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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5480

Senator STEPHENS (2:45 PM) —My question is to Senator Ian Macdonald, representing the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. I am sure that the minister is aware of the Farmhand appeal to assist farm families in immediate need of financial relief. Is the minister aware that, during the 1994 drought, the then Labor government matched Farmhand funds on a dollar for dollar basis? What is the government's response to the call to match Farmhand emergency relief funds in the current drought crisis?

Senator McGauran —Keating never admitted that there was a drought!

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Forestry and Conservation) —The drought is obviously having a very major impact upon rural and regional Australia and particularly upon farm families in country Australia. I welcome the establishment of the Farmhand Foundation. As you know, Mr President, that aims to raise a total of some $20 million to provide relief to people suffering the effects of drought and to promote long-term strategies to help manage future drought. I am very pleased to see that private enterprise and the community are taking an interest in the issue of drought and its impacts on the country as a whole. I should point out to the Senate that, while the welfare provided by the federal government is means tested, nonperiodic assistance provided to farmers by the Farmhand Foundation does not count towards their income. Social security legislation states that emergency relief or similar types of assistance are not counted as income. I recall, back in those days, when a previous government provided some money to a similar type of appeal. I think I heard Senator Boswell or Senator McGauran saying that Mr Keating, in those days—

Senator Sherry —It was not Senator Boswell!

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It was Senator McGauran saying that Mr Keating would not acknowledge that there was drought on at that particular time. I accept that, if Senator McGauran has said that, it is no doubt correct. He obviously has a better recollection of it than I have. But I would point out to the senator that the Commonwealth does very substantially contribute to those who are impacted upon by the drought. There have been a number of questions in the Senate and there is a lot of comment about the drought exceptional circumstances and the money that the Commonwealth is putting into that. You would be aware that in Bourke and Brewarrina a number of applications have been received for that, and that will provide Commonwealth money for those who need assistance. It provides Commonwealth money. It provides money from the Australian taxpayer for which the Commonwealth government is custodian. Those funds are flowing, so the Commonwealth taxpayer, through the Commonwealth government, does make a substantial contribution to those in drought areas. I would not have thought that that was a matter to smile or laugh about, Senator Evans. You must be of a naturally happy disposition. But it is a serious concern, and the Commonwealth government is making a substantial contribution through the drought EC relief.

Senator STEPHENS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Is the minister aware that many Australian businesses and individuals have already donated to the Farmhand appeal? Is he also aware that state governments, including the governments of Queensland and Victoria, have made substantial contributions to the appeal? Why will the Howard government not do the decent thing and match the Farmhand emergency relief on a dollar for dollar basis?

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Forestry and Conservation) —I am aware that private industry and individuals have contributed and I said that in the answer to your original question. I am also aware that various state governments have made contributions. I do say that, really, some of what the state governments are giving is pretty good in the publicity stakes but not much good when it comes down to actual help on the ground. If the states were really concerned about this, they would help the Commonwealth better. They would agree with Mr Truss on reform that is needed for exceptional circumstances payment. The states have dug their toes in. They refuse to help there. But they are pretty good at throwing in a few dollars when it comes to a high profile publicity campaign. They are very good at that but, when it comes to real relief, the states are found wanting. I wish that it was not this sort of political issue and that the states would genuinely— (Time expired)