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Tuesday, 21 August 2018
Page: 7999

Ms CHESTERS (Bendigo) (18:41): I stand here a little bit disappointed that the government isn't going to support the amendment that has been put forward by the opposition in relation to the Farm Household Support Amendment (Temporary Measures) Bill 2018, particularly the ability for farmers to get a single up-front payment of $12,000. From what we've heard from people on the ground, in the areas affected, the ability to get that payment now will help them get through the crisis that they're in right now, because so many of them are struggling.

The other part of the amendment that the government is not supporting, which I find really disappointing, is the prioritising of the rebuilding of the COAG process that was dismantled in 2013, when this mob were elected, in order to restore the process to develop the National Drought Policy Reform Program. We are in this crisis because the government has failed on multiple fronts when it comes to drought reform policy, Centrelink, farm household support and the entire program.

There have been a few journalists writing about the fact that there are more Victorian farmers currently accessing the farm household support loans and allowance than there are in New South Wales, even though New South Wales has been declared 100 per cent drought-affected. I'm not surprised by that. When I've been on the ground talking to various different farmers, they have said the processing has slowed a lot of them down. It's the complex paperwork. It's the fact that, when they ring Centrelink to try and get help, they're stuck on the phone for an hour only to get through to someone who works in a call centre for Serco who's a generalist and has no idea of the complex nature of this paperwork and who puts them on hold for a further amount of time.

We've known for many years that it is hard to get this paperwork done. This government has failed to address those concerns on its watch. It has failed to make the system easier. Only now is it starting to put forward some reforms which can actually help. It's not like the government can say, 'We didn't know,' because the opposition has raised this several times. We've asked this question several times, and the government blamed financial counsellors—in fact, it actually shut down the financial counselling services in my part of the world. We had an office in Bendigo, and it was shut down. The government said it was doing a review, and the resources were pushed elsewhere, so now our farmers in Bendigo don't have access to that support. They have to travel or the financial counsellors have to travel further to go to the farmers in my part of the world.

Financial counsellors are a big part of helping people through this complex paperwork. But I should also note that it's not only farmers that have to complete complex paperwork. Many people in this place have probably met with people trying to access aged-care services and home care services. There's a lot of paperwork involved in trying to receive any form of government assistance. It's just the complication that this government has imposed on Australians, because of the lack of trust that it has for people. They talk about red tape, and they came in here with all that fanfare, 'We're going to reduce red tape.' Yet all they've done, particularly in areas like our social welfare state, is to create more paperwork and make it even harder for people to access assistance.

We all know that the government has really been failing in this area and we know that they've really struggled to understand the complexity of why the farm household support program isn't being accessed, because the former minister responsible for agriculture misspoke in the parliament in that kind of tragic moment and then doctored, corrected or suggested corrections to the Hansard record which completely altered his original statement. It demonstrates again just how out of touch this government is. Just turning up with the cameras to do a roadshow tour isn't enough. It's not what people in the regions are looking for.

I do want to acknowledge that there are a number of farmers who don't access this: (1) because of the complicated paperwork; (2) as the former member mentioned, because of pride; and (3) because they think that they've got their drought planning right. There is really mixed experience in people in the agricultural industry when it comes to drought and the drought effect. Some of them did do their planning after the millennial drought. They have destocked, they have planned for drought and they are now working through that plan, knowing ahead of time that it was going to be tough.

Some of them have spoken publicly in the media about how they're doing fine because they planned for drought and they were ready, but that now they've got what they call survivor guilt because they did plan, because they were smart economic managers and because they were ready for it. They spoke about their frustration from being depicted as being out-of-touch cocky farmers who don't know how to manage their affairs. We have to be sensitive in this area, to not demonise all. We have to be compassionate and understanding and support those people, and that's what this bill seeks to do. But we also have to congratulate and acknowledge those who've succeeded in their planning and prepared themselves for this drought.

We desperately need to get the National Drought Policy Reform Program back on track. The fact that we have those opposite still denying the effects of climate change whilst we're debating this bill this week is just extraordinary. It's the fact that they're not even taking the proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which we know affect the environment, seriously. It's is just extraordinary. It's just extraordinary that they have completely dropped the ball when it comes to real action on climate change. It's just so disappointing that they can't even work with the farmers and their core constituency, who are saying: 'This is a result, we know the effects of climate change are really having an impact on agriculture. If you want us to be the economic powerhouse for our country, then we need to work more collaboratively when it comes to drought policy and drought policy reform.' The reason why it needs to be done through COAG is because the states have a number of other policy levers that they can work on.

We talked about water security a lot when we were in the regions. It's quite topical in parts of Victoria and all throughout New South Wales and Queensland. I've had the opportunity to hold agricultural workforce roundtables. At the end of the discussions, I always ask: 'What else is there? What else is on the agenda?' And it doesn't matter whether you're a mango farmer, a sheep farmer or a cotton farmer, and it doesn't matter which area of agriculture you're involved in, they all say, 'Water—water security is critical.' Water security is linked to drought-proofing. It is linked to drought policy and the need for us, as a nation, to have a constructive conversation about water security and water storage.

There are some amazing things that our agricultural industry is doing in relation to water security, water storage and the way in which they're using less water to grow more. We have some real innovation going on in areas of our ag sector. Where are the resources to get behind that?

If we know there's going to be less rainwater, what's our plan? We need to restart the National Drought Policy Reform Program through COAG to bring all of the core constituencies together to work on a national plan. That is what we need to do in the long term. We need to be proactive about this. What we need to be doing in the short term is working with these communities.

I am disappointed to learn that the funding going to local councils, under this government, appears not to be party blind. There is funding going to Liberal and National seats but not to Labor seats. That is disappointing. The member for Eden-Monaro has said that is disappointing. In Eden-Monaro drought is a problem. These councils have missed out. Nobody is denying it's a problem in New England. Nobody is denying it's a problem in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. But it's a problem in every state, including in every area of New South Wales, regardless of who the elected representative is.

If the minister across the table is saying that it is resolved, that will be welcome news to those shires. It's not just the farmers who struggle in a drought. It is also the businesses that support those farmers. It is the communities that rally around those farmers. That is something a lot of rural financial counsellors have raised with me, the effects of drought. If the crops aren't coming in, then the farmers don't have money to spend in the local shops.

A very interesting comment came out of the CWA in one of the affected communities. They said, 'While it's nice to receive donations, it means that people don't go to the local shop anymore.' I think that was a little comment towards saying to people in the metro areas: 'Ask us what support we need; ask us what work we need help with.' What we're hearing when we're talking to people is that they want to see cooperation and collaboration. They don't just want handouts. They want long-term reform that really focuses on how as a country, and how as communities, and how as an industry we can ensure we are—as best as possible—drought-proofing, going forward.

I have a final few comments about Centrelink and how this government could have avoided this disaster of people not being able to complete their paperwork—if only they'd hired more people. If they had just employed more people within Centrelink this entire problem—the fact that there are more people in Victoria on the allowance than there are in New South Wales—could have been avoided. If only this government hadn't cut so many people from DHS. I have a smart centre in my electorate. It's good to have people working for Centrelink in the smart centre of my electorate, because we're a regional community. You have people who work at Centrelink who also have a farm. They understand farming. One partner works for Centrelink, the other runs the farm.

When you live in regional communities, particularly where you've got a big population centre like Bendigo, there are a lot of farming families where one parent will work in a teaching job, or in the Bendigo Bank or in Centrelink, and the other will work on the farm. So they have that dual income. It's really critical that when the farmer rings for assistance, to try and get support through the farm household assistance, when they speak to a directly employed person, someone working in my electorate, there's some understanding and sympathy for what the farmer's going through.

When it comes to social services, this government has really dropped the ball. Whilst it's great to see change now for our farmers, I do have to ask the question: why stop there? Why not continue to employ more people and make the process easier for our pensioners?

Why aren't we making the process easier for people trying to access home-care packages or aged-care services? Why are we not making sure that we're investing more resources into the NDIA so that people can get access and support when they've got questions about their complex NDIS plans for their loved ones? Why aren't we now seeing reform there? If there's the acknowledgement that Centrelink doesn't have the capacity right now to help and to work with people then the government should not stop with just farmers but should roll this out across the board.

If we truly want to be a country that has a strong agricultural sector that continues to export our agricultural produce, whether it be the base commodity or the value-added product, then we do need to get serious about national drought policy. We do need to do all that we can to support our farmers, our agricultural communities and the associated industries so that the effects of droughts can be reduced as much as possible. Congratulations to those who are doing well and are supporting others. As other speakers have done, I encourage those who need assistance to seek help.