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Wednesday, 13 November 2002
Page: 6226

Senator CHAPMAN (2:38 PM) —My question is directed to the Minister representing the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Will the minister outline what the Howard government is doing to assist farmers who are facing hardship in drought stricken areas of Australia?

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Forestry and Conservation) —I thank Senator Chapman for the question. I know he has a very big interest in this, coming from South Australia where, I might say, the South Australian Labor government recently made a very magnanimous gesture for drought relief. They provided some money to replace money they withdrew from a Commonwealth program on droughts when they first got into power. The other bits of the money went to frost relief, would you believe, in the time of drought, and also to roads. That is indicative of what the state governments are all about.

Senator Chapman's question does enable me to go back through just what this is all about. I know farmers out there and the public generally hate more than anything governments squabbling with each other and saying, `It's your fault' and so on. But it is important that we all understand that droughts were originally a state responsibility. They came in under the natural disaster relief arrangements. But in 1992 a new national drought policy was developed between all of the states and the Commonwealth. What that provided was that in droughts the states would take the initial action. They would pay the money that was necessary to address the impacts of drought. It was also agreed that, when a drought was a once-in-a-lifetime event or a one-in-25-years drought, the Commonwealth would come in with additional funding, because it was seen to be beyond the ability of the states to cope. That is the background of it. It is very important that it is understood.

Since then the Commonwealth has made very significant contributions under the drought EC or exceptional circumstances provision. I am able to say that, in the Bourke and Brewarrina areas of New South Wales, drought EC or exceptional circumstances have today been officially declared. That means that, in addition to getting the welfare payments that farmers in those areas have been getting now for some weeks, they will be entitled to business assistance and other relief from the federal government. That is very important.

I heard Senator O'Brien speaking in the debate just before lunch, saying that nearly all of New South Wales was drought affected and somehow blaming the Commonwealth for that fact. It is important to understand that the Commonwealth can only act on drought relief when the states make an application to it. Until today the New South Wales government had made one application, for Bourke and Brewarrina. On 19 September, one week after receiving that, money actually started going to those people—$44,000 has already gone to those people from Commonwealth money.

For the rest of New South Wales that Senator O'Brien talks about, there has still not been an application made by the New South Wales government. I correct myself—I am sorry. Three applications came in today. The Commonwealth has to assess them, refer them to an independent committee and then act on them. But the New South Wales government have been recalcitrant in not putting those in before today. I ask Senator O'Brien to tell me: what has the New South Wales state Labor government paid for drought relief? Give me a cash sum. Give me a cash amount. They will not say, because they are embarrassed that they have spent nothing whilst the Commonwealth has spent a considerable amount and is going to spend a lot more. You should also get onto your Queensland colleagues, Senator O'Brien; they are asking for drought relief in the Emerald—

The PRESIDENT —Minister, would you put your answer through the chair, if you do not mind.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am sorry. Senator O'Brien asked about the Peak Downs in Queensland—

Senator Faulkner —No, he didn't; that was someone else!

Senator IAN MACDONALD —He did yesterday. In Emerald and the adjoining shire of Belyando— (Time expired)

Senator CHAPMAN —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I appreciate the answer that the minister has given. Could he provide—

Senator Faulkner —You'll get an Academy Award if you keep going!

Senator CHAPMAN —That may be the case, but those who are interested in drought relief, Senator Faulkner, are interested in what the minister is saying. Could the minister further advise us of what the federal government is doing to overcome the recalcitrance of states in dealing with drought relief issues?

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Forestry and Conservation) —It is very difficult for the Commonwealth, because the Queensland government were so uninterested in Peak Downs that they did not even put in the application. They got AgForce, the farmers' group, to actually prepare the application so that they could send it in. That is how uninterested the Queensland state Labor government were. Can I also say that Queensland asked for drought relief for the adjoining shires of Belyando and Emerald. That is a bit of a laugh, because the Queensland government have not even declared those two shires to be drought affected for their own purposes, yet they are asking for the Commonwealth to give exceptional circumstances drought relief. That is the way the state Labor governments are playing politics with this. It is an easy attack on the Commonwealth to say that the Commonwealth should do this, but under the arrangements the states have the prime responsibility. We only come in when the drought is exceptional and then we do help. (Time expired)