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Tuesday, 10 December 2002
Page: 7533

Senator PAYNE (2:02 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Senator Ian Macdonald. In light of the announcement yesterday by the Prime Minister concerning the worsening drought situation, will the minister update the Senate on the measures being offered to assist farmers and rural communities?

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) —I thank Senator Payne for that question. I know she has a personal as well as a professional interest in the drought. Her family in the southern highlands is, like many other families on the land, experiencing real difficulties as a result of the very dry conditions. The federal government's $1.2 billion package will help alleviate some of the more disastrous impacts of the drought and will allow farmers to replant when the drought eventually breaks. The package will also allow farmers to keep breeding stock alive in these very difficult periods so that, again, when things return to normal, breeding stock will be there to lead the charge back to a profitable rural Australia.

Money can never compensate for the effects of the drought, but the Commonwealth's $1.2 billion dollars will go a long way towards helping out. All that is needed now is for the states to come on board with some help; then those in difficult circumstances will be much better able to cope. I mentioned that the New South Wales Farmers Association have followed along with this theme by saying:

At the very least, the State Government should extend its current drought measures across the entire state.

Obviously, the New South Wales government are not helping as they should and the New South Wales Farmers Association are calling upon them to help. The National Farmers Federation have said:

The Federal Government's response to providing assistance to farmers—which now totals close to $1 billion, is commended. Given this substantial assistance, NFF calls on State Governments to clearly articulate their commitment to supporting drought affected farmers ...

Obviously, state governments are not doing it at the present time. I was pleased to see that Premier Peter Beattie, the Labor Premier of Queensland, has actually congratulated Mr Howard on his new drought package. Senators will be aware that the package consists of an extra $368 million, on top of the $360 million previously announced and the $400-plus million forgone in revenue that the Commonwealth did without to prop up the farm deposit scheme. Senators will also know that the new package announced by the Prime Minister includes an income subsidy for those affected farmers—an interest rate subsidy of five per cent or 50 per cent of what they have currently been paying. Of course, it is interesting to note that, generally speaking, the interest rates in the economy these days are what the interest rates would have been back in Labor's days with the 50 per cent subsidy. That is how interest rates have fallen. That has helped with the overall ability of farmers to see this drought through. So there is that interest rate package there.

Where more than 80 per cent of the farmers in a particular state are in the drought deficiency category, the whole state will automatically be declared for relief. The criterion for this is a rain deficiency of one in 20 years over the nine months between March and November of this year. Even though some farmers do not fall into that category, they may be eligible for relief if the normal exceptional circumstances situation applies. But for the normal exceptional circumstances to apply the state governments have to put in the application. In Victoria we have not had one application to date for exceptional circumstances, and in my own home state of Queensland there has only been one application so far. (Time expired)