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Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Page: 6085

Senator O'BRIEN (3:03 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Forestry and Conservation (Senator Ian Macdonald) to a question without notice asked by Senator O'Brien today relating to drought assistance.

It is very tempting to suggest that all the delays in processing exceptional circumstances applications are due to the fact that Senator Ian Macdonald is hiding them under his papers, but I am sure that is not the case. What we really know, of course, is that the problem is being caused by a minister who has not been paying attention to his portfolio. We know that the government can process exceptional circumstances applications very speedily. How do we know? Because they did it last year at election time when, very speedily, they decided to approve exceptional circumstances applications in critical areas of Western Australia and have them processed expeditiously as something very important turned on it: votes for the coalition at the last election.

The reality is that, in relation to the applications for exceptional circumstances assistance that this government has been dealing with over the last couple of months, we have seen procrastination and blame shifting. Frankly, every time this government stands up to justify its position on exceptional circumstances assistance it is only looking for a scapegoat; it is not looking for an outcome. That is shameful considering the announcement yesterday that the GDP will be reduced by one per cent, $7.1 billion, as a result of the effect of the drought. Anyone who has been to western New South Wales will have seen very little in the way of pasture for animals and very little in the way of the crops that should have grown through the winter. They will have seen the devastation that is there for everyone to see and that members of RASAC would have seen when they went to the Bourke and Brewarrina areas. They would have seen that there are producers who have nothing with which to feed their animals; they would have seen that there are producers who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in providing feed to keep breeding stock.

Senator Ferguson —That's what happens in droughts.

Senator O'BRIEN —Senator Ferguson says that that is what happens in droughts. Senator, the people of New South Wales are telling me—and I wonder if the government has heard this—that this is a 100-year drought. It is the worst drought in 100 years, in their view. It is a terrible drought, and these farmers have been doing what they can to survive, to keep the basis of their economic activity together. There was a very angry meeting in Narrabri last Friday in the electorate of the Deputy Prime Minister, and I can assure you that his constituents in that area are not very pleased with the way their concerns are being dealt with.

I was telephoned by one particular producer who is down to 50 head of cattle. He is getting rid of all the horses on the property. He and his family have no money left with which to feed them and they are desperate for their concerns to be addressed as speedily as possible. The reality is that the New South Wales government has put things on the table and money is going out into these areas— and others will address this in the debate—to assist with transport and other areas of need. But the federal government has a responsibility.

In the early 1990s, the federal government, a Labor government, and the various state governments, the majority being coalition governments, agreed to an exceptional circumstances assistance package. That is the basis for the sort of funding that those farmers are seeking now. Yes, there have been negotiations to change that, and most of the issues being addressed in those negotiations have been agreed. But what are the present federal government saying? They are saying, `We're not going to implement any agreement unless we screw some more money out of the states; we will hold a financial gun to the head of farmers'—supposedly the constituents of the coalition—`and pull the trigger if you don't pay the money.' Let us face the fact: the government are trading on the misery of farmers to try and screw a few dollars out of state governments. That is the reality that the government—and senators opposite will seek to defend this—are trying to visit on farmers in this country.

So what do we have? We had a minister— one who does very little in his portfolio— promise in September that there would be immediate assistance for the farmers in Bourke and Brewarrina. What do we hear today? Sixty-three days later 24 of them have got $40,000. It has taken 63 days to get a miserable $40,000 into the hands of those farmers, after he had promised immediate assistance—a promise he repeated about a week later. What about all of the others? Was there an answer to my question about the 220 Peak Downs farmers who lodged their application on 28 October? Are they guaranteed an immediate response? No, they are not. They are not guaranteed any response at all in the answer of this minister. (Time expired)