and measures that apply to exceptional circumstances to reduce difficulties faced by drought affected farm families, such as welfare support. In previous years we have talked about the difficulty of rapidly getting money to farm families affected by exceptional circumstances of one sort or another. We have now changed those arrangements to make sure that welfare support is available in application areas from the day it is deemed that a prima facie case for exceptional circumstances is being made. No longer do we have those month-after-month delays that were the policy of the previous government, which is now so critical of this government, where people knew they were in drought but had no opportunity to do anything about it.

The second important thing that this government has been involved in is predictive modelling, which is going to be used to enable applications to be considered sooner. It is all very well to come in here and criticise what we are doing. We have improved the policy pre-1996, and I think it is important that that is recognised when criticisms are made about policies in this situation. The drought is dreadful: it is widespread and it is historically one of the worst in living memory. It behoves all of us to do what we can to assist those families and not to come in here carping and criticising because it is considered that our policy is in some way deficient to a policy pre-1996. (Time expired)