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Tuesday, 5 November 1996
Page: 5112


Senator O'CHEE(6.59 p.m.) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

The importance of the rural adjustment scheme would be well known to some senators. The rural adjustment scheme is very important in the situation in which we find ourselves at the moment, particularly in my state of Queensland. The problem that we have with ongoing drought is very severe. Some people may not be aware, but there are areas of Queensland that are still substantially in drought. Even in areas where people have come out of drought, the effects of drought last a lot longer than the drought itself.

For example, it might be the case that an area has undergone such a substantial period of drought that when the rains do come there is no ordinary grass coverage. The consequence of that is that noxious weeds come up very quickly. With no grass to choke them out, the properties become weed infested. In other words, they suffer environmental damage from drought. In other cases, prolonged periods of drought might mean that when you have feed on the ground, the feed does not have a lot of nutrition in it.

But by far the greatest problem that confronts primary producers is that of dealing with the debt caused by drought, and dealing with the process of building up a herd or building up a flock. When you have drought, especially when it extends across the whole state, it is very difficult to find good agistment for animals. Often you have to destock in order to preserve what you have in your pasture and in order to ensure that the stock you do have has a chance of getting through the drought.

Many primary producers have been involved in destocking—not by choice but out of necessity—in order to make sure that their properties, and whatever animals they have, get through the drought. It may be some substantial period of time before it is possible for a property to get back to a normal level of production.

For example, say you were a wool grower and you have been substantially affected by drought, you might not have as many sheep as you would normally have. So, although the drought ends and you get some feed, you are confronted by two things. First of all, your wool is not as fine because the sheep are eating better and so the wool tends to go out to a thicker micron. The other problem is that you still do not have enough sheep to meet all the operating costs. You might have only half the number of sheep you ordinarily run so you are getting only half the amount of wool. You might also find that the wool is uneven in quality so the value of the wool is reduced.

This government, when confronted with the end of the drought in some areas of Queensland and northern New South Wales, was faced with a problem: do we just cut off the drought assistance altogether or do we say that we will extend the drought assistance to help those people affected? This is where the Rural Adjustment Scheme Advisory Council has played a role. But much of the work is that of the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Mr Anderson, in dealing with the problem and recognising that there are ongoing effects of drought that are not relieved by the first fall of rain.

We feel very pleased that the minister has been able to unveil a scheme which, over the next three years, will add some $180 million of assistance to primary producers who have been affected by drought. This is a sign of the real commitment that the coalition government has to people in rural and regional Australia. I hasten to say that this is $180 million of commitment which was not in the budget left by the previous government; it was not in the forward estimates. This is money we have put up because of our desperate concern to ensure that people on the land not only survive the drought but also get a bit of a breathing space in order to improve their financial position and to build up the capacity of their properties.

That is important because those people employ workers—if they are in the wool industry they employ shearers—and the money they spend in rural and remote towns goes to ensure that shopkeepers, publicans, barmaids, waiters and a range of other people all have jobs in town. We are very pleased with this measure. It is a sign of the commitment we have made.