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Tuesday, 30 July 2019
Page: 1082

Senator RICE (Victoria) (12:16): I rise to speak to the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2019. This bill addresses some of the recommendations around the assets test and income test from the independent review of the farm household allowance that the government commissioned late last year. Firstly, this bill will extend the temporary increase of the on-farm asset limit from $2.685 million to $5 million. The review panel have been quite clear in arguing that increasing this asset limit will open the program to a number of still very financially distressed farm asset holders who have previously been excluded from the farm household allowance. This is particularly businesses in the cropping sector, who carry larger asset levels. The bills digest notes that the extension will mean that about 8,000 farmers will retain eligibility for the scheme. They also note that the government has ignored the recommendations from the review to index the asset limit to CPI. It does make me worry that we will have to have new legislation in this chamber within only a few years, again to adjust the asset limit.

The second thing that this bill does is to separate and decouple on-farm from off-farm allowable income deductions. The complexity around these measures has been overwhelming for many farmers looking to access the scheme. While these changes may help, it is very clear, not only from the review, but from the broader community outcry, that there is still an awful lot of work that needs to be done on improving accessibility to these support payments and simplifying the application and reporting process.

I would like to note here that certain members of this chamber and the other place have been accusing the Greens of hating farmers or hating regional Australia. This is obviously a flat-out lie.

Senator Sterle: I never said that to you.

Senator RICE: No, not you, Senator Sterle. I want to make crystal clear that when good legislation comes through this parliament that supports the need of our farmers and our farming communities, we will support it. And we will be supporting this bill. What we won't support and what we haven't supported is a government committed to driving through laws that rip up the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. What we won't support is laws that rip billions of dollars out of our infrastructure budget, laws that criminalise journalism, laws that criminalise the right to organise and the right to protest, and laws that have been written to score political points off the back of the crisis in our regional communities and are designed to entrench the power of the government and their big business allies. The Greens make no apology for standing up to the government when they want to divide the community, one sector of the community against another.

While the Greens wholeheartedly agree that we need to continue to support farmers experiencing financial hardship, it would be remiss of me not to point out the government's odd and unexplained selectivity when it comes to income support. It's clear from this bill and the adjustment of the deeming rate for pensioners that the government can understand that some Australians really are doing it tough and need some extra support. So I ask why the government is being selectively blind to other Australians needing help. The government is happy to support farmers, and it's happy to support pensioners, but when it is clear that almost 715,000 Australians are struggling to survive on Newstart, on under $40 a day, the government is nowhere to be found. Earlier this month, The Age published a story about Alex Phillips, a Melbourne local who has been living on Newstart for six years. This is how he managed to do it:

In order to maintain the $288 per week rent on his one-bedroom flat, and pay for utilities and food, he turned off his fridge and heating. He lived on two-minute noodles, 65-cent cans of baked beans, packet soups and bread—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Rice, could you resume your seat, please. Senator McKenzie on a point of order.

Senator McKenzie: We're debating the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill. I know the Greens find it hard to identify with regional Australian farming communities, but the senator has not even been able to spend three minutes focused on our farmers and their needs before resorting to a topic that really is much better suited to her constituency in the city of Melbourne.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I've been listening carefully to Senator Rice. She is making comparisons around the bill. I do remind senators that, while it is a broad-ranging debate, the debate is around the farm bill, but I believe that Senator Rice has been relevant to date.

Senator RICE: I've been absolutely relevant, Senator McKenzie, in pointing out the selective blindness of the government. We support the government in supporting farmers. The Greens support farmers. But there is selective blindness. There is inequity in the system. We are very happy to support the government in supporting farmers, but we call upon the government to support other people in our community who are doing it tough—people such as Alex Phillips, who can't afford margarine. The article continued:

He showered at the Salvos to save on water and heating and rather than use his washing machine for bed linen, he slept on his couch in an overcoat.

That is how over 700,000 people in Australia, in this richest country in the world, are being forced to live. Everybody in this chamber acknowledges that farmers are doing it tough and that they need support to weather times of drought or financial stress, but so are many, many more Australians. So why does the government give help to some people but not to others? It's baffling. We need an answer from the government. Why are you punishing some Australians while lifting others up? Didn't the Prime Minister declare that he was going to govern for all Australians? What happened to that? We have to stop treating income support payments like a political football. Newstart has not been increased in over 25 years. Both the government and Labor are ignoring people who are living in poverty. If we can afford to give those who are earning the highest incomes in the country a massive tax cut we can afford to increase Newstart as well as supporting our farmers.

While the Greens continued to be deeply concerned about this selective approach to income support, we will be supporting this bill today. Despite the consistent attacks of the government on the Greens for defending good governance and critical political rights, and for providing opposition when it pushes its agenda to entrench power for the powerful, we will be supporting this bill, because it is absolutely critical that we provide timely relief for our farming community, particularly those dealing with the record-breaking drought. So I commend this bill to the Senate.