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Wednesday, 19 September 2001
Page: 31065

Mr O'CONNOR (10:58 AM) —From the opposition's point of view, the Social Security and Veterans' Entitlements Legislation Amendment (Retirement Assistance for Farmers) Bill 2001 will be supported in its passage through the House. There is some tragedy in relation to this particular bill in that the government is winding it up before the member for Corangamite will be able to access it. I think that is going to be one of the tragedies of this bill. I notice the euphoria of the government coming in from the cold, as we say, in polling terms.

The honourable member who spoke in the debate previously happened to mention the polls, and of course the honourable member for Corangamite will no doubt be buoyed by them. It has been a long time between drinks for the government in the polls. As the honourable member for Corangamite knows, we harbour fond hopes of winning the seat, and nothing has changed in light of the polls. The measure of the government's desperation in holding onto the jewel in the Liberal crown in Victoria was the appearance of the Prime Minister in Corangamite. I do not think we have ever seen a Liberal Prime Minister, only one driving through the seat: the Lord of Nareen used to drive through the seat on his way to Melbourne. But now we have the Prime Minister, that great urban lawyer, pretending that he knows something about rural affairs in the seat of Corangamite.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mrs De-Anne Kelly)—Member for Corio, while wide ranging debates are generally accepted, I think we might make a mild reference to the bill!

Mr O'CONNOR —I was alluding to the intent of the bill, Madam Deputy Speaker; perhaps I have not made that particular point clear. It deals with retirement assistance for farmers and it was in that context that I directed my comments to the member for Corangamite. This scheme was announced in 1997 as part of the government's Agriculture—Advancing Australia package—that great and original package from the coalition that basically rebadged most of the good schemes that were put in place by the Labor Party at the time. I guess that is one of the skills you have when you come to office: you pick the eyes out of the good things that have been done by the previous government. Of course, that will be the philosophy that the Labor Party will employ when we come to power after the next election, although it will probably be slim pickings. But we will scour what has been done by the government over their five wasted years and, if there is anything that missed the wreckage, we will most certainly adopt it.

This particular scheme originally allowed farmers a three-year window of opportunity, which began on 14 September 1997, to give farms and farm assets with a value of up to $500,000 to the next generation, without affecting their access to an age or a veterans' affairs pension. The opposition supported the passage of that legislation through the parliament when it was put up by the government. Of course, like everything that the government says, we heard the claims by the then minister—that great exaggerator, the Deputy Prime Minister—who at the time announced to the rural sector that this was the greatest thing since sliced bread. This was the creme de la creme of schemes to effect the intergenerational transfer of farms. He raised great expectations that there would be some 10,000 farmers with the capacity to access this particular scheme.

Of course, the drumbeats went out in rural and regional Australia, like they did with multiperil crop insurance and a host of other things, and we saw the spectacular failure of the government's policy in this regard. As I understand it, to date only 2,000 farmers have made use of the scheme. I commend those farmers for the actions they have taken under the scheme. Even the member for Corangamite, who, on his vast properties in the Western District, counts sheep day in, day out, can understand that there is a difference between having 10,000 in the pen and 2,000 in the paddock. I say to the member for Corangamite: is that not so?

Mr McArthur —They're not much good for counting in the House!

Mr O'CONNOR —We know that those skills are not transferable from farm to the House. But when he gets out there, breathing the fresh air on the farm, he knows the difference between having 10,000 in one paddock and 2,000 in another paddock. That is what your minister said at the time with respect to the number of farmers who would access this scheme—that it would be 10,000. This was going to be the great government initiative to effect the intergenerational transfer of farms. Of course, what happened? We now see that 2,000 have used the scheme.

The reason why you were able to ratchet up the figure of 2,000 was that you extended the scheme. It was no good; the criteria were too tight. The NFF told you that; the New South Wales Farmers Association told you that. One of the honourable members who is present in the chamber is from New South Wales. It is good to see New South Welshmen in here, because normally when we speak on agricultural affairs the two squires from the Western District, the members for Wannon and Corangamite, speak in these debates. The honourable member from New South Wales would know—

Mr Lawler —Parkes.

Mr O'CONNOR —Parkes, is it? I am sorry, I am obviously elevating him beyond his station. I acknowledge the honourable member for Parkes in the chamber today. I understand that he is leaving parliament and that it is going to be—

Mr Sercombe —It's because he's unimpressed with Corangamite and Wannon.

Mr O'CONNOR —It may well be that, but I think the parliament is going to be a bit less for your going, honourable member for Parkes, quite frankly, and that is the view of members on this side of the House. I will get back to the matters in hand. The honourable members for Corangamite and Wannon were part of that cabal that trotted around the rural industries and rural districts of Australia trumpeting this great initiative and, here we are, talked up to 10,000 but actually delivered 2,000. They are serial offenders when it comes to policy. I will confine my remarks to the rural sector because I think it is illustrative of just how hopeless this particular government has been over the last five years.

In the first place, we had the wool industry fiasco and the sale of the stockpile. This always gets the honourable members excited because they really do not like to know the truth. But when Pauline speaks, some members of the Liberal Party jump. It is like the sheep dancing out in the paddock, or perhaps it is like the sheepdog that leaps up on the back of the sheep. When Pauline rattled the can, the honourable members, spooked as they were, suspended sales from the stockpile.

Let me tell you, friends: the polls will not spook us, not like Pauline spooked you when you suspended the sale of wool from the stockpile. But it does not end there. The tale I am telling here is about failure of policy, the failure of policy in the instance of dairy deregulation. The honourable member for Corangamite was lauded by the minister here as the Bert Kelly. We know him in my electorate as Captain Zero. He has the electorate over the other side of the river. He is the zero tariff man. He is the man that would have destroyed Ford Australia. There would have been no car industry if we had not defeated you in that election, way back when. Honourable member for Corangamite, you might know a bit about sheep, but I do not think you know much at all about dairy. If your influence in the bowels of the coalition had been as profound as you claim, I would have thought we would have had a different attitude to dairy deregulation.

What we got was a disaster, and I will relate it to this Social Security and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Retirement Assistance for Farmers) Bill 2001, because it is dealing with the intergenerational transfer of farms. Let us have a look at dairy deregulation and what it has done to the age profiles of the dairy industry in this country. As we know, one of the vehicles into the dairy industry traditionally has been sharefarming, where young dairy farmers not only gain expertise in running an enterprise under the guidance of an owner but they are able to accumulate some capital and stock which, at a particular point of their lives, they take from that facility onto their own farm.

What has been the impact of the coalition's dairy deregulation on that particular section of the dairy industry? As we went around Australia with a task force looking into this failure of coalition policy, what we found was that many sharefarmers took the money and ran, and left the industry. Some very good young people who would have stayed in this industry and lowered the age profile of the industry actually left it as a result of government policy.

In this Retirement Assistance for Farmers Scheme, we have a failure of policy. In relation to the capacity of young people to earn an income in the dairy industry, the government's policy has failed. I go to exceptional circumstances: here where you demand consistency of policy what have we had? We have had procrastination and decisions made on a political basis—another example of policy failure. I go to quarantine. This would be something that would be close to the member for Hinkler, another one of the good guys on the National Party side. He is one of what we call the `rural socialists' in the National Party who is probably so far to the left of the member for Corangamite he would fall off the breakfast plate.

As far as quarantine is concerned, we had a flurry of activity in the budget. The coalition must think that the farming community is stupid. We know that the audit report was done well in advance of the budget. Of course, the budget comes down and the minister says, `Hey presto, we have got here a great initiative of $600 million on quarantine'! I am talking about policy failure here. Of course we know why the government did that. But if you go one step back and have a look at the Senate committee reports on salmon, apples and chicken meat you realise just how bad the government has been in that quarantine area as far as policy is concerned.

I am mentioning these areas because I think this reinforces the point I am making on the floor of this chamber today: we are debating a bill which, on the government's own criteria, is a failure. The issue for the rural sector in the future is going to be lowering the age profile of people in the industry. I do not cast any aspersions here. I know that there are some members in this place who can run half marathons and I commend them for that. They do that when they are almost at retirement age. I think that is an extraordinary feat. But the question is: how are we going to get young people into this sector? The honourable member for Corangamite has got a few clicks up on the old age meter and so have I. We both consider ourselves in our prime as far as life is concerned. But the simple fact is that the age profile of farmers has risen over a long period of time. The dairy industry is one industry we could look at: the age profile there is somewhere in the region of 58 or 59. How do we encourage young people into agriculture and how do we effect that intergenerational transfer of farms? Obviously this particular scheme has not really addressed the latter. As far as the former is concerned, I think there is a great task now facing the sons and daughters of people who are raised on farms.

The honourable members for Wannon and Corangamite will relate to this. Maybe they play polo out there on the fields of the Western District. We working class lads from Alvie only had football to play in the winter and maybe tennis or cricket in the summer. We did not play polo or any of those sorts of games down on the flat lands of Nareen in the Western District.

Nowadays young people growing up have multiple choices as far as their sporting directions go which were not available to somebody like me when I grew up in the Western District. Today there are competing occupations, and it is more difficult for the sons and daughters of young farmers when the objective of the family is to send them away to be educated. They do taste the good life in city environments and then they see in a comparable sense that significant incomes can be earned in other occupations. It takes a long time for them to work through that experience and finally come back onto the farm. There is another thing at work here, and that is of course the decline in services. Here the government is particularly culpable, because in its first years it drove the boot into rural and regional Australia. That is why we have the MV Tampa, we had the trip to the United States and now we have this as far as the Prime Minister is concerned. One of the reasons why young people—

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mrs De-Anne Kelly)—Member for Corio, `wide ranging' does not mean `all encompassing'. I think we will try to restrict comments to the bill in question.

Mr O'CONNOR —Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will accept your guidance on this. I am trying to draw a picture of why young people are not coming back onto the farm, and I mentioned the decline in services which has taken place over the last five years. The government must be held responsible for that. There is now a general unwillingness on the part of many urban spouses to partake of the country experience because these services are not available. All of this relates very directly to how we effect the objective of getting more young people on farms, and this is the subject of the legislation that is before us here in the Main Committee. I think industries in agriculture must take some of the responsibility for the encouragement of younger entrants into their particular industries. It cannot be left to government alone. Many industries have developed discrete pathways where young people get access to a rural experience, obtain some skills and make their way through a series of steps to the point where they can own their own farm.

But of course governments must also look for successful ways in a policy sense to encourage that lowering of the age profile and to attract new young entrants into the sector. I think there is a job to be done in the education system, because we are now finding that there is not only a lack of understanding of the length and breadth of the occupations that are available to people in Australian agriculture but a general lack of understanding in cities about country life in general. Governments do have a role to play there. Perhaps the criteria that were employed in this particular scheme were somewhat strict. This was not an easy program to access according to the NFF and other farming organisations. There were a number of eligibility criteria but the main ones were that you had to have long-term involvement in farming, you had to have a total income of less than the applicable age or veterans' pension rate for the three years prior to the transfer and you had to be of age pension age or reach that age before the scheme's end date. These were fairly strict criteria and not many farmers were able to access the scheme.

The bill that we are debating here today amends the Retirement Assistance for Farmers Scheme provisions in the Social Security Act 1991 and the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 to enable farmers who are otherwise qualified for the scheme and who have submitted an application before the cut-off date of 30 June 2001 to finalise the transfer of their farm within a specified time frame after 30 June 2001. For most qualified farmers this will be a period of three months from the date that the department of social security and the Department of Veterans' Affairs advise them that their application has been approved.

This is not the first time that this particular scheme has been amended by the government. I would have thought that the issue we are discussing today would have been dealt with in the original bill that extended the scheme, but it was not and of course it is the subject of debate here today. As I indicated earlier—and the member for Corangamite will be pleased about this—we will certainly not inhibit the passage of the bill through the parliament. Our only disappointment is that the government is going to wind this scheme up before the member for Corangamite can access it.