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Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Page: 6072

Senator O'BRIEN (2:00 PM) —My question is to Senator Ian Macdonald, representing the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Can the minister confirm that 63 days have passed since the exceptional circumstances drought relief application for Bourke and Brewarrina was lodged? Can he also advise precisely how many farm families are in receipt of promised interim drought relief payments in the Bourke and Brewarrina exceptional circumstances application area? How much longer must farm families in this drought-stricken area of New South Wales wait for the Howard government to assess their exceptional circumstances application and provide comprehensive drought relief?

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Forestry and Conservation) —The drought is certainly ravaging many parts of Australia and causing great distress to farming families. It is a time when governments of all persuasions and at all levels must work together to get the best result in these very difficult circumstances. That is why the Commonwealth government has been working very hard to make sure that money is available to those in need. We have also been working—and Mr Truss has made an exceptional effort—to try and get the states to involve themselves with the Commonwealth in a better form of relief for those afflicted by the drought.

As the Senate would know, on 10 September the New South Wales government lodged an application for an exceptional circumstances declaration for the Bourke and Brewarrina shires and the Rural Lands Protection Boards area because of the impact of the dry conditions. On 19 September Mr Truss referred the application to the National Rural Advisory Council—which is the appropriate procedure to follow for a full assessment against EC eligibility criteria—after our department had established that a prima facie case for exceptional circumstances did exist. Mr Truss has asked the NRAC to assess the application as quickly as possible. An NRAC subcommittee visited the region on 9 and 10 October to do an on-ground assessment.

Also on 19 September, Mr Truss announced a significant new federal government measure to permanently apply to EC to reduce the difficulties being faced by drought affected farmers. The new federal government measures provide income support to farmers from the day a fully completed application has been deemed to have been made, a prima facie case has been made and it is referred to the NRAC. The farmers in the Bourke and Brewarrina areas, which Senator O'Brien asked about, were the first to benefit from these changes made by the Commonwealth government, although assistance to those most in need is already available through existing Commonwealth initiatives such as the AAA Farm Help program and the Rural Financial Counselling Services.

At the close of business yesterday, 11 November, the Commonwealth has expended over $40,000 in interim welfare payments to 24 farmers in the Bourke and Brewarrina area. In addition, the appropriate use of predictive modelling will enable applications to be considered sooner. The new arrangements will assist in consideration of completed applications to help provide faster relief for farmers. However, this does not mean that Mr Truss has given up the fight to provide improved support for farmers through a more inclusive, faster and more generous EC system.

The government, Mr Truss and I will continue to press state and territory governments to agree with reforms. In the meantime, the New South Wales government has advised that there are at least four EC applications being prepared for Commonwealth consideration. They are not there yet—that is important to understand—so the Commonwealth cannot deal with them. They have not yet arrived from the New South Wales government. As soon as those applications do arrive they will receive urgent attention so that farmers experiencing a rare and severe drought can receive the appropriate assistance.

Senator O'BRIEN —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Can the minister advise whether the government will make interim income assistance available to the 220 farm families covered by the Peak Downs exceptional circumstances application, which was lodged on 28 October? Will these families also be forced to wait more than 60 days for their EC application to be assessed?

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Forestry and Conservation) —In the way that I indicated in the answer to the first part of Senator O'Brien's question, the new arrangements will apply as soon as the application is received from the state government and the prima facie case is made, and the money will start to flow immediately. I again say that there is a lot of criticism of Mr Truss and the federal government. But we cannot do anything until the states put in the applications. The states have to do this before we can actually assess the applications. The New South Wales Premier, Bob Carr, talks a lot and criticises a lot, but he does not take the action that is necessary for the Commonwealth money to flow. Senator O'Brien could help by making sure that he did that.