Exceptional Circumstances Drought Assistance
The Hon. CHRISTINE ROBERTSON: I direct my question to the Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries. Will the Minister update the House on the latest news regarding the Federal Government's exceptional circumstances drought assistance?
The Hon. IAN MACDONALD: As I have explained to the House a number of times this year, a very serious situation is looming for many of our hard-working farmers. While the grass outside Parliament House in the Domain is long and lush, large parts of the State remain critically dry. We have had the following rainfall in the week to date: Glen Innes, 1 mm; Parkes, 0.2mm; Forbes, 0.4mm; Young, 3mm; Wagga Wagga, 0.4mm; Tibooburra, nil; Cobar, 2mm; and Narrabri, nil. The Premier last week reaffirmed the New South Wales Government's commitment to maintaining our drought assistance measures for as long as our farmers need that help. Unfortunately, despite numerous appeals for compassion, the Federal Government has refused to extend the same commitment.
As honourable members know, the Federal Government is responsible for providing exceptional circumstances [EC] drought assistance. Full EC assistance gives eligible New South Wales farmers access to measures including family income support payments and interest rate subsidies on new and existing loans. Today represents a golden opportunity for the Hon. Duncan Gay. He has a chance finally to ease the terrible burden of uncertainty for many farmers. He has one last chance to declare in this House that the Federal Government has reversed a heartless decision. As the honourable member is no doubt aware, today is the last sitting day of Parliament before at least 3,000 farmers could be cut off from interim exceptional circumstances assistance on 9 June. Interim EC measures entitle eligible farmers to vital income support.
The Government is also still waiting for a response on the Young stone fruit growers full EC application. The application was lodged on 1 April—57 days, or 8 weeks ago. I remind the House that the Federal Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Warren Truss, assured me on 10 April that all applications would be processed within 28 days. We have now waited twice that long and still have not heard anything. Instead, on 9 May the Federal Government rejected two more applications. These covered the Central and Southern Tablelands and the Central Western Slopes and Plains. Can the Hon. Duncan Gay tell the House what will happen to those farmers when the interim EC assistance expires in 11 days? Can he give a commitment on behalf of his Federal colleagues that they will at least extend interim EC assistance for those farmers until their applications have been redetermined and that their benefits will not be cut? Only income support comes under that criteria.
I am proud that the State Government has now spent $19.45 million on drought transport subsidies alone. We have taken more than 6,800 calls on the drought hotline, 11,100 calls to head office on non-hotline phones and another 1,000 a week to field extension staff. It is clear that this Government is committed to supporting our farmers. It has called on the Federal Government to give hope to the farmers who have not received full EC assistance. The National Party seems to have forgetten the drought because it is embarrassed about the approach taken by the Federal Minister. I had hoped that during the past two weeks honourable members would have lent support to the Government in requesting that the Federal Government grant full EC assistance to farmers in those parts of the State that have not received assistance. The National Party should have publicly called on the Federal Government to extend that assistance, but unfortunately it has not. I wonder whether honourable members opposite have forgotten about large groups of farmers across the State who have not received that assistance.