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Wednesday, 9 October 1991
Page: 1619

Mr SHARP(10.52 p.m.) —-I sympathise with my colleague the honourable member for Maranoa (Mr Bruce Scott) about the shortness of our remarks tonight. I suppose they are short in relation to the depth of the problems that exist in the rural areas of Australia that people such as the honourable member for Maranoa and I represent. Listening to this debate, which commenced earlier this afternoon, it has been fascinating to hear each of the speakers who have represented rural electorates talk about the state of the economy and the state of the society that exists in their electorates at the present time. My electorate is no different to many others. We are probably more fortunate in the sense that we have had more reasonable rains and, therefore, we are not suffering the drought conditions that some of the constituents of the honourable member for Maranoa would be experiencing.

My electorate is typical of most rural electorates in Australia today in that it is experiencing probably the worst economic and social times that anybody can recall in modern times. My memory goes back to the rural recession that took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s when sheep were commonly referred to as ground lice. At that time, farmers were going out the door very quickly. Of course, the difference between then and now is that in those days, when farmers and rural communities were doing it so tough, interest rates were only 7 or 8 per cent and, therefore, there was a greater capacity for farmers to withstand the onslaught of low commodity prices and poor seasons. In addition, there was a great deal of confidence amongst farmers back in the late 1960s and early 1970s that, whilst things were tough then, they would ultimately come good as they had done in the past.

However, what is different between then and today is the fact that I have discovered that the confidence and morale levels of farmers are as low as they could possibly go. Many farmers that I speak to can see no end in sight to the depressed rural times. Many of them are convinced that this is the beginning of the end of rural industries as we have known them in the past. Many of them, because of advancing age--the average age of farmers being well in excess of 55 these days--are going to give up the fight and will not bother to face up to continuing bad times; they will throw the towel in and give the game away. Many farmers also look at the plight of younger entrants to the rural industries. They look at the future that confronts them with a great deal of dismay because they can see no great light shining for those people in the future to give them any sort of hope.

Of course, whilst some of the problems of farmers are the direct consequence of low international commodity prices, and some are due to the current drought that prevails across a large section of Australia, a great deal of them have been imposed by policy decisions of this Government which have affected the rural industries particularly savagely. The recession we had to have, brought on by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) and the former Treasurer, the honourable member for Blaxland (Mr Keating), has hit the rural communities very savagely. High interest rates, which are a deliberate policy of this Government, have hit our farmers particularly badly.

We have heard many examples of the high levels of debt that confront farmers today. I think the average debt for farmers would be somewhere in the order of $250,000. Farmers are still paying interest rates of around 16 to 18 per cent. They are not enjoying the 90-day bank bill rates that we see currently prevailing for people fortunate enough to be able to borrow at rates of about 9 per cent; farmers are still paying 16 to 18 per cent. It is that deliberate, high interest rate policy which has savagely attacked farmers.

In addition to that, this Government, having given us the recession we had to have, having given us extremely high interest rates, then gave us a Minister for Primary Industries and Energy who had no experience with rural industries and who had come from a sector of our society that could be described as the traditional enemy of farmers--the trade union movement. The current Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Mr Crean) is somebody who would have very little sympathy for or understanding of the plight of farmers. Indeed, many farmers saw the appointment of the current Minister as an attack on their own industries, something that would ultimately reduce their standing in the Cabinet and reduce their position overall.

It is a sad thing to realise that amongst the Cabinet members of this Government none has had any country experience whatsoever. None represents a country electorate. It is a very sad day indeed when the farmers and rural constituents of Australia understand that they have nobody sitting in that Cabinet room tonight who lives amongst them and who truly understands the problems that they confront today.

When we look at the policies of this Government and realise the effects they have had on our Australia farmers, we can start to understand why farmers have so much dislike for the current Government. It is not just farmers, of course; it is people living in rural communities. My electorate, for example, has seen a dramatic increase in unemployment levels. In my home town of Young, there has been about a 50 per cent increase in unemployment numbers over the last 12 months. In Goulburn, there has been a 37 per cent increase in unemployment levels over the last 12 months. In the coastal area of my electorate there are now 5,700 people unemployed in Nowra and the surrounding district. That is nearly a doubling in the numbers of unemployed people over the last 12 months.

All these communities depend on farmers for their income and all these communities have suffered tremendously as a result of this Government's policies. We also see the Government imposing difficulties upon our farming communities through such things as the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service. This is a service which is being provided at great cost to our rural industries and is something that has nearly brought down one of the major employers in my electorate, the Cowra abattoir which employs several hundred people. Indeed, it is the biggest employer in Cowra. It came within a hair's breadth of closing down earlier this year because of the tremendous increase in costs that has been imposed on it by this Government through the provision of meat inspection services. That is just one example of the policies of this Government bringing a great deal of economic hardship to a community such as Cowra.

In such a community we also see the Government's anti-dumping policies having a big impact on the horticultural industries--the vegetable and, in particular, the canned vegetable industries--which are being hit with subsidised imports without adequate anti-dumping provisions being available to those industries. This Government has also increased fuel excise over the past 8 1/2 years of its reign and this has brought great economic hardship to rural Australians. Today fuel excise is in excess of 30c a litre. When the Hawke Labor Government came to power, fuel excise was 6c a litre.

Mr Lloyd —-How much?

Mr SHARP —-For the benefit of the honourable member for Murray, I repeat that it was 6c. He would well understand, as I am sure he does, the tremendous impact that that huge increase in fuel excise has had on rural constituents and on rural industries. It is that form of taxation which is biting very deeply into the pockets of farmers and people who live in rural areas today.

The Government's failure to provide income equalisation deposits has also put farmers at a big disadvantage. The Government will regret its current reaction to the drought and its current drought aid, which is a reaction that is coming very slowly and is very inadequate. The fact that the Government is not addressing some of the major social welfare issues for rural communities in a way that ensures that farmers and other people living in rural communities have equal access to things such as Austudy, the family allowance, the family allowance supplement and the unemployment benefit is something of grave concern to all my constituents. (Time expired)

Proposed expenditure agreed to.

Department of Social Security

Proposed expenditure, $1,071,607,000.