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Address to the conference of the Victorian and Tasmanian Association of Rural Counselling Groups, Ballan, Victoria

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Australian Department of Primary Industries & Energy

Senator The Hon Judith Troeth Parliamentary Secretary for Primary Industries and Energy Address to the conference of the

Victorian and Tasmanian Association of Rural Counselling Groups,

Ballan, Victoria, 21 May 1998

Good Evening ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for inviting me here to speak, it is a pleasure to be here in my capacity as Parliamentary Secretary for Primary Industry.

We find ourselves today in an ever changing, modernising and more economically driven society and for rural communities this change can, at times, appear daunting and incompatible with the traditional rural lifestyle.

With this change, the role of governments in the community is also changing.

The Government sees itself today in more of a partnership role. It aims to facilitate growth and alleviate hardship and to work with the community - instead of being just a welfare provider - in order for rural communities to be more self sufficient and subsequently more competitive in today's economically and technologically driven global community.

Change in rural communities is becoming more common. More and more journalists like, Chip Le Grand and Asa Wahlquist from the Australian, are reporting on this change and how Australian farms are moving away from the traditional family farm enterprise, handed down through the generations, to a more diverse and commercial style of farming with services, like the local bank, being replaced by technology. As their story in the Australian reads:

"The population o f rural and regional Australia is being pushed and pulled by a range o f forces including farm rationalisation..."

The traditional rural community as we once knew it is not what it used to be and has become a part of the global corporate trading world.

In September 1997, the Federal Government announced a series of integrated rural policy initiatives for farmers and rural communities. These initiatives, titled the Agriculture - Advancing Australia package were developed following lengthy discussions with industry and all major rural stakeholders.

The objectives of the 'Triple A' package are to:

• secure better farm business outcomes; • improve the farm sector's responses to changing circumstances; • promote growth and development in rural communities; and • ensure we have a welfare system that is fair to farmers.

The Coalition Government is aware of the tough times facing rural Australia because of widespread drought, poor commodity prices and the effects of the Asian Melt-down and is committed to working with rural Australia to enhance its economic and social position.

The AAA package is part of the Government's commitment to a community partnership and is well into its implementation phase, with a number of elements already in place.

One of the Triple A package's most important components is the Rural Communities Program. But before I talk about the RCP, in a little more detail, I'd first like to look at some of the package's other elements.

The Farm Family Restart Scheme (FFRS) and the Exceptional Circumstances Relief Payment have been available to eligible farmers since 1 December 1997. Over 800 farmers have benefited from the FFRS in its first four months.

The FFRS is a key program of the Government's, aimed at delivering improved welfare support to the farm sector as well as providing adjustment assistance to those who wish to exit the industry.

The Exceptional Circumstances Relief Payments (ECRPs),which have superseded the Drought Relief Payment 08/10/1998

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(DRP), is another example of the type of support mechanisms available to farmers. Funding for this program increased in the 1997/98 financial year from $24.6 million to $90 million. The Commonwealth is working closely with the States and Territories on the criteria for exceptional circumstances.

Legislation implementing the Retirement Assistance for Farmers Scheme was introduced to Parliament on 11 March 1998. This scheme will help farmers who want to retire and yet keep the family farm. Pension payments to eligible farmers will be backdated to the time their assets were transferred, providing this took place after 14 September 1997.

The FarmBis framework was endorsed by the Agricultural and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand (ARMCANZ) on 27 February 1998. The Commonwealth is negotiating all elements of the draft agreements with the States and Territories. The State component of FarmBis will be operational from 1 July 1998.

The FarmBis Program, in providing funds to all those involved in agricultural production, will assist people in building their skills with direct financial contributions towards the cost of programs/activities in which farmers participate.

Activities that will be supported include: skills development; farm management planning, business and financial planning, farm performance benchmarking, quality assurance, risk management, skills auditing, leadership development and marketing.

Development of the Rural Strategic Planning Initiative is well under-way with consultations between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories to be held in May and new arrangements to be in place by mid-1998.

The Minister for Primary Industries and Energy announced details of the new Farm Management Deposit (FMD) Scheme on 17 April 1998, including an investment component set at 100 per cent of the total deposit up to a limit of $300,000. Legislation to implement the scheme will be introduced to Parliament in the winter session.

The Consultative Rural Finance Forum, which I chair, has met twice since November 1997 and will continue to promote better communication on rural financial issues between the farm sector, financiers and government.

Creditcare, Climate Research and Development and a communications strategy are also well under-way and will continue to be refined. The Understanding Rural Australia Program and the Action Plan for Australian Agriculture (formerly the Business Plan) are also progressing well.

Rural Communities Program

To return to the Rural Communities Program funding for the Program (RCP) will come into operation on the 1st of July 1998 - replacing the old Rural Counselling Program. It aims to assist rural communities to identify their development needs and implement solutions tailored to these needs by providing grant support to fund a range of community activities including:

• community planning; • financial counselling services; • information provision; • information services technology; and • community development.

The Program is effectively an extension of the Rural Counselling Program. Under the new Program the Government is ensuring that particular features of the old program are maintained and built by strengthening the delivery of community-driven and managed services to ensure that communities will have greater flexibility in determining their individual needs and developing strategies to meet those needs.

The new RCP recognises that the economic, social and cultural needs of a local community are linked, and that governments, community groups and individuals should work together to help ensure any initiatives are both effective and sustainable.

Minister Anderson has established a Rural Communities Program Advisory Committee - which you will all be familiar with. This Committee reviews applications for the grant and recommends them, if they are eligible, to the Minister for funding.

Community Planning

It has become very clear that the success of many government programs lies in establishing grass roots support and involvement. As a result, community planning is the first category eligible for grant support under the new program. Applicants will be encouraged to undertake a planning process within their communities. The planning process may include community surveys, workshops and the hire of facilitators.

When applications for financial counselling, information provision, information services technology and community development projects are assessed, significant emphasis will be placed on the priority they have within the community plan.

Financial Counselling 08/10/1998

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Community groups can apply for a grant to provide financial counselling services for farmers, small business operators and townspeople who are experiencing financial difficulty. This is an extension of the highly successful Rural Financial Counselling Service and reflects the fact that rural communities are not limited to farmers, but rather the relationships between the main industry in the community and the other businesses that support that industry.

Information Services Technology

As communities and business needs change in rural communities there is increasing demand for a greater range of effective up-to-date information technology services. Community groups, under the new plan, can apply for grant assistance for the development and implementation of this technology.

They are designed to improve access to on-line services, data processing, training and distance education opportunities and capitalise on the gains achieved under the former Telecentres program.

This is on top of the Government's Regional Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund and the improved service requirements the Government has placed on telecommunications carriers.

Community Development

The final component of the scheme is the provision of grants for community based projects such as: men's and women's health projects, vocational training courses, newsletter production and information seminars.

Grants may be available for other projects with national significance which have clear benefits at the farm or community level which support or underpin the directions of the Triple A package.

Community input

For the projects within the program to be successful the Community will be required to contribute towards the overall cost of the project while the Commonwealth will:

• meet any reasonable costs of Community Planning activities; • meet up to 50 per cent of any Financial Counselling project; and • meet up to 75 per cent of the cost of Information Provision, Community Development and Information Service Technology projects.

Community groups will be encouraged to earn income from other sources on a fee for service basis. While there may be some services, such as crisis financial counselling, or providing information on government programs, which would not attract fees from clients, opportunities exist for groups to seek contracts that will supplement their income stream and we have seen this potential under some of the innovative Telecentres in the past few years.

I understand a number of your services have already made use of the opportunities offered under the new Program while others have decided to maintain their existing services.

Individual communities will need to weigh up the relevant benefits of moving to the new Program in light of the additional responsibilities this may entail.

Applications for funding have been highly competitive and the first round has been assessed by the Rural Communities Program Advisory Committee

The Minister has assessed the Committee's recommendations and has announced his decisions. Continued funding for nearly half of the services at this Conference has been announced and over $900,000 has already been made available to Victorian and Tasmanian services for 1998-99.

The Advisory Committee met yesterday, and again today, to decide on the remaining services, and we should know the outcomes of those deliberations shortly.

The successful implementation of the Rural Communities Program will demonstrate the ability of government and rural communities to work together for the greater benefit of rural Australia. This partnership with, as opposed to a dependence on government - with regard to the delivery of social services - represents the changing direction of social and economic development in the primary industry sector.

All too often we only hear the bad news stories about the bush and, without doubt, many of our rural and regional communities now have smaller populations but this does not mean that those who choose to live in these areas are worse off.

To keep communities viable and vibrant requires an enormous effort by individuals and organisations primarily. The Government's role is to support these individuals and organisations in these endeavours.

Fast updated 22 May 1998

URL 08/10/1998