Mr CHESTER (Gippsland—Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Minister for Defence Personnel, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC and Deputy Leader of the House) (18:39):
I do take great pleasure in joining the debate on the Future Drought Fund Bill 2018 and recognise from the outset the work by the minister in bringing together the coalition government’s focus on making sure the farmers in our communities are well prepared for the inevitability of future droughts in our country. I’ll be making a few comments in a moment’s time about the existing drought which is affecting Gippsland farmers, but for now I want to reflect on the fact that this legislation for the Future Drought Fund will provide for a long-term investment to build drought resistance in Australian communities, which is desperately needed, and to enable our $60 billion industry to reach new heights through improved performance.
The Future Drought Fund will provide additional support for our farming families and our communities, with the aim of bolstering drought resilience right across our nation. Importantly, the fund will be available to support research, development and innovation—key areas for our farming families as they adapt to the variability of the climate—and make sure we continue to play an important role in meeting the food and fibre needs not just of our own community but of our export markets. It also helps deliver infrastructure projects to promote the adoption of technology and support improved environmental and natural resource management to encourage sustainable agricultural practices.
I want to reflect for a moment on that point. Our farmers are at the absolute front line when it comes to practical environmental management. It’s our farmers who tend to be the ones who join the Landcare organisations and who, with the backing of good technical support, are prepared to invest in their own properties to make sure they’re more viable in the longer term. I only need to reflect on the Macalister Irrigation District in my seat, where, with the benefit of whole-of-farm management plans, our farming families have been investing in improved irrigation technology to make sure that they reduce the amount of nutrient running off their properties and into the nearby streams and down to the Gippsland Lakes, which obviously has an impact on the potential for algal blooms. Obviously the farmers themselves don’t want to see those nutrients running off their property; they want them to get back on the grass to grow more pasture for their dairy herds. The investments we’ve seen in Gippsland over the past 10 years, backed up by good research, have been incredibly important to achieve good outcomes for my farming communities.
I want to point out that one of the key aspects of this legislation before the House is that it will provide for a drawdown of $100 million per year to invest in important drought resilience projects. I’m hopeful this legislation gets through as quickly as possible, because I’ve got a few projects in my own electorate, and I’m sure people will be coming forward to co-invest with government on projects that will make a real difference. I want to refer specifically to the Lindenow flats on the banks of the Mitchell River. The farmers on the Lindenow flats are incredibly important in terms of providing the salad and vegetable needs along the whole east coast of Australia. Every summer they’re severely impacted by their capacity to draw down on their entitlements—they actually pay for these entitlements—from the Mitchell River. They’re having to come up with a whole range of their own solutions in terms of storing water throughout the heavier flows in winter and then having access to that water in the summer months to finish their crops off. We’re going to need to find ways to help those farmers deal with the variability of the flows on the Mitchell River. These farmers are coming to me saying they’re not after greater entitlement; they’re simply trying to get the entitlement they’ve actually paid for, which is very difficult to achieve in these current dry conditions.
I can’t stand here this evening and talk on this bill without reflecting for some time on the drought which is affecting many families in my community. I’ve got to say, Deputy Speaker Hastie—I know you’ve been here for a few years now yourself—when you see your community struggling, and it’s often in a rural, regional or peri-urban seat, your community may struggle for a range of reasons. In Gippsland, it’s all the natural disasters you would expect. We’re exposed to fire, flood and drought. I’ve had all of those in the 10 years I’ve been in this place. I have to say that, of all of those, I find drought the most exhausting and insidious of natural disasters. It erodes at the hope of the farming community. It undermines the viability of our agribusinesses. Every sunny day, every windy day, every dry day, it’s corrosive throughout the community as it takes away from people’s confidence in the future.
Droughts are times of decisions around when to sell, which of your stock to keep, how you’re going to purchase feed, where you’re going to access that feed from, and other decisions around when you re-sow pastures, and taking a punt on the seasonal break which hopefully comes this autumn. I’ve got to say there are many in my community who feel that our drought—the Gippsland drought—has been the forgotten drought. That’s not meant to be derogatory to anyone in this place or derogatory to the broader community; we know that western Queensland, in particular, has suffered enormously, and large parts of New South Wales have been gripped by drought for a long period of time now.
Gippsland is renowned as a place of rolling green hills and fast-flowing rivers, and people just seem to expect that it’s always like that in Gippsland. Well, the farmers I’ve been talking to over the summer break are telling me that in some parts of my region it is the worst conditions in 100 years. People who’ve been on the same property for 100 years have rainfall records their families have kept reliably, and they tell me they’re experiencing the worst rainfall conditions in 100 years. I’ve got to say to the people of Gippsland: we haven’t forgotten them in this place, and I certainly haven’t forgotten them. We need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to support them as much as possible to ensure they’re viable in the longer term.
I had the opportunity just a couple of weeks ago to catch up with a few of my old mates in the agricultural industry, and in tow I had the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, my good friend Michael McCormack. As we met with farmers and travelled through the area south of Sale around Giffard and Mcloughlins Beach, he was able to see for himself just how poorly the country was doing in that part of my region. In the two weeks since, though, conditions there, which were already very bad, have deteriorated enormously. Wind storms have resulted in paddocks blowing badly, and farmers are watching their prized asset—their topsoil—blowing away before their eyes. There is a sense of helplessness in the face of these dry conditions and a sense of frustration as well as they recognise the very severe economic consequences for their own financial situation and the environmental consequences for their properties—and these are well-managed properties. The environmental consequences are quite severe.
But it also has a huge social impact on the structure of little communities like Giffard, Stradbroke and Mcloughlins Beach; further east in my electorate, areas around the townships of Briagolong, Bengworden and Meerlieu; and all the way out to Orbost, which is famous for its Snowy River flats and being very productive country. All are in very poor condition. And then go into the high country like Ensay, Swifts Creek and Dargo; and that region is affected as well. It’s dry across the East Gippsland and Wellington shires, and I have to acknowledge that the government did include both of those shires in its support for local government.
So it’s basically affecting just about all the dryland country in my community. As I said, some are reporting the worst conditions in nearly a century. Parts of East Gippsland have received their lowest rainfall on record. At the same time, farmers on irrigated land are preparing for water shortages as well. Unfortunately, the most recent Bureau of Meteorology drought statements, from February this year, are showing a 22-month rainfall deficiency and serious or severe rainfall deficiencies continuing across much of eastern Victoria. Again the January rainfall in Gippsland was below average. It’s a crisis situation which, as I said just a moment ago, has deteriorated in the last couple of weeks. We do need to see all levels of government working together in these very challenging times. I commend the work that I’ve already seen by the federal government, but I’ve got to say I’m looking for more in terms of local and state coordination of our efforts to respond to this crisis.
In the order of 380 farmers across the region are receiving the farm household allowance—260 of those are in the East Gippsland area alone. I know measures have been taken to try to improve the eligibility criteria to reduce red tape, but the feedback I’m receiving on the ground is that there’s still more work to be done in that regard. It is still extraordinarily difficult, time-consuming and frustrating for our farming families to access that household allowance. It’s an important payment, though, because it does help to put food on the table. It’s a modest payment, but it’s certainly something that those who are eligible for greatly appreciate. There have been two special lump-sum payments for the eligible families. One was paid last September, and I think in April this year there will be another payment made available. I think it’s in the order of $12,000 for couples and $7,200 for singles. Again, these are important payments for those eligible for them.
The concern that’s been raised with me is that, if a farming family takes initiative and starts securing off-farm income, it then becomes very difficult to actually access some of the support that we’re making available to them. We’re, effectively, punishing people who have the capacity, the wherewithal and the get up and go to try to keep their farm viable by seeking off-farm income. It’s something I’ve raised with the minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
I had been frustrated in the early stages by the Victorian government’s lack of action on the drought but I spoke with the state agriculture minister over the weekend and received assurances that she will be visiting the drought-impacted area of my community in the coming days. Victoria is yet to announce that it will sign up to the $50 million On-Farm Emergency Water Infrastructure Rebate Scheme, which is frustrating for some of the farmers in my community who see the benefits flowing to their New South Wales colleagues across the border, and they’re waiting for Victoria to actually sign up for the scheme.
There’s a lot of demand within my community for the Victorian government to take action in relation to municipal rates. The biggest challenge that farmers have as they deal with this drought is, as I said before, making these important decisions. But the basic cost structure of their business makes it hard for them to make sure they’re viable for when better conditions return. Help with municipal rates is something that just about every farmer I’ve spoken to over the last couple of months has raised with me. They want to see more assistance with other basic household costs and the fixed costs around registration of vehicles. They also want to see whether there’s more we could be doing to provide the technical support and perhaps even financial support to help them re-establish pastures, which are blowing away at the moment. These are farms that have been sustainably and very well managed for generations. They’re seeing conditions and experiencing challenges that they’ve never dealt with before. Some will require additional technical support—agronomist and other specialist advice on how they re-establish these pastures when the better conditions return. We need to make sure that these farming businesses, which have been viable for decades, remain viable in the future.
The federal government itself deserves some credit for what’s already been invested in working with the drought-affected communities across our nation. The Drought Communities Program has been extended from, I think, 60 local communities to 81, providing them with $1 million each to keep people employed and to help businesses to keep running. I doubt that that’s going to be enough. A million dollars will go very quickly. I know in the Wellington Shire right now, one of the decisions they made was to subsidise the water cartage costs for people to fill their tanks for domestic use. I think that money’s going to run out fairly quickly across many municipalities, so I doubt that will be enough, and we’ll probably have to revisit that issue in the week and months ahead if conditions don’t improve.
I mentioned before the On-Farm Emergency Water Infrastructure Rebate Scheme, which has been well-received, I understand, in New South Wales, but to the best of my knowledge Victoria hasn’t signed up at this point. There’s been increased funding for mental health, which is very important and something that reflects on the way this place and our community have learnt a great deal about the impact of trauma on the mental wellbeing of our communities, and having additional resources available is very important. I would simply encourage, on that point, our farming communities and also people in the towns who may not be aware of how tough it is out on the farms to reach out to their mates on the land and make sure they’re not trying to go through this alone.
As a local member, I’ve raised my concerns directly with the Prime Minister both late last year and again this year. I have been seeking a whole-of-government approach to help our farming communities. As I said, the Deputy Prime Minister has already visited my region, and the agriculture minister will be there in a couple of weeks’ time. My message, to put it simply, is: while we have done a lot and we can be proud of what we’ve done in this place, and the government and the cabinet can be proud of what we’ve done already, there’s still a lot more to be done.
I’m afraid that the support is not necessarily getting out there to all of the families who need it. The bureaucracy and red tape we put in the road of people when they’re already in difficult circumstances undermines the value of the funding that’s already been announced. We’ve got to find ways to cut through the red tape. I face it in my own Department of Veterans’ Affairs on a daily basis. When people are at their most vulnerable, when they’re struggling with the economic and social challenges that go with drought, they’re not in the best place to be filling out piles of paperwork. So my message to my farming families is to look after each other in these difficult times, look after themselves and make sure they’re seeking any assistance if they need it, and getting out and about as much as they possibly can. We do have a great history of providing food and fibre in Gippsland, but we also have a great future in the agricultural sector.