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Wednesday, 20 February 2019
Page: 14151


Mr BRIAN MITCHELL (Lyons) (17:27): Labor does not support the Future Drought Fund Bill 2018, because it does not go far enough; it takes too long to deliver results and it will gut the Building Australia Fund. That's the simple truth. We don't support this bill because it doesn't do enough. Labor proposes an alternative approach that will see money released to more disaster affected communities sooner, and which, critically, does not endanger the vital work undertaken by the Building Australia Fund.

A Labor Shorten government will also help farmers build defences to drought, lift productivity and secure sustainable profitability while also—I emphasise this—building road and rail infrastructure. On this side of the House, we will not raid the Building Australia Fund. We know how vital it is. Yes, New South Wales and Queensland have been ravaged by a long drought and, yes, those communities require assistance. They have required assistance for some time, and we have been in lock step with measures by this parliament to support them, including backing reforms to the farm household allowance, increasing the farm asset threshold, and the farm management deposit scheme. No-one can be in any doubt that Labor supports drought affected communities. But, as we've seen with the Townsville floods and the Tasmanian bushfires, there is much more to natural disaster in Australia than drought. This bill to create the Future Drought Fund fails at the first hurdle, because it restricts funding to people affected only by drought, locking out many across regional Australia whose livelihoods are just as affected by other natural disasters.

This bill sets out a broad definition for drought resilience projects as being to enhance resilience, preparedness and responsiveness, as well as management of exposure to drought, adaptation to the impact of drought, recovery from drought, and the long-term drought related sustainability of farms and communities. In and of themselves, these are laudable goals, but there's more to natural disasters in Australia than drought. Each year from 2020, $100 million will be transferred from the Future Drought Fund to an agriculture future drought resilience account, which the agriculture minister will then tap for drought resilience projects—not bad, except 2021 is a bit late for farmers who require assistance right now. And the requirement that the minister have regard to advice from the Regional Investment Corporation is just weird. The RIC is one of those National Party lovefests. Does the RIC have particular specialised knowledge in drought resilience? If so, we haven't been told how. What is it bringing to the table that existing agencies and experts cannot?

It has to be said that this bill comes off the back of the government's failure to release a revised intergovernmental agreement on drought reform and years of failure in this area. The Prime Minister held a drought summit in October, where he announced the fund on the morning of the summit—before the talking began. That is symptomatic of this government—policy on the run, and politically driven, after six years of failure on the issues of drought resilience and climate change policy.

Labor support the objectives of the Future Drought Fund; we just believe it doesn't go far enough. We believe the mechanism to resource it—raiding the Building Australia Fund—cannot be supported and that there may not be enough safeguards to ensure that it doesn't become just another National Party slush fund. This bill will have a shameful impact on the Building Australia Fund, a fund whose explicit purpose is to finance critical infrastructure, much of it across regional Australia. The government are playing a shell game here. They want to create the Future Drought Fund by gutting the Building Australia Fund. It's not new money. The Liberals are taking $3.9 billion from a fund that has a proven track record of financing critical infrastructure across regional Australia and putting it into another fund. It will mean the end of the BAF, established in 2008 by Labor, which has financed road and rail networks, and broadband and telecommunications connections. Critically, the BAF follows the recommendations and advice of experts. That's why the Liberals and their friends in the National Party hate it. It's not a pork barrel they can stick their snouts into and use to reward their mates or sandbag their marginals. It's an infrastructure fund that provides infrastructure where it's needed, not because the local MP is in trouble or because the local mayor is a mate and wants a road named after him. That's why they want it gone and why they've tried a few times since 2013 to knock it on the head. It's shameful, absolutely shameful, that they're trying to kill the BAF this time under the cover of providing drought relief for suffering farmers.

Let's look at this government's history. We have a drought envoy, the member for New England, who's spent much of his time since 2013 being the Minister for Agriculture and the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, until his fall from grace last year. Why did he not use the authority of his office as a minister of the Crown and Deputy Prime Minister to do something about disaster relief? Why is it all here in a rush now, six years into their term of government, when over there we have a man who has been, for about five years of this government, Deputy Prime Minister? Warren Truss may have been the minister before that, but, for a good portion of the time, Barnaby Joyce, the member for New England, has been a senior member of the government. Yet nothing was done during his tenure. We know that what the member for New England did do as minister was abolish the Standing Council on Primary Industries, the COAG committee on agricultural matters which had in its orbit the intergovernmental agreement on drought policy reform.

This summer has been particularly hostile to Australia, with extreme weather gripping the country. We've seen more than 200,000 hectares of land, just over three per cent of Tasmania's surface area, burned in my state in recent bushfires. Sadly, it's the second bushfire of this nature to hit my home in a few years. It's gutted many of the communities in my state and largely been started naturally by more than 2,400 lightning strikes hitting Tasmania without rain—dry lightning strikes. The fires, some of which are still burning along, despite the cooler weather, are expected to burn and smoulder for at least another month. They've burned unique Tasmanian landscapes. Not only have they damaged the state's natural heritage in my electorate, that of my colleague the member for Braddon and also that of our colleague the member for Franklin; they also are impacting on our tourism and, importantly, destroying environments that have been growing untouched for centuries.

Queensland, on the other hand, is under water. Townsville, with a population of 180,000, has been hit by a monsoon strengthened by a low-pressure front resulting in an unprecedented 1½ metres of rain in less than two weeks. I saw on the news this morning that Birdsville is about to be under water. It hasn't seen rain in ages. The rain is destroying homes. It's causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to property and public infrastructure. It has resulted in the deaths of at least two men and has totally disrupted the Townsville community.

Elsewhere across Australia, particularly in eastern Australia, there is drought. But drought's not the only natural disaster. This Future Drought Fund doesn't help people affected by flood and doesn't help people affected by bushfire. The whole of New South Wales was declared to be in drought in the latter half of 2018, so it's clear that this drought, as we all know, is one of the worst in Australian history. Those on this side of the House stand with those communities. We know they need relief, and they need relief now, not in a year's time. But they're not the only ones who need relief. We need a long-term plan, a long-term fund, for this country that doesn't gut an essential fund that's already in place that funds infrastructure. If we're going to have a long-term natural disaster relief fund, let's make sure it covers more than just drought. It's so important.

There's no doubt that the climate is growing more challenging for our farmers, and drought can no longer be viewed as an exceptional event. A hotter and drier environment should be considered the new normal, and Labor believes there is a role for government in helping farmers adapt to changing weather patterns. This means that, in addition to in-drought policy responses, government must lead the resilience and productivity agenda. That's what we will do in government. It won't just be about drought—we will lead a resilience and productivity agenda about natural disaster. But the policy development must be evidence based and guided by known science. It should focus on a whole-of-industry, productivity and resilience-building agenda. Policies with too great a focus on those farm businesses which are least viable in the hottest and driest of periods can risk being most defined by resource misallocation. It's important that any future response by government takes that into account. It's a hard truth, but we need to take it into account.

These are ambitious goals, and they will not be achieved by this government's proposal, which does appear, on the face of it, to be designed to create a National Party slush fund. There's no other reason I can think of for why this government and their friends in the Nationals have been so determined to get rid of the Building Australia Fund. They've tried a number of times to knock it on the head by finding other purposes for that money, but that money does vital work building infrastructure across Australia, and it's evidence based infrastructure. It's not infrastructure for mates, for your friends on the local council, to prop up your marginal seat or to do a bit of pork-barrelling for the election; it's infrastructure for the right reasons that's evidence based. We know that's why you on the other side don't like it—you have a real problem with that sort of fund. It's the sort of fund Labor is committed to. We could be like them. We could decide, 'Let's just pork-barrel the place and look after our own interests,' but we don't do that. We're not here to look after our own interests. We're here to look after the nation's interests. It's something those opposite sometimes fail to remember and fail to understand.

Importantly, Labor commits to matching the government's funding commitment to the Future Drought Fund, but we will not raid the Building Australia Fund to do it, and we will not wait until 2020-21 to take the decisions on spending measures. We will design policy initiatives for the entire sector based on expert advice ahead of 2020. We will establish a panel of guardians for the farm productivity and sustainable profitability fund. These guardians will advise government on policy design and implementation strategies. We will establish this panel within the first 60 days of office and put it immediately to work. This panel will include a representative of the national farm leadership group, a leading soils and environmental science expert, a water projects and water efficiency expert, a leading economist, a soils advocate, a representative of a natural resource management group, the chair or CEO of the council of RDCs and the secretary of a relevant COAG committee. It will be a panel of experts, a panel of people grounded in science who know what they're talking about, not people who are looking out for themselves and their own political interests. That panel will report to the minister for agriculture and be asked to provide a detailed plan within 12 months.

We do stand here opposed to the government's bill. We stand with them on the need to do something; we just want it done sooner, for the same amount of money and with a better mechanism that will serve more Australians who are suffering from natural disasters. I don't want them getting up and saying, 'Labor's against drought affected farmers!' Nothing could be further from the truth. We stand with drought affected farmers and communities. We stand with communities affected by bushfire. We stand with communities affected by flood. It's not either/or; we're all in this together. Those opposite should take a good, hard think about that and, I would suggest, perhaps withdraw the bill and implement something much more akin to what Labor suggests should happen.