Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Tuesday, 30 July 2019
Page: 1079


Senator STERLE (Western Australia) (12:02): I rise to contribute to the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2019. It will maintain the Farm Household Support Act 2014 farm assets value limit at $5 million, and amend the treatment of income from business such that allowable deductions can be claimed against related income—that is, either income from the farm enterprise, which is on-farm income, or income from a business other than the farm enterprise, which is off-farm income that is income earned by a farm household allowance recipient.

Labor is supporting the bill, but it is important for the Senate to note that the changes to the Farm Household Support Act 2014 aim to make access to the farm household allowance easier for drought-affected farmers. In September last year the government actually did increase the assets threshold from $2.6 million to $5 million. This bill maintains that increase. Labor has supported each drought measure the government has put forward over the past six years, including: additional supplementary farm household allowance payments of up to $12,000 for eligible farm household allowance recipients; increasing the farm household allowance extension from three years to four years; increasing the farm asset threshold from $2.6 million to $5 million, which I did mention earlier; and increasing the farm management deposits scheme to $800,000.

This bill is another example of the ad hoc approach this government has taken towards drought support and reform for the past six years. It is why I will be moving the following second reading amendment, to ensure that the Senate is fully aware of the failing of the government, and of its lack of action to assist drought-affected farmers, including those who have experienced difficulty accessing farm household allowance since the scheme commenced in 2014. I move:

At the end of the motion, add: "but the Senate condemns the Government's lack of action to assist drought-affected farmers including those who have experienced difficulty accessing the Farm Household Allowance since the scheme's commencement in July 2014."

The government has failed to recognise the ongoing difficulty drought-affected farmers are facing when applying to access the farm household allowance.

The allowance was one measure in a suite of measures in the historical intergovernmental agreement, which is termed the IGA, on drought reform that was developed during the 43rd Parliament and signed in May 2013—six years ago—in a bipartisan manner between the then Labor government and the state and territory governments. The inaugural IGA on drought reform was developed via the COAG Standing Council on Primary Industries, which is referred to as SCoPI. The objectives of the agreement are to:

a. assist farm families and primary producers adapt to and prepare for the impacts of increased climate variability

b. encourage farm families and primary producers to adopt self-reliant approaches to manage their business risks

c. ensure that farm families in hardship have access to a household support payment that recognises the special circumstances of farmers

d. ensure that appropriate social support services are accessible to farm families

e. provide a framework for jurisdictions’ responses to needs during periods of drought.

Sadly, however, one of the first acts of the previous Minister for Agriculture—well, one of the previous ministers for agriculture; I forgot that there have been a few of them—Mr Joyce, was to abolish SCoPI. SCoPI brought together federal, state and territory agricultural ministers for regularly scheduled discussions on important issues, such as national drought policy reform, intergovernmental biosecurity arrangements, a foot and mouth disease action plan, and other pest and disease eradication programs. On 17 December 2013 Mr Joyce—I will refer to him as the member for New England—said that he meets with his fellow ministers on an ad hoc basis to discuss those issues probably, likely, once a year. I'm not making this up. That's what he said. Everyone in this place would agree that drought reform policy is an important policy area that requires more than an ad hoc get together maybe once a year.

The member for New England claimed that the decision to abolish SCoPI was a cost saving measure. The irony of that statement in light of the member for New England's recent comments about how he survives on a salary of only $200,000 plus per annum is absolutely insulting to farmers on the allowance payments. The fact that the member for New England can compare his hardship, which is of his own making, to those on Newstart and those living, essentially, on the farm household allowance payments is another example of, unfortunately, how out of touch the member for New England is.

In turn, so is the current Prime Minister who appointed the member for New England as no less than the drought enjoy last year. We asked the following questions at Senate estimates. What actually what his role as a drought envoy? No-one knows. Was there a report from the drought envoy? Who knows? It is important to go back to 20 October 2014 when the shadow minister for agriculture, Mr Fitzgibbon asked a simple, simple question about the Farm Household Allowance to the member for New England. This was the question:

Minister, it is now eight months since you announced with some fanfare your drought assistance package for farmers. How much has the government actually paid in drought assistance to farming families, and how many farming families have benefited from that drought assistance?

That is a very simple, straightforward question, which resulted in what many in this place will remember as Hansard-gate. The answer provided to the House on 20 October 2014 was doctored. As the saying goes, which we all know very well in this place, the cover-up is usually greater than the crime. We asked: why was there a cover-up? It was because the assistance for farmers back then wasn't working and many farmers today continue to find it difficult to access assistance. It is why we constantly see amendments to the FHA, such as the bill currently before the Senate. The reality is this government has not been focused on progressing drought policy.

During Senate estimates on 24 May 2018 the Labor Party again asked questions about the farm household allowance. We knew that many farmers were still finding it difficult to access the payment. Former Senator Ketter from Queensland asked what can only be described a very simple question about whether, on the basis of the IGA drought reform review, there were 'any emerging themes as to concerns about the drought measures from stakeholders'. The departmental officer at the table came back with, 'I would not characterise them as concerns.' Seriously, for our new senators, get ready for it; this is what actually happens in Senate estimates. Senator Ketter then asked:

Were concerns raised in the review about farming families that have exhausted the Farm Household Allowance and are still facing drought conditions?

It's a fair question. The departmental official said: 'I would have to take that on notice. I do not recall them.' Someone who is no stranger to this chamber, former Senator O'Sullivan, I have to tell you, was energised by the department's apparent lack of understanding as to what the actual reality for farmers was, saying: 'I can help you. The answer to that is "yes". It is very widespread.'

Unfortunately, it gets worse. The minister at the table—who I have the greatest of respect for—was Senator Ruston, who was also a very, very active member in the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee before she was promoted. I had the privilege of working alongside Senator Ruston, and we know her commitment to rural Australia. She was hamstrung. She had to defend the nonsense of inactive ministers. She was only the minister at the table representing the member for New England. She said:

I will give a little bit of background to where everything is happening at the moment in discussions with the minister and the minister's office about this particular program. I am advised that this issue has only really come to his attention in very recent times.

This was in May 2018.

Post the estimates hearings we saw the government finally acknowledge that there is a problem with the farm household allowance, and they instigated a review in September 2018, with an independent panel appointed to review the farm household allowance program. The report was presented to the government in February 2019—this year—and made six recommendations. I acknowledge you're here, Minister, which is great, because I'm hoping you can answer some of my questions. It made six recommendations to which the government is yet to respond in full. I hope, Senator McKenzie, as the new Minister, that you are across the reality for farmers on the ground. I know you always stand up and talk about them. I'm really looking forward to having the answers on what the position of the government is on those recommendations. Based on the track record of previous agriculture ministers—not you, Senator McKenzie, but previous agriculture ministers—they really like to talk a lot of talk but, unfortunately, as crappy as the saying goes, they're not walking the walk. I couldn't think of anything else. Let's just say there's been so much inaction, and I'm looking forward to someone actually grabbing the reins and steering.

The government needs to take the reality facing drought affected farmers seriously. Six years on, at a recent Bush Summit on 18 July the Prime Minister stated:

The recent independent review of the Allowance found that the current arrangements need to be improved to better align with the reality that farming in Australia is very volatile.

Correct. He went on:

It recommended that FHA be available to farming families for four years in every 10 and that's coming before Government and their going to get a very good hearing on that.

Minister Littleproud is working with the industry on the long-term drought strategy and we'll have more to say on that in the coming months.

Farmers should never be used as political footballs. I'm looking forward to hearing the Minister for Agriculture providing information to the Senate as to when the government will respond to all recommendations made in the Farm Household Allowance Review. There are many, many more questions that need to be answered, such as how will the government actually progress the development of drought policy, as promised by the Prime Minister? Also, which minister will attend AGMIN? That is, unfortunately, the one I call the ad hoc committee that replaced SCoPI. Will it be Minister McKenzie? I'm getting a nod. Or will it be Minister Littleproud? I can take it from the nod it will be you, Minister McKenzie?

Senator McKenzie: Yes.

Senator STERLE: And while you're at it, Minister, can you tell us when AGMIN will actually meet? We, Labor, are supporting the bill, as we have done with every other drought assistance initiative. It is not an unfair request to ask the government to at least provide honest, prompt answers to the questions proposed by Labor. I look forward to the government's prompt response. As I did say, Minister, I flagged that I will be moving a second reading amendment, which I am reliably told has been distributed in the Senate.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: You have moved that.