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Monday, 22 April 1985
Page: 1573

Mr ANDREW(3.37) —Rarely have I risen to follow the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin) in a debate as disappointed as I am this afternoon. The Minister for Primary Industry enjoys a reputation, even on this side of the House, as a man of integrity. But this afternoon we have heard from him figures that do a former employee of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics no justice at all. In fact, the Minister for Primary Industry, knowing better than he says, has had the audacity to say 'Under the Fraser Administration farm costs rose by l7 per cent', carelessly choosing to ignore the fact that the figures he chose apply to a time of drought and world-wide inflation. He has paid no regard to the simple truth, namely, that the figures he plucked out of the air applied while world-wide inflation was rampant and while Australia was below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average. Today the inflation rate in Australia is twice the OECD average. It is that very point that we bring to the Minister's attention this afternoon.

In this debate the Minister has been anything but sensitive to the dilemma facing farmers. For example, he has chosen casually to attempt to drive a wedge between the role played by the National Party of Australia and the role played by the Liberal Party of Australia. I suspect that he is nothing more than unduly sensitive after the disastrous performance of the Victorian Branch of the Australian Labor Party in its State Conference and is more than a little envious of the unity and co-operation enjoyed by both parties on this side of the House. Furthermore, the Minister has chosen to use the very figures that plagued Australian farmers at the height of a drought and not the figures that reflect what is happening to Australian farmers today.

We stand here to represent an emerging poor in the Australian community. It has been popular in this place to look at urban poverty and ignore the reality of rural poverty. This debate was seriously introduced on the eve of a conference between the National Farmers Federation, the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) and the Minister for Primary Industry in order to focus the Government's attention on what we see as a major problem. But it has been trivialised by the Minister for Primary Industry. The honourable member for Gwydir (Mr Hunt) has focused on the issue of the cost-price squeeze that is plaguing every Australian primary producer. It would not have been as urgent a matter of public importance were it not for the fact that last Friday at this time we had to suffer the indignity of the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) declaring that the assets test had been justified because it had netted l2 millionaires. I was appalled, not simply at what that statement told us about the assets test but also at what it told us about the Federal Cabinet. In other words, the Federal Cabinet knew nothing of what was happening in rural Australia. What this Federal Cabinet is doing to farmers through the assets test is indefensible. We have heard a Cabinet member defending that stand. Worse than that, the honourable member for Melbourne (Mr Hand), by way of interjection, asked: 'How can you have $400,000 as a farmer and be poor?'

Mr Simmons —Madam Deputy Speaker, I take a point of order. I understand that the matter of public importance before the House this afternoon relates to farm costs. It is not a consideration of the effects of the assets test.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mrs Child) —There is no point of order.

Mr ANDREW —I reassure the honourable member for Calare that I have a comment or two for him a little later in the debate. In fact, what the Cabinet is doing to rural Australians, through its ignorance of the problems facing rural Australia, in applying the assets test has a great deal to do with what it is doing to the problems facing rural Australians, through its ignorance of rural Australia, when it looks at the cost-price squeeze. The simple dilemma facing rural Australia, whether it be caused by the assets test or the cost-price squeeze, is the dilemma of earning only 2 per cent on invested income. When that is the case there is no room for price rises. That is the reality facing every farmer. That is the reality we want to stress in the House this afternoon. If the Government recognised that reality it would not have introduced this iniquitous assets test.

The dilemma with rural poverty is that it is so difficult to identify early. Farmers in difficult circumstances tend to say: 'Oh well, we will kill an extra wether or grow a few more vegies. We will not buy a car this year. We will postpone purchasing a new header'. The cost-price squeeze does not really show up until it is almost too late. That is the point we are at now. The reason for raising this matter of public importance is to alert the Minister to the dilemma before it is too late. How many honourable members opposite have spent time in rural Australia in electorates such as those represented on this side of the House and seen how the farmers of this nation are currently living? Many of the dwellings in my electorate-one of the relatively fortunate electorates in South Australia-would not do justice to the living standards expected by public servants in this community. The very farmers who are asked to bail us out of our national debt are being squeezed out of existence by rising costs. It has been said, and it was said by the Minister, that part of the relief for those rising costs will come as a result of the change in the exchange rate. If the Minister will pardon me, I say 'bully' to that. I quote from a speech by the honourable member for Calare (Mr Simmons), recorded in Hansard on l7 April. It states:

One headline in the paper stated: 'Dollar's fall softens farm income drop'. This is very good news for the rural sector. It indicates that there will be a record level of farm export earnings in 1984-85. There will be an increase of 9 per cent on the earnings of the previous financial year . . . Taking into account the expected decline in farm income in Australia this year, which was predicted to be l7 per cent, the depreciating dollar has in fact reduced this rate of decline to l4 per cent.

Thank you very much! In other words, the honourable member for Calare is telling the farmers that the situation is not too bad: They are going broke but now they will go broke a little more slowly. That is simply not good enough. If that is the attitude being portrayed on the other side of the House it cannot be tolerated on this side of the House. It will lead to the extinction of the farming community in Australia. The reason for this debate is to alert the Government to this tragic fact.

I mentioned earlier that the inflation rate in Australia, of which the Minister is so proud, is almost twice that of the United States of America. Do we expect our farmers to continue to be competitive in the face of that sort of onslaught? Whilst it is true that the exporters welcome the fall in the value of the dollar, nevertheless, farmers, for the 3 per cent gain which was acknowledged by the honourable member for Calare, face rising fuel costs, rising costs in imported chemicals, rising fertiliser costs, rising ship costs and rising machinery costs.

Mr McGauran —And wages.

Mr ANDREW —The honourable member for Gippsland highlights the wages issue. It was also mentioned by the honourable member for Gwydir. One of the major problems facing farmers is the rigidity in our wage fixation system which makes it impossible for farmers to negotiate what they see as a realistic wage. The most progressive, resourceful, productive members of the Australian community are currently under attack. It is that attack which we bring to the attention of the Minister for Primary Industry. The uncomfortable truth is that in the last three years farm costs have risen more rapidly than has the consumer price index. In that environment farmers simply cannot survive.