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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 6001

Senator O'BRIEN (11:08 PM) —This evening I want to talk about the drought, because the drought crisis is growing. Its effects are now being felt in rural and regional communities across the country. This drought—possibly the worst in a century—is not limited to rural towns but is now impacting on all Australians. One of the key features of this drought is the failure of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Mr Warren Truss, to provide the rural community with the support it needs at this time. There is now overwhelming evidence that the effects of the drought are being felt well beyond the farm gate. Broadacre farming enterprises, intensive industries, support industries, rural businesses and services, food manufacturers and retail food businesses have all been hit.

On 30 October this year the Treasurer, Peter Costello, finally acknowledged the impact of the drought in saying that declining rural exports would contribute to lower than predicted growth in the gross domestic product. The Reserve Bank has predicted today that the drought will cut Australia's gross domestic product in 2002-03 by a full one per cent—that is, by $7.1 billion. ABARE forecasts show that Australia's wheat production will fall to 10.1 million tonnes this year, down 58 per cent. Many regional employers, including those in the pork, poultry and feedlot sectors, face ruin due to soaring feed grain prices. An Australian Bureau of Statistics survey of retail prices released on 6 November 2002 shows that the price of vegetables is rising across the country. Last week, even the increasing cost of electricity generation was attributed to drought conditions.

With its impact on farm communities, rural exports, interest rates, jobs and city food prices, it is true to say that the tentacles of this drought reach into every aspect of Australian life. Its impact is now being felt in every home, yet the response of the minister in the face of this deepening national crisis has been nothing short of tragic. It did not have to be this way. Negotiations with the states to reform the exceptional circumstances drought relief program have been under way for no less than two years. Mr Truss defends his efforts by pointing to the fact that he has been trying to reform the EC process for such a long time, yet the very evidence Mr Truss uses in his own defence serves only to highlight his incompetence at negotiating reform—two years of the Truss reform method and not a centimetre gained.

Senator Kemp —Because of the Labor premiers—the Labor premiers are just hopeless; they are absolutely recalcitrant and you never say a word about them.

Senator O'BRIEN —The way Mr Truss has carried on, one would think there was furious disagreement on EC reform but, Senator, that is not the case. In May this year—if you wish to listen, Senator—and again just last month, all the states agreed to an exceptional circumstances reform package that would hasten the assessment process and deliver more effective assistance. The only person who disputes the fact that there is agreement on EC reform is Mr Truss.

On 10 September this year, the New South Wales government lodged an exceptional circumstances application for the Bourke and Brewarrina region. That was 62 days ago today. If the agreed reforms to EC were in place, the benefits of that program would have been available to farmers in that region over a month ago. Mr Truss is not only incapable of negotiation but an inept administrator as well.

The minister was not able to keep his word to Bourke and Brewarrina farm families and deliver interim assistance in his promised time frame. Instead, the promised assistance was tied up in an as yet unexplained bungle for which no-one in the government is willing to claim responsibility. Labor has urged the government to match Farmhand drought assistance on a dollar-for-dollar basis, just as Labor did in 1994, but this call has been ignored.

The minister has also ignored Labor's call to establish a national grain audit to assess the true picture of national grain supplies. The hesitant response from Mr Truss and the lack of interest by the Prime Minister is now drawing widespread criticism from state governments, farmers, rural leaders and media commentators. The cost to the national economy is growing in the absence of effective Commonwealth leadership. There is now an urgent need for a national response to the economic, social and environmental consequences of the current drought. But Mr Truss, secure in his ministerial office, seems determined to sit it out.

Many senators will be aware that, at a meeting at Narrabri on Friday, the minister was the subject of fierce criticism from ordinary farmers who are sick and tired of endless political arguments. A member of my staff was present at that meeting and I can tell senators that the minister's handling of drought relief has brought his party and his government no credit at all. In much of the debate about EC reform, it seems Mr Truss has forgotten that he is the federal minister for agriculture. He is the one person responsible for the development and implementation of the federal government's response to drought. He is paid $170,000 a year to do that job. He is responsible for a department that employs nearly 3,000 officers and costs taxpayers about $250 million per year.

The minister should have established a national drought task force months ago. He should have ensured that the Bourke and Brewarrina exceptional circumstances applications were assessed within four weeks. He should have understood that rural communities look to the federal agriculture minister for leadership in times of rural crisis. Sadly, the minister has done nothing and understands nothing of his responsibilities. It is time, I must say, for the Prime Minister to do what Mr Truss has failed to do and develop a national drought response.

This drought requires a whole-of-government approach because the whole nation is hurting. The government must now marshal all of its resources and deliver a national response. All ministers must work in concert to ensure existing government programs are working effectively to deliver assistance to those who need it—no red tape and no administrative delay, but efficient and effective Commonwealth program delivery. It is not much to ask, but I must say that it has been lacking under this minister to date.

It is also time for the government to get on with the job of progressing reform of the exceptional circumstances program—not talking about it to the media but talking to the states about making positive changes to the EC program. But, rather than act, Mr Truss is content to commentate. This morning on the Channel 9 Today program Mr Truss demonstrated the poor grasp he has of his national responsibilities. He seemed somewhat surprised when his commentary was interrupted and he was asked to do something about drought assistance. The time for commentary has come to an end. It is time for the government to stop talking about improvements in drought response and to deliver them. It is time for Mr Truss to face up to his responsibilities and it is time that he did the job that Australia needs him to do at this time.

Senate adjourned at 11.17 p.m.