I rise to support the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2018. Our farmers make an extraordinary contribution to our national economy and prosperity. In fact, agriculture has been the stand-out sector for the Australian economy in recent times. Our farmers don't have the tariff protections or subsidies that farmers in other countries enjoy. They deal with comparatively high power prices and labour prices, sometimes a high Australian dollar and sometimes low commodity prices. They are extraordinarily resilient, but they are not indestructible. That's why we have to support them through this latest trial—drought.
The drought is certainly biting very hard in central western New South Wales. The paddocks in many areas have turned to dust. It's so bad that parts of the Calare electorate look like a moonscape. The ground is so parched and dry that sometimes it seems like it's literally crying out. Feed is scarce, increasingly expensive and also increasingly expensive to transport to the properties in need, if you can find it.
We can't take our farmers for granted. If we want them here, creating wealth for our nation, we need to be supporting them at the time when they need it most. There are heartbreaking stories in country Australia at the moment. I've heard them as I've met with farmers around the region, from Lithgow to Mudgee, Gulgong, Oberon, Bathurst, Orange, Cumnock, Yeoval and Wellington. The stories are real and they're stories of Australians, our fellow Australians, battling to get through. It's not just the drudgery of feeding every day and checking troughs and dams; there is an immense toll from the uncertainty with respect to what will happen. What's going to happen in the future? What will happen to breeding stock? How will they be fed? The financial uncertainty weighs heavily, as does the uncertainty as to how it will be possible to rebuild once the drought passes.
All over central western New South Wales, as in other parts of Australia, communities are coming together to support each other, but they need a hand. Good intentions are one thing, but our farmers need support on the ground. The outlook, I have to say, is very worrying. If good rain doesn't come, a very bad and grim situation is going to get a whole lot worse in the very near future. The worsening outlook is why we need to be ramping up drought support as the season worsens and the conditions deteriorate. That's why I was very pleased to see the farm household allowance extended. The announcement followed the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources' visit to the central west, where we met with local farmers. It also followed the Prime Minister's tour with the minister to drought-affected areas. In fact, when the minister visited the central west, we stood in a paddock where a crop we were looking at had achieved only a 30 per cent germination rate, and that was one of the good paddocks in the region.
The farm household allowance is an important drought assistance measure which aims at putting food on the table and diesel in the ute when farmers simply don't have enough money for the necessities. It was launched in 2004, and since then almost 8,000 people have been assisted, at a cost of $230 million. In terms of the amount of the assistance itself, you're looking at around $530 to $580 per fortnight for singles and just under $1,000 per fortnight for couples. It helps get farmers through, and it comes with counselling as well, so it is an important assistance measure. It provides the recipients with the opportunity to take steps to improve their circumstances and self-reliance through a farm financial assessment, financial improvement agreement and additional activity supplements of up to $4,000. The program is uncapped and demand driven, so no-one who is eligible will miss out. The fact that it's been extended from three to four years is, I think, a really important move, and it will be widely welcomed in farming communities across the nation.
It is important to note that farmers should not self-assess when thinking about the farm household allowance and how they can apply for it. There are many stories of farmers self-assessing, only to discover later that they are in fact eligible. So I would encourage any farmers out there to reach out to the Department of Human Services via their hotline—I will give it now; it is 1800686175 or 132316—to find out how they can get more assistance.
The federal government is also supporting farmers through the Rural Financial Counselling Service. This is a very important service, and $70 million has been allocated to it from 2016 to 2020 and, indeed, a further $20 million funding boost has just been announced. It helps around 4,500 people every year and it has about 3,000 clients at any given time, with about 130 counsellors around Australia. As I've said, this drought is taking a financial toll, but it is also taking a huge emotional toll. To many farmers with such a grim outlook, it just seems like things are never going to get better. The Rural Financial Counselling Service is there to help, and it does a great job.