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Thursday, 24 June 2010
Page: 6638

Mr BURKE (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and Minister for Population) (5:22 PM) —in reply—I thank all members who contributed to the debate on the Farm Household Support Amendment (Ancillary Benefits) Bill 2010. I particularly thank the member for Farrer for the comments at the end of her contribution. I was unaware of the tragic circumstances that befell Rob Seekamp. It is an appropriate thing to bring to the attention of the House, and on behalf of the government I also extend our deepest sympathies. As soon as it was mentioned, I remembered the meeting I had with Rob to discuss the dust storms. Not only was he a thoroughly decent man who was so clearly connected with his community but he had very cleverly brought photographs of properties in the area that he knew I had visited so that I could completely understand the extent of the devastation that the dust storms had caused. So I thank the member for Farrer for making us aware of that, and I extend to Mr Seekamp’s family the deepest sympathies of the government and, I am sure, all members of the House of Representatives.

If I can turn to one other issue, Mr Deputy Speaker, that does not relate to the bill but was referred to in debate by the member for New England, there is an understandable frustration for people in the Bundarra region that there has been such a long wait to get certainty as to whether they would get an exceptional circumstances declaration. A number of issues have contributed to this challenge. One of them has been that state governments, understandably, always want to apply for the biggest possible area they can for exceptional circumstances declarations. Because the National Rural Advisory Council has to do an averaging across the region, if the region applied for is big, it is harder to get the approval. Bundarra has been going back and forth over a number of applications. With the latest one, the advice from NRAC is with government. I am working to get that through the processes of government as quickly as possible so we can make an announcement and provide certainty. The people of Bundarra should be well assured that the member for New England has been consistent in making their case known to government, and I certainly do hope it is not too much longer before we are able to provide them with an answer.

Turning to the contributions on the bill, first of all, there are occasions when different members of the House, including different members of the opposition, provide very different perspectives. There are times when politically it works and can be convenient to try to drive some sort of wedge and say, ‘There’s a split—there’s a difference of opinion between the Liberal and National parties.’ On this occasion, I can say that the differences that have been expressed in this debate about the future of the trial are, I think, a great example of members of parliament understanding the particular circumstances of their regions. This goes to one of the reasons why we have decided to embark on a trial rather than go immediately to a national rollout of a new drought policy. Getting this right is difficult and incredibly complex. It affects different parts of our nation in very different ways. That is why we have found some members of parliament to be highly supportive of aspects of the trial and some members of parliament to be sceptical, not about whether the program is worth taking forward but about whether it could appropriately be a replacement in the future for the current drought policy settings that we have. I commend all members of parliament on the issues that they have raised—I do think it reflects the complexity of this.

A number of members of the opposition, though, have raised a concern about why the money which has been allocated is not nearly enough to allow all the 6,000 farmers within the Western Australian trial region to be able to apply for and receive the on-farm grants. There is a very good reason why a smaller amount of money has been allocated, and that is: we are embarking on a trial. I do not want to pretend that in a trial we can immediately roll out enough support for 6,000 farmers to develop strategic plans. I do not want to pretend that we can do that in 12 months. I do not believe we can and I want to have the benefit of assisting a much smaller group—I mentioned in the second reading speech that it would probably be in the order of 150—where we can work on the strategies with the farmers, with them having control of it, and get plans together that actually make a difference for those properties into the future and co-invest with them. Doing that with smaller numbers will mean we will iron out the problems and work out how, if we go to a larger rollout, the strategic plans can be made in the most effective way. If you rolled out all 6,000 during a 12-month trial, you would necessarily create a situation where your best quality consultants were being spread too thinly, which would run the very real risk of paying people to assist farmers to put together a strategic plan where the quality of what resulted would not be part of the long-term vision for Australian agriculture that this trial hopes we can get to.

If we take this in a methodical way and are careful initially as to how many farms are involved in the planning process, while making sure that the food on the table money is available for the entire region, as it ought to be—but we are careful with the rollout of anything connected to the strategic plans—I do believe we will land in a much better policy zone and the trial will be used for the actual purposes that you would want a trial to be used for: to test different methods so that whoever is in government when the trial period concludes can look at the results and say, ‘Okay, if we’re going to roll this out nationally, these are the bits we would want to change.’ I think that serves the parliament very well.

To those members of parliament who have expressed concern about the trial, I want to express my deep gratitude that nobody has sought to prevent passage of the legislation. The legislation itself simply provides for extra benefits, such as the healthcare card, to be made available to recipients of support. Had the opposition sought to they could have blocked it. I appreciate that the opposition have not sought to do that.

Mr Baldwin interjecting

Mr BURKE —That is right. There is still time if you wish to, Member for Paterson! But, in anticipation, I convey my thanks to those senators from the opposition who I understand have indicated that they will try to ensure speedy passage of this legislation when it is sent to the other place in the coming hours. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.