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Wednesday, 11 December 2002
Page: 7733

Senator CHERRY (2:52 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government. Is the minister aware that the Farmhand Foundation has been inundated with requests for assistance, with total claims exceeding the funds available by around $50 million? Is he concerned that some of the most frequently cited bills that drought stricken families are having trouble paying are the rates bills to local governments, which can amount to thousands of dollars, and also electricity bills to state governments—mostly Labor governments? To what extent is the failure to pay bills or the deferral of assessments putting financial strain on country local authorities? What measures have the Commonwealth put into place to try to reduce pressure on local councils and provide rates relief, such as bringing forward federal local government grants?

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) —I thank Senator Cherry for that question. It does indeed show that at least the Australian Democrats have an interest in matters that are of vital concern to Australians—rather than the sorts of questions that we have been getting from the Labor Party. I can understand why the Labor Party do not ask questions about drought, when the state Labor governments have given about $55 million towards drought relief compared with the Commonwealth's $1.2 billion in drought relief. But, Senator Cherry, I do understand that families have a lot of bills which they are required to pay and with the drought and the stopping of income from farming pursuits they are obviously in very difficult financial positions. That is why the government implemented the Farm Management Deposit Scheme—so that in the good years farmers could put money aside and in these difficult years they could withdraw it and use that money to pay such things as rates.

It is also the reason why the government has embarked upon this $1.2 billion drought relief package—to give income support to families and to provide interest rate subsidies for those who do not have an income this year but need to prepare for next year when the drought breaks. When the drought breaks, we hope that farmers will be in a position where they can plant or start with the breeding programs so that they will quickly recover. Of course, a quick recovery will give them the money to pay rates and other pressing bills. I would point out that a typical farm family, with a couple of children and, say, $300,000 worth of debt, could be getting something like $76,000 for the two years as a result of the government's drought relief package. Whilst that is not a lot, it will help farmers get through their immediate debt payment problems.

Senator Cherry has asked me about the impact on local governments, and obviously it will have an impact on local governments in some areas. I have recently and coincidentally spoken to Mr Tuckey, the Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government, about this issue. He tells me that, to date, neither the Australian Local Government Association nor anyone else has approached him specifically on this point. But, again, Senator Cherry would probably be aware that the financial assistance grants program and formulas take into account, when they are assessed every year, the income capability of particular councils. So there may be some assistance to councils that are specifically impacted by the drought, but by and large there are no specific programs that I am aware of. I will check that, and if there is something I am not aware of I will get back to you. But the whole idea of giving assistance to farmers, to small business men and to workers in country areas is to make sure that they can deal with their pressing debts as best they possibly can. In this way, hopefully the rates, or a good part of them, will be paid and when the good times come again those rates will obviously be the first to be paid.