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Wednesday, 18 September 2019
Page: 3542


Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (12:39): I would have thought the former minister for agriculture would have been in this place long enough by now to know that you do not question why people haven't turned up at a certain times for debates like this. That's because, Minister, you never know what people might be doing and why they might be late, do you? There might be a good reason for that. So I just advise him to show a bit of maturity in this place rather than going back to National Party fundamentalism and sticking to the spin that we just heard from him with respect to the agriculture sector.

I do lament losing the minister from the agriculture portfolio because, from time to time, both prior to the election and even here this morning—not all the time, I emphasise—he does sound a little bit like the member for Hunter, particularly when he starts talking about research and development and innovation, for example, and about less siloing and more cross-sectoral work in research and development. But what we want him to do, with his colleagues, is stop talking about it and do something. He spent $2.3 million prior to the election on an EY report on R&D, and we are still here talking about it. And now we have another committee. What our farmers and people more broadly in rural and regional Australia want from this government is less talking and more doing. Minister, they just want you to do something, particularly those drought affected farmers, families and communities who just see you form committee after committee. And we had another one this week on this Water Grid Authority. They don't want a water grid authority, Minister; they just want you to do something. Please, do something! The last time a dam was built in this country was under a federal Labor government, and you know that. In six years, you've done nothing but talk about it and talk about it. We've had a drought coordinator, a drought envoy, a drought task force and a drought summit, but what we haven't had is any action.

On rural assistance, I refer the minister to the budget papers, which say, 'The rural assistance function is expected to decrease by 13 per cent in real terms from 2018-19 to 2019-20 and decrease by 22.4 per cent in real terms over the period 2019-20 to 2022-23.' This is a pretty important question at a time when farmers are struggling in the face of drought as to whether they are getting more assistance or less assistance. One of the things the minister might want to share with the House is the extent to which families are now being forced off the farm household allowance because they've come to the end of the period for which they qualify.

I said in an article in one of our newspapers when we agreed on a new strategy on drought reform in 2012—when I say 'we', I mean all the parties, the NFF and all the stakeholders—that we agreed to do a number of things and one of those was to make the farm household allowance time-limited. In other words, farmers would be told, 'In that time'—it was three years and now, I think, it is four in total—'you have to either adjust your business model and build resilience or basically get out.' That's to put it bluntly. But none of us could have conceived back in 2012 the severity and longevity of the drought, the high temperatures and the rates of evaporation people would be experiencing on the land at the moment. It is just inconceivable to me that we are going to farming families in the middle of a drought—and it is probably the worst drought now in our history—and saying, 'You've had your income support long enough, you haven't adjusted and we're not paying you any longer.' While I'm always talking about adjustment, building resilience, adaptation, new farming methods, regenerative farming and all of that, you can't make that adjustment during these circumstances—the worst drought in our history. That is just impossible. Our farming families need ongoing assistance. I know you want a budget surplus, Minister, but you don't want a budget surplus at the expense of our farming families.