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Wednesday, 13 November 2002
Page: 6207

Senator O'BRIEN (1:03 PM) —Today I will address the matter of drought for the fourth time this week in the Senate. Properly responding to Australia's growing drought crisis has been a priority for Labor for many months. Regrettably, the same cannot be said about the Howard government's commitment to addressing this issue. After months of doing little more than attacking the states for their drought assistance measures—but doing nothing itself— we are now seeing a flurry of activity from the government.

Yesterday, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry attacked the Queensland government for the level of assistance it was providing farmers in the Peak Downs area—farmers who are clearly suffering from the consequences of severe drought. This attack was galling, even by Mr Truss's standards, because it was the minister himself who was sitting on his hands in respect of the Peak Downs exceptional circumstances application. That application was lodged on 28 October, but incomplete interim assistance measures were not announced until today—a clear indication that the application has merit but an even clearer indication that the minister is not giving drought assistance the attention it deserves.

The fact is that the prima facie merit of the application should have been assessed within seven days of its lodgment. Clearly, the Prime Minister has now had enough of Mr Truss's bungling and has directed him to act. It is a shame that the Prime Minister did not take a direct interest in the drought earlier. I ask the Prime Minister to require Minister Truss to look again at the current Queensland exceptional circumstances application and to grant comprehensive interim relief. Until now, the Prime Minister has allowed Mr Truss to direct his energy to battling the states rather than dealing with what is emerging as the worst drought in 100 years.

I note the Prime Minister's comments to the National Farmers Federation last night that he wants to end Commonwealth-state bickering over drought assistance. But while he was acting like a statesman at the National Farmers Federation, his minister was issuing a statement attacking the New South Wales Premier, Mr Bob Carr, and his government for their drought program. Yesterday the minister also used a debate in the other place to debase the drought assistance packages currently offered by the New South Wales, Queensland, Victorian, South Australian and Western Australian governments. Despite the Prime Minister's rhetoric, his government has done nothing to focus on the delivery of better drought assistance.

The government has this morning announced the approval of the exceptional circumstances applications for Bourke and Brewarrina in New South Wales. This announcement also highlights the minister's failure to do his job. He has forced the farmers in these regions to wait 64 days to know their fate. Today we have an announcement that the application has been successful. We still have no idea when the money will actually flow to those farmers—and neither do they. The federal government has now received more exceptional circumstances applications from New South Wales. The farm families in these areas should not be forced to wait for months for urgently needed assistance. The Prime Minister must acknowledge his minister's incapacity to do the right thing by drought stricken farmers and instruct that interim assistance be made available within the next seven days.

So far government action has been motivated only by the pressure that Labor, farm organisations and media commentators have brought to bear, and it should not be this way. The government should be motivated by the needs of farm families. The Prime Minister must also ensure that these new applications are assessed within four weeks.

The government has focused on the impact of the drought on broadacre farming. It has given no consideration, might I say, to the devastating impact the drought is now having on the intensive industries such as poultry and pork and the beef feedlot sectors. An audit of all feedstocks must be undertaken immediately. That audit must look at current fodder stocks, not just grain. These industries, the tens of thousands of workers they employ and the thousands of small businesses that service them need to plan for the immediate future on the basis of available fodder supply. The minister must act to provide them with that certainty. As a matter of urgency, the government must review all aspects of the current grain import protocols with the aim of ensuring that the feedstock required by these sectors can be satisfied if there is no break in the current drought before next year. In many respects, I have been calling for that work to be done since October.

There are currently eight applications to import grain with the government, and one of those applications, for sorghum, has been approved. The opportunity for an early sorghum crop has been all but lost and the deadline for the planting of a late crop is only weeks away. If there is no rain in the next few weeks in important growing areas, the current small number of import applications will quickly turn into a tidal wave. It is worth noting comments made in the other place by the now Deputy Prime Minister in 1994. He said:

We will not have enough domestic grain to cover needs. That is rapidly becoming quite obvious. Priorities in terms of what should be imported, what should be kept here, what export contracts should be met and what should be attempted to be met from other sources are issues that will need to be looked at as a matter of great urgency.

... ... ...

There is now an urgent need to get on top of the questions of inventories for feed, what is available, what is going to be needed, what the priorities should be, and how they can best be met. There should be no shirking of that responsibility at all under any circumstances.

I am quoting the Deputy Prime Minister from 1994, and there was an audit of stocks undertaken in 1994. Due to the current drought that need has arisen again.

The government has also failed to respond to the crisis confronting our beef and sheep producers. Whilst most farmers have been progressively destocking their properties as the drought has worsened, their ability to retain or agist their key breeding herds and flocks has been severely limited or in many cases lost. This drought is now well beyond normal property management planning. The situation in New South Wales is particularly worrying. Over 96 per cent of that state is now drought declared and it was suggested yesterday that now 99 per cent of the state is in the grip of drought. Many have now lost their core breeding animals and with them the ability to rebuild their businesses after the drought. The government must act to assist these producers to protect the core breeding animals that remain. That would be a sound investment in a quick recovery when this drought has ended.

I note comments this morning by the Deputy Prime Minister that the government is working on a plan to help keep core breeding animals alive. I am concerned at the suggestion in his comments that the necessary work on these measures is only now beginning. The fact is that nothing has yet been delivered by the government on this issue. The fact is that it is the Minister for Transport and Regional Services who is now announcing that the government is starting to look at this option. Just what has the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry been doing? My view is that this assistance should be provided through the current exceptional circumstances structure, and the starting point should be a comprehensive audit of fodder stocks. The matter of feed grain availability is fundamental to any plan to hold core breeding stock together and there is, after all, little point in providing assistance to feedstock if there is no feed available.

Finally, to assist the government in this regard, I say that these steps are the steps it must now take. It must coordinate its existing rural programs to deliver more effective assistance to farmers and to rural industries. It must acknowledge the many dimensions of the drought's impact on regional communities and review existing government programs that can be adapted to assist these communities, the workers in them and their families. The government must sort out the exceptional mess that Mr Truss has made of the exceptional circumstances program and ensure that it delivers real and lasting reform of national drought assistance. That reform, might I say, must include improvements to the exceptional circumstances assessment and delivery program, including the resourcing of the National Rural Advisory Committee, NRAC, to deal with the multiple EC applications, because it is of little use to ask them to assess multiple applications if they do not have the resources to do it expeditiously. That would be a failing, and a major failing.

So far Mr Truss has proved incapable of addressing the drought crisis enveloping Australia. That crisis is now having a telling impact on the national economy, and the Reserve Bank is now saying it will be responsible for gross domestic product being reduced by one per cent—the equivalent of $7.1 billion. It has gone beyond the responsibility of the minister—he has proven that he is not up to the job. The Prime Minister must develop a national response to the drought. Australia cannot wait any longer for Mr Truss to act on his own initiative. I conclude with a plea made in the editorial of a newspaper in a probably rarely spoken about part of this country—the South Burnett Times, published in Kingaroy on Friday. That editorial says:

Drought-crippled farmers expect governments to stop buckpassing and cut the red tape involved in them getting access to assistance.

That is a message that Mr Truss should hear loud and clear.