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Thursday, 25 August 1994
Page: 376

Senator BOSWELL —My question is addressed to the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy. I refer the minister to the Queensland Farmers Federation June quarter survey which shows that 56 per cent of all Queensland producers reported below normal performance of their farm businesses, an increase of five per cent on the previous quarter. Eighty-four per cent of farmers in the south, 72 per cent of farmers in Central Queensland and 62 per cent in the western regions in the grain and pastoral industries reported below normal performances. Considering that at 30 June 1993 there was $215,435,176 of RAS reserves, according to the RAS annual report, I ask: what was the combined bank balance of all RAS reserves at the end of the 1993-94 financial year?

Senator COLLINS —I am glad Senator Boswell had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. That question would be much more appropriate as a question on notice. I cannot provide that kind of detail now, but I will get that information for Senator Boswell. I am sure Senator Boswell will not leap up on a point of order if I make some other points. As Senator Boswell knows, I very much share his concern about the effect of the continuing drought on farmers, particularly in Queensland—there is no question that it is the hardest hit state—but also the extensive number in New South Wales. They are suffering the kinds of difficulties that Senator Boswell has just outlined in terms of decreased income and great family difficulty. Farmers are doing it very hard indeed. One has to be a very resilient and optimistic person to be a primary producer in Australia, and fortunately that is what they are.

Senator Brownhill —That is why you got out.

Senator COLLINS —No, I did not get out of it for that reason; I was put out of business by a drought, as it happens. I point out to Senator Brownhill that unfortunately for me in those days, 20 or 30 years ago, none of the extensive range of assistance programs this government has provided to farmers was in existence. When I got a drought I just had to walk off. The situation is serious. To take just one important benchmark—and it is an important question for Senator Kemp's Liberal colleagues—

Senator Kemp —He ruined his farm and he ruined the shipping industry.

Senator COLLINS —Senator Kemp comes from Melbourne; it is not a problem for him.

Senator Robert Ray —It is for me.

Senator COLLINS —Yes, it is. To take an important export commodity for Australia—just one commodity as a benchmark—and that is wheat. According to the most recent update this morning, the New South Wales crop is expected to be about 20 per cent of last year's crop. It will be about a million tonnes instead of about five million tonnes last year. The Australian Wheat Board initially downgraded the national estimates on the wheat crop from 18 million tonnes last year to 12 1/2 million tonnes this year, and has now further downgraded it to 11-plus million tonnes. Fortunately, Western Australian farmers in the last few weeks have received some very helpful rain. I was talking to Senator Panizza about this privately yesterday. It looks as though there will be a reasonable crop from Western Australia. But in New South Wales and Queensland the losses will be extremely serious.

  I am sure Senator Boswell will agree with me when I point out to the Senate that the continuing drought is not simply a problem for rural Australia. The drought has now extended to the point where it is a problem for all Australians. The government—and I was pleased to see that the Prime Minister reiterated it yesterday on his visit to Dubbo—is keeping the situation under continuing review and will provide further assistance in addition to the assistance we have already provided, if it is necessary to do so.

Senator BOSWELL —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his answer. When will he be able to tell me the balance as at 30 June? I note all the minister has said about drought and its influence on the rest of Australia, but can he tell me why, at the end of 1993 when we were still in the worst of the drought with a commodity price fall of 380c a kilo, there was $215,435,176 in bank accounts that had been allocated to RAS but never got out to the hard-pressed and needy farmers?

Senator Collins —That is not correct.

Senator BOSWELL —It is correct.

Senator COLLINS —As Senator Boswell knows full well—and this is the case with a lot of schemes—the Commonwealth government significantly funds RAS together with a very small contribution from the states, but the states administer it. Concerns have been raised about how the guidelines are being interpreted by particular states. An identified problem in New South Wales that has concerned me for some time is that that state has a much higher rate of rejections for RAS applications than anywhere else in Australia. I have written to the New South Wales minister, Mr Causley, on this issue and have enacted new guidelines to bring the New South Wales guidelines into line with those in Queensland. I did that today and I will be making a statement this afternoon about the detail of that.