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Wednesday, 9 October 1991
Page: 1593


Mr TAYLOR(8.41 p.m.) —-Whilst I am heartened by the large measure of bipartisan support for the appropriations before us this evening in Appropriation Bill (No. 1), let there be no doubt that the rural sector is in deep and deepening recession. For example, some grain growers have gone four years without harvesting a crop and, of course, the latest drought in south-east Queensland and north-eastern New South Wales has been particularly devastating because it has hit an industry already on its knees through a general commodity price downturn and some of the worst recessionary conditions since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Some of the comments made in Toowoomba last Friday at the first of a number of Australia-wide ABARE rural outlook conferences were, therefore, in no way surprising. I quote initially from the opening paper by Dr Michael Kirby of ABARE, who said in his concluding comments:

The market environment in which the rural sector will be operating during the first half of the 1990s is likely to possess two major characteristics. First, most major farm commodity prices will be low in real terms, resulting in historically very low levels of real farm income. In this regard, 1991-92 is likely to represent the trough but the recovery in subsequent years seems likely to be patchy and weak with real farm income remaining well below the levels recorded in the latter part of the 1980s.

He went on to say:

Second, farmers are likely to respond by economising on their use of inputs wherever possible. New capital expenditure by farmers is likely to remain weak, particularly if real interest rates in Australia remain at historically high levels. For example, it is possible that there could be a repeat of the experience of the mid-1980s where new capital expenditure by farmers was insufficient to offset depreciation of the existing capital stock for several years.

The Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Mr Crean) at that same conference gave what I regard as a very good speech indeed and said, in part:

I feel confident that Australian agriculture will continue to shine, not only because we are the most efficient agricultural producers in the world but because we have shown a remarkable ability to adapt and to get on with the tasks at hand, despite hugely fluctuating climatic and economic conditions.

He also went on to say:

I am acutely aware that many people in rural Australia are hurting. According to some estimates from my Department, almost half of farm families had taxable incomes, including off-farm incomes, of less than $10,000 in 1990/91. This will get worse.

Around 40 per cent of broadacre farmers will have negative farm incomes this financial year. Some say the drought, coming on top of the rural recession, could be shaping into a disaster as bad as the 1890s.

I would like to add my support to that. In the area that I represent it is fast approaching that sort of proportion. Today's Brisbane Courier-Mail also adds a couple of other dimensions to the extent of the rural catastrophe that is clearly with us. First of all, an article reporting a Country Women's Association meeting in Chinchilla on the Darling Downs states:

The number of rural children at boarding schools would drop sharply next year as the rural recession caused further upheaval to families. . .

A CWA south-western division spokeswoman. . . said many children would not return to city schools after Christmas and enrolments at the Charleville School of the Air were expected to increase by up to 50 percent.

She said educating children at home would place further demands on women already struggling to save their properties.

Another delegate said that women in regional areas had almost no access to social services. She cited the case of one woman with two small children who was feeding her family boiled rice for a week and did not know what they would eat next. In another case, a husband could afford to give his wife only a card for her birthday and the family did not expect anything for Christmas. They have nowhere to turn, unless they sell their properties and leave their farms. This delegate concluded by saying that country people are proud and they cannot ask for help.

Another article in today's Courier-Mail headlined `Farmers talk of suicide as rural crisis deepens' states:

The deepening rural crisis is driving an increasing number of farmers to contemplate suicide, a senior Lifeline executive, Rev Noel Park, said yesterday.

The Reverend Noel Park happens to be the director of Lifeline in Toowoomba. The article continues:

``We are getting a disturbing number of calls from people in absolute desperation. . . farmers who have been on the land for two and three generations who are unable to feed their families," he said.

``The calls we are getting match the number of reports from country police on attempted suicides.

My question therefore to the House is: where are the short and the longer term solutions? As far as the Minister is concerned--I hope that he is watching this on television and will come back to the table later on at the conclusion of this debate to sum up--I have to give credit to him where credit is due. First of all, I specifically give him credit for his speech at the ABARE conference last week. It was a well-reasoned speech, some of which not all of us on this side of the House would agree with. But also in recent weeks he has shown an inclination to listen to the rural sector, in particular to a group of vegetable farmers in my electorate. In an exchange of letters that I have had with him in recent weeks, again he has given me heart that he at least understands the problem. He may not have the solutions, but he understands the problem. If I could be critical, he seems to be placing too much emphasis on bureaucratic measures--I will come back to that in a moment--and he seems to make a great meal of the rural adjustment scheme in terms of both the scheme generally and particular provisions that may or may not emerge in relation to drought relief.

In relation to the generally bureaucratic conditions, in the letters to me he talks about the rural adjustment scheme, the rural counselling program, the family allowance, the family allowance supplement, the business advisers for rural areas scheme, the rural industries business extension service and the innovative agricultural marketing program--all in themselves perhaps commendable initiatives but seemingly full of bureaucracy.

In terms of the rural adjustment scheme he refers to an increase in this financial year, I think, from $64m to $160m but he also said in his speech at the ABARE conference that parts A and B of that $160m will be taken up in relation to part C of the scheme, which indicates that those under part C are the ones who supposedly will be leaving the rural sector. To my mind that raises a question as to the intent behind the rural adjustment scheme. Is it to keep people within the rural sector or to push them out of it? On the basis of the statistics that the Minister has provided, perhaps that is very questionable.

In conclusion, I say that rhetoric simply is not enough when it comes to the solutions to the problems in the rural sector. Although we support some of the measures that have been taken and announced in the context of this Budget in relation to family allowance--the family allowance supplement, Austudy, the assistance for isolated children, et cetera--they are initiatives, but they are initiatives only as far as they go. We need real reform. That real reform is in the area of industrial relations, in transport, in tax, in privatisation and in real public expenditure cuts. I can only hope that, when it goes to Cabinet later this week, the Minister is able to get the necessary approvals for part D of the rural adjustment scheme in relation to the drought.