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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5486

Senator STEPHENS (3:18 PM) —I rise to take note of the answer given by Senator Ian Macdonald to my question in question time today. The question was about the Farmhand appeal and the reason why the federal government will not match those funds dollar for dollar. The question really is: how substantially is the Commonwealth government assisting those people who are in drought affected areas? Just this past weekend, I spent my time at the Murrumbateman field day. Murrumbateman is just down the road from Canberra. The field day is a significant gathering of regional farmers and producers around this district. The extent to which the drought is impacting on producers around the southern part of New South Wales was evident at that field day.

In terms of the Commonwealth's response to drought, unfortunately, the government has been troubled by the fact that the Treasurer, Peter Costello, did not factor into his budget the possible impact of drought and failed to see the signs that were clearly there for those of us who understand them. As several speakers today have said, the predictions for the drought are: farm production will be down 10 per cent; farm incomes will be down to about 50 per cent; the total financial impact, as suggested by ABARE, will be some $5 billion; the winter grain crop, as we have heard, will be down more than 40 per cent; wheat will be down more than 50 per cent; and cotton will be down between 18 and 30 per cent. They are significant production losses, which will have a significant impact on the economy.

The issue of the Farmhand appeal is quite significant because the impact that will have on regional communities is significant. Many people working as farm labourers and those involved in downstream activities of farming suffer significant reductions in income supply when production does not take place. They are the people we see working in our regional abattoirs or cotton mills—those kinds of industries. Their shiftwork is reduced quite significantly and the skills that we have in our regional communities are diminished and quite often lost. So one of the devastating impacts of a drought is that we do lose our regional skills, our rural skills, and people are forced off the land and forced out of those industries into other work.

The need for the dollar for dollar contribution to the Farmhand appeal is now greater than ever. The need is probably as great, or even greater, than it was in 1994. Although Senator Ian Macdonald was reluctant to address the issue and answer my question today, state governments contribute significant amounts of money. For example, the Victorian government announced a $27.7 million drought package for Victorian farmers, and the New South Wales and Queensland governments have also announced multimillion dollar programs in those areas of their states affected by drought. Both the Victorian and Queensland governments have provided cold, hard cash to the tune of $500,000 to the Farmhand appeal for emergency relief. But so far the Howard government has ignored Labor's call to do what Labor did in 1994 and match the Farmhand relief funding on a dollar for dollar basis. In regional and rural communities where people are now struggling, it is the cash component that is going to make a difference. I again call on the federal government to reconsider this issue and match those funds.