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Tuesday, 22 October 2002
Page: 5640

Senator O'BRIEN (6:51 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

It is pertinent to remember in this time of drought how important water quality and quantity is to sustainable agriculture and to the environment. The chamber will also note that Australian farmers take great effort in preserving water quality and in finding ways to be more efficient with this precious and scarce resource. That is particularly so in the case of Queensland sugar farmers who recognise the impact past practices have had on the Great Barrier Reef and who, through the industry Compass program, continue to work to minimise the impact of sugar farming on the surrounding environment.

Nearly six weeks ago, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Mr Truss, crept out under cover of twilight and gave a 5.15 p.m. doorstop interview to announce the government's long awaited sugar package and associated tax. Since that announcement on 10 September—I emphasise 10 September—we have seen only slivers of the detail dribble out from the government via a series of media announcements and hollow promises made in the other place. On 25 September, Mr Truss stood up in the other place and promised that sugar farming families would receive emergency income support from 1 October. His media release of the same day talked about interest rate subsidies, which would be available for `new loans obtained from financial institutions for replanting purposes'. Unfortunately for struggling sugar farming families in need of urgent income support, Mr Truss forgot to advise his colleague the Minister for Family and Community Services, Senator Vanstone, that Centrelink was required to play a role in delivering payments.

On 9 October, Labor revealed that no money had reached needy cane farming families because no application form existed and because Centrelink staff had not been briefed. On 10 October, after being shamed into action by Labor, Mr Truss issued a media release advising that registration forms would be available on that day and that payments would commence on 21 October. Despite the bold promises of Mr Truss, his ability to bungle knows no bounds. I understand that the funds that were promised to be delivered on 21 October are still not flowing to farmers in need and are not expected until next week. It is now 22 October.

The Howard government calls its current package the `sugar industry reform assistance package', and indeed there has been much strong rhetoric from the Prime Minister and Senator Minchin blaming the sugar industry for not reforming sufficiently when the Howard government's last package was delivered in 2000. But it is very tough for any industry to reform in the face of drought, low world prices, corrupted markets and crop disease. When one considers what the sugar industry has endured for the past four years, it is amazing there is any industry at all, let alone that it has been able to reform in this period to the extent that it has.

Generally, a key tenet of any reform package is the objective to help farmers increase profitability. The window of opportunity to maximise returns from this year's crop is rapidly closing. To do so, many farmers require access to capital made affordable by those very interest rate subsidies that Mr Truss promised. But yesterday Senator Ian Macdonald advised the Senate:

The final details of the Commonwealth's package on interest rate subsidies have not yet been determined ...

How much longer must growers wait for the assistance promised by Mr Truss? Clearly, Senator Ian Macdonald cannot answer this, not through any fault of his but because the responsible minister, Mr Truss, has not done the work needed to deliver the package as promised. That minister has left families without an income for their needs today and has undermined their ability to earn a living for the next year. Mr Truss must urgently explain to struggling sugar families why they have so little money for food and no money to maintain their crop, and when the full details of this package will be available for all of us to see. On this important matter, I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.