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Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Page: 6087

Senator SANDY MACDONALD (3:09 PM) —Members of the government are very aware of and very concerned about the pain caused by the drought. To listen to Senator O'Brien, it sounds as though we are not aware and not concerned. From a personal point of view, as somebody who lives in the north-west of the state, I spent last Saturday and Sunday morning feeding stock, and I am very aware of the pain that people are feeling because I am feeling it myself. It is the worst drought in our history and our records go back about 100 years—and I say to Senator O'Brien that that is probably the only correct thing in his speech. It is the worst drought for 100 years. It is affecting farmers, it is affecting families and it is affecting communities. In fact, it will affect the total Australian community because it will impact on the economy, on the GDP and on all of us. But particularly for regional Australia, the impact will take some time to recover from.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for drought, except rain—and even this government, which can do and has done a lot for people, cannot organise that. But the government is responding under the exceptional circumstances arrangements, which I am sure most people in the Senate know have been put in place. They have been finetuned and are there to respond to very unusual seasonal conditions—in fact, a one in 20 to 25 year event.

On 19 September 2002, the government announced significant new measures for the exceptional circumstances legislation. The measures include welfare support being available to farmers at an earlier stage and the use of predictive modelling, enabling applications to be considered sooner. The farmers of the Bourke and Brewarrina region will be the first to benefit from these changes to EC measures. Welfare assistance will now be made available, once a fully completed application has been deemed to demonstrate a prima facie case and has been referred by the NRAC. In addition, the prima facie case assessment can now be made on the basis of predictive modelling—which is a big improvement—indicating, where appropriate, that income will be impacted in the months ahead.

This new EC framework and these detailed arrangements for implementing the new measures have been developed by AFFA, in conjunction with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and DOFA. Agreement to the arrangements was sought from the Prime Minister and the Minister for Finance and Administration on 9 October 2002 for immediate availability. New and permanent arrangements have been built into the EC policy processes to reflect the changes. An unintended consequence— and I admit it—was a delay in payments flowing to the Bourke and Brewarrina region. However, for eligible farmers, payments will be backdated to 19 September 2002. The minister acknowledges the mistake and will arrange for those benefits to be backdated.

To expedite payments to farmers in this region potentially impacted by this delay, a number of additional measures were undertaken by Centrelink, which normally delivers this type of assistance. The additional measures taken by Centrelink include that, on 9 October 2002, the Maryborough rural call centre began to contact up to 50 farmers who had sought further information about the payment prior to its commencement and had left their contact details. All those who registered as having made inquiries have been followed up and phoned. The Centrelink Internet web site has been updated to include information on interim income support. It is not clear how many people have accessed applications off the Internet. The Dubbo customer service centre, which is close to Bourke and Brewarrina, has been made aware of the approval of the guidelines, and a staff member has been dedicated to processing the claims as soon as they are made. Information will be issued to the rural finance counsellors in Bourke and Brewarrina, along with the claim form and fact sheet. Applications can be lodged by fax or mail to the Dubbo customer service centre or be personally lodged at the Bourke customer service centre or Brewarrina agent. (Time expired)