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Tuesday, 23 August 1994
Page: 37

Senator COLLINS (Minister for Primary Industries and Energy) (4.13 p.m.) —I am extremely disappointed with the contribution by Senator Brownhill to what I hoped would be a substantive debate today.

Senator Brownhill —Did you expect a rap?

Senator COLLINS —No. I expected a serious contribution that would outline the coalition's approach to this situation.

Senator Brownhill —I gave you some points.

Senator COLLINS —You did not. In fact, I have searched and I am still searching for the coalition's policy.

Senator MacGibbon —Grasping for ideas, are you?

Senator COLLINS —No. I expected some sort of substantial contribution. I do not know why I thought that. Look at the terms of the matter before the Senate. They do not address what should be done about the drought by the government, the opposition or anyone else. They are related precisely to statements by the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) when he was in Queensland, taken totally out of context and used as the basis to condemn the government for what is allegedly a `total disregard' of the drought across Australia.

  What we have seen from Senator Brownhill, and no doubt what will be continued over the next hour or so, is good old-fashioned political partisan point scoring, instead of an attempt to address a serious situation. It is interesting to compare what we have just heard from Senator Brownhill on the Prime Minister's attitude to drought with what respected industry leaders—very few of whom would be from the Australian Labor Party camp; I assume most of them would be from the National Party of Australia camp—have said up-front and publicly about the same Prime Minister and the same drought. In the Australian of 27 July an articled headlined, `Keating pledges aid for farmers'—which Senator Brownhill cheerfully ignored—stated:

  Grains Council of Australia President, Mr Ian MacFarlane, responded positively to Mr Keating's comments, saying that he was now much more hopeful of gaining Cabinet support for a rescue package.

That was a positive comment in respect of the Prime Minister's attitude to this problem from the President of the Grains Council of Australia. A few days later, on 1 August, on the same subject on the Queensland Country Hour, Mr MacFarlane said:

I think that what we're hearing out of the Federal Government is firstly an acknowledgment of the enormity of the situation and secondly a preparedness of Government and industry to sit down and work through, as Mr Keating says, a systemic approach to this drought. We are prepared, in fact I'm emphatic, that we set politics aside and just sit down around a table and work out solutions—

an industry response to the drought and to the Prime Minister that Senator Brownhill and obviously the rest of his coalition partners are about to cheerfully ignore this afternoon. To continue:

. . . that we set politics aside and just sit down around a table and work out solutions—

an acknowledgment of the preparedness of the government and the industry to do that.

  There was a later response, again on Country Hour, after the cabinet meeting. I say to Senator Brownhill that the submission for $14 million was not a formal submission. That submission would not have got to that first cabinet meeting without the personal support of the Prime Minister to get it there under the line.

Senator Brownhill —It must have been because of your good work!

Senator COLLINS —I am not treating this in the trite and petty political point scoring way that Senator Brownhill is. He normally approaches these matters in a little more substantive fashion, as he did when he was deputy chair of the Senate committee that actually investigated the drought situation. I am disappointed that today Senator Brownhill has taken precisely the partisan position on this, condemning the Labor Party for its `rejection' of the bush—the natural constituency of the National Party. The very thing that industry leaders are asking the National Party not to do, he has done today on our first day back in the Senate.

  As I said to one of my colleagues, `When one listens to this stuff, it is as though one has never been away for five minutes. It is as though one were sitting in here yesterday and the day before. Nothing ever changes from the other side.' Following that cabinet discussion, which would never have occurred without a formal submission, without the personal endorsement of the Prime Minister to get it in there under the line, the President of the Grains Council of Australia said:

Bob Collins gave us an undertaking that he would go to Cabinet with a request for further funding particularly in the area of exceptional circumstances. In fact he achieved more than we expected by not only getting exceptional circumstances, he added to that, money for drought employee support scheme. . .

There was not even a mention from Senator Brownhill this afternoon of that extremely valuable scheme that operates in Queensland.

  We got $5 million worth of additional support for that scheme, more than doubling the original commitment to it, that actually subsidises with federal government funds the employment of on-farm labour. There was not even a mention from Senator Brownhill of that, but the Grains Council of Australia acknowledged it. Mr MacFarlane further stated:

. . . he added to that, money for drought employee support schemes and a broad commitment for a further $10m if need arises. So we're obviously very pleased with not only Bob being able to secure that money but a clear indication that the Federal Government realises the severity of the situation.

That position from respected industry leaders is exactly contrary to the position that the coalition is running in this grubby little exercise this afternoon. Further, there is the National Farmers Federation press statement of 11 August—just a short time ago.

Senator Panizza —Who wrote that one?

Senator COLLINS —Don McGauchie, the President. Why does Senator Panizza not get rid of his hang-up about Rick Farley? Here he goes again! Why does he not treat this with a bit of seriousness? Don McGauchie, the newly elected President of the National Farmers Federation, said:

The National Farmers' Federation—

is Senator Brownhill listening—

has welcomed extra Commonwealth assistance for drought affected farmers in Queensland and New South Wales.

The President of the NFF went on to say:

The Commonwealth's quick action follows representations from Queensland and NSW farmers and recommendations from the Rural Adjustment Scheme Advisory Committee.

That is absolutely accurate. That is exactly where it came from—personal representations from the farming lobby in New South Wales and Queensland, and a formal examination and subsequent recommendations on this issue from the Rural Adjustment Scheme Advisory Committee. I might add that in the case of the report that I got from RASAC the government adopted all of the recommendations that RASAC made for the additional drought assistance that we should provide in both New South Wales and Queensland. That was acknowledged by the National Farmers Federation.

  To conclude on the public comments that have been made, I direct the Senate's attention once again to the terms of this motion. It is not a motion concerning the drought, it is not a motion that is suggesting what the government should do about it, it is just a piece of grubby, political point scoring saying that the Prime Minister, because of statements that he made in Queensland, has ignored the drought and has given no assistance to those suffering from it. In just that little snapshot addressing the terms of Senator Brownhill's MPI—and there are plenty more, as I am sure he will know—there has been significant acknowledgment from respected industry leaders across Australia of the Prime Minister's support for further drought assistance. Just yesterday—22 August—the Telegraph Mirror on page 2 had the headline, `Drought aid wins priority with PM.'

  I am certainly prepared, and have made myself available, to listen to criticisms about how that aid is being delivered. I have made myself available, and continue to do so, to hear positive suggestions about how that delivery can be improved. But all that we have heard from Senator Brownhill this afternoon is partisan attacks on the Prime Minister that have been rebutted publicly by industry leaders across the board in Australia in their acknowledgment of the Prime Minister's understanding of the situation and the commitments that he has publicly given to provide assistance, which we have very quickly done.

  We have only to look at the myriad of transcripts of media interviews with those leaders to conclude that they all acknowledge that the Prime Minister firmly understands the gravity of the drought as it affects Queensland and New South Wales. Those groups have also acknowledged that the federal government is providing assistance.

  I am not suggesting for a minute that the situation cannot be reviewed, cannot be looked at, cannot be improved. In the lead speaker's contribution to this debate this afternoon—distinctly different from the reaction of industry leaders—there was not one, single, solitary acknowledgment of anything that the government had done in respect of that drought assistance except the comment, `Well, you've done this, so what!'. I can tell Senator Brownhill that that is a politician's response to a situation.

Senator Brownhill —No, it is not.

Senator COLLINS —It clearly has not been the response of responsible industry leaders, as I have just comprehensively demonstrated. I think that industry leaders across Australia in this crisis—and it is a crisis, particularly in the state of Queensland—are looking for something a little more positive and productive from the coalition than what Senator Brownhill has just delivered. Perhaps some of his colleagues can make up for that loss later in this debate.

  In addressing the party political point scoring Senator Brownhill engaged in by his attacks on the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister saying in Queensland that drought was a normal part of the Australian landscape, I would remind Senator Brownhill again of the principal conclusion reached by the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs of which he was the deputy chair. I have to acknowledge, particularly in view of the presence in the chamber of the shadow minister for rural Australia from the Democrats—I promise the Leader of the Democrats that I will not make this mistake again, and I will not use the expression `bipartisan support' again—the cross party support which was received because the Democrats were part of this committee.

Senator Brownhill —You had better read it in total, though.

Senator COLLINS —I have read it in total. In respect of what the Prime Minister said in Queensland, Senator Brownhill should listen to what he as part of this committee said about it. He said:

The Committee considers that drought should not be reinstated within the Natural Disaster Relief Arrangements—

That was the context of the question that the Prime Minister was answering. Senator Brownhill should look at the full transcript, not just the edited bits of it that were run. The Prime Minister was asked if he would support the calls made then by the Premier of New South Wales for the removal of drought from RAS, which was the fundamental recommendation of this Senate committee of which Senator Brownhill was the deputy chair, and whether he would support its return to the natural disasters relief arrangements. That was the reply that he gave. It is almost word for word the same, interestingly enough, as the conclusions drawn by Senator Brownhill's committee that he endorsed. It states:

The Committee considers that drought should not be reinstated within the Natural Disaster Relief Arrangements as this would compromise the development of a self-reliant, risk management approach to drought. The Committee's conclusion on this matter also recognises that drought is a recurring feature of Australia's climate that must be prepared for and managed.

That is precisely what the Prime Minister said when he was in Queensland. The Prime Minister has also acknowledged, as have industry leaders publicly acknowledged, that the drought in Queensland has gone beyond a normal drought in Australia in that, as was pointed out earlier by Senator Brownhill, places in Australia like the Darling Downs, which for years have been seen as some of the premier farming areas of Australia, have now suffered four continuous years of drought and in some cases seven or eight successive crop failures. The situation in Queensland has gone, and unfortunately is continuing to go, beyond any form of drought that any farmer, no matter how professional, could properly manage for.

  Senator Brownhill has totally ignored the mass of evidence available—not even acknowledged it. The Prime Minister has not only acknowledged it, but he has publicly pledged his support and supported my submission to cabinet at the first cabinet meeting—otherwise it would have never have got in the room—and provided $14 million worth of immediate additional drought assistance. As I said, that carries the total amount of specific drought assistance—that is, in addition to normal RAS—to in excess of $50 million since 1992, to which Senator Brownhill's total response was, `So what!'

  Those opposite have contributed nothing to this debate this afternoon. I guess I will have to wait for other coalition members to try to make up the deficiencies in what we have just heard, apart from a personal attack on the Prime Minister for making a statement in Queensland which was totally consistent with the principal recommendation of the Senate committee chaired by Senator Brownhill. According to the Hansard—and I have referred to it once today but I will do so again—Senator Brownhill himself said:

. . . I said that it did not really matter whether drought fell within the natural disaster relief arrangements or not, as long as the Commonwealth Government realised that it had to give some assistance once the economic capabilities of individuals and the State were unable to cope with a drought.

The new RAS arrangements resulted from, among other things, the recommendations of this committee. The recommendations of this committee were acted on by the government, and that is where RAS 1992 came from.

  RAS 1992 put a new focus on education, training and government assistance that is available for planning and managing for drought. The evidence is there—and I am happy to provide it to anybody who wants it—that farmers are accessing that assistance. In fact, I have had this portfolio for only a very short time, but within the first month of taking it on I received representations in meetings from peak farming groups acknowledging the huge benefit they were getting from the counsel—the professional financial advice—that is available to them free of charge through the RAS scheme. I received suggestions, which I have acted on, that it could be coordinated better and delivered more effectively if it was provided on a regional basis rather than on an individual farm to farm basis.

  As I have indicated, the government's response has been quick—industry leaders have acknowledged that the government has acted very quickly and properly in the matter. I am available, as all of those peak bodies know, for further discussions on this issue—and there will be further discussions—as to ways of improving the delivery of assistance that is being provided.

  In conclusion, I make the obvious point that there is a great deal of concern about this continuing drought. We all pray for rain. As I understand it, a formal process of prayer has been organised somewhere this week by the churches and, knowing Senator Woodley's antecedents, I would appreciate some advice on that if he has it.