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Tuesday, 30 July 2019
Page: 1088


Senator McMAHON (Northern Territory) (12:44): Please note that this is not my first speech. We often refer to Australia as the lucky country, and I certainly believe we are, but we are not without our challenges. We are known around the world for our magnificent sandy beaches, our stunning wooded high country, our iconic reefs and all the other natural wonders we are fortunate to enjoy as part of our backyard. In terms of biomes, our country encompasses the broadest of diversity, from the lush tropics in the north to the harsh, often cold, cliffs of the Great Australian Bight in the south. As a Territorian, I have a particular love for the beauty of our country's vast interior, where desert meets desert and where the notion of finding arable land seems impossible. But, true to the nature of our country and our people, it is possible.

Over the decades, Australians have ventured into remote areas of our great country, and they have established farms on land that is often a hard struggle to make viable. Indeed, I would argue that our famed Aussie tenacity and ingenuity are attributes born of generations of farmers facing great adversity as they fought to survive and thrive in our often harsh land. Adversity is the plight of Aussie farmers. They work their land through fires, floods, droughts and other disasters, with dogged determination and unsurmountable hope. It takes a very special person to be a farmer.

This Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2019 demonstrates this government's dedication to the needs of farming communities in rural and regional Australia. The bill proposes to maintain the temporary increase of the farm assets value limits for farm household assistance at $5 million. This makes this temporary limit permanent. It also ensures that allowable deductions are applied against the relevant type of income for those deductions.

As a veterinary surgeon, one of my former roles—and that of many of my professional colleagues—was to provide veterinary services to primary producers. Some of these services include disease investigations, addressing production issues, reproductive improvement, genetic improvement, animal welfare, farm biosecurity, assessing management practices, and providing training in skills of management, medications and chemical handling—all of which is designed to improve production and profit to the primary producer. The majority of this work naturally involves animal production enterprises, but often there are also mixed cropping and farming systems. In this role, we see many farmers affected by factors often totally beyond their control. We are all very well aware of the effect of natural disasters and cyclical weather events, such as droughts, fires, floods and storms. There are also many other things that cause hardship and can lead to temporary or permanent loss of income. Some of these include fluctuating prices and loss of market access. With my other hat on, as a mango producer I can tell you the disappointment of seeing what should have been an $80,000 crop reduced to just $2,500 purely due to extreme market forces.

We also know our primary producers are subject to things such as pestilence and disease outbreaks, which can wipe out an entire year's crops or even the enterprise's entire genetic stock. I have seen the impact of this firsthand during the foot-and-mouth outbreak in the UK. I have personally endured the extremely distressing experience of having a woman clinging to me, screaming hysterically that her husband was on their neighbouring farm with a gun pointed to his head at the prospect of having all their animals culled in the disease outbreak response.

It is therefore vitally important that we, as a government and a nation, provide support to our producers in times of need and hardship. They should not be any worse off in terms of social security than any other ordinary Australian.

The farm household allowance is representative of a package of assistance measures that helps our hard-working farmers contend with the financial pressures they are sometimes forces to endure, an obvious example of which is those farmers currently caught in the drought. The key elements of the farm household allowance are income support for up to four cumulative years. At times when farmers do not know, and cannot know, when the drought will break, this support offers them a means by which to continue working the land. But it does more than that. Farmers will also have a sense of security and confidence, allowing them to better focus on their jobs and enjoy times with their families.

This package gives up to $1,500 to complete a farm financial assessment of the farm enterprise by a financial professional. Such assessments provide farmers with the data they need to make informed, strategic decisions in the management of their farms, which is a critical tool in times of hardship. It also provides up to $4,000 for each person in activity supplements, up to 17 one-on-one case management meetings, and things such as a healthcare card and pharmaceutical allowance, rent assistance, telephone allowance and remote area allowance, where applicable. These are things people in the city are entitled to and often, indeed, take for granted. Why should our farmers not enjoy the same support and benefits in times of hardship?

On 1 July 2018 the farm assets value limit was increased to $2.638 million. However, between 1 September 2018 and 30 June 2019, the farm assets value limit was increased on a temporary basis to $5 million. The temporary increase was affected by the amendments to the FHS Act and the Farm Household Support (Farm Assets Value Limit) Minister's Rules 2018. This limit lapsed on 30 June 2019. The amendments will maintain the temporary farm assets value limit at $5 million. This limit acknowledges that farmers cannot easily convert assets for self-support without impacting the ability of their farm business to produce income. Five million dollars might sound like a lot of assets, but you need to take into account that these assets are not always easy to sell for fair value, particularly during times of adverse events and hardship, and that there are often large liabilities against those assets; and then you have people with no employment, no income and no ability to get back into their chosen profession of farming for many years, or even permanently.

This bill engages and promotes the right to social security enshrined in article 9 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the right to social security. I commend this bill to the Senate.