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Thursday, 24 June 2010
Page: 6553

Dr STONE (12:33 PM) —I too wish to support the Farm Household Support Amendment (Ancillary Benefits) Bill 2010. It is of critical concern to the coalition that farmers who are in what we have called exceptional circumstances do get some support from state, federal and local governments. After all, if we want to have sustained food security in this country and if we want to be able to go into the supermarket and see fresh and manufactured foods that are grown in our country then we have to make sure that our farmers survive. There are a whole range of reasons why it is more difficult right now to survive, particularly under the Rudd-Gillard Labor government, than before.

There has been a long period when exceptional circumstances have focused on drought relief, particularly in my electorate of Murray. In fact, we have had the worst drought on record. It is continuing now into its 10th year. There is absolutely no doubt that, without the payments from the exceptional circumstances program to thousands of my farm families over that period of time, we would have had a complete collapse of the economy in northern Victoria and more farmers would have exited the business. The economies of scale of dairy production in particular but also livestock and cropping production would have been so reduced without that EC support that our food manufacturing sector would also have collapsed, leading to major losses of jobs in manufacturing, transport and the commercial supports for the food-manufacturing businesses.

We have to get it right in terms of support for the farm sector when faced with circumstances beyond their control. This bill looks at a pilot in Western Australia which is going to assume that the people involved in the pilot are in fact exceptional circumstances designated. They will have offered to them a series of measures. I understand this government will measure the impact of this pilot, which will then direct them in framing special support in the future for farmers who are caught up in difficult circumstances, which might be due to drought, climate change or another desperate circumstance that is beyond their control.

The Western Australian trial will include Farm Family Support with income to help meet basic household expenses. I presume that will echo what is currently happening with the exceptional circumstances payment. There will be Farm Social Support, including better ways to meet mental health issues, counselling and other social needs of farm families and communities. There will be a Building Farm Businesses set of grants of up to $60,000 to help farm businesses prepare for the impacts of drought, reduced water access and changed climate.

We are told there will also be support for on-farm Landcare activities. I am very pleased to see Landcare mentioned there because this government has gutted the funding for Landcare, a most important and significant program for more than 20 years in Australia and one that has kept a lot of our landscape in reasonable condition. It has rehabilitated a lot of landscape. Without additional funding those who are the land carers just simply cannot go on.

There is also support in this trial with Farm Planning, where farmers will be able to undertake training that will help them in their farm businesses in the future. We are told that the training will relate to future challenges. There will be stronger rural communities grants. They will go to local governments, and local governments will then try to ensure their rural communities are more resilient in downturns. There will be Farm Exit Support, with grants up to $170,000 to support farmers who have to leave their properties. There is, we are told, Beyond Farming, a special measure that will put current farmers in touch with previous farmers to help them understand what opportunities there might be outside farming, given they have to exit what they do.

This pilot is, as I say, part of the process of looking at how better we can prepare farm families for the seasonal and other catastrophes that meet them in the future. We are looking forward to a careful evaluation of how this pilot works out on the ground. There are some issues that have not as yet been properly dealt with, unfortunately. One is the guidelines for the Farm Family Support Scheme. We do not yet know what those guidelines are. Clearly they need to be made public and we need to ensure that they are appropriate. We also do not know yet how ‘hardship’ is to be defined. Of course, farmers have to demonstrate they are in hardship in order to access support through this pilot program. How is hardship defined? Is it a measure of income loss? Is it a measure of something else? We need to know what that is, obviously, to be assured that this pilot is going to be on a sound footing.

We commend the pilot and we hope it succeeds. There are serious implications for the future of our nation as we face a whole range of seasonal challenges, but there are other problems as well for the farm sector. I want to talk about those and put to this government the question of how they are to be dealt with if we are going to continue to have Australian grown food on our tables and if our food production is to be secure. It is under threat on so many fronts.

We know that if you have a non-viable farm sector, since the farm community actually manages the environmental services production of this country, your environment itself becomes degraded. By that I mean that a viable farm sector manages water quality, soil quality, biodiversity protection and habitat protection. When a farm is on a sustainable footing there are sufficient funds to put back into fencing out that last remnant of vegetation, for example, or to make sure that the groundwater is properly managed and soil cover is retained so there it is not a blow when it gets into dry conditions. All of that is contingent on the farm being viable. Unfortunately, we have right now a situation where, due to a number of factors, too many farms are becoming or are heavily indebted. Therefore, it is much more difficult for these farms to maintain and sustain the landscape, the natural resources and to produce the environmental services which all of the Australian population—indeed, our society itself—depends on. The connection between the environment and viable farms is of critical and highly significant importance, and I do not think it is understood at all by this government—this new Labor government. I just hope the new Prime Minister begins to understand differently.

We have in Australia a duopoly in the form of the incredible concentration of supermarket ownership. That duopoly squeezes prices to the farm sector for both fresh and manufactured food product. Squeezing those prices and making the margins so slim constantly puts pressure on farmers to survive commercially. We have to look very closely at how to manage better the concentration of ownership and at how to make sure there is not unconscionable action so that farmers—at the bottom of the value chain as the initial suppliers of the goods that end up on our plates—are not the victims of this duopoly. Those supermarkets can so easily reach offshore for alternative product. It is cheaper. If imported product goes into their own generic labels, it is hard for the shopper to distinguish where that product has come from. Is it beetroot from the Balkans or is it beetroot from somewhere in Australia? We need to be able to have the shopper understand exactly where their food is coming from. Unfortunately, because of the confusion of our food labelling laws, too many of our discerning food shoppers—our household buyers—cannot work out just how much of the can or jar of product actually comes from Australia and how much is overseas in origin. We have to do better with our food labelling laws, because unfortunately we are jeopardising the future of Australia’s own food security. That will continue for as long as we do not carefully identify just what is in that product—and in that manufactured product, in particular.

We also have the disastrous Labor government water buyback policy. It comes at a time when we have the worst drought on record and some of the lowest prices for commodities, like milk and cereals, on record. When you combine the disastrous water buyback policy with the commercial pressures, cost-of-production increases and farm family distress, you have disaster. In my electorate of Murray, farmers are in their 10th year of drought. Their banks and other lenders have been patient, but now there are a series of water buy-back tenders and these farmers are being told: ‘You owe us hundreds of thousands of dollars. Your water is worth about that or a little more. Sell your water, get yourself out of debt and we as your lenders will be the happier because you are at the end of your lending possibilities.’

Selling your water in a region which has low natural rainfall is the same as selling your dairy herd. Your means of production are gone. But there is a win-win solution, an alternative, which I am afraid this government refuses to tune into. Why can’t we have a win-win scenario instead of water buybacks from so-called ‘willing sellers’? There is no such thing as a willing seller when you are a young farmer with a dairy herd and with investment of perhaps many hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital for dairy, laser grading and a whole range of other on-farm works and when you have gone through 10 years of drought. There is no hope for you unless you have on-farm water use efficiency support. But what we have at the moment is just buyback.

We keep having groups like the Wentworth group of so-called independent scientists saying, ‘Look, it’s much cheaper to just go into the market and buy the water off these food producers.’ Yes, it is cheaper. You can get that water for about $1,400 a megalitre. But, if you are in fact to have a sustainable food production capacity for this country, you have to have water security. Water security can be a by-product of better environmental security and management as well—for example, if you have on-farm water use efficiency support funding for something like subsurface irrigation or more pressurised irrigation systems. These technologies are not always in place, particularly in horticulture. Where you invest in those measures you have the outcomes of higher production and lower water use, and the water that is saved can be put back into our rivers and streams.

At the moment, this government talks about a hierarchy of need. It has the environment at the top, then critical human need and then under that is the use of water for production—for example, irrigation or tourism. In fact, it is not a hierarchy of need; it is a virtual circle. In relation to the environment and its management, whether it is rivers and streams and/or the landscape itself, that environment depends on viable human communities to manage it. Once you beggar the human communities that have for generations in Australia managed that landscape effectively and constantly improved their practices and drive them out of business, what you have left is degraded farmland—that is, farmland where there is no-one to kill the weeds, destroy the feral animals, maintain the remnant vegetation, manage the soils so that they do not blow away, manage the groundwater systems or manage the surface water systems. If you have impoverished the human communities, they cannot do the environmental service production that I referred to at the beginning of my remarks. But that is what is happening throughout the southern Murray-Darling Basin.

I invite the Minister for Climate Change, Energy Efficiency and Water, Senator Penny Wong, to come and visit northern Victoria at the height of summer and to look at the properties that were once highly productive in dairying, fruits, oil seeds, cropping and livestock. Those communities have been forced to sell their water. The landscape in those communities is now blowing dust and is knee-high in weeds. The remnant vegetation is dying and the Landcare work that was done on roadside and other vegetation is not being maintained because those human communities have been deprived of their means of production and their capacity to sustain their properties and make a reasonable living. Is that what this government actually wanted? Is that what their so-called ‘environmental policy’ was meant to produce—the destruction of human communities, of country towns and of country places?

It was those country places that managed the landscape. If you say: ‘Oh, it’s not a problem. We can bring in the public servants. We’ll just simply pump up the numbers of contractors and people working for the department of sustainability and environment or the department of primary industries. We’ll put all of them out there on the ground to do the work that was once done as part of their farming activity by the land managers, who were farmers. They’ll do the work that should be done to maintain the landscape and the environment.’ They do not do it. There has never yet in the history of Australia been enough resources to put into the public sector to do the sort of environmental service, management and protection that needs to be done.

I am desperately worried about how we can maintain our farming populations when they are under such incredible threat across so many sectors, whether it is the price pressures on the domestic market brought about because of the duopolies and the power of the supermarkets or whether it is because when they export their foods they do so into corrupt world food markets. Everyone knows that the food trade internationally is subject to a whole range of different government interventions. Food trade is often confused with aid, so we have a long-established market that is often corrupted and distorted by dumped product—that is, product that is moved around the world in response to political pressures back home rather than in response to a market that responds to supply and demand.

Too often food sales into our export markets do not give back to the primary producer their costs of production. There is no long-term security for how we go about growing those markets in the face of government interventions in food trade. Then, as I have mentioned, we have problems with food labelling laws in Australia. We have serious issues with the growing costs of production. Even the new mining tax changes that this government wants to bring about will cost our farmers enormously in the inputs to all that they do, including the superphosphates and other fertilisers that are extracted out of the ground. They will get caught up in the mining laws.

Most of all, I am hugely concerned about the new sustainable delivery limits that are about to be announced in the Murray-Darling Basin by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. They will take more of the water supply that food producers—that is, the farmers—are currently able to access. When those SDLs are announced, we presume in the coming weeks, how will farm family communities survive with even less water and with a government that has no intention of investing in on-farm water use efficiency support?

There was a tiny grant basket offered for on-farm water efficiency by this government. It was not the more than $3 billion that the coalition offered for the Murray-Darling Basin, but a tiny basket of grant moneys was made available recently by the minister, Penny Wong. Then she put all these caveats over what that money could be used for. In my electorate, for example, where we know sub-surface irrigation has major potential as a way to reduce water use but increase productivity, we were told that was not allowed to be one of the ways that such a grant could be used. We were also told that the use of things like overhead sprinklers—big centrifugal sprinklers—would also not be allowed. Who decided what technology was appropriate? It was clearly not anybody who understood anything about what works best in my part of the world.

We have nonsense coming out of this federal government on the risks that farmers now face and how they are best supported. We support this trial in Western Australia to work out how best to assist farms, farm communities and their local governments to survive disasters which are beyond an individual or community’s control. We have to do much better. Let us hope that, when this trial is completed, it is looked at with eyes that are better informed and there are better motives than this government has shown in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin. That goes for its water buyback schemes, its cutting back on Landcare funding and its cutting back on regional development support—in all shapes and forms. I can tell you that, where I come from in rural and regional Australia, my communities are in despair. They wonder why it is that they are overlooked— (Time expired)