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Tuesday, 3 December 2019
Page: 6755

Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (12:40): I begin by moving:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House criticises the Government for:

(1) its ad hoc approach to drought assistance;

(2) failing to deliver a comprehensive drought plan; and

(3) forcing drought-affected farmers off the Farm Household Allowance".

If you were to serve a constituent in any electorate today around this country and ask them what they thought was the most pressing issue in our local communities, I'm very, very confident drought and water would be at the top of their responses. There is no doubt that Australians everywhere—not just those living in rural and regional Australia, but those living in our capital cities and on the urban fringes of them—are fully aware and conscious of the plight being faced by Australia's farming communities, and the rural communities which support them, which they in turn support. Yet I ask: where are the speakers on this bill? Where are they?

Mr Drum: Here I am.

Mr FITZGIBBON: I hear one voice, one voice from the member for Nicholls. There he is, Mr Deputy Speaker, the member for Nicholls. Where is the National Party these days? Why isn't the National Party in here supporting our farmers, talking about the challenges they face, talking about their plight? The answer is: they're too busy fighting amongst one another outside. They're in a couple of fights. They're also in a fight with their coalition party. They are also in a fight with the Liberal Party. They are in a fight with the most arrogant Prime Minister in the history of the Federation, who does not give a toss about the National Party unless he needs their votes.

But in the good old days under 'Black Jack' McEwen, Tim Fischer and many others you could be sure that the National Party vote wasn't given over easily. You could always be sure that in the cabinet room 'Black Jack,' Sinclair and all those who followed him would be putting a price on their vote and that price would be a defence of those living in rural and regional Australia. But suddenly the National Party has gone silent. Their silence is deafening—deafening on a daily basis. It is clear to all Australians that the government's response to this drought has been piecemeal, ad hoc and even chaotic. You'd think members of the National Party would be in here talking about that today but they are not.

This is the 13th occasion since 2014 that this government has amended their farm household allowance. This is the legislation that Barnaby Joyce, the member for New England, told us in 2014 was the thing that would fix all things for our farmers in drought. Well, of course, it's been proven to be anything but. Think about that: 13 bills since 2014, each of which has a package of amendments, not just one amendment. The last time we dealt with a bill amending this legislation in this place was on 23 October. This is how regularly they are now coming to this House.

Back in 2014, the member for New England just said, 'There's nothing to see here. You just apply. You don't have to wait and you get the payment, no problem at all.' But, of course, farmers were pretty quick to realise that would not be the case and he was pretty quick to realise it would not be the case, because he doctored his Hansard to correct the record. An incident which led to the dismissal of one of the most highly respected departmental secretaries in this capital city. That was an event which remains of great regret to me and should be of great regret to all those who sit opposite—that a senior, respected public servant was forced out of his job because he had the audacity to stand up to the member for New England and challenge him for dragging his departmental people into the Hansardgate scandal. So that's where farm household allowance began. Back then the member for New England told us it was the best thing since sliced bread and here we are in 2019, almost in 2020, and the government is still trying to get it right.

This bill, of course, does a number of things.

Mr Chester interjecting

Mr FITZGIBBON: I'm glad the minister's pleased. It adjusts the assets test again. I think we adjusted it to $5 million last time—I will stand corrected—and now it's going to $5.5 million. I don't know why; it's hard to say. Maybe it's because the government is now including water rights within the assets test. Maybe that's an add-on to accommodate that. If that is true, I'm not sure what the policy rationale is.

It creates an opportunity to offset farm losses against off-farm income from related businesses and vice versa. It liberalises the farm financial assistance rules so you no longer need, for example, an accountant to determine your farm liability; you can get some other adviser to do that. The information about the rules around that are pretty skinny. I'd be interested to hear the minister say some more about that measure.

It removes the taper rule on the income test. So, unlike for anyone else who is on government support of any sort, the income test won't have a taper rate. So if you qualify under the income test for $1 you get the lot, which is a pretty unusual measure. That will be given effect by an amendment to the Social Security Act. And, of course, it increases to $10,000 the activity supplement.

They're all improvements, and the opposition will support this bill on that basis, but it doesn't change the fact that this has been a problematic piece of legislation from the beginning and we'll probably be back here in February dealing with other amendments—you can almost bet your house on it.

The bill we dealt with last time did a number of things, including basically cutting people off the farm household allowance. The government say: 'Oh, no, we're not going to say now that you can have the farm household allowance for only four years; we're going to say that you can have it for four years and every 10 years.' That sounds great, doesn't it? That sounds like an improvement. But what it means is that someone who was cut off on 30 June this year will be able to apply in 2024—that's what it means. We all pray that the drought is not still ongoing in 2024.

I'll tell you what else it means. They tell us that now when they cut these people off farm household allowance—I don't know what the number's up to now; it's got to be up to a thousand farms by now—they'll get this supplementary payment of $7,500 for singles and $13,000 for couples. What they don't tell you is that, if you were cut off on 30 June this year, you won't get the payment until the last bill we dealt with becomes law and is proclaimed. So, for six months, 600 families cut off from the farm household allowance have been waiting for their supplementary payment—six months. Think about that. Some of these people have been in drought for up to six years. People in some parts of the country have been in drought for nine years. Many of these people have probably been in drought for six years. These are the people most challenged by this drought, otherwise they would not have been on the farm household allowance in the first place, because it's a very, very tough benefit to secure—very tough on so many fronts. So the government say: 'On 30 June there'll be no more payments for you. But don't worry—we'll give you a $7½ thousand payment or a $13,000 payment for the six months on your way out.' What they didn't say is that you wouldn't be able to get that payment until that last bill we debated is proclaimed—six months. They don't tell you that. They only like to tell you the good bits, like the Prime Minister's last announcement.

I haven't counted how many announcements there have been, but there have been plenty of them. It's always piecemeal—make the announcement, put a big dollar figure on it and hope it rains. That's the government's model. The last time the Prime Minister made an announcement, he talked about zero-interest loans. I didn't have time to check when the announcement was made, but it was many, many weeks ago now, probably months. What he didn't tell you is that the zero-interest loans aren't available until January next year, at the earliest. In fact, we won't see the guidelines until then. So maybe saying January is fairly optimistic in itself.

The government love loans. They love announcing concessional loans. Why? Because it allows them to talk about the capital value of the loans. They say, 'We're putting $2 billion worth of loans on the table' and people out there think, 'Two billion dollars for our farmers—that sounds like a lot of money; that sounds pretty good, Prime Minister.' But what the Prime Minister doesn't tell people is that that's the capital value of all those loans if they were lent. The government borrow at the bond rate and often dish these concessional loans out at what they call a concessional rate, but a rate higher than the bond rate. I accept that's not true of the zero-interest loans, but, again, they're not going to be available until at least January next year. It's always been about concessional loans for this government. That's so they can talk about the big dollar figure.

The fact is that, for most farmers in trouble as a result of the drought, in this record low-interest environment—the lowest interest rate environment in our lifetime—more debt or shuffling debt is not the answer. They need cash for food on the table and they need cash flow for their business. They need cash to keep their stock alive, including their breeding stock, so they have a business to rebuild when the drought breaks. That's what they need. Concessional loans do not deliver that for most farmers. But that's been the focus of the government's announcements, or at least where the government has wanted the focus to be.

Then there was the Future Drought Fund and all the fanfare that was created around it. Remember: they stole the money out of the Building Australia Fund—$3.9 billion—money which would have been used in large part for investment in road projects in regional Australia. They robbed that to put it into this new Future Drought Fund. They hope to grow that to $5 billion. It will grow to $5 billion because they will not be taking much out of it along the way. From, I think, 1 July next year, they are going to be drawing down a hundred million dollars to build, they say, drought resilience in our farming communities. A hundred million dollars is a lot of money in anybody's language, but in this context it's chicken feed. Already you can see the states asking: how much are we going to receive in our states? With six states and one territory affected, divide that by seven and it's getting pretty skinny straightaway. It shouldn't be spent in proportion in each of the states—that would be the wrong way to spend the money—but that's where the expectation is growing already.

The key point is that drought affected farmers won't see one cent of that dollar. The Prime Minister likes to say we've got a future drought fund—a hundred million dollars coming down every year. Well, not till next year, Prime Minister, not till midway through next year, but not one cent of that will go to our farmers. I support the idea of building a fund to do the research and to develop the innovation and technology to build further resilience in our farming communities—to work on soil health, to embrace the latest innovation in water efficiency, whatever it might be. But don't pretend, Prime Minister, that you're spending a hundred million dollars a year from 1 July next year on our drought affected farmers, because it simply is not true.

Prime Minister, you should stop misleading the Australian community, which is what you've been deliberately doing since you took the top spot and said you would make drought and our farmers your No. 1 priority, something you clearly have not done. Your constant repeat of this $7 billion figure—thankfully now exposed both in our newspaper and in Senate estimates as a lie—has been designed to do only one thing: pretend you are making our farmers your No. 1 priority.

Prime Minister, they see it. They understand it. They see this $7 billion figure and they say: 'Well, where is it? Because I'm not getting any of it.' I don't know who the Prime Minister thinks he is talking to, although I do suspect. I acknowledged earlier that people in our capital cities and our suburbs of our capital cities are as concerned about our farmers as are people in rural communities. So in fact he's talking to the people in the capital cities and on the urban fringes, where he thinks he needs the votes most. He knows that they don't know the $7 billion is not getting there, because they're not out suffering on the land. But, when people suffering on the land hear him say it, they certainly ask the question. No wonder they are angry. No wonder they are parked on the front lawns of Parliament House as we speak, complaining not only about the government's inadequate response to the drought but about its total mismanagement of the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It is a total failure on that front.

I saw the Deputy Premier of New South Wales muscling up this morning, threatening again to walk away from the plan. He is not prepared to say, of course, whether he has the support of his Premier, which is a rather interesting dynamic, but that takes me back to where I began. National Party members of parliament aren't in here defending their dairy farmers, because they're too busy outside this chamber, fighting with their state counterparts, fighting with their coalition partners or, indeed, fighting amongst themselves. We know about the great divide between the southern and the northern Nats and how they are ripping themselves apart.

Mr Chester: Deputy Speaker, on a point of relevance: the member has had fair leeway, but he's straying very widely from the topic of discussion of the bill.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr S Georganas ): I think the shadow minister is being pretty relevant. There has been a lot of talk on water.

Mr FITZGIBBON: Out of respect to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will try even harder.

I know it hurts very much when you are a junior coalition partner and you're being pushed around by the Prime Minister. I know it hurts. It's a tough time. Black Jack McEwen would be rolling in his grave. Black Jack, Sinkers, Anderson, Fischer—none of them would have allowed themselves to be pushed around like this National Party is being pushed around by this bullying Prime Minister. So I'd be up on my feet too, Minister. I'd be embarrassed too. It is never too late to start counting the numbers either, Minister, because the vulnerability is writ large and very obvious.

The other thing that is most critical to the agriculture sector, of course, is our biosecurity. How is that going for the government? Wendy Craik did a review of the Intergovernmental Agreement on Biosecurity back in, I think, 2017. She recommended a levy be put in place to build the resources we need to properly defend our borders on the biosecurity front. Here we are, almost Christmas of 2019, and where is the levy? Again, we don't have a levy after all that time, because they're fighting amongst each other on that side. They can't get agreement. The Prime Minister managed to turn this not into a scheme to build our biosecurity defences but into a plan to build a budget surplus. Here we are again, watching the Prime Minister putting his trophy surplus ahead of the needs of our farmers and, more than that, ahead of the security of the food supply system in this country. No wonder they've gone into hiding.

The National Farmers Federation has a strategy to grow Australia's agriculture sector to the value of $100 billion by 2030. That's a great aspiration to have. We on this side have been happy to support it and to commit ourselves to doing all we can to make sure that our farmers are able to secure that objective. Sadly, it isn't looking too good. We have no overarching strategic plan to respond to the drought. As the president of the NFF, Fiona Simson, has said, 'This government does not have a plan to grow our agriculture sector.' This government does not have a strategic plan for Australian farmers or the agribusiness sector. How do we get to $100 billion by 2030 when there is no strategic guidance from government? And how do we get to $100 billion by 2030 when we are still facing what is almost undoubtedly now the worst drought in our history? You can't. It's hard enough, but you can't get there without a comprehensive response on drought from the government and without a strategic plan for the agricultural sector.

I heard the Prime Minister in question time yesterday boast that greenhouse gas emissions have fallen in the last quarter. It's hardly surprising that he would be taking this opportunity and boasting, because it's the first time. They've been growing every quarter since 2014. The interesting thing is this: why did they fall? I think it was by about 0.3 of one per cent, by the way.

Mr Brian Mitchell: It was 0.1—

Mr FITZGIBBON: It's even skinnier, I'm told. But they fell because our cattle herd—

Mr Chester: He shouldn't be obliged to use all his time, should he?

Mr FITZGIBBON: It would pay the minister to listen to this. He's a southerner. He is in the southern faction, and he might not understand this: our cattle herd is now the lowest it has been for 30 years. And, of course, our cattle make a very substantial contribution to our greenhouse gas emissions.

So here's our Prime Minister taking the first opportunity in six years to claim a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, as small as the fall was, but what he's celebrating is not his capacity to get them down in the energy sector or the transport sector; he's celebrating the fact our agricultural sector is in crisis. He is putting it up on the mantle like a trophy. It's that he's allowed the agriculture sector to fall into such a bad state. If there were any farmers listening to question time yesterday, they must have been well and truly shaking their head at the fact the Prime Minister was celebrating the challenges they are facing in their own farming communities and in their own farm businesses.

The bill is okay. It further improves the farm household allowance. Each bill has, actually. But you wouldn't want to have been a farmer in 2014-15, trying to secure farm household allowance or trying to survive on farm household allowance, because, on this 13th occasion, you can see what the improvements have built. If you were there before these improvements, you were in trouble.

This bill is another admission that since 2014 this government has been getting farm household allowance wrong. Again, I suspect we'll be back some time in the new year doing another amendment. Income support is just one piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Income support is important. By the way, I think the government has spent $375 million, or thereabouts, allocating farm household allowance to a total of 12½ thousand farmers over time. Again, $375 million sounds like a lot of money, and it is in anybody's language, as I said earlier, of the $100 million, but if you said to an elector in Blacktown, 'Does $375 million for our farmers sound like a lot?' they would say: 'What? Didn't the Prime Minister promise the Americans $150 million to send a man from the moon to Mars?' That's what they would say. They would say, 'That doesn't sound like a lot of money to me.'

The government can't have it both ways. They can't say, 'We're spending $7 billion' one day, when we know that to be untrue, and then make out that farmers everywhere are benefitting from the farm household allowance when, in aggregate, the total spend has been $375 million. I think that figure alone gives people who aren't close to this subject a pretty good indication of the investment the government is making in our farmers who are facing drought.

I want to return to the supplementary payment because there's been a lot of spin from the other side about this. The government decided to cut the farmers off again—probably a thousand farming families have already been cut off, and many more will be cut off into the new year—and then, when they realised they were in trouble, they decided to give them what was described not by them but by the media, rightly, as an 'exit payment', a payment on the way out. What is the policy rationale for cutting people off and then giving them an upfront six-month payment? There is none. Again, that's not very helpful to those who didn't qualify for that, because that bill had not yet passed this parliament. No, the rationale here is to set up an arrangement where the government can defer expenditure to chase that trophy budget surplus again. This is all smoke and mirrors so that the Prime Minister can grab that trophy surplus.

Then, of course, when this gained momentum and the government realised they were in trouble, they said: 'Oh, there's a ministerial rule. We can give them another bonus payment six months after that.' But there is no guarantee. They made that announcement only because they were in trouble politically. Farmers have no way of developing a budget, because they have no way of knowing whether or not the government will make good on that promise. They're on the never-never there. They don't know what is next. Why can't the government simply say, 'We won't take any more people off farm household allowance while this severe drought is ongoing'?

Some on the other side will say, 'Well, everyone agreed back in 2012 that farm household allowance should be time limited.' Yes, they did. It seemed a reasonable proposition. You were given three years and, during that period, you either remodelled your farm business, grew your farm business, or thought about getting out and doing something else. But no-one could have conceived in 2012 that we would have a drought so long and so severe as this, and, when the facts change, you change your mind. We on this side certainly have had a very significant change of mind. We've supported in a bipartisan way every proposition the government has put forward, and I say again: 'Put the proposition forward to just leave people on farm household allowance while this drought is ongoing, and we will support it. You do not have to have concerns about opposition resistance to that change; in fact, you will have our very, very strong support.'

In closing, I offer bipartisan support on another matter. Our dairy industry is in crisis. We heard last week that, in Queensland, we're losing a dairy farmer a week. When does it end? When will the Prime Minister finally recognise we have a very significant problem here? When will he realise that we are at real risk now of losing our dairy industry and being almost entirely import dependent for our dairy products, including our drinking milk? That's how bad it is, and there are plenty of people out there on the lawns who agree with this proposition today.

We gave the government the opportunity in the Senate this week to support a bill to put in place a minimum farmgate price. I know it's not strictly in the economic textbook, but we have a real problem here and it will get fixed only through significant structural intervention. The refusal by those on the other side to join us on this matter is, quite frankly, a disgrace and has dairy farmers everywhere shaking their heads.

A code of conduct is great. We've supported that for four years, at least. The ACCC recommended a mandatory code of conduct 20 months ago now, but do we have one? No, we still don't, because, again, those on the other side are fighting about what it should look like. But, even if we do finally get a mandatory code of conduct, it will not be enough. It won't address the market failure that Senator Susan McDonald spoke about last week in the other place. We need something more than that. We need intervention, and we need to ensure that our dairy farmers know that for the next 12 months and the 12 months after that they will get a payment for their milk somewhere above their cost of production. Their costs continue to rise, exacerbated by drought, but the price they receive for their milk remains very stubbornly flat, and it's about time we did something about that, and it's about time those on the other side, particularly those from the National Party, joined us in doing something about it.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Rob Mitchell ): Is the amendment seconded?

Mr Brian Mitchell: I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.