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Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Page: 6089


Senator STEPHENS (3:24 PM) —I also rise to speak to the motion to take note of the answer given by Senator Ian Macdonald to a question relating to drought, and share the concerns of people in this chamber for rural communities, families and businesses that are being affected by a drought which, as we have heard, is probably the worst in 100 years.

The combination of inaction and bungling by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Mr Truss, has demonstrated that he has a lack of understanding and ability in relation to this drought and his portfolio overall. On 19 September Mr Truss promised that the drought stricken farming families awaiting assessment of their exceptional circumstances applications in Bourke and Brewarrina would receive emergency income support immediately. `Immediately' in Mr Truss's terms obviously means a time period of some 63 days, although many are still waiting.

Labor revealed on 9 October that not one cent promised to those families had reached them, simply because Mr Truss had failed to brief his colleague Senator Vanstone on the role that Centrelink was required to play in enabling those people who were eligible to actually be involved in the application process. This is typical of the minister—promises and statements but no follow-through.

When the voices of rural Australia are calling for our help with drought assistance, Mr Truss has responded with a newspaper ad entitled `Commonwealth drought assistance'. This is the advertisement that Senator Ferris was referring to. All I can say, Mr Deputy President, is that it is a shame you cannot feed starving stock newspaper. The minister did not bother to point out in this ad that the states are making a substantial contribution to three of the five programs that he highlighted in his advertisement and that in many respects it is all bluff and bluster by this government on drought.

I suggest, however, that the award for the most detached member of the Howard ministry from the problems faced by drought stricken farmers goes in fact to the self-styled farmers' friend, John Anderson. With breathtaking arrogance, on 7 November Mr Anderson said that `most farmers aren't suffering a cash drought'. According to Mr Anderson, `It is for some but for a lot it's not.' Here he is, a farmer and the Leader of the National Party, and either he is ignorant or he chooses to ignore the impact of drought on farmers and rural communities. Of course, enjoying the Deputy Prime Minister's salary of over $200,000 to supplement his farm income and to soften the cash drought on his place is probably part of the issue.

Clearly, in his mind, all farmers have a tidy second income to keep them afloat on the dust plains of drought affected New South Wales. His constituents in Narrabri certainly had this impression, as they expressed so vocally last week. But, unlike Mr Anderson, Labor understands that 70 per cent of Australia is in drought, and five states are now providing drought relief. Rural exports have collapsed, rural employment has fallen and the GDP will suffer a drought induced cut of up to $7.1 billion this year, according to ABARE.

I point out that drought assistance in New South Wales provided by the New South Wales government is in marked contrast to the federal government's paltry efforts in providing $40,000 by way of exceptional circumstances assistance to just 24 families. Those 24 families are in fact receiving $170 a week in payments by way of the Newstart allowance. The New South Wales government has put in place 31 drought assistance initiatives since 18 July, helping more than 1,500 farmers so far.

That assistance includes 50 per cent subsidies for transport of domestic water and the transport of stock; an extension of special conservation loans criteria to include dam desilting and planting of perennial species such as saltbush; free transport for fodder bought through drought appeals; $1 million to provide TAFE based training for farm employees to keep them on farms and to keep them skilled; five new EC teams to provide exceptional circumstances applications for 22 rural land protection board areas; two business counsellors to work with drought affected businesses in the Urana region; and a $1 million cash donation to provide assistance through the New South Wales Community Disaster Relief Fund. This is not chickenfeed; these are real funds going to people in real need in drought affected areas across the state. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.