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Wednesday, 9 October 1991
Page: 1605

Mr ANDREW(9.41 p.m.) —-I welcome the opportunity to join my colleagues from both the Liberal and National parties in painting a picture of something of the reality that is currently facing Australia's farming families. In this committee debate on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) relating to budgetary appropriations to the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Mr Crean), I join my colleagues in the sentiment that I very much regret the fact that the Minister is not here. That is not in any sense a reflection on the Minister for Local Government (Ms Fatin) at the table, who I have no doubt will convey the sentiments of the debate to the Minister.

Ms Fatin —-He is in Cabinet.

Mr ANDREW —-In anticipation of the interjection from the Minister, I do not pretend that the Minister is without adequate excuse; I simply regret the fact that he is not here, because it is necessary for the House to have injected into this debate, as the Opposition has endeavoured to do, some sense of the reality of the real urgency and desperation facing Australian farming families. In spite of the popular image that has been cultivated about farmers, the facts are that they are not complainers but are people with an enormous investment in this country. They are people who have chosen a lifestyle that is not necessarily comfortable; in fact, it is rarely comfortable. It is a lifestyle that frequently disadvantages the education opportunities that would otherwise be available to their children. Because of the demands of the property, many of them choose to live in houses that would not meet the standards regarded as normal in suburban Australia. They certainly would not be the sorts of houses that people in urban Australia would live in if they had invested in their manufacturing base the sort of money that my farmers have invested.

I want to read into Hansard an article from the Land magazine of last week written by Louise Nichols. The heading is, `Never worse in the Hunter and Manning'. The article states:

The word ``moonscape'' has been used to describe the impact of the drought on the lower Hunter Valley and neighbouring Manning Valley, and the term is apt.

Old-timers in these areas, which are among the worst-hit on the coast, say the 1991 drought is the worst in living memory.

With paddocks devoid of any stockfeed and on-farm water storages reaching critical levels the situation for many farmers is desperate.

Without rain this month any beef producers will be forced to destock or start full hand-feeding programs while dairyfarmers will have to find the money to increase their already heavy reliance on supplementary feeds.

And so the article goes on. This is not an article written from the jaundiced point of view that some honourable members opposite would think the Liberal and National parties have. This is an article written by a rural reporter to inform rural constituents of what is happening in a sector of New South Wales which is represented by the gentleman on my right.

We do not pretend that we the Opposition or the farming community we represent can make it rain. But I do not find my farmers unrealistic in the way in which they deal with the reality of drought, which is a part of farming in the Australian environment. I put it to the House that the Opposition in any of its representations on behalf of farmers over the eight years that I have been in this place has not been unreasonable in the demands it has placed on the Government.

We can never be accused of having chosen to be critical of the Government simply to push some popular viewpoint. We have never just chased down the course of simple answers. In fact, we have been prepared to support the Government when what it has proposed has been initially unpopular in farming communities. I point for example to the deregulation of the domestic market for Australian wheat and to the Government's decision to remove the floor price for wool. Both decisions were modified by the Opposition but not opposed by the Opposition because to do so would have been popular in rural Australia in the short term. Instead, we chose the responsible course. We knew that farmers would be the first to see through any pragmatic shots we may have wanted to fire.

We are not here tonight making unreasonable demands, merely making popular demands. We are here, as the honourable member for Groom (Mr Taylor), the honourable member for Gwydir (Mr Anderson), the honourable member for Wide Bay (Mr Truss), the honourable member for Lyne (Mr Cowan), the honourable member for Cowper (Mr Nehl) and the honourable member for Mallee (Mr Peter Fisher) have adequately said, representing the awful reality currently facing Australia's farming community.

The real dilemma that farmers face as this drought begins to bite, particularly in eastern Australia, is that they simply have no way in which they could be ready for it; no way, because their trading base had already been eroded by what had happened in world markets; no way, because their capacity to prepare for a drought had already been eroded by the absurd high interest rate policy that the Government had initiated; and no way, because the classic technique available to farmers to prepare for tough years--once known as income equalisation deposits--had been destroyed by the Government.

I put it to the House that, contrary to all that the Government and the Treasurers, both past and present, have said about falling interest rates, a businessman or a farmer in Australia in 1991 still finds that interest rates are relatively high. Those high interest rates are still sucking in funds from overseas. The influence of that money coming from overseas is to prop up artificially the Australian dollar and to make it even more difficult for Australian farmers to trade in the world market.

I am not proposing that the Government should once again regulate the dollar, but I point out that the Government's interest rate policy has artificially inflated the dollar and made it increasingly difficult for my farmers, who are already facing an impossible situation in world trade and an even more devastating situation in terms of drought, to survive. It has been calculated that, if the Australian dollar was to fall by the equivalent of US5c, it would boost the average Australian farm earnings by $200m each year. As I said, this is not a plea for re-regulation but a plea for a review of what the Government's high interest rate policy is doing to our trading conditions.

Mr Deputy Chairman, as you would be aware from the debates you have listened to in this chamber, the Opposition has never chosen to call for the reinstatement of protectionist barriers against what is happening to farmers in world trade. We have supported the Government in its effort to lower protection levels; we have recognised that we cannot go on building protection and expect to have an efficient and healthy export sector; but the reality that my farmers face is that, while we wait for the Cairns Group and for the EEC and the USA to amend their policies, farmers are going broke through no fault of their own.

The question we must ask is: how can we help them survive until the sorts of reforms that Minister Blewett is seeking in world trade begin to occur? The Opposition has some answers. We believe that we can help our farmers survive by, for example, being industrious in the way we go about reforming the waterfront, and not simply pussyfooting. We believe that we can help our farmers survive by being determined in the way we go about reforming our industrial relations sector, and not simply pussyfooting with that either. We believe that we can help our farmers survive by recognising that they are asset rich and cash poor, and that some of the welfare entitlement that the rest of the community takes for granted is denied to them even though they need it.

We recognise that the Government has not been bereft of any action in the farming sector. It has, for example, in my electorate, appointed an additional rural counsellor. But this is mere peripheral action. The plea from the Opposition benches to the Government in this debate on the Appropriation Bill is for action, and action now, on those things that would help keep Australian farmers competitive--the level of the dollar, interest rates, the waterfront and industrial relations. Something can be done, and virtually nothing has happened and nothing is flagged in the 1991-92 Budget.