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Monday, 2 December 2002
Page: 6834


Senator FERRIS (2:43 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Senator Ian Macdonald. Can the minister outline what additional actions the Howard government is taking to assist farmers who are facing hardship in drought-stricken regions of Australia?


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) —I thank Senator Ferris very much for that question, which I thought the Labor Party would have been interested in today, as it is obviously a matter that is very severely affecting some 70 per cent of Australia. I am aware that Senator Ferris has recently been out west of Bourke and would have experienced first-hand the terrible impacts that the drought is having on agricultural industries and on families in that area. As Senator Ferris will know, virtually all of New South Wales is in drought, and some areas are experiencing their lowest rainfall in recorded history. I understand that where you were, Senator Ferris, they have not seen rain for some 2½ years.

The cost of the drought to Australian farmers and their families and the communities they support will be enormous at both an economic and a financial level. The Howard government well appreciate the difficulty being experienced in country Australia at the moment. We expect to provide an additional $370 million over the next two years in exceptional circumstances drought payments for relief to farmers in the areas that we expect may qualify based on current rainfall data. As of today, more than 1,300 farmers in four states are in receipt of Commonwealth EC drought relief payments. A further 1,000 are receiving welfare assistance under the Farm Help program.

In the last two weeks, more than 5,000 farmers have become eligible for interim exceptional circumstances assistance. On 13 November the Commonwealth declared Bourke and Brewarrina as an exceptional circumstances area, and five other regions have been, prima facie, designated for exceptional circumstances assistance. Interim income support is available to farmers in these areas. These regions include Peak Downs, Walgett, Coonamble, Grafton, Kempsey, the majority of the Western Division of New South Wales and also northern New England. For every $1 that the states contribute towards exceptional circumstances, the Commonwealth contributes something like $25. The effort from the Commonwealth is large. Regrettably, the states are still dragging the chain.

In addition, the Howard government has given $5 million to the Farmhand appeal to help those in very needy circumstances. The Farm Management Deposit Scheme, which we are very proud of on this side of the chamber, has accumulated some $2 billion, and that means the Commonwealth government will forgo something like $470 million in revenue. Mr Howard announced the other day that there would be earlier access to those farm management deposits, and we are going to provide an exemption to the 12-month waiting period for access to the Farm Management Deposit Scheme for farmers in an EC drought declared area. We are also going to provide additional money through the Family and Community Services portfolio for personal counselling in drought affected areas. That will be up to $2 million. We have committed $10 million for drought funding under the Australian government Envirofund, a new program element to assist in recovery and to help with land, water, vegetation and the biodiversity resource base that affects drought. We have also provided additional money for pest animal management grants and we have given $1 million to the Country Women's Association for emergency aid funding. (Time expired)