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Wednesday, 9 March 2005
Page: 32

Senator FERRIS (11:46 AM) —I want to contribute to the debate on the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2005, because it will give effect to amendments that reinforce the structural adjustment focus of the program Farm Help—Supporting Families Through Change. This has been a very important part of the policy of this government for primary industries for some years now. In supporting this bill I would like to look at the framework in which the Farm Help program to help farmers exists.

The Agriculture Advancing Australia program, or AAA as it is known, is the government’s commitment to farmers and their families. It remains an ongoing commitment to the development of self-reliant, competitive and sustainable rural industries. AAA began in 1997. Over seven years that overarching program has provided over $1 billion in funding towards programs that are designed to help to ensure the long-term prosperity of Australian agriculture, something this government retains a very strong commitment towards. Over 150,000 primary producers have directly benefited from this package since it began. This represents more than half of the Australian agricultural sector. The AAA package includes a variety of programs for farmers, including Farmbis, a very important part of the program; the agricultural development package; the Rural Financial Counselling Service; and, of course, the Farm Help program.

The Rural Financial Counselling Service was an initiative of the former government. I believe it was former Minister John Kerin who implemented that program. Over the years it has been an incredibly important part of advice to farmers under pressure. But an integral part of the AAA package, Farm Help, has a long record of achievement in helping farmers across this country—$178 million has been committed to the program since it began on 1 December 1997, with an estimated $8.7 million being provided in this year alone. This funding and the government’s commitment to continuing to fund this program clearly demonstrate our strong commitment to rural and regional Australia and our desire to strengthen rural communities. Australian farmers will always be vulnerable to a number of factors in their industry which impact on their livelihoods quite dramatically. These include extreme weather conditions such as drought, like the terrible dry we are having now in many parts of Australia, floods or other natural disasters. A recent example of a natural disaster in my home state of South Australia, of course, was the terrible bushfires on the Eyre Peninsula.

Senator O’Brien touched on the varying exchange rate a few moments ago. The high rate of the Australian dollar is causing huge difficulties for many agricultural commodities, particularly some of the horticultural and seafood exports. There has been an impact from unfair tariffs upon our exports, despite our government’s initiatives with free trade agreements and the work of the very important Cairns Group to reform worldwide agricultural subsidies. There has been an oversupply of commodities on the international market. This issue is currently demonstrated in the beef industry. The Japanese government recently made an announcement that Japan will begin accepting US beef after coming to an agreement to allow US methodology in determining the age of cattle. This means that Australian beef producers, who have benefited quite dramatically from the exclusion of US beef from the Japanese market, could see their market share diminish quite significantly.

All of these very important and quite fundamental issues clearly demonstrate that a structural adjustment package in Australia’s farming sector has an ongoing demand and will always be a concern in times of disadvantage. This is where programs such as Farm Help come into their own. Farm Help is available to farmers who are no longer able to borrow against their assets. To be eligible to receive Farm Help, applicants need to meet certain criteria. They have to be in primary production and must have been in it for a continuous period of at least two years immediately before applying for the scheme. They need to be over 18 years old. That is not difficult—most farmers are well over 18 years old; they are closer to 60 years old. They must not be involved in bankruptcy proceedings or have been issued with an eviction order or have in any other way lost control of the management of their property. They must not be in receipt of any other assistance from Centrelink, such as exceptional circumstances relief payments or the Newstart allowance, at the same time as receiving Farm Help. They must have joined the program only once before and received less than six months income support from the program during that time. They also need to have attended initial advice sessions that included a professional assessment of their farm enterprise’s financial situation and an assessment of their ability to obtain further finance. They need also to have developed a Farm Help Pathways Plan with a Centrelink Farm Help contact officer. At first glance that might seem like a very complicated set of criteria, but at every stage along the way the Rural Financial Counselling Service is there to provide assistance to meet those criteria.

Since the program began in 1997, about 9,000 farm families have received Farm Help and income support, and over 8,000 farmers have attended advice and training sessions, as well as another 1,000 receiving re-establishment assistance. Farmers from industries as diverse as dairy, sugar and pork have received this re-establishment assistance. The numbers are quite significant. They clearly demonstrate that Farm Help is a vital tool for our farmers. I am sure that nobody in this chamber would like to think about what might have become of those 9,000 farming families if this assistance had not been available to them.

Importantly for farmers, the assistance offered through Farm Help is flexible and it can be tailored to the needs of individual farmers and their families. Centrelink Farm Help contact officers are available to give regular and personalised service. They can advise on the different options available under the program—including financial assistance, advice, training and planning for the future—and they can give support if the very difficult decision is made to leave the family farm. The program provides for up to 12 months income support at the Newstart allowance rate, up to $5,500 for advice and training, a customised plan for individual farms to help identify options, and a re-establishment grant of up to $50,000 for qualifying families who decide to leave primary industry.

It is a very traumatic decision for any farm family to make to leave their property. This is especially so for farmers whose properties have been owned by their family for generations. It is something that I have seen first-hand, unfortunately, a number of times, and I know how traumatic it is for the family—the wife, the children and often the parents who are still living on the property. Any assistance that can be given at that time often provides a lifeline, and sometimes it is the only lifeline the family have. A sense of overwhelming failure falls on a family that is forced to leave not only the farm but the district—the district where the members of the family may have grown up, the children are attending school and the family is integrated into the community. That is extremely traumatic. It is very important that assistance is available at that time. I am sure that in the past many farmers would have liked to have had access to the suite of measures that we now offer to those who have to leave their properties in times of adversity.

The amendments contained in this bill will assist the parties involved in Farm Help decisions to make clear the distinction between the Farm Help program, which focuses on an adjustment, and the exceptional circumstances relief payment, which is primarily a welfare program. It will also clarify for the purposes of Farm Help the definition of ‘significant’ labour or capital contribution and ‘significant’ income. This will ensure that Farm Help reaches its target audience of full-time farmers.

The discretion clause which is included in the bill will ensure that there is provision for genuine farmers who cannot meet the 50 per cent of gross income requirement in the two-year period prior to application because of factors beyond their control—such as a natural disaster, adverse seasonal conditions, a market collapse, serious family illness or a disability. The amendments also include a clause ensuring ongoing communication with re-establishment grant recipients to confirm that they have adhered to their undertaking not to re-enter farming within five years of receiving the grant. The amendments will also ensure that the re-establishment grants are used for the purpose intended—to provide assistance for families in severe financial difficulties so they can leave farming.

While I am speaking on this bill, I will also take the opportunity to speak about another program within the umbrella of the AAA that has recently assisted farmers in South Australia. One of these very valuable services has been the Rural Financial Counselling Service, which has been very helpful in the eastern Eyre rural counselling area, which is located on South Australia’s west coast. That service has been at the forefront of family assistance for those devastated by the bushfires on the Eyre Peninsula. I would like to take a moment to reflect on our government’s response to the EP bushfire tragedy that occurred in South Australia in January and the visit undertaken recently by our Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Warren Truss, and the local federal member, my colleague and friend Barry Wakelin, the week before last.

The tragic bushfires within the electorate of Grey, Mr Wakelin’s electorate, took nine lives and destroyed almost 83,000 hectares of farmland in just a couple of hours—an incredibly short time. However, rebuilding those farming enterprises and restoring the badly scarred landscape will take years. With this in mind, our government has committed to funding support grants of up to $4,000 for land-holders to develop property management plans. These plans will allow land-holders to address the most effective approach to sustainable agriculture and improving productivity. Most importantly, they will allow those farmers to begin to think about the future—something that was cruelly taken away from them within a matter of hours on one very hot summer day. They will also assist land-holders to protect environmental values such as water quality, soil condition and, importantly, the biodiversity of the Eyre Peninsula. Land-holders will also be able to apply for additional grants of up to $10,000 per farm to implement the plans through on-ground activities such as revegetation, fencing, and salinity and erosion control.

Importantly, communities always pull together on such occasions. I do not think anybody who has been through an event like this will ever again underestimate the value of the community support that is forthcoming. Certainly, in South Australia that support came from Adelaide in buckets. The $2.74 million of in-kind support from the local community brought the total package now available to those devastated families to in excess of $8 million, once the South Australian government signs off on its commitment.

Another AAA program which has seen successful in South Australia in particular is FarmBis. Some 23,000 South Australians have participated in the FarmBis program and have received assistance to improve their business and natural resource management skills to meet the challenges and the opportunities ahead. Farming is a very difficult business. Farmers are exposed to the elements in all sorts of ways. Any assistance that can be given to farm families to help them get through the difficult periods they encounter during times of adversity is very important. I commend the changes this bill makes to the program.