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Thursday, 31 August 2000
Page: 17078

Senator FORSHAW (1:12 PM) —The opposition supports the passage of the Retirement Assistance for Farmers Scheme Extension Bill 2000 but I do wish to make a couple of comments in regard to the legislation. The bill amends the Social Security Act 1991 and the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 to extend the operation of the Retirement Assistance for Farmers Scheme from the current expiry date of 14 September 2000 to a new expiry date of 30 June 2001.

The Retirement Assistance for Farmers Scheme, as I am sure senators will recall, was announced back in 1997 by the then minister, John Anderson. It was part of the government's much vaunted AAA package—Agriculture Advancing Australia. This scheme allowed farmers a three-year period, commencing on 14 September 1997, to gift their farms and farm assets up to a value of $500,000 to their children or the next generation of the family without that affecting their access or entitlement to receive an age or Veterans' Affairs pension. At the time it was said by the government that this was to assist farmers to pass on the operations of their farm and the assets of their farm to the next generation in the family.

A number of eligibility criteria were laid down, but the main ones were: first, there had to be a long-term involvement in farming; second, the total income had to be less than the applicable age or veterans pension rate for the three years prior to transfer; and, third, persons had to be of age pension age or reach that age before the expiry of this scheme. The government claimed at the time that this scheme would be taken up by 10,000 farmers.

Senator Woodley —Less than 2,000.

Senator FORSHAW —Yes. Senator Woodley has stolen my thunder, but I am happy to acknowledge his interjection. The government's great predictions for this scheme, just as happened with their great predictions for other elements of the AAA package, have really come to very little. Indeed, rather than get 10,000 farmers to take up this opportunity, to date the figure is around only 1,400 farmers.

Senator Abetz —1,700.

Senator FORSHAW —The parliamentary secretary says 1,700. My figures say 1,400. In any event, the fact is that it is a long way short of the stated target—an expectation of 10,000. Of course, the farming communities themselves—the farmer organisations—have been particularly critical of the scheme, claiming that the asset and income test is too tight and is a barrier to farmers accessing it. As Senator Woodley will recall, this is an issue that we in the opposition—and I know he has—have taken up probably at every estimates hearing since the scheme was announced. So, once again, we have an indication of the claims made by this government at that time. As I said, Agriculture Advancing Australia has really done little to improve the position of the farming community.

We nevertheless do support the extension of the scheme because it will allow a further period of 9 months or so to enable any other farmers who may qualify and who wish to take up the opportunities under the scheme to do so. That is the purpose of the legislation being before the chamber. On that basis, we support it. As I said, we indicate that this would not have been necessary if the government had better understood the farming community's needs and had not been as expansive in their predictions as they were at the outset.