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Monday, 26 May 2003
Page: 14870

Mrs HULL (3:08 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Would the minister inform the House of the latest developments in the government's attempts to assist farmers struggling with drought?

Mr TRUSS (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) —I thank the honourable member for Riverina for the question. It is especially appropriate that she should ask it because on Friday I announced that exceptional circumstances assistance would be provided to 2,700 dryland, livestock and crop producers in the south-west slopes and plains region, mostly in the electorate of the honourable member. She and many other members of the government have been very concerned about the impact of drought on primary producers and rural communities across the nation. The government has responded in an effective way to ensure that farmers have some assistance through these difficult times.

Last week, assistance was extended to 1,800 livestock and broadacre crop producers in the Queensland central coast region, mainly in the electorate of the honourable member for Capricornia. Assistance was also extended to 700 beef, cattle and dairy producers in the state's southern south-east, mainly in the electorate of the honourable member for Blair. This brings to 32 the number of exceptional circumstances applications that the government has now considered. This demonstrates the enormity of the drought—how extensive it has been and how harsh it has been in much of Australia. We have sought to respond quickly. Indeed, these applications have been considered in one-third of the time that it has taken to deal with EC applications in the past. In addition, we have ensured that interim assistance has been available to farmers while their applications are under consideration.

As we look to the prospects for the winter ahead, there is still a degree of anxiety about the future progress of the drought. While the Bureau of Meteorology has officially declared El Nino over, that is good news for northern Australia, but those areas are of course coming into their traditional dry season. The prospects for some parts of southern Australia, particularly the grain belts of Victoria and South Australia, have been less encouraging. Indeed, the plantings for the winter crop are way below average. Only in Western Australia has there been any significant planting of wheat, and most of the other crops that have been planted around Australia are now at a critical phase as we look to what the future might bring.

Clearly, continued rainfall will be necessary in those areas where some planting has occurred to ensure that the crops are able to reach their potential, but in other areas they are still looking for the first rain to enable planting to occur. I think your own area, Mr Speaker, may be one of those that did rather well over the last couple of days and one in which some planting is starting to occur. That sort of thing is giving encouragement to people in regional Australia, but there are many others with a very tough time still ahead of them.

Currently 13,350 Australian families are receiving income support under the federal government's drought assistance programs, and over 3,000 are receiving interest rate assistance to help them with their business costs through these difficult times. Over $133 million has already been paid out—a clear demonstration of this government's commitment to work with farmers to help them through this difficult time. We hope that the season will soon break across the nation and we can return to our traditional levels of profitability, but in the interim the government will stand by our friends in regional Australia and make sure that they have the opportunity to survive the tough times so that they can again prosper in better seasons.