In Parliament

Wednesday, 1 March 2017 HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES 93 Mr CHESTER (Gippsland—Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) (18:00): I rise to speak on the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2017. From the outset, I would like to recognise the work of the Deputy Prime Minister and the minister for agriculture in his efforts to provide a fairer system of assistance for Australian farmers by way of this household allowance payment. The farm household allowance is a payment to help farmers and their families who are doing it tough. It is a helping hand—no more, no less. In my electorate of Gippsland, there would not be a farmer who hopes they ever have to receive this payment. They get into farming to make a profit through their hard work, through their ingenuity and through their determination and resilience. They expect to turn their land into profit, and they hope they never have to receive farm household assistance. More broadly, farming is one of the mainstay industries in Gippsland. It has been part of our traditional strength. The diversity of our farming sector has been critical to the prosperity of my region, and it is certainly going to play an important role in the future. It is in this vein that I would like to reflect for a moment on the Gippsland dairy sector. Obviously, it has a very strong history, and I would like to note for the record that it has a very strong future as well. In saying that, the member for Wannon is joining me in the chamber. We both claim to have Australia's most important dairy production region. We had an argument about it once, and then we found out that we actually both have 23 per cent of Australia's dairy production, so no-one won the argument! Opposite me is the member for Eden-Monaro, who is trying to lay claim to the title because of the Bega Valley. Dr Mike Kelly interjecting— Mr CHESTER: I will accept his interjection. The Bega Valley is another productive dairy region, but not verging on the quantity of production from the electorate of Wannon or Gippsland. But it has been a tough time for dairy farmers across Australia, whether they be in the Bega Valley, in the Western District or in Gippsland. The retrospective cut in milk prices was devastating for families in my community. It created an enormous amount of uncertainty, and it led to a great deal of unrest, both social and economic, in Gippsland as people tried to work their way through the difficult circumstances they were faced with. I appreciate the feedback that I received from farmers in my community—feedback that I took directly to the minister. When Senator McKenzie visited my region, when she came to Morwell, it was an opportunity for farmers to attend that forum and provide direct feedback to her. They were able to point out some of the issues in relation to the farm household allowance system and the way it was applied and the complexity of how it was applied to farmers right across Australia. I would like to reflect for a moment on the opportunities that still present themselves for the dairy sector in Gippsland. We have an extraordinary opportunity to capitalise on our fertile soils, on our reliable water supplies throughout the Macalister Irrigation District and on the presence of Murray Goulburn in Maffra in my electorate, one of those plants that is critical to the future success of the Gippsland region. In that same vein, I acknowledge the great diversity of the Gippsland agricultural sector, whether it be beef production, wool and lamb production or horticulture in all its forms around the Mitchell River and the Macalister River flats near Sale. One of the things that the farming sector across Gippsland shares is a need for improved connectivity. Connectivity is a word that we are going to hear a lot more about in regional Australia in the years ahead as we talk about the way we link our regions, whether it is through our road and rail links or our telecommunication links. It is about connectivity across our communities and connectivity into markets, between our major regional towns and into our capital cities. It is going to be critical for us to capitalise on the free trade agreements that this government has been able to negotiate with important Asian markets to our north. We need the opportunity to get our products to market in the most efficient way possible. We also need to see investment in our water infrastructure as we look to grow our capacity to produce the food that those Asian markets are certainly searching for. So I am very pleased that in the last election campaign we were able to make some very significant announcements in Gippsland which will not only add to the connectivity of my region and improve the efficiency of the agricultural sector but also provide more opportunities for Gippslanders to get out, do their work and travel throughout the community in a safe way. In that vein, one of the best announcements during the campaign was one in relation to road funding. We will see record spending on roads in Gippsland as a direct result of our negotiation with the Victorian state government. There will be $345 million contributed by the federal government to the program. It will be matched by the Victorian state government. That will mean roads in Gippsland, roads in the seat of Wannon and roads right throughout regional Victoria will benefit. In my electorate, the Great Alpine Road linking Bairnsdale and Bruthen through the Tambo Valley to towns like Ensay, Swifts Creek, Omeo and Benambra, will see major improvements. We have allocated money for that, which will improve safety on an important link. It is important from an agriculture perspective, but it also opens up our community to tourism opportunities. On that point, when we talk about the agricultural sector, we need to recognise the real opportunities for agri-tourism as more and more of our farming sector are seeing opportunities to diversify their income base and reach out into tourism opportunities in regional Australia. Another major project announced during the campaign which will improve connectivity for the agricultural sector is the upgrades to the Princes Highway East. This is a section of road which is not on the national network, but I was able to secure $25 million of federal funding, to be matched by the state government, on this important link between Gippsland and the seat of Eden-Monaro. The member for Eden-Monaro, who is in the chamber, is also a strong supporter of improving this link between our two communities. It will improve safety on this stretch of road which not only is an important tourism link but also is important for moving our products to and from Melbourne and Sydney, and into the Canberra market as well. Funding in the order of $50 million will be spent on that road in the years ahead. Additional funding of $5 million each from the state and federal governments will go on the Monaro Highway, another important transport link from Canberra to Bombala and Cooma. These are all important examples of how we need to improve the connectivity of our region to capitalise on the free trade agreements, to get our products to market as quickly and as efficiently as we possibly can and to take our quality Gippsland products to the world. I mentioned the importance of water infrastructure. We are seeing in relation to the dairy industry in particular the MID 2030 plan. I was very pleased to welcome the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources to my community where he made the very important announcement that the federal government will provide $20 million to invest in water security for the MID, the Macalister irrigation district. We have a comparatively small but very reliable dam. It fills and spills very quickly. We have ageing infrastructure attached to that dam at Glenmaggie. Maximising the use of the existing water entitlements through improved channel technology, working with the dairy farmers and the horticultural sector on research to help them reduce their nutrient use and reduce the amount of run-off into the streams and flowing through to the Gippsland Lakes and water re- use facilities on individual farms—all of these things are examples of the farming sector being prepared to work with the best researchers to understand how technology can be applied to their farms, how it can reduce their costs, how they can adapt it to their situation and help them become more productive and also better custodians of the land they farm on and better custodians of the environment. I am very proud of the role my farmers play in the community not just in producing world-class food but also as custodians of the land they work and have worked for generations. In the same vein, I would like to mention another water project which has great potential for Gippsland at the Lindenow flats on the Mitchell River. That is a very fertile horticultural area and one where further investment in water security would allow for greater growth and opportunities for the farms that are already there but also open up new land to irrigate agriculture. I am very keen to work with the landowners and the state government on projects that can see us improve the reliability of supply for those irrigators so that they can continue to service right up and down the east coast of Australia as they do today. That is an important project and one which unfortunately has stagnated under the current state government in Victoria. But I remain hopeful that they will see the opportunities to work with the farming sector and invest in this great industry in Gippsland. Just returning more specifically to the bill before the House, it is important to note that farmers will be eligible for this payment if they contribute a significant part of their labour and capital to their farm enterprise and if they meet an income and asset test and comply with initial obligation requirements. If they are found eligible, farmers can then access up to three years of income support. As I said at the outset, no farmer in Gippsland and no farmer in Australia wants to get themselves into a position where they have to rely on farm household support, but it is important to have that safety net there and that helping hand in tough times. This legislation is ensuring the delivery is more efficient and addresses the needs of farmers if they experience those tough times. The changes include the fact that the ordinary waiting period will be waived and also the liquid assets waiting periods will be removed. This will mean that unnecessary waiting periods for access to the farm household allowance will no longer apply to farmers who apply for this form of assistance. The farm household allowance has been a successful measure in assisting farmers who are experiencing economic hardship. Over 7,000 farmers and their partners have been provided with access to the farm household allowance, and more than 4,700 around Australia are currently receiving the allowance. The government—and I again commend the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources and also my colleague in the Senate Bridget McKenzie—has listened to the concerns expressed and raised within rural communities over the past 12 months about the lengthy and complex application process and has taken steps to address these concerns. As a part of this process, there was extensive negotiation with individual farmers but also with key agricultural stakeholders, including the National Farmers' Federation, Australian Dairy Farmers and United Dairyfarmers of Victoria. They advised the government about the delivery of this household allowance. I thank them for the manner in which they engaged with the government in this regard. As a member of the Nationals—and I note the presence in the chamber of another member of the Nationals, the member for Riverina, Michael McCormack—I know we are very keen to be delivering policies that assist communities right around regional Australia to have safe, stronger, better regional communities that allow everyone the chance to get ahead. We are working on a daily basis with our communities to get a fair share of government investment in the key infrastructure we need to connect our rural and regional communities. We understand the importance of providing opportunities, particularly opportunities for young people in those regional communities. These are people who choose to live outside our capital cities and people who go to work every day on the land and provide the food and fibre that we need in our country towns and in our cities. They are the unsung champions and heroes of our nation. We base a lot of our national culture around those people— the farming communities living in those rural and remote areas of the nation. They do not ask for much, but they do expect a fair go and a fair share. I am very proud to be part of a government which is committed to delivering that fair go and fair share for regional Australia. We want to invest in those regional communities. We want to see more people having the opportunity to live outside our capital cities, whether that be in my seat of Gippsland or in the seats of Wannon, Eden-Monaro or Riverina. We understand that the people who have been brought up in those rural and regional towns want to see a future in those communities for their children. They want to see governments, whether they be at a local, state or federal level, that are investing in the services and infrastructure they need. We as members of this place have this rare opportunity to stand up and advocate on their behalf. I am very proud to be part of a party that is determined to deliver policies that achieve those outcomes for rural and regional people. In that spirit, I commend the bill to the House and congratulate the minister again for the work he is doing in standing up for rural and regional communities.

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