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Thursday, 31 August 2000
Page: 17079

Senator WOODLEY (1:18 PM) —Let me begin my contribution today by saying that the Democrats are very pleased to see the Retirement Assistance for Farmers Scheme Extension Bill 2000 introduced into federal parliament, legislation which extends the time for the take-up of the Retirement Assistance for Farmers Scheme. I add to the comments made by Senator Forshaw that our disappointment is that, although this is a very good scheme, it is far too restrictive. The last time we debated this legislation, I placed on record the fact that I wished to move a number of amendments to the legislation which would have solved many of the problems the bill has encountered over the last three years. Unfortunately, I did not get any support from the government for that. It should have supported me. At the time, the Labor Party indicated that it could not support those amendments either, although I feel that at the time perhaps Senator Forshaw would like to have supported them. However, that is history, as they say.

Senator Forshaw —There are so many problems to fix, Senator Woodley; it's hard to know where to start.

Senator WOODLEY —That is true, Senator Forshaw, but of course my commitment to farming communities means that I always make that a priority, and I guess that is what comes forward. In fact, senators will be aware that the Democrats, over the past seven or eight years, have actively pursued the issues of farmers' access to welfare payments.

I want to digress from 1998 to talk about a study tour which I have just concluded, which took in Ireland, Wales and parts of England. I followed up a number of agricultural issues that I had pursued a couple of years earlier, and I was very interested in the approach of the Irish government to rural policy. The one thing that we cannot duplicate, of course, in our rural policy is the subsidies that they receive from the EU, but I have got to say that they certainly use those subsidies in a very creative way and in a very comprehensive overall farm policy that I was entirely impressed with.

Senator McGauran —That wasn't a study tour you were on, was it?

Senator WOODLEY —Why don't you go over and have a look yourself, Senator McGauran, and maybe you would learn something. I discovered that they had this comprehensive farm policy which picked up the very issue that we are debating today: the retirement of older farmers so that younger farmers can access the farms and come onto the land. They did not treat it as welfare. That was interesting. It was administered by the department of agriculture in Ireland as a total approach to retaining population in rural communities and rural areas and supporting farmers in terms of their income, their approach to the environment and their approach to rural cultural heritage. In fact, it was a total overview of how farm policy can be used to support the total rural population and rural income in Ireland. In terms of retirement assistance for farmers, which is what I want to concentrate on today, they did not view the retirement of farmers as a social security issue; they viewed it as part of an overall approach to support for rural communities. Their retirement policy has few of the restrictions that our policy seems to be totally hedged in by. The pension there for aged farmers is around 10,000 Irish pounds per year—roughly around $20,000.

There are two very, very significant outcomes from the retirement policy in Ireland and the other support policies that surround it. The first one is that they are finding now that the average age of farmers is beginning to be lowered. In Australia and in many other developed nations we are finding that the average age of family farmers is going up; I think that it is about 58 at the present time in Australia. What is happening is that, because of the way in which this particular policy is directed in Ireland, the average age of farmers is starting to go down, because it is allowing older farmers to retire with proper support and with dignity and, therefore, allowing younger farmers at an earlier age to come onto the land and to take up farming. That is, I believe, a very beneficial outcome of that policy.

The other thing that this policy is doing is actually keeping farming families intact in rural areas. Of course, that is one of the biggest problems we have in Australia: young people are not only leaving farming but leaving rural communities altogether.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Bartlett)—Order! I am personally quite interested in hearing Senator Woodley's contribution and I request that members on both sides do not have conversations across the chamber.

Senator WOODLEY —Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. I was actually ignoring them, but I know you are closer and so you no doubt were being interrupted. These are some of the beneficial aspects of a total rural policy administered by the agriculture department, so it is not seen as a welfare payment or as a social security issue. That is why I believe we should be looking at what the Irish are doing. Perhaps we cannot access the kinds of subsidies which they access. Nevertheless, I believe we could learn much from many of the policies that they have put in place, which take a comprehensive approach to rural communities and to farming. In the coming weeks in this chamber I hope to put some more of what they are doing on the record, because I think it would be useful for us to have a look at that.

I think Senator Forshaw was arguing across the chamber in respect of the figure and whether it was 1,400 or 1,700. I am not sure that is an argument that matters. Less than 2,000 have taken up this scheme. Minister Anderson announced at the time, when he trumpeted the benefits of the AAA package, that 10,000 would take it up. The number is certainly well short of that mark. I urge the government not only to extend the time for this scheme but also to have a look at some of the restrictions on it, because a lot of farmers will not take it up even if we do extend the time unless we deal with some of the other stumbling blocks.

I was going to give a fair bit of detail about those stumbling blocks, just as I did in my speech in 1998. However, given the limitation on time in this place and the wish of the government that the bill be passed, I will not do so. I am sure that senators are not going to rush off and read my 1998 speech. However, I will say that, in talking to staff from Mr Truss's office who came to brief me on the bill, when I told them about some of those amendments and the Irish scheme they seemed interested and said that they would certainly look into it. They may wish to look up my 1998 speech, because it sets out all of the stumbling blocks that we see in the way of the operation of this scheme.

I might add that, in moving amendments in 1998, what we were doing, of course, was totally endorsing the approach of the National Farmers Federation, which agreed totally with the amendments that we sought to move. Those amendments were supported by a Senate inquiry; there was lots of evidence that what we said then was true. One of the amendments we wanted to move was to extend the scheme from three years to five years. In effect, that is what we are doing today. What we said then was true and the government is now catching up. That is good to see. I hope that the scheme—which is still, I believe, being strangled by restrictions—can be looked at in terms of extending the time and that the government will also in the future look at reviewing the eligibility criteria. If it does not do that, this will be an opportunity which, once again, the government will have missed. I commend the bill. It is a good piece of legislation. The scheme needs to be extended. At this point, we support extending the time for its take-up.