Exceptional Circumstances Drought Assistance
Mr BLACK (Murray-Darling) [3.56 p.m.]: I move:
That this House:
(1) notes the State Government lodged an application for exceptional circumstances assistance for the Bourke and Brewarrina areas on 10 September;
(2) recognises the Government last week lodged further exceptional circumstances assistant applications for Walgett, Coonamble, Coonabarabran, Narrabri, Grafton, Kempsey, Wanaaring, Milparinka, Wilcannia, Broken Hill, Hillston, Wentworth, Balranald and parts of the Cobar rural lands protection board area in the New South Wales Western Division;
(3) calls on the Federal Government to expedite the approval of the exceptional circumstances applications;
(4) endorses comments by the Premier on the weekend where he pledged to work in a spirit of co-operation with the Prime Minister on drought;
(5) asks the Prime Minister, John Howard, to take over handling of the Federal Government's handling of drought due to the failure of the National Party to recognise the crisis facing rural families; and
(6) calls on the Leader of the Opposition to apologise to New South Wales farming families suffering the worst drought ever after he likened running a family farm to his consultancy business.
We are debating this matter today in the light of recent comments by the Leader of the Opposition. He compared his tawdry role in the cash for question fiasco to that of a farmer on the land. There is no comparison. How could the Leader of the Opposition even dream of mentioning himself in the same sentence as a family on the land? It is disgusting that the Leader of the Opposition would dare to compare farming with getting paid to ask questions in Parliament. At a press conference on 13 November he tried to defend the cash for questions by comparing himself to a farmer. He said:
Many members of Parliament maintain their profession. Farmers keep their farms.
This matter is most urgent because families on the land are involved in an honourable undertaking. They grow the food for our tables and the fibre that makes clothes for our backs. But, unlike farmers, Johnnie Brogden's $110,000 role in the cash for questions affair has been far from honourable. The $110,000 handed to him by the big end of town would have paid for water deliveries to at least four separate country towns for a month. I know that the President of Country Labor, and Central West farmer, the Hon. Tony Kelly, was insulted by two-job Johnnie's comments. It is drawing a long bow to compare his grubby deals to the hard slog our farmers face every day, mainly due to Johnnie's mates in Canberra. The $110,000 would transport a lot of water to Milparinka or Wilcannia, Mr Brogden. We could fill a few dams with $110,000. It would buy fodder to keep core breeding stock alive.
This matter is urgent because farming families work hard for their money. They fight drought to grow food and fibre, without a single word of complaint. That is the difference between this State's farmers and John Brogden—farmers know the value of an honest day's work. John Brogden's is a sorry tale. First he attempted to hide the $110,000 he received to ask questions in Parliament, and then he refused to outline what he did to get that $110,000. It is not a bad wicket to play off, though—$110,000 for doing apparently not much at all, or so he would have us believe. In contrast to that, the Premier wrote a book, but gave the proceeds to a teacher to undertake study overseas. The Leader of the Opposition should give back the $110,000.
As a matter of interest, the Leader of the Opposition walked down the main street of Nyngan. I suggest that he chose Nyngan because he preferred not to go any farther west. He made the observation that farmers whose properties were beyond one side of the street were receiving exceptional circumstances financial assistance, but farmers whose properties were beyond the other side of the street were not. I point out to him that no-one in the Bogan shire is receiving exceptional circumstances financial assistance because the Federal Government up to this point has not processed the applications.
Ninety-nine per cent of New South Wales is suffering drought of some sort at this stage. The New South Wales Government has extended its drought-affected area status to the Hume Rural Lands Protection Board, to the north and west of Albury, and to the Wagga Wagga district. The declaration will allow farmers to apply for assistance. The 1 per cent of New South Wales that is currently not drought affected, marginally or otherwise as defined by the State Government, is Bombala. The Leader of the Opposition made some very interesting announcements. Yesterday on the ABC News at Bega, the Leader of the Opposition released the Opposition's drought policy—half a page—which states:
John Brogden's policy on combating the effects of drought include initiatives like abolishing a six-month waiting period on transport subsidies, reviewing water sharing and providing assistance for farmers to deepen their dams.
That is what this Government is doing through its Rural Assistance Authority [RAA]. The document also states:
Mr Brogden also said the commitments would not increased taxes.
"The next crucial point is actually when the rain does come, when the drought has broken, we have to do everything as quickly as possible to provide subsidies, and we have announced we will [offer] 50 per cent subsidies to allow farmers to restock and to replant," he said.
That is the Leader of the Opposition's policy. What would the Opposition do about drought relief? The Leader of the Opposition says that he would scrap the six-month waiting period for drought relief for farmers and start paying a crop replanting subsidy immediately after rain starts falling. On 10 November the Leader of the National Party and honourable member for Upper Hunter promised a rebate of up to $650 for each country New South Wales householder who installed a rainwater tank.
Let me examine that last promise and what it would cost. Treasury advises that if just one in every 10 country householders were to take up the offer, the cost would be $50 million. But now the Leader of the Opposition has gone further. On ABC radio in Bega last Friday, he said that the Coalition would pay a rebate of up to $650 to everybody in the State who installed a rainwater tank. He said:
We will extend that... to all residents of New South Wales.
That is a $50 million promise if just 10 per cent of country people take up this offer. If every householder in New South Wales installed a rainwater tank, the cost would be enormous. That is another unbelievable promise. Given the $5,000 million in wild promises that the Leader of the Opposition has already made, how would he keep this one? The Leader of the Opposition has already thrown billions of dollars in promises at city voters. He has promised Sydney's multimillionaires that he will scrap the tax on their mansions—a four-year, $56 million tax cut for the richest people in Sydney! He has also promised Sydney's drivers from the North Shore that they will not have to pay the 80¢ impost on the harbour bridge toll.
That money, $112 million over four years, goes to country roads, but he is going to scrap it. Where will he spend money on roads? People who live at Mosman might want to zip down to Manly for a seafood lunch, and they will be okay because the Leader of the Opposition intends to build a $1.5 billion tunnel under the Spit. He will scrap the extra money for country roads and will instead commit $1.5 billion to a road tunnel in the city. But these and so many of his wild, reckless promises total $5.2 billion, and they are simply unaffordable, simply unbelievable.
Mr Slack-Smith: Point of order: I cannot see how the Spit or other areas to which the honourable member has referred have anything to do with drought. This is a very important issue. I ask the honourable member to confine his remarks to the topic.
Mr SPEAKER: Order! There is no point of order.
Mr BLACK: This debate is about drought and it is about funding. I found the point of order somewhat surprising because I now come to the real point of what the Leader of the Opposition has shown, namely, that he cannot be trusted to deliver anything to relieve the drought. That is why his election material has the slogan, "It's not a promise, it's a plan", and "John Brogden A Fresh Approach". According to the Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary, "promise" is defined as:
an assurance that one will or will not undertake a certain action, behaviour, etc.
In the same dictionary, "plan" is defined as:
a formulated and esp. detailed method by which a thing is to be done; a design or a scheme
Who is the Leader of the Opposition trying to kid? He has said that his policy is not a promise, it is a plan, but people should not hold their breath. None of his proposals will go forward.
The Wagga Daily Advertiser recently said of the honourable member for Murrumbidgee, "MP labels Parliament as being dead boring". I have come to the conclusion that the honourable member for Murrumbidgee, who was suspended from this Chamber last August, is grizzling about not being ejected from the Parliament last Thursday. He said that the Parliament is dead boring because a lot of time is spent discussing Federal issues, basically just to try to embarrass the Federal Government. We are discussing drought! [Time expired.]
Mr ARMSTRONG (Lachlan) [4.06 p.m.]: I appreciate having the opportunity to once again speak on the topic of drought because, as all honourable members appreciate, conditions continue to deteriorate. Forecasts by the best brains in this country indicate that the drought will continue for some months. The pattern of major droughts reveals that, historically, they usually break in late autumn. I would not want to be one who makes such a forecast at this stage, but I suggest that cognisance should be taken of the probability that we are in for a long drought. Last weekend I noticed that once again many of the white box eucalyptus are beginning to shed bark and leaves in copious quantities, as they did months ago, and I also noticed that the kurrajongs are also showing signs of significant stress. Over protracted dry periods, that is what those native species do to minimise water usage as part of their natural response, which reinforces my view that this drought will be a long one.
I express my disappointment that during the concluding stages of his speech the honourable member for Murray-Darling attempted to politicise the debate. Usually he produces interesting statistics, but he strayed from the debate on this very serious subject in an attempt to politicise the issue. Virtually all people in this State, city people as much as country people, are concerned about this drought because it affects the economy as well as the psychology and general attitude of people throughout this State and nation. People understand that agriculture is still this nation's single biggest export income earner and that it is still the backbone of the Australian economy, quite apart from the fact that Australia leads the world in agricultural expertise. Australia dominates world production of fine wool and in good conditions is the world's largest exporter of wheat, albeit that this year's wheat crop will be reduced by 75 per cent or more.
During question time this afternoon, the Minister for Land and Water Conservation announced a number of initiatives to improve the water supply of country towns. Unfortunately, the announcement is a little late because there is a 10-year backlog. Sometimes it takes a drought to provoke a government to take action to improve the water supply and sewage schemes in towns in rural and regional areas. Much has been said of exceptional circumstances financial relief but I am not sure whether, during the many debates on this topic, the process has been explained. For the purpose of clarification, I will commit into Hansard an explanation of the process.
As the first step in the determination of drought in New South Wales, the Minister releases drought maps each month. Those maps are prepared from information provided by the 48 rural lands protection boards around the State, rainfall details from the Bureau of Meteorology, and reports from NSW Agriculture regional staff. The criteria for drought-affected classification requires a review of historic rainfall records for the area and pasture availability must be below agreed levels for each geographic-climatic area. The impact on pasture availability of other climatic events, such as frosts, and seasonal factors, such as pasture growing seasons, is also considered. Government assistance measures require that a rural lands protection district be in the drought-affected category for six months before land-holders are eligible for assistance. That is the process as far as the States are concerned.
The process for obtaining an exceptional circumstances declaration, which is handled by the Commonwealth, begins on the ground. The participation and information from the rural community, including rural lands protection boards staff, local government, rural financial customers and lobby groups, is integral to the development of an application. State agriculture departments provide co-ordination and undertake additional analyses. If the State agriculture Minister is reasonably confident that the case fully meets the exceptional circumstances criteria the application is then forwarded to the Commonwealth agriculture Minister. If the Commonwealth Minister is convinced of a prima facie case the application is forwarded to the National Rural Anniversary Council.
The council is, in turn, provided with independent advice from the Bureau of Rural Sciences and the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics. The council, after visiting the region to be assessed, makes a recommendation to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. The final decision on an exceptional circumstances declaration resides with the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, in consultation with the Federal Cabinet. If ever there was a process that was designed to the complex, this is surely it. Why is it so complex? And who has made it that way? The Primary Industries Ministerial Council, which comprises Federal and State Ministers responsible for primary industries, has debated changing parts of the exceptional circumstances framework. At the council's meeting in May the council resolved to agree in principle to the elements of the exceptional circumstances framework developed by Commonwealth and State officials which are consistent with the principles outlined in the exceptional circumstances [EC] criteria, but recognised that further negotiation was needed to finalise the detail of further elements.
Those elements include no change to the current EC eligibility criteria. EC assistance should continue to be available for 24 months, that is during 12 months of the EC declaration plus a 12-month recovery period. Once an area is determined to be in EC, applications for further EC assistance for a similar event can only be lodged within six months of the end of the 24-month period. There will be a new consultative application and assessment process. The EC boundary of an application area may be changed on the advice of the National Rural Advisory Council. Buffer zones which adjoin and are reasonably proximate to the EC boundary may contain no more than 10 per cent of the total number of farm businesses in the EC application area. Farm businesses in buffer zones must individually demonstrate a severe and prolonged impact of the EC event through a downturn in farm income and production.
Further elements are the assessment of completed, formal EC pro forma applications within four weeks of the date of lodgment; farm business support in the form of variable individually assessed grants, up to a maximum of $60,000, based on need; and continued availability of both EC business and welfare support for eligible farmers in EC declared regions, with the second year of EC business support conditional on the individual demonstration of the development of a well-founded business recovery plan.
That process is complex, bureaucratic and certainly does not recognise the unique character of the present drought. Anyone would understand that. And guess what? It has been signed off by this Government and by the Commonwealth. It has been signed off by all States. Today all I am doing is appealing to the States, New South Wales in particular, and the Commonwealth. Last week the Leader of the National Party, the Hon. George Souris, the honourable member for Myall Lakes and I visited Canberra. We spoke to the Federal Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the Minister for Trade, and the Deputy Prime Minister. We asked them whether they would participate in a rewrite of the EC application process if we sign off on the new arrangements for the funding of the business component. They indicated that they would.
Further, they indicated that when an EC application is received, they expect to process its financial components—that is, assistance through the Newstart Program—within 10 days. Further, they expect to complete the process of assessment for eligibility or otherwise within one calendar month. Indeed, the New South Wales Coalition will hold them to that, and I am sure the Government will as well. I appeal to the Minister for Agriculture, who is a very decent fellow to phone his colleagues and say, "This EC application process does not recognise the current drought". Perhaps the Ministers did not think about that when they signed off on it and they have refused to co-operate with the Commonwealth in a complete revision of the EC application. The Government's water policies are having a draconian effect on the rural economy during this drought. An article in the 12-13 October weekend edition of the Sydney Morning Herald by the respected reporter Paola Totaro stated:
Their economic assessments—
that is, the farmers' assessments—
are also in stark contrast to the Government's. The NSW Irrigators Council, Cotton Australia and the Ricegrowers' Association argue that the [water] reforms will "tear the heart out of rural New South Wales", estimating that the water-sharing plans would cost the State $1.7 billion in lost production and destroy 4500 jobs. The Government says it is closer to $17 million and just 48 jobs.
Who is telling the truth? The article continued:
Hardest hit, according to the irrigators, are the cotton-growing areas of the Namoi Valley, where they estimate that in the long term, the gross value of production lost will top $695 million.
That valley happens to be where the big meeting was held three Fridays ago, at Narrabri, at which 300 decent people wanted to hear some commonsense from the Government. I again appeal to the Minister and the Government to recognise the cry of those irrigators and to recognise that this is not a political issue. The figures articulated by the honourable member for Murray-Darling some two weeks ago, which were provided by a university in Victoria, support the article written by Paola Totaro. They also support the claim that this drought is different. Because this drought is different we have to think outside the square. There are probably 4,500 jobs at stake. I am not too sure; it could be 10,000 jobs. However, I assure the House that most employment in the river systems and inland New South Wales is at stake. The Government has to start thinking positively and rewrite the exceptional circumstances process. I ask the Minister to ring Canberra this afternoon and say that he is prepared to co-operate on the revamping of the business component and to sign off on it. I ask him to work with the Commonwealth instead of playing silly-bugger politics.
Mr NEWELL (Tweed) [4.16 p.m.]: During debates concerning this drought the responses from the State and Federal governments have undoubtedly aroused much passion. Whatever our political persuasion, the community agrees that we should put aside our differences to help the drought-affected farmers. In saying that—and I am sure that the honourable member for Lachlan would agree—we still must be able to call a spade a spade, and I will be frank. The Deputy Prime Minister, Mr John Anderson, has certainly failed to deliver on drought relief. He and his Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Mr Warren Truss, have seemingly dragged their feet at every turn. Members of the National Party opposite realise that that is so. That is why they went to Canberra recently to have a meeting with John Anderson and to try to get him to speed up those slow, squeaky wheels.
In doing so, they have not done the reputation of the Prime Minister, John Howard, or the Federal Government any good at all. Put simply, farming families would be better placed if the Prime Minister had a little more hands-on involvement in responding to the drought rather than leaving it to his National Party colleagues. I am a little reluctant to say that, but I have said it because we want to get things moving quickly to assist our farmers. I am sure that the EC applications would not take two months to approve if the Prime Minister were a little more hands-on in this matter. With that in mind, it was rather ironic to see the New South Wales Leader of the National Party, the Hon. George Souris, last week finally lead a delegation to meet with Mr Anderson. Talk about a journey to the centre of the earth!
It has taken the Leader of the National Party only four months to get a meeting with the person who is the farmer's number one enemy. During that time, and since 18 July, the State Government has put in place more than 30 separate drought assistance initiatives. That assistance has directly helped more than 3,000 farmers. I detailed most of those 30 measures in this House last week. The great news was that the exceptional circumstances application for Brewarrina and Bourke finally gained approval on the day of that National Party meeting. Significantly, that application was approved before the meeting took place.
Undoubtedly, the Prime Minister delivered those exceptional circumstance applications, not the Leader of the National Party or any other National Party member who went to Canberra. Members of the National Party could not deliver a newspaper. I am sure any Federal Liberal Minister would say that National Party members remain in Cabinet purely as a window-dressing exercise. It has been said that they are the green curtains in the windows of the Cabinet room. After witnessing what has happened in this House and after becoming aware of what has been happening over the past three months I would have to agree with that statement. Last week Country Labor's Tony Kelly said:
Why on earth would you bother knocking on John Anderson's door these days?
Because when it comes to the crunch, he has about as much influence at the Cabinet table as Mickey Mouse.
Mr Armstrong: Point of order: This important debate must be allowed to proceed and all honourable members must be given an opportunity to express their views. However, honourable members must tell the truth when they are referring to the problems that are being faced by New South Wales farmers. It is important that the honourable member for Tweed, who is referring to what he believes was said by members of the Federal National Party, tells the truth. He does not know what was said by Federal members of the National Party.
Mr DEPUTY-SPEAKER: Order! The honourable member for Tweed made only a passing reference to those matters. I am sure he is capable of confining his remarks to the question before the House for the remainder of his contribution.
Mr NEWELL: Members of the National Party do not like to be told what people in rural constituencies have to say about their performance. Members of the New South Wales Farmers Association, local farming families, rural businesses and bipartisan members of Country Labor agree that it is time for John Howard to take the Federal reins. These families need leadership. They do not want to be on board a ship adrift, and that is the present situation with members of the National Party. Honourable members should not forget that on 10 September the New South Wales Government hand-delivered the first of the Brewarrina and Bourke exceptional circumstances applications to the Federal Government in Canberra. It took two months before farmers got a response from the National Party, confirming that it was indeed suffering the effects of a drought. I hope that the exceptional circumstances applications that were lodged last week by the State Government will not take two months to process, which is what has happened in the past.
Mr SLACK-SMITH (Barwon) [4.21 p.m.]: I acknowledge the importance of debate on this urgent motion. The honourable member for Murray-Darling, who obviously read his speech, did not address the important issue arising from the drought. He did not refer to the fact that the Government overspent its budget for the Conservatorium of Music by $140 million. He then started talking about the affordability of rainwater tanks. The New South Wales Government does not believe in encouraging people to save rainwater. The Government lodged all exceptional circumstances applications with the Federal Government in one hit, instead of lodging them as they were prepared. Contrary to the claims of the honourable member for Tweed that Government members are not playing politics, that is exactly what they are doing.
Government members are now squealing like stuck pigs because nothing has been done about those exceptional circumstances applications. However, some good things have come out of debate on this important issue. Many people have acknowledged the severity of this drought. People in the Hawkesbury shire contributed one thousand bales of hay to drought-stricken areas in the New England and north-west areas. What a marvellous gesture! Government members who have spoken in this debate have not referred to the fact that the school in Baan Baa had no drinking water for some time. That problem was recently rectified by the local member. However, the town is still without water. The honourable member for Murray-Darling forget to mention that the Government spent $20 million on the Cahill Expressway and $14.6 million for people in drought-stricken areas. That is a matter to which I refer when speaking to people in those areas.
My electorate, which normally receives about 21 inches of rain every year, has received only six inches this year and is considered to be a drought-affected area. Opposition members are not playing politics in relation to this issue. As I said earlier, rather than submitting exceptional circumstances applications as they were lodged, the New South Wales Government submitted them all at once. Government members are now yelling and screaming that the Federal Government should approve all those applications. The Federal Government has guaranteed that Newstart applications will come into effect in 10 days time.
The honourable member for Northern Tablelands, who just referred to the Narrabri meeting, did not even attend that meeting. I attended the meeting and I listened to concerns expressed by those who were there. I speak for the people of my electorate. The honourable member, who is fairly vocal in this Chamber, is not good at obtaining results. We must do as much as we can to ensure that all those who are affected by this drought remain on the land when the drought has broken. Some people have predicted that the drought will break on 24 November, which is only a short time away. The sooner it rains the better. We do not know how much longer farmers in New South Wales can survive. We must do all we possibly can to ensure that they remain on the land.
Mr MARTIN (Bathurst) [4.26 p.m.]: There is some semblance of bipartisan support for the motion. However, some Opposition members must address the drought more seriously than they have in the past. Recently the honourable member for Murrumbidgee said that the New South Wales Parliament is dead boring. He is quoted in the Wagga Daily Advertiser as saying that we spend too much time addressing Federal matters. Let me refer to some of the issues that have recently been raised by members of Country Labor. The drought has been referred to often in this House. Other issues that have been referred to in this House include trade sanctions, which have affected people in country areas, banking facilities in rural New South Wales, telecommunications and rural health, an issue that was debated only last Thursday. Opposition members claim that those issues have no currency in this House. Members of the National Party are failing country people.
Mr Fraser: Point of order: The honourable member for Bathurst, who has been speaking for over a minute, is yet to address the motion before the House. I ask you to draw him back to the subject matter of debate.
Mr MARTIN: If the honourable member for Coffs Harbour had been listening to my contribution he would have heard me referring on a number of occasions to the drought that is being faced by farmers in New South Wales. After his disgusting performance in the House last week I am surprised that he is in the Chamber. Honourable members would be aware that he has not contributed to debate on this issue. Earlier the honourable member for Barwon referred to exceptional circumstances applications and claimed that the New South Wales Government should not have submitted all those applications in one hit.
Those applications are complicated. On 10 September the Federal Government received a number of exceptional circumstances applications. The Federal Government requires a number of statistics. They must be Federal Government figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The Bourke-Brewarrina exceptional circumstances application that was lodged contained information that NSW Agriculture was forced to obtain from the Federal Government and for which it charged New South Wales $32,000. When the application was sent to Canberra we were told that it would take the Federal Government six weeks to check its own data.
Mr Amery: That is $32,000 we could have given to the farmers.
Mr MARTIN: That is right. That $32,000 could certainly be used well throughout the State. There is certainly scope for the Federal Government to free up the exceptional circumstances application process. I noted the contribution by the honourable member for Lachlan, who we acknowledge often makes strong speeches in this place—and has done so for a long time. However, on 12 November in this place he stated:
Members might like to know that Narrabri will not become eligible for Government assistance until February of next year.
I must put on the record that farmers in the Narrabri Rural Lands Protection Board area became eligible on 1 July this year for the 31 or more drought assistance measures provided by the New South Wales Government. I can also advise the House that as of 13 November Narrabri farmers have lodged claims for drought transport subsidies with NSW Agriculture, and those payments are valued at $60,719. So much for the research of the honourable member for Lachlan and his claim that Narrabri farmers would not be eligible for any drought assistance until early next year. They have already received it.
The raft of 31 measures that the Minister for Agriculture introduced and that farmers are accessing is proof positive that the Government has been on the front foot from day one. It was only last week that the National Party realised that even the Liberal Party is recognised as being more credible and relevant in the bush—not much, but more. So National Party members toddled off to Canberra last week on a public relations exercise and returned here today to tell us that they are delivering for the bush. It is too late and the people of rural New South Wales will see through them. Time and again this side of the House has led the way on major issues. We welcome the fact that there will be bipartisan support today for this motion. It is a pity that the Leader of the National Party could not be in the Chamber on time to be involved in the debate—he even missed the opportunity to put the case why his motion about city-centric issues should be declared urgent. I commend the credibility of this motion to the House.