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Tuesday, 22 February 2011
Page: 961

Dr STONE (6:55 PM) —I rise to speak on the Tax Laws Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011 and the Income Tax Rates Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011. Someone not familiar with this government or this country could be wondering why the coalition is opposing the idea of a temporary levy to raise $1 billion or so to help pay for the worst floods on record. They could be a little bit amazed, but we in the opposition and our fellows across the nation in the communities that are flood affected know better about the outcomes of hollow sayings like, ‘Just a temporary short-term levy with a bit more cash thrown in and the job will be right.’ We know that this government is incapable of functioning in a way that is efficient and effective and delivers best value for money at the end of a program.

We know that this government does not understand the needs of rural and regional Australia, where the flood devastation has been most costly. I only need to point to the previous speaker, who rabbited on about the Murray-Darling Basin water buy-back scheme in a way that made me shudder. He clearly had no idea of what it really means to go into a drought stressed community—now a flood stressed community—and say to a farmer, ‘Look, you still own some water; why don’t you sell it to the government to relieve some debt,’ and then turn around and call that farmer a willing seller. The person who sells that water has simply sold their capacity to produce in the future on their farm. So they have sold their livelihood and their children’s heritage.

We know that this government has a great deal of difficulty understanding exactly what is needed to help this nation recover from these dreadful floods. That is no more amply illustrated than by the fact that, on the day the Prime Minister read out her carefully prepared speech about the fact that a levy would be put in place, she did not even mention that, as she spoke, Victoria was up to its neck in water. Again today, the Treasurer failed to mention that Victoria is a place that needs a great deal of rebuilding. In fact, very close to my electorate—just next door in Mallee—we have places like Benjeroop and Murrabit, where the water will probably still be lying across farm properties for another 12 months. Those places have water through their houses and across their farms that cannot drain away due to the geography of the area and due to broken levees and broken channel systems. Yet we still cannot get this government to pay attention to the actual cost of washed away infrastructure, lost livestock and devastated lives.

The trouble is that it is not just a matter of how much money is needed to help rebuild, particularly for little shires that do not have the rate base to rebuild their bridges; it is a case, also, of rebuilding a sense of the future—a sense of hope for communities. These communities have been so badly affected, firstly by the worst drought on record, then by some of the worst locust plagues on record and now by the worst floods on record. You need to have some faith in the government of the day if you are to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars to try, once again, to put in one last crop to try and build a future.

I am afraid the farmers in my area are saying: ‘This government does not care’. It does not understand—or perhaps it does not want to know about—issues of food security or even serious environmental degradation. If you have water lying for another 12 months in places like Benjeroop or Murrabit, right against the Murray River, that will add to a major future problem with saline water tables. Problems that we had dealt with could be reactivated by floodwaters lying across the landscape for perhaps 12 months. Of course, that could be sorted by some expenditure right now going to patch up smashed irrigation infrastructure, but it seems there is no hope for these farmers.

Why is my electorate so despairing of this government’s good intentions? Why is it cynical about a so-called ‘temporary’ levy when they are not even mentioned in the dispatches as needy of some of that cash? One of the problems is exceptional circumstances payments, which have really been keeping my communities alive for the last six years, during the worst drought on record. Exceptional circumstances payments give an interest rate subsidy on borrowings and also a household support income equivalent to Newstart allowance. It is not a great deal of money, but that exceptional circumstances program has helped put food on the tables of thousands of families across the electorate of Murray.

Those families had hoped that, with the breaking of the drought and the small window of good season before the locusts and floods came, they would not have to depend any more on those payments to keep them together and put food on the table. But we have now had this incredible, devastating flood. We have lost at least $2.2 billion in livestock and fences across the third of the electorate of Murray that saw floodwaters rush through properties—some for the fourth time in the last three months.

I ask again: why are they so cynical about this government? Because the exceptional circumstances payments are due to cease in about four weeks. I have been begging Minister Ludwig and Minister Burke to announce quickly that they will extend that support to those families. After all, how else are they to live? I have been told by a neighbouring member of parliament that Minister Crean said quite boldly to him that they have no intention of continuing exceptional circumstances payments because, after all, they were for drought in particular and this was a flood.

How is this government going to address the issues of food security, the environmental degradation, the loss of jobs and the loss of the food manufacturing sector in my part of the world, where we have 23 food factories? We have lost, for example, most of our tomatoes grown for manufacturing. It has been an enormous temptation for our food manufacturers to import tomatoes instead of buying the tomatoes grown locally. With the value of the dollar right now and the enormous losses through the flood, it is cheaper to bring in imported junk paste from other countries. Tomato growers have applied for some of the low-interest loans that are on offer from Rural Finance in Victoria, which is federally funded but whose policy direction involves state government. Most of these tomato growers had multimillion dollar turnovers and used world’s best practice.

They have been told: ‘Sorry, your flood inundation, the loss of your entire crop’—which has happened in many cases, with millions of dollars lost per enterprise—‘doesn’t really fit into the criteria for flood support.’ Because a lot of these farmers rent their land each year—tomatoes are so hungry you only grow a crop in the same place for a couple of years in a row—they are not being regarded as real farmers. Secondly, because the water that came over their properties was stormwater, not floodwater—or, in some cases, floodwater, not stormwater—they are being told they simply do not fit the criteria or fit into the definition of who the government can help. This is nonsense when you have communities on their knees who need to get back into business as soon as possible, before our local food manufacturers—all of them multinationals—become permanently hooked on imported ingredients at the expense of local production.

If we are serious about food security, we have to be serious about farm futures. There is no evidence in the flood response from this government—who cannot even get the locations of the flood devastation right—that their billion dollar or so levy will be spent in the right place, in the right way, in a timely manner and for the best value for money. I am afraid we have, through bitter experience, too much evidence of them getting it wrong. I do not really need to remind people of pink batts, cash for clunkers or the $900 stimulus, which was paid to people in New Zealand and paid to the deceased, or put through the pokies or used to buy another flat-screen TV. Then there was the GP superclinics funding, which basically puts local GPs out of business. MySchool, GroceryWatch and Fuelwatch together cost billions of dollars and were just a waste of cyberspace.

We know this government cannot do it, and that is why we are saying: why don’t you take a bilateral approach? Talk to your coalition colleagues in this parliament and we will help you understand where this investment needs to go. We will in fact tell you where you can find savings, in programs which are useless—for example, the Murray-Darling Basin water buyback. The previous speaker, as I said, did not understand a word he was saying about that. My irrigators have sold any water they have been able to to keep going through the last seven years of drought. To put yet another government funded tender out, as I understand is about to happen, is obscene. These are not willing sellers; these are cash-strapped, desperate farmers who have very little left to sell. Their herds, their crops and their fodder have been washed away. Their fences are no longer standing. They lose hope of any future every time they listen to this government. You are coming at them with another tender to buy what water is left on their licences. Shame on you. Forget that nonsense and instead put that cash into flood victim support and infrastructure restoration—that would finally be a decent response from this government.