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Tuesday, 15 August 2000
Page: 19007

Mr LAWLER (8:30 PM) —I am absolutely incredulous that members of the opposition would come into this chamber and bag the government for the way they have addressed the fuel situation in rural and regional Australia. This is the same opposition that voted against abolishing the 24c a litre diesel fuel excise and that voted against every measure the government took to relieve the load of not only farmers but also businesses and taxpayers in rural and regional Australia. So I am surprised that someone could come into this chamber from the other side and talk about how the government has made promises on fuel prices and not delivered them.

I take the example that if indeed the opposition had supported the government in their attempts to lower the diesel fuel excise we would not have had the situation where we have this slightly complex formula for how people have to apply for the Diesel and Alternative Fuels Grants Scheme. If the Labor Party had voted with the government on this, we would have been able to deliver a whole lot more than we actually did to rural and regional Australia in the area of fuel. The speaker from the Labor Party talks about this and other attempts that the government have made to ease the load on rural families. Yet the reason why the AAA package was brought in—the reason why it was so critical that it be brought in—was the absolute and utter mess the rural economy had been left in after 13 years of Labor.

The Labor Party has absolutely no interest in rural and regional Australia. To take one example, the interest rates that were absolutely crippling people living on farms, who were paying anything up to 28 per cent interest, had far more of an impact on the viability and ability of such people to make a living than anything this government has done. This government came in in 1996 and it has made great strides in improving the viability of farms in Australia. As I said before, it is absolutely amazing that the opposition would come in here and even speak in such terms on this bill.

I strongly support the Retirement Assistance for Farmers Scheme Extension Bill 2000 and to some degree I agree with the previous speaker. It certainly is not easy for farmers who have been on the land for some length of time, often all their lives and possibly involving a previous generation, to make a decision to leave that farm. This retirement assistance for farmers in financial difficulties is only one of the key components of the successful Agriculture Advancing Australia scheme. Other assistance was offered—for example, the Farm Family Restart Scheme. Another part of the Agriculture Advancing Australia scheme which was so welcome and useful in my part of the world was West 2000. It was a pleasure just recently to be able to announce that the federal government had continued to fund West 2000 with the West 2000 Plus scheme.

These are a few of the measures this government has taken to improve the viability of farms and the livelihood and lifestyle of people on the land. For example, it was announced that the West 2000 funding was to be allocated by western people for western people. West 2000 Plus, which is a continuation of that scheme, has also been extremely warmly welcomed by people in western New South Wales. It has enabled farmers to build up their properties and make them a viable size. There are also various other measures like woody weed control. One of the most important aspects of the West 2000 and West 2000 Plus schemes is the education component. I think it is very easy to say that the uptake of this retirement assistance package was not what was expected. Perhaps part of the reason for that is so many other things were introduced at the same time that enabled farmers who perhaps might have taken up the package to improve their viability by continuing education, building up their farms and taking up the myriad of other opportunities this government has made available to them.

This scheme was introduced by this government in 1997 as part of a sustained approach to provide economic impetus and support for the rural sector. Since then the package has delivered unprecedented backing to all elements of the agricultural industry through enhanced competitiveness, viability and therefore profitability. But at the same time, the Agriculture Advancing Australia project included provision to assist those farmers struggling to cope financially in the form of this Retirement Assistance for Farmers Scheme. Since being introduced in September 1997 the retirement assistance initiative has served as a reassuring safety net for some 1,400 retiring Australian farmers and their families. The retirement assistance scheme allows older farmers to transfer their farm to the next generation without jeopardising their access to age pension payments or, where applicable, service pensions. As mentioned by the previous speaker, this bill seeks to extend this invaluable scheme by nine months to 30 June next year and, in doing so, allows more farmers to utilise the benefits and pass their farm operation on to younger generations without penalty.

This retirement assistance most benefits farmers who are confronted with financial difficulty because their farm business has to provide a livelihood for two families when, in reality, the operation has the capacity to support only one. It does so by removing a significant barrier to the transfer of the family farm from one generation to the next, that being the delay for retiring farmers in receiving pension assistance. They will be able to pass on their farm to their children as a going concern, confident that the new owners will be able to make a more viable living, and they will receive pension support immediately.

From a broader community perspective, maintaining the farm in family hands will foster greater economic confidence and allow long-time farm couples to retire in dignity and comfort. This extension of the scheme will not change the eligibility criteria. Farmers will still need to qualify by meeting the same conditions that have applied for the past three years—some of which were mentioned by the previous speaker—those being that the net value of the farm must be no more than $500,000, that retiring farmers must have owned the property for at least 15 years or been actively involved in farming for 20 years, that retiring farmers must have had an average income less than the age pension rate in the previous three years, and that the next generation to which the property is being handed must have had an active involvement in the farm for the three years prior to the transfer.

Quite clearly conditions need to be placed on a scheme such as this because it is targeted at those farmers who are the least viable. I am sure that if, for example, the criterion for the net value of the farm were increased to $1.5 million, we would hear squeals of protest from the opposition saying that it was too generous. The noise made by the opposition, on the one hand, is about farmers not having taken up this program while, on the other hand, they accept that there still need to be conditions so that farmers in the target group are the ones who are actually taking it up. By extending this worthwhile program, the government will have contributed to a stronger farming community and allowed older farmers—including numerous armed forces veterans—to retire having placed the family farm in safe hands. Coupled with federal initiatives such as the recently announced $18 million Farm Innovation program to financially back new ideas in the farm sector, this government is constantly making new ground in boosting the fortunes of primary producers. Such an approach is particularly critical in my electorate of Parkes in western New South Wales, where we face many challenges. We have a limited ability to diversify, so any assistance to provide innovation on the farm is most welcome.

There are many other significant impediments placed in the way of young farmers in my part of the world and in other areas of New South Wales, not the least the savage restrictions the New South Wales Labor government have placed on clearing. There are many areas both in my electorate and in other parts of New South Wales where young farmers have bought country and have cleared small parcels of that country with the intention of clearing more in a sensible and sustainable way to pay off the loan and provide an income and a lifestyle for their family. Many of these farmers have had the wool pulled from under their feet when the Labor government in New South Wales changed the rules, severely restricting farmers' ability to plant crop and therefore severely restricting their ability to produce an income. In fact, many young farmers from my part of the world have actually up and left the farm because of the impositions the state Labor government have placed on them.

As a predominantly sheep grazing and wool-producing area, the impact on farmers of a slump in the world wool market and commodity prices has been dramatic and long term in some areas. Emerging alternative farming methods and products, ably supported through the funding efforts of this government, augur well for the next generation of farmers to take control of the farm operation. Freed from the burden of trying to provide income for two families, the farm's chances of remaining a viable income source are increased. But in the state's far west, where the options for farming other than sheep grazing are more limited, the drought has greatly aggravated the economic situation. Here the prospects for two-family farm operations are most dire, and it is in these communities that support mechanisms such as retirement assistance for farmers are most needed and appreciated. It is essential that governments continue to offer incentive and support to the farming communities that are the cultural heart of areas such as western New South Wales. The more farmers' offspring that can be kept on the land, the more a confident sense of economic security and stability can be maintained in our small rural communities. The curse of the asset-rich but cash-poor farmer is well recognised. By extending this assistance scheme, we continue to right the wrongs of fiscal circumstance for older farmers on less profitable holdings.

Small communities, in my area and in others, rely heavily on the economic wellbeing of the surrounding farming operations and, as a result, the balance between remaining a service town or becoming a virtual ghost town is a delicate one. By striving to provide both the incentive to excel on the one hand and a safety net for embattled older farmers on the other, this government is meeting its commitment to the people in the non-metropolitan heartland of this country. In areas hardest hit by the reversal in the fortunes of traditional produce, this scheme is a commonsense approach to delivering the best outcomes for individual farmers and the wider communities in which they live. I look forward to seeing the uptake of this scheme in the next nine months. As the previous speaker noted, it is an emotional decision for farmers who have worked and lived on the same farm or in the same area for all of their lives and the lives of their ancestors. It is not surprising that the uptake of such a scheme has perhaps not been what was predicted, but giving the farmers another nine months to consider their positions and make the decision that will put them and their families in the best possible position in the future will be welcome. I commend this bill to the House.