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Wednesday, 23 October 2019
Page: 5184


Ms CHESTERS (Bendigo) (16:23): I rise to support the amendment that is before the House, moved by the member for Hunter, to the Farm Household Support Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2019. Let's be frank about where we've got to on the farm household allowance and about this government. The allowance was created when Labor was last in government. It was recognised back then, at the beginning of the drought, that we needed to bring this measure in. This government got elected in 2013, and what is disappointing for a lot of people on this side of the House, as well as farmers and farming communities, is that, since that time, as the drought has worsened, there's been bungle after bungle from this government when it comes to the farm household allowance. Now, when farmers are in the really dark days of the drought, we're seeing this legislation brought before us, trying to patch up the fact that the government have not worked hard enough or early enough to support these families most in need. The worst thing about it is the fact that they were warned. They were encouraged to take action not just by us here in the parliament but by people in their own electorates and their own communities. As we stand here, 600 families have been kicked off the farm household allowance because these changes were not brought to the parliament sooner. That is 600 families who have basically fallen off the cliff in terms of income support.

What is the farm household allowance? It allows farmers who have assets and who are earning income to also claim the Newstart allowance if their income is below a certain amount. It is, it should be acknowledged, a lot more generous than what somebody on Newstart can earn before they start to lose their Newstart allowance. It recognises that a lot of our farmers do have a lot of assets and are earning income but just not enough, because farm enterprises, particularly in some parts of Australia, are very expensive and there is a cash-flow problem that does occur in these houses.

Labor does support the changes that have been put forward by the government but really wants to highlight the situation that faces not just the 600 who have been kicked off the allowance and are left without nothing but also the more than 500 who are about lose their farm household allowance and will get a once-off payment of $13,000—so they will get roughly a year of the allowance before they also exit. Meanwhile, everyone else on the farm household allowance will get the allowance for up to 10 years. That's how long this drought could go on. That is a reasonable time frame, because it also allows farming families and farmers the opportunity to decide whether they stay or transition off the farm. But it's very little comfort for those who applied early to the allowance and are now off the allowance; either they've been kicked off or they'll get this once-off payment. It used to happen a lot in enterprise bargaining. A boss would delay negotiations and drag them out, and then, rather than giving people a decent pay rise, would say, 'We'll roll it over and give you a once-off payment.' It's almost bribery money, in a way, to make the issue go away. It doesn't account for the long term. It represents the chaos of this government when it comes to its drought response and support for farmers.

The other part I'd like to highlight is the lack of support for farm workers, farm contractors and people working in small businesses. I raised this question today in question time, and the response I got from the Prime Minister was, 'Oh, we're helping them in other ways.' But he didn't really go into any detail. He talked about the tax incentives that the government give to farmers, the fact that they're investing in councils and the fact that they're going to help people find alternate work on farms. All of those programs have not demonstrated in any way that they're on the ground helping people on those farms, in those communities, stay in work. I haven't spoken to a shearer who's got work building a fence on a farm. When you talk to farmers about the ability that was introduced in other budget measures for them to claim back these expenses, they say: 'You've got to have the money to spend it. We don't have the money to spend on the drought infrastructure that we could possibly claim back.' These farm workers have left these communities. They might be able to stay for a bit if their partner is in work, but there is a real pressure throughout the supply chain—beyond the farm gate and beyond the farmers themselves.

The government are always trying to talk about small-business truck drivers and owner truck drivers. Yet where's the support for the owner truck drivers who are the contractors that help to cart the grain, which doesn't exist right now because of the drought? There's no support or recognition for a lot of the small businesses that might be based in town, the people who might help with irrigation, the people who might be the electricians or the plumbers who specialise in farm and on-farm equipment, the jackaroos and the jillaroos or the loyal person who has always worked there—not the backpacker who comes and goes for the fruit-picking season, but the person who's been the on-farm hand or the on-farm manager.

The government actually distinguishes these people, if they find themselves unemployed because of the drought, as being on Newstart. So all of a sudden, even though they drew their income and drew their experience from agriculture, they're now put into another category by this government: Newstart. They're now demonised. They now could be subject to drug testing. They are now vilified by this government and placed in a category of 'Newstart'. Yet you talk to a farmer and you talk to that worker and they see themselves in a partnership. Farmers who have got a very close working relationship with their employees say that their farms couldn't survive without these people. Yet, in the government's eyes, that worker is viewed differently even though the drought's impact is the reason they now find themselves unemployed.

Even though the allowance that they're drawing is the same—it's Newstart—that worker is treated differently. When that worker rings Centrelink, they're on hold for a very long time. If they are able to get their phone call answered, then they're struck with all the punitive measures that come with Newstart like every other worker. Yet when the farmer rings up, if they indicate that they're on the farm household allowance, they go straight through. They've got a special helpline. They've got special support. They are assigned a case worker that calls them every two weeks. They get specialised financial counselling to help them out. It's a great support service that we're now starting to build for our farmers and our farming communities. But why can't it be extended? Why can't all people experiencing this drought receive the same support? Why is it just our farmers? Why isn't it the farm workers? Why isn't it the people who work for the small businesses in town? Why isn't it people who live and work in regional communities?

You also have to question why the government isn't rolling out this great support and assistance for people in sectors like manufacturing, with the downturn in manufacturing. When we lose manufacturing jobs, whether it be food manufacturing jobs or jobs that are connected to the supply chain, those workers don't get this special treatment, and there's an argument that they should. Everybody who contacts Centrelink should have the phone answered. Everybody who is seeking the support of a government payment should be treated with respect and given the opportunity to talk to a real person and work through their payment structure.

There are reasons why so many farmers aren't taking up this allowance. One is the complexity of it. The second is that they have to go through Centrelink and the demonisation of people who use Centrelink. The third is the time frames that the government has put around this allowance. Maybe the 10 years will help attract more to it, but these are people who are proud and who are trying to make a tough decision in their life: do they stay and sit it out, or do they go?

I also want to acknowledge the amazing farming skills and the resilience of communities and farmers who decided early to destock. We don't talk about them enough—the people who had a plan ready for this drought. They learnt from the millennium drought that you had to farm differently. They learnt from the millennium drought that you had to be prepared. They—wherever possible—introduced opportunities into their farming business so that they could diversify their income. And they should be acknowledged, because they have not found themselves in these very difficult circumstances—whilst they're down on their income, they did destock early and they did make sure that they enacted their drought plan. This is something that is not being recognised, and I know that within the drought affected communities it's a point that they really are talking about.

I also want to call out the government on their lack of support for regional councils. We've noticed and we've heard in the evidence given before estimates that it was a government decision—an arbitrary decision—about which councils got the $1 million funding and which councils didn't. It was a government decision, a cabinet decision, a ministerial decision about the line where they cut communities off. What we've learnt is that some of the councils to the north of my electorate around the Murray that are drought affected, missed out on funding because they had less than 17 per cent of their people technically employed in agriculture. Those statistics are disputed. How could you say that people who work in the supply chain are not drawing an income from agriculture?

I'm talking about to the north of me, particularly in dairy country. We've had a lot of dairy farmers stop dairying. They're no longer active dairy farms, a knock-on effect of the supply chain. So, in milk processing, technically those jobs, whether they be at Parmalat or Fonterra, are considered manufacturing jobs, yet the core ingredient is a commodity that comes off the land. Those councils have missed out because of the arbitrary way in which the government has allocated funding. They're still drought affected, they're still struggling, but they missed out on funding. If you look at some of the council areas around the Hunter, to the north of where we are, they missed out on funding because, again, those council areas have a diversity of industries. It doesn't mean the farmers aren't doing it any tougher, it doesn't mean that those regions aren't doing it any tougher, but they've missed out on funding because of this arbitrary 17 per cent. And why is it 17 per cent? Why isn't it 10 per cent? Why isn't it 15 per cent? These are questions that the government won't answer because decisions were made—let's be frank—about money, not people.

The other point that I really wish to highlight in this speech about this kind of homework assignment done at the last minute by the government is that it's actually not a long-term plan. It's not a plan for resilience and it's not really focused on where to next—not in the long term but also not in the immediate term. In my part of the world, it is getting very dry. We did have a good winter. We've had some good rains. We are hopeful that we'll get more rain so that we will have a good crop. But to the west of us and to the east of us it's looking very dry. And our council areas, whilst they're not in the severe drought that we've seen in Queensland, New South Wales and northern Victoria, fear that they could be next. But what planning is this government doing? Now is the time to engage with those councils and those regional communities and enact preparation plans for drought. Now is the time to start investing and awarding those contracts to start to do that on-farm, off-farm work so that they can keep employment going in these regional communities—now, not waiting until they're in the dire circumstances where stock is dying on the land.

The fact that stock is dying on the land and the Army has had to go in to clean it up is awful. It's heartbreaking, it's a disgrace and it's an indictment of this government that it let the situation get to that. Where is its shame about letting it get to the situation where the Army had to go in? It demonstrates the chaos of this government. The fact that we have towns in New South Wales out of water, where parents are bathing their children in mineral water—in water that's been shipped in—demonstrates the government's chaos and dysfunction and how it has let these regions down. The government have shown a lack of leadership. In bringing together the states, in bringing together local governments, they've been the missing partner.

It's disappointing that members have stood up in this House and ranted about state governments and talked about building dam infrastructure. That's going to take decades, and there are question marks about whether it will even help. People need help right now, not just farm household assistance but help with the basics. I urge the government to do more right now.