News Parliament


I move:

(1) notes that a significant part of rural Australia is currently drought declared;

(2) further notes that farming families and the agriculture sector more widely are a vital part of the Australian economy as well as the Australian psyche;

(3) recognises the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources for their efforts in touring drought declared areas in NSW and Queensland;

(4) congratulates the Government for deciding to extend the Farm Household Allowance from three years to four years; and

(5) acknowledges that this assistance will help the nation's farmers.

This is a vitally important issue to discuss in this chamber and in our national parliament, because it concerns our agricultural sector. Our agricultural sector is extraordinarily resilient. It is one of the foundation stones of our national economy and our national wealth. Farm exports, for example, are expected to reach $47 billion in 2018-19. Cotton exports are forecast to rise by a huge 18 per cent, to $2 billion, thanks to world consumption outpacing world production, lifting prices. Wool exports are expected to increase by nine per cent, to $4.7 billion, as limited growth in the world supply of fine and superfine wool lifts prices. Lamb exports are also forecast to rise, by 10 per cent, to $2.3 billion. The value of beef and veal exports is forecast to increase by two per cent, to $7.8 billion. I note that the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics is forecasting a rise in 2018-19 in the total value of farm production, to $61 billion—well above the 10-year average. The point is that agriculture and primary production are fundamental to our economy. Those figures that I've just recounted are made even more extraordinary given the very difficult times that many of our farmers are facing at the moment. So this is an extraordinary story of resilience.

Many farmers in my area are hurting badly because of the drought that is biting across the region. Whilst some areas have had some rain in recent times, many areas, including those regarded as traditionally safe, have simply missed out and they've only had a few mils, even just over the past month. There are heartbreaking stories out there of how our proud farmers are struggling under these awful conditions. As the drought has bitten harder, we, as a nation and also as MPs, need to be ramping up this drought support to support them. If you look at what's happening and the outlook, it's very grim. The Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources recently visited Calare and we stood in a field, a paddock, which had a crop in the ground, but the germination was only about 30 per cent; it was very poor. And that's one of the better stories in the area! We met with farmers. We heard their concerns. They asked him to act and to help, and that's what we should be doing—helping the farming sector. It's not just crops. It's those running livestock. All of them have difficult times. As I said, some of the stories are really heartbreaking, simply because it hasn't rained.

A number of us here have been trying to get the drought support ramped up, and that's why I was very pleased to see that the farm household allowance has been extended for another year to support our farmers when they don't have money for food on the table, the day-to-day necessities of life, diesel. When they can't afford it, the farm household allowance is there. It provides around $530 to $580 per fortnight for singles and just under $1,000 a fortnight for couples, but it can help get people through. It comes with counselling as well. You can't underestimate the importance of it. The period in which you can get the allowance has been extended from three years to four years, and that reflects the fact that this drought is really biting. The drought has been going on for seven years in some parts of Queensland, and many people have already accessed the farm household allowance. So that is positive. I noted also that the coalition government recently boosted funding for the Rural Financial Counselling Service to more than $70 million from 1 April 2016 to 30 June 2020. That's an extra $20.4 million. Again, it is really important to support them. Of course, as the season worsens, and it is worsening, there will be a need to ramp up support again, because the reality is that many farmers haven't sown anything. There's nothing in the ground. They haven't turned a wheel. As I mentioned at the outset of this address, those that have put a crop in the ground are seeing some very poor germination—you're seeing some very stressed crops, as we saw with the minister for agriculture. It's vitally important that we get this assistance to farmers and that we ramp it up, because you just get the feeling that things are going to get a whole lot worse.

That's why I was pleased also to see the announcement of the Regional Investment Corporation, or RIC as it's known to its many friends. I note the presence in the chamber of the member for New England. He's the father of the Regional Investment Corporation. That organisation exists to provide support through concessional loans for farmers in drought, and it has a $2 billion loan book. It's really important to have an organisation like that be decentralised to an area like the Central West, where the farmers are, so it can get out amongst the farmers, find out what they need and get the help to where it's needed most. It is disappointing that it was delayed in the Senate for so long by those opposite and by people like the Liberal Democrats and the Australian Conservatives.

An honourable member interjecting

Mr GEE: They opposed it. They didn't want this important organisation that supports our farmers to come into existence. It's not just going to support concessional loans—there's $2 billion for that—but there's another $2 billion for federal water infrastructure.

It is really important if you're going to have a facility like this that it's run and administered properly and that it's actually out where the farmers are, where they need the help. Our farmers are doing an extraordinary job in really difficult circumstances. Some are buying fodder in. Some are agisting. Each have their own different strategies to cope with it. One of my constituents, Philip Blowes from Yeoval, for example, has taken a different approach. He's actually growing barley sprouts in a shed not too far away from his house. He grows them on a cycle. They take a few days to mature, and once they get to 10 or 15 centimetres high he takes the sprouts out and feeds the sheep. I've been out with him feeding the sheep. It's a great source of nutrition, it's very effective and it's cheaper than getting fodder in. That's just one example of a resilient farmer, a farmer who has found an innovative way to deal with the drought situation. It's not a new concept, but he's taken it and refined it.

When you look at farmers like that you know that the future of agriculture is bright, but they're still going to need help. We still need to help them get through this so that this sector is vibrant and continues to be the bedrock of the Australian economy. We can't do without agriculture. Once this drought passes we're going to have to rebuild, but, for the moment, it's a question of getting through and helping our farmers get through, and they need all the help that they can get. These measures that have been announced recently are a really good start but, as I have said, this situation looks grim. The season is worsening and, as it worsens, we need to ramp up drought support.