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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5559

Senator O'BRIEN (9:55 PM) —I rise to criticise the Howard government for its inaction in relation to the current drought. There is no doubt that the drought is having a devastating impact on both the cropping and the livestock sectors. I had the opportunity to travel to Brewarrina, Bourke and Condobolin two weeks ago to meet drought affected farmers. The farmers of Brewarrina, Bourke and Condobolin are certainly a tough lot, but they are doing it very tough at present.

The National Rural Advisory Committee of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry was there at around the same time. I am confident that Dr Wendy Craik, the chairperson of that committee, understands the need to report the committee's recommendations on the Bourke and Brewarrina exceptional circumstances application to the minister as soon as possible, but I am not all that confident that the minister will consider and respond to the committee's report—and, more importantly, the EC application—in a timely fashion. This is not a time for the minister to procrastinate over the fine details of the current EC applications, particularly an application that he has now had on his desk for 41 days.

Earlier today, I raised in the Senate the issue of the growing impact of the drought on some of Australia's key intensive industries, including the chicken industry, the pork industry and the beef feedlot industry. Because of their short production cycles, these industries do not fit easily into the exceptional circumstances guidelines, but they are suffering just the same. When pork prices collapsed in 1998, the impact on the industry was quick and devastating. Many pork producers were driven out of business. Grain shortages and exploding feed costs—the main input costs of pig production—will have the same impact now, and this will spread beyond pork producers to encompass stockfeed agents and other local suppliers. The experience of the pork industry will be matched in other intensive industries, and the impact on agents and suppliers for those industries will be equally severe. Without appropriate and overdue support, whole rural communities may be dragged down.

The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Mr Warren Truss, has in my view shown wanton disregard for the needs of rural Australians affected by drought. In response to my criticism of his negligence, the best he has done is to rehash old announcements about ongoing, non-drought specific programs. The latest such announcement, released 48 hours after I compared current Commonwealth drought assistance with that provided by the states, rolled off the fax on Friday. Now, having thought about it over the weekend, the minister has a new strategy to combat the impact of drought. The minister's devastating new strategy is nothing more than a taxpayer funded advertising campaign. I understand that these advertisements will run in News Ltd newspapers. I am not sure where else they will run, but one thing is for sure: instead of running these advertisements in News Ltd papers, the minister should be donating his advertising funds to the Farmhand appeal. Instead of promoting his own thin record, the minister should be actually helping people who live on the land by supporting the Farmhand emergency relief appeal.

Farmers know that advertising is advertising and drought support is drought support. Sadly, it is unlikely that the government is going to support Farmhand—at least if we can rely on the answer given by Senator Ian Macdonald to the question asked today by my colleague Senator Stephens. Senator Macdonald made it pretty clear that the government is not going to provide money to the Farmhand Foundation, let alone match those funds donated by the community to support farmers in need. Tonight I call on the government to rethink that decision not to support the Farmhand appeal and I ask it to do what Labor did in 1994: match Farmhand emergency funding on a dollar for dollar basis. Despite the embarrassing performance of Senator McGauran today, I can assure him that that is just what the Keating government did in 1994.

I expect the minister will release a statement saying that these advertisements will cost very little, but the actual cost of the advertisements is not the point. The advertisement that I referred to this afternoon claims credit for the Commonwealth for the provision of help that is in large part provided by the states. Mr Truss is now unfairly blaming the states for failing to provide any help to drought affected farmers and at the same time claiming credit for substantial amounts of state money that fund counselling, training and exceptional circumstances programs. These programs do not represent Commonwealth drought assistance as Mr Truss's proposed advertisement claims. They represent Commonwealth-state drought assistance programs.

The Agriculture Advancing Australia— AAA—program to which the advertisement refers has previously been used by this minister to run a political advertising campaign in an attempt to shore up his standing in rural Australia. Senators would recall the advertisements that ran night after night on regional commercial television and in the cities. The advertisements were more about promoting the Howard government than about promoting the actual program. The AAA program has been running since 1997. From that time until the 2001 election there was little promotion. Over the two financial years 1997-98 and 1998-99, some $1.2 million was spent on promoting the program. For the financial year 1999-2000, the promotion budget was only $264,000. Then in 2000-01, as we moved to the election, expenditure jumped to $3.7 million, and for the first half of 2001-02, leading right up to the election, another $1.2 million went into advertisers' pockets.

That campaign cost taxpayers an extravagant $6 million but it had little impact on the take-up of the AAA program. Somewhat embarrassed departmental officers told an estimates hearing in February this year that there had been little response to the advertising campaign because `seasonal conditions have generally improved'. If it is such a great program, why has the government continued to bleed it of funds over successive budgets with the aim of winding it up altogether, subject to a review? Now we find Mr Truss, through his representative in the Senate, ruling out providing financial support to the Farmhand appeal but at the same time paying one of the members of the Farmhand trust to run a series of political advertisements linked to the drought. I also understand that Mr Truss's office is claiming that the advertisements were requested by News Ltd. The last time I checked, that was called selling advertisements or advertising space. Again I have to say with regard to this minister: rural Australia deserves better.