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Tuesday, 21 August 2018
Page: 7982


Ms KEAY (Braddon) (17:25): I appreciate and welcome the opportunity to speak on the Farm Household Support Amendment (Temporary Measures) Bill 2018 and to support the shadow minister's second reading amendment. It is a very important amendment and one that I hope those opposite will support because it will support our farmers with a lot more than what the government is currently proposing.

What is being proposed, though, is very long overdue and will go some way to relieving the hardship faced by farmers in our community. The current focus is on drought, and I have to make this point: the member for Mallee was concerned about our focus on how we can make our farmers much more resilient and have sustainable farming. I will just say this: we must recognise this thing called climate change. It's a thing that the farmers recognise. They are experiencing extreme weather events much more frequently than they used to. They recognise that they need to adapt. It's a shame that this government will not adapt with them.

I have to ask the question though: where was this government when the dairy crisis hit in 2016? Where was this government when Tasmania was in the grip of its worst drought in history, between 2015 and 2016? It seems that the circus that has beset this government as the Prime Minister currently clings to his job is perhaps the real reason why we now have this legislation. Or is it because the affected areas are in the backyards of current sitting government members that we finally now have some action?

Even today in my electorate, the electorate of Braddon on the north-west and west coasts of Tasmania—and, of course, King Island—I am advised that there are up to 10 farming families still receiving farm household assistance as a result of the dairy crisis and that up to 14 other farming families in other sectors are also receiving the household allowance. Many other families have now come off household assistance, which is a good thing, but I'm sure that these farmers and their families would have appreciated the bit of extra support that's in this amendment if this government had acted seriously two years ago. Labor understands the urgent need to support farmers struggling through the current drought.

Just as I have asked the question as to why this government failed to act during the Tasmanian drought and then through the diary crisis, I have to ask the question: where has this government been when it comes to drought policy? On this issue alone, there have been three policy iterations over the last eight weeks. It sounds a little similar to the government's energy policy! I think that on that score, though, it's about 10 different energy policies in the last seven days, no doubt with more to come—we would hope! Ten weeks ago, the government said all was fine with drought policy and that nothing needed to change. Eight weeks ago, the government changed tack and announced a plan to extend from three to four years the period that a farmer in financial crisis could receive farm household allowance. That announcement, in itself, did nothing to address the complexities of actually applying for and receiving farm household allowance, which I'll come to a bit later. And just two weeks ago the government announced another policy to introduce a farm household assistance supplement payment and temporarily increase the farm asset limit when assessing applications for assistance. Again, the government failed to address the bureaucratic nightmare that farmers face in trying to access farm household assistance.

When I say this, I think about the number of instances in my electorate a couple of years ago when farmers were trying to access the allowance through the dairy crisis. We've been calling for improvements to the processing of this allowance for many years, and so have farmers. The internet is riddled with media stories of farmers waiting many, many months just to get the allowance processed. I remember the times when farmers would say to me, 'We actually need to spend money to try to access this allowance.' They needed to go to their accountants and get up to three years of financial projections to then give those to the government to say,' Can you please approve my application?' And then they waited for many, many months after that.

The government also fail to address their policy shortcomings when it comes to preparing for and managing drought. As I said in my opening remarks, Tasmania is not immune to drought. Hobart is the second-driest capital city in Australia and, even today, parts of the East Coast of Tasmania are shown by the Bureau of Meteorology as being in a 16-month rainfall deficiency. Given this historic rainfall deficiency—and not just in Tasmania but, of course, New South Wales, southern Queensland and northern Victoria—it should not take a rocket scientist to work out that the government should have a clear and articulate drought policy. But what has this government actually done? One of the first acts of the former Deputy Prime Minister, the member for New England, was to dismantle the Standing Council on Primary Industries, or SCoPI, the COAG council working on longer term drought reform measures. The dismantling of this council makes no sense when you look at the current Intergovernmental Agreement on National Drought Program Reform. That agreement lists, at point 9:

Future programs related to the objectives of this agreement will be consistent with the principles for reform agreed by the Standing Council on Primary Industries ...

and, at point 10:

Future programs providing temporary in-drought support will be consistent with the principles and processes agreed by SCoPI ...

Can the minister please explain how this is meant to work? On the surface, a dismantled body can't guide future work.

This government is filled with climate change deniers. You only have to spend time talking to our farmers and they will tell you climate change is very real. Does anyone on the other side of the House actually know what this government's policy is to deal with climate change and the land? On this side of the House, however, Labor has been developing strategic policy solutions to deal with drought. The shadow minister has already put these policies on the public record, but they are worth repeating.

Labor will restore the COAG process for drought reform. Labor will also ask the Council of Rural Research and Development Corporations to lead the development of an agricultural climate response plan. Labor has committed to establish a $20 million regional economic development fund to support drought-affected communities. The fund will be directed towards local councils as local government has the knowledge of what is required to stimulate local economies and support local jobs. Labor has also developed policy to greatly improve farmers' abilities to deal with the complexities of receiving Farm Household Assistance.

This side of the House supports measures to increase Farm Household Assistance to farmers in financial crisis, but the government's latest amendments to this bill just add more complexity. I know struggling farmers in my electorate and throughout Tasmania who are currently recipients of FHA will welcome this legislation, but what the government has failed to do is, firstly, allow farmers to take up the supplement payment in a single amount, and, secondly, deal with the nightmare of trying to access the allowance. Labor strongly believes farmers should be given the option to receive their allowance supplement in a single payment. It just goes to show how out of touch the Prime Minister is. When asked about providing this payment in a lump sum, his response was: 'March is not too far away.' Tell that to a farmer who is struggling now; tell that to a farmer who would like that extra money to get themselves back on their feet and deal with the situation and challenges that they're facing.

I know from experience with the farmers in my electorate that, when a crisis hits, it is hard enough to live through each day, let alone wait weeks and months for that extra bit of support. Can someone from the other side please give a coherent explanation as to why farmers doing it tough should have to wait? March not being not too far away, as the Prime Minister said, just does not cut it.

During the 2016 federal election campaign and shortly after, farmers in my electorate were hit from multiple angles. First there was and still remains a $1 milk price war between the supermarkets. Then came the slashing of milk prices in April 2016 by Murray Goulburn and Fonterra. It was a body blow and, combined with its retrospective nature, many dairy farmers in Braddon struggled to come to terms with the clawback. Then came the June floods, which were devastating, not only for dairy farmers but also across the entire agriculture industry and our communities. Farming families' mental and physical health were being affected by the very real and difficult situation they found themselves in. I have to commend the support by the broader community in the states—it was not just in Tasmania but also across the country—who supported our farmers. Their efforts are truly extraordinary and I thank them for that.

At that time I invited the former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture, the member for New England, to visit Tasmania: 'No strings attached; no politics; just come and see my farmers; come and see how they're hurting; talk to them.' I think he completely underestimated what that would've meant for those farmers. When he politely ignored my request—he didn't refuse it; he just ignored it—I said that it was probably because the Liberal Party of Tasmania would not let a National Party member into the state. Now I've extended that invitation to the current Minister for Agriculture, and, as we have one member of the National Party in Tasmania—and that's the only member of the National Party, Steve Martin, who has sold his soul to the government—perhaps the new minister will come to my electorate and speak to farmers and actually see what we do in a very agriculture-rich part of the country.

But, through the cocktail of stress at that time, the government did offer some support via concessional loans and farm household assistance. Concessional loans were, and remain, problematic for farmers. They're not only very difficult or almost impossible to obtain; they also set farmers up to fail by increasing their already-climbing debt. Many, though, took up the challenge to try and receive the allowance. That process in itself remains a nightmare, with very lengthy delays.

During the 2016 dairy crisis, a multitude of issues arose relating to the allowance. Farmers' cash flows were at crisis point; yet, in many cases, they faced very long delays to have their applications assessed. They were in desperate need of help and having to rely on food vouchers and other assistance from the community to try and make ends meet and put food on the table. The IT program processing the claims was not fit for purpose. My office had to intervene to help farmers in Circular Head get access to this assistance. Some were waiting up to three months for any help. And, even after these families received their allowance, the problems continued. Twelve months after receiving the allowance, they were cut off, due to a so-called glitch in the system. Again, my office had to intervene. It should not come to that. There's enough stress in farming and in trying to put food on your table and pay your bills when you're facing these sorts of crises, without having the government stuff up something as simple as an IT system. But this government has form on that.

During the 2016 crisis, I wrote to the former Deputy Prime Minister raising concerns about the delays farmers were dealing with. The Deputy Prime Minister responded—he acknowledged the problem—but, to this day, the government has done nothing about it.

But it's not just this side of the House who knew accessing the allowance was an issue. Rural Business Tasmania, in their submission to the review of the Intergovernmental Agreement on National Drought Program Reform, made the following point: 'We believe the farm household allowance has potential to be a successful output of the IGA, but the delivery mechanism needs further review. Issues over the life of the FHA include: the telephone number, 132316, as the person phoning may wait up to an hour or longer to gain a helpline support person; the complexity of the application process, including the number of forms; delay in outcome, in some cases up to 10 weeks; and clarity of requests for further information can provide frustration.' Rural Business Tasmania succinctly summed up the issue further in their submission under the question: 'What can be improved?' Their answer? 'The farm household allowance concessional loan process.' I trust this government is now taking notice.

I also want to put on the parliamentary record my thanks to the teams at Rural Business Tasmania and Rural Alive & Well for the work they do in supporting farming families. There is no doubt that many farming families would not have got through the trials and tribulations of the drought, the dairy crisis and the floods without their work. These organisations continue to do great work for our farmers.

When it comes to delivering the allowance to struggling farmers, Labor knows that it can and must be done better. This government has gutted Centrelink, causing the delays in accessing the allowance. But Labor will rebuild Centrelink by employing an additional 1,200 properly trained full-time staff. Labor has announced that, in my electorate, an additional 50 Department of Human Services officers will be employed to give further support. Those officers will visit regional communities so that clients, such as our farmers, can get access to the support they need. I commend Labor for doing that, and I trust that this government will follow suit. But we will sit here and wait a long time for that to happen.