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Tuesday, 30 July 2019
Page: 1090

Senator McDONALD (Queensland) (12:53): I rise to speak on the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2019. Right across Australia, right now, there are farmers and graziers and small business operators staring down the barrel of another dry winter following no break in the season last summer. These people can be hundreds of kilometres from their small town, or they can be close to a major centre, but in every case they share the same challenge.

There are few more important jobs in this country than farming—growing the food and fibre that feeds this nation and a good part of the world surrounding us. And it's not just farmers; it is those businesses that support farming families. Farmers are under constant attack. They have to sell at wholesale prices and buy at retail prices. Regional and remote businesses pay more for everyday items like fuel and groceries. They pay for additional transport. In addition, no matter how good a farmer can be, you cannot plan for years of extended drought. The farm household bill provides cash to farms, for households to spend in the local communities to support the small businesses who cannot diversify, who cannot attract more consumers.

In my short time in the Senate, I've felt privileged to be a part of the federal government that has shown that it not only hears the concerns of primary producers; it listens, but, more importantly, it acts. Already, we've seen the passing of the Future Drought Fund bill, we've established the National Water Grid and we're close to enacting tougher punishments on extremist farm trespassers. We're investing $100 million in beef roads, and Scott Morrison's North Queensland Livestock Industry Recovery Agency represents the government's firm commitment to rebuild the region and help the people of north-west Queensland after floods decimated homes, businesses and cattle stations near my home region of Cloncurry and Julia Creek this year.

The North Queensland Livestock Industry Recovery Agency has already helped more than 1,200 producers and more than 550 small businesses and not-for-profits access grants to get back on their feet. The agency has been ably let by Shane Stone, who comes from the Northern Territory and understands these challenges as well as anyone. But, in the north-west, it was 15 days of rain, cold temperatures and strong winds that had a devastating impact, destroying fences, killing thousands of cattle and devastating families. I was with the Prime Minister when he visited the area even before the floods had receded, and I saw scenes that will stay with me for life. There was little time to dwell on the enormity of this catastrophe, though—what it means not just to those local communities but also to the businesses and jobs that flow away from the regions and into the cities and coastlines of Australia.

The North Queensland Livestock Industry Recovery Agency recently highlighted the case of Nigel and Cat Simmons whose Clarafield property in McInlay Shire near Julia Creek was affected. They are one example of a family who've already made use of the Morrison government $75,000 grant to repair fences and restock livestock, and we are seeing the beneficial flown-on effects of this grant in their local community. The words 'flow-on effect' are very important, because having prosperous farms doesn't just help people on the land; it supports whole towns and districts.

Successful farmers are very important to successful rural and regional towns. It's very fair to say that most profits—if there are any—are really spent very quickly. It's quite rare for primary producers to simply put money in the bank. Usually there is farm maintenance to catch up on that was postponed in the lean years. Maybe it's time to replace the tractor that could have done with replacement a few years ago. They are constantly repairing fences, paying transport companies, bringing in new genetics. Then, maybe, just maybe, there's a little bit of something left over for the family. The small list I just mentioned bears deeper thought, because it also applies to the local tractor salesman, the hardware store, the truck drivers, the stock and station agents and, of course, the clothes shop that all benefit from families and farmers with spare money.

When farmers don't have spare money, it is local regional towns that suffer the most. It is vitally important that we keep people in our regions—that we keep people on farms and stations and we keep people in these regional towns. That is why this bill is so important. This allows farmers to implement long-term plans to improve their business. There is no downside to having a financially sound agricultural sector, and this bill goes some way to ensuring that this is the case.

The farm household allowance was introduced in July 2014 and is part of the government's suite of assistance measures for farmers doing it tough. The farm household allowance is a package of assistance that helps farmers and their partners who have financial pressures to stay on their feet. It provides income support for up to four cumulative years, which has been incredibly important in this time of extended dry. Most importantly, it allows for up to $1,500 for a financial professional to complete a farm financial assessment of the farm enterprise. In the last term the agriculture minister added more farm financial counsellors. That is critical. I know from running a small business that when times are tough you don't always know where to go for help. To have these people who are well-trained, capable and available is a critical piece of the puzzle, because if you ask for help and assistance early you have a much better chance of surviving. There is up to $4,000 in activity supplements for each person and up to 17 one-on-one case management meetings, in addition to a healthcare card, pharmaceutical allowances, rent assistance, telephone allowance and, where applicable, remote area allowance. The program is uncapped and demand-driven so that there is no chance that anybody who is eligible will miss out. It is my experience that this has been a very important part not just in the floods in Townsville and the north-west of Queensland but in this drought assistance now. People will often say, 'There are other people worse off than me. I don't want to claim this money, because it might mean that somebody else misses out.' That's not the case. It's an important message that we send to farmers across the country: Please do not self-assess. Go and get some advice and get the application in.

The other thing that I really want to draw to the attention of the chamber is that we often talk about farms as being desperate and in need of help. That is of course the case. But what is really important is keeping the young people in these communities, whether it be in the town or on the farm or the station. It is the young people who are bringing incredible innovation and ideas to agriculture. The growth of science- and technology-based solutions that are happening in Australia is truly exciting and world leading. Whether it be geotech, with geosciences; precision agriculture; genetics; and tracking and drone use in more-remote communities, there are truly exciting things happening in the agriculture industry. We lead the world in this place. It is terrifically important that we provide hope to these communities to stay involved and for the young people not just to see their family struggling but to see that this is an industry that is worth staying involved in. As Senator McMahon said, it is an industry that you come to. It is a calling.

I would encourage people to support the passing of this legislation. It provides a raft of measures that are incredibly important. I have heard people on the other side talk about this not being a perfect solution. That's the world we live in. There is never a silver bullet for any of these problems, but what this government has done and what the minister is bringing is another piece of the puzzle, another solution that works towards a more-efficient, a more financially stable and a more-effective agriculture industry. I am delighted to speak to this bill, and I hope that it will be passed quickly.