News Parliament

BILLS - FARM HOUSEHOLD SUPPORT AMENDMENT (TEMPORARY MEASURES) BILL 2018 - SECOND READING

This drought is biting right across New South Wales and also Queensland and indeed other parts of Australia. It is hitting the communities of central western New South Wales especially hard. It is an awful drought and it is taking an awful toll on all of our communities—our farmers, our farming families and our country communities. It is not just the farms that are being affected; it is the whole community. We are seeing an economic slowdown which is really taking a toll right across the business sector as well.

The farm household allowance is an important relief measure. It is a vital relief measure. That's why I speak to support the Farm Household Support Amendment (Temporary Measures) Bill 2018 this evening. Basically the farm household allowance puts food on the table and diesel in the ute when farmers just don't have any income because of the ravages of drought. It's worth around $530 to $580 per fortnight for singles and just under $1,000 per fortnight for couples. With this bill, we are seeing additional funding go into it, including $12,000 in grants, which is, I think, really important.

Another feature of this bill which I think is important is that the assets test threshold has been widened to $5 million. Previously it was around $2.5 million. This was one of the big issues which farmers had raised with me concerning the farm household allowance—that most of them weren't eligible for it. By widening the asset threshold and raising it, you are going to get thousands more people eligible to apply. I think that's a great thing because the constant feedback that I have had from communities right around the central west is that that assets threshold needs to be adjusted.

The other issue that farmers have is that it's just so difficult to fill in those forms. I note that this week the Australian government is taking steps to make it easier to apply for the farm household allowance and to streamline the process. This is a constant source of irritation to farmers. The drought takes a huge emotional toll. There is no rain, the paddocks are bare and you've got farmers and their families going out, day in and day out, feeding, checking dams and checking troughs. It's very time consuming. It's very labour intensive. The last thing our farmers need to be saddled with is more forms and red tape. Indeed, I've had farmers actually take photographs of the pile of forms that they have to fill in to access the farm household allowance. So I'm very pleased that efforts are being made to streamline it. I think it's really important, and it is the least that we can do for our farmers.

I am also very pleased that the federal government has just announced more badly needed drought relief measures. Drought relief can't exist as a static thing in time. You can't just put out a package and say: 'Yes, we're done. Here is our drought relief package.' It's got to move and change as conditions worsen, and they are worsening. This season is shaping up to be a very ugly one. So I was very pleased to see these new drought relief measures announced just recently, including for the National Drought Coordinator, Major General Stephen Day. I think that his presence will help coordinate all of these parties, because there does need to be coordination across the state governments, federal government and also private enterprise.

I was very pleased to see that primary producers will now be allowed to immediately deduct rather than depreciate over a number of years the cost of fodder storage assets, such as silos and hay sheds. That's a good thing. Doubling the amount a farmer can borrow in low-interest loans to $2 million across a 10-year loan term with interest-only repayments for the first five years helps. Farmers will access that. The additional $23.7 million to improve drought resilience by expanding the great artesian bore capping program is a positive thing as well, as is the special drought round under the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund that will provide up to $72 million for water infrastructure projects. There's $2.7 million for the Bureau of Meteorology to develop new finer scale regional weather and climate guides. Again, that's a positive step.

Something that I touched on previously is the bolstering of staffing levels at Centrelink to ensure farms are supported when applying for the farm household allowance. This will include phone access capacity, which will allow farmers to complete a claim over the phone and just make the whole process simpler and easier. I'll touch on an aspect of that shortly.

One initiative that was part of the package was the Drought Communities Program, which provides $1 million to councils to help communities affected by drought with local infrastructure projects and drought relief activities. I think this is an important initiative, because it recognises that it's not just the farm which is being affected by this awful drought but the farming communities and our country communities—our country towns and villages. Everyone in our region is being hit by this, so it is an important initiative. But, when it was announced, there were some notable omissions. I include Bathurst Regional Council, Lithgow City Council and Orange City Council in that. Two that do host significant farming communities are Bathurst and Lithgow. They have significant farming communities in their local government areas, so, as soon as this announcement was made, I got on the phone to the responsible minister, the member for Groom, to highlight this problem. He understood my frustration—that there were drought-affected communities that weren't on the list. I think the issue is the bureaucratic process here, not the minister. To his credit, the minister has undertaken to work with me to fix it, and I'm confident he will. He's a good man, an effective minister and a great friend of the Central West. However, the situation isn't acceptable when everyone in the Central West is getting hammered and is suffering under this drought. This situation needs to be resolved as a matter of urgency. We need to get cracking on it, and I urge all parties to do just that. We need to get this issue sorted out on the double.

Another issue which needs to be sorted out quickly is that of the rural financial counsellors. I was very pleased to see recently an additional $5 million for rural financial counsellors. I visited the counsellor in Mudgee recently. She is now booked out for three weeks. There's a counsellor in Mudgee and in Young, and there are counsellors in Dubbo too, but we need more support on the Central Tablelands now to service Lithgow, Oberon, Bathurst, Orange and the Cabonne area. The funding is there. There's an additional $5 million—that's a good thing. I welcome the announcement. Now we've just got to get the counsellors on the ground. We need boots on the ground and we need them ASAP. I've spoken to the folks who run the counselling service out of Dubbo and I understand that an application for funding has been made, but I would encourage everyone who has some input into this process to get it cracking—to expedite it—because we need to get this help on the ground where it's needed, on the double.

Everywhere I go in the Central West—I've been visiting a lot of farms and speaking to a lot of farmers—the mental toll it's taking is huge. People are worried about their family members, and it's hurting. The last thing that farmers need to worry about is trying to work out whether they're eligible for a program or whether they can get relief, because they're coming in late after long, awful soul-destroying days. We need to get them the help. That's the least that we can do for them. We need to work out the feed situation here and support them to get the feed and fodder to where they need it—get the grain going. That's what I'm hoping the new drought coordinator can do, because we need to get the grain to where it's needed. At the moment, it's not coming into the Central West of New South Wales.

Grain is in extremely short supply. There have been some big buy-ups in recent weeks, with hundreds of thousands of tonnes taken off the market. WA is going to have a bumper season—and thank the Lord they are— but we need to get the grain from there over into the Central West of New South Wales. We need it on the double. I'm hoping the drought coordinator can get private enterprise, the New South Wales government and the federal government all in a room together to sort out how we can do it and who's doing what, because, at the moment, the grain just isn't arriving. Farmers are now being charged upwards of $500 a tonne, and it's uneconomic to feed in that situation. All of the work they've done to this date, by making feedlot on their places and storing the grain and the hay, will all be for nothing if they can't continue to feed. We need to get this sorted ASAP. I would encourage all farmers to speak to their local members and drought coordinators, state and federal, to raise these issues and make the decision-makers aware of the importance of this project in terms of getting the grain. It's urgent and we need it quickly.

We also need fodder. We need the hay. There has been some discussion in this House about the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder making water available so that farmers, especially in the southern reaches of the state and into Victoria, can actually finish fodder and actually irrigate the hay. The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder has a huge holding of water. It's being held as environmental water. I don't think the farmers are asking for much. We need to be looking out of the box and thinking a little bit differently about how we can get feed and fodder to the farmers. Getting not huge amounts of water, but enough so that they can irrigate the fodder, would be a really helpful start. So I would encourage all parties, including the drought coordinator, to get moving on that, because it's urgent and it can't wait for a long bureaucratic process. We need this help now. This needs to be delivered now. We need to get this sorted out now. We need to get the million-dollar grants to council sorted out because this is pressing and it's going to get a whole lot worse. There's a real urgency about this.

So many people around our region have rallied to the cause to help our farmers. If you can take away anything from this adversity, it shows the Australian spirit. The Australian spirit shines through in times like these because in country communities we care about each other. But it's not just the country communities caring; this is the whole of Australia. For example, in the Mudgee area, Will Bateman and Glenn Box have this program called 200BALES, which is a campaign to get hay to farmers. It gives people or businesses the opportunity to give a bale of hay to one of the farmers in the local area who are struggling during these dry times. I was actually at a farm about a week ago, and the farmer, who hadn't asked for it, suddenly received some bales under this program, and it just lifted their spirits. It made them aware that the community was caring. Although they were not looking for a handout, the bales were there and they were really grateful for it. It did make a difference.

All around the central west there are many, many stories of the community pulling together. East Orange Public School students have been raising money to help farmers in the region. They've actually been cooking. They've had an out-of-uniform day. They're hoping to raise around $1,000. They've got an appeal on. They're selling cupcakes. All of the students are involved in it. There are also local businesses. Sierra Leone Hair and Beauty threw open its doors recently, donating all of the money raised from people getting haircuts to drought relief. Rebecca Childs, who runs a hair business called Hair at Home, said the idea was just a silly idea about a week ago, and it just picked up steam. These are everyday people working out what they can do to help drought-affected communities.

This legislation is important legislation. I support the legislation, but there is more work to do, and we need to be doing everything we can to ramp up drought support, because more relief and assistance measures are going to be needed. This drought shows no sign of breaking any time soon, and we need to keep ramping it up and supporting the farmers who have supported us through lean economic times recently. We need to now have their backs and support them.