darren.chester.mp@aph.gov.au 1300 131 785
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June 23, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (7.09 pm) — I congratulate the member for Pearce for her thoughtful contribution on and insights into this issue. It is with pleasure that I join the debate on the Rural Adjustment Amendment Bill 2009. The bill removes the current provision that a person may be reappointed on one occasion only to the National Rural Advisory Council, or NRAC. As all regional MPs would be aware, particularly those of the many drought affected electorates, NRAC’s main role is to provide advice on regional issues, particularly in relation to the assessment of areas for drought exceptional circumstances support.

This bill will allow for NRAC members to serve an additional term in the future, and I can understand the government’s reason for moving in that direction. This evening I want to make some general observations about my involvement with drought and Fracas it relates to the Gippsland community. One of my first experiences upon entering federal politics a year ago came about through the need to strongly represent the interests of my community as a result of a decision made by NRAC. On 10 August last year, without warning and without any explanation, I received a phone call from the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry’s office explaining to me that EC assistance for the Gippsland region would not be extended beyond 30 September 2008.

While I appreciate the effort by the minister’s office to make that contact with me, it did strike me as a bizarre decision at the time. I quickly informed the staff member that I thought a mistake had been made. In fact, I think the term I used was that I thought they had ‘made a blue’. It set off a chain of events in the Gippsland electorate and I ended up writing to the minister on more than 30 occasions representing the interests of individual landholders. At the time, the minister accused me of playing politics with this particular issue, but nothing could have been further from the truth. I accept that the minister does not know me that well, but there was never any intention on my part to play politics with the lives of my constituents on such a serious issue.

NRAC had actually let down my farmers. The farmers were reporting conditions that were worse than the previous year, for which they were in receipt of EC funding and support. There was a complete erosion of confidence in the community as their cash reserves had been exhausted and many people were doubting their future and the future of their children on the land. In particular, taking over the family farm was in jeopardy. The decision to withdraw EC funding at that particular time was the final straw for many of them. They had long suspected that there were some city based MPs—dare I say it, on both sides of the House—who really could not care about the plight of the farming sector, and for them this decision confirmed it.

In my short time in this place it is one of the most difficult jobs I have had to undertake. I listened carefully to the insightful contribution on this bill of the member for Revering. The passion that she exhibited over the emotional impact of the drought on her electorate was obvious in her speech to the House this evening. It was an exceptional contribution by an exceptional local member. Just like the member for Riverina, I found the emotional toll of trying to assist my drought affected farmers to be quite draining, but it was nothing in comparison to the turmoil that they were going through. It was made worse by the decision of NRAC and the minister to endorse a particular decision at the time. The uncertainty it created was terrible: visiting these drought affected farmers and telling them that, yes, their EC funding had been withdrawn and that we were fighting for it to be restored, but we had no idea whether we would bring the government to its senses in the future. The mood in the community was stressed to say the very least. The ‘we’ I refer to is my electorate staff, who did a magnificent job to assist in the campaign that we were running at the time, and my local farmers, who also rallied to assist us.

Quite apart from the obvious economic impacts, droughts are insidious to the soul as they sap away the energy and enthusiasm of our communities and corrode, I believe, the hopes of the next generation. You see—and the member for Pearce referred to this as well—our big strong farmers reduced emotionally through the strain of having to put down stock or of having to constantly ‘feed out’ stock, when they are in a position to be able to afford to do so. The constant drain of dealing with these droughts is emotionally grueling for everyone in those communities. the decision to withdraw EC funding in Gippsland was made after a desktop analysis by NRAC. There was no visit to Gippsland at the time, no attempt to assess the circumstances on the ground and no effort to listen to the locals.

I am no farmer and I do not pretend at all to be an expert on agricultural affairs or practical land management issues, but blind Freddy could tell that the farmers in my electorate were facing extraordinarily difficult conditions. These were exceptional circumstances in every sense of the words. In particular, the Tambo Valley from Bruthen to Benambra and beyond was suffering enormously, and conditions in the Bruthen Valley were little better. Right across Gippsland there were tales of farming families doing it very tough. There were dams and creek beds that had never run dry in the living memory of the families of several generations who had experience of farming on that land, and they were faced with a water crisis. It was an extremely difficult situation. In many instances know the conditions in parts of Gippsland have actually improved. I am happy to report that to the House. But the recovery does remain patchy and the EC assistance is still needed.

One of the great challenges we face going forward is how we manage the transition from EC to sustainable and viable farms in the future. It is a challenge that exercises my mind and the minds of many others in Gippsland. Many farming families have become dependent on the income support that they receive and the transition from now into the future is going to be very difficult for us. It took considerable time and effort and it placed a lot of stress on farming families to actually get NRAC to visit Gippsland and recommend an extension of the EC funding. I commend the minister in this case. I know the minister has copped a bit of a hiding here this evening, but I commend the minister and acknowledge that, once he came to appreciate the gravity of the situation in Gippsland, he did respond to representations that were being made to him and he did seek a further on-the-ground assessment of the conditions in Gippsland.

But such is the inefficient system we face at the moment that, even once NRAC had visited Gippsland and a ruling was made to return the EC provisions, some parts of the region were actually excluded again. We have this bizarre situation where people separated by the width of a road were in very different circumstances in relation to the EC support. There were those who were in and those who were out, just by the 15- or 20-metre separation of a road reserve. I quote from a letter from one of my constituents in Traralgon. The letter was written on 22 January this year when Latrobe city was actually left out of the EC declaration:

We cannot understand why some farms within the Gippsland region are able to access the EC benefits yet we are not able to even though our area in Gippsland is suffering drought. The EC declaration seems extremely unfair and inconsistent as we are in just as much need of the financial assistance as are other drought stricken farms in Gippsland that have obviously received rain.

That was typical of the pleas for help that I received from several of my constituents in the circumstance where some of my farmers were considered to be requiring EC assistance while others were excluded, as I said, just by the width of a road.

There was, however, something of a breakthrough after the Black Saturday bushfires when the interim EC assistance was granted for those affected regions, but we await the NRAC findings on the longer term measures. I commend the minister for taking those steps in the aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires. It was already a very stressful time in Gippsland and every effort was made to accommodate the needs of the Latrobe city farmers in the aftermath of that event. I am hopeful that there will be a positive finding to continue support beyond the current interim measures.

It is interesting to note that, on this occasion, NRAC has actually visited the region to make its assessment. I would commend that course of action for future assessments. I do not give this background to particularly chastise the minister or NRAC representatives. In fact, I thank the NRAC board members for their service and willingness to do what I believe is a difficult and largely a thankless task. There is no enjoyment to be had in inspecting drought hit communities. I fully acknowledge the difficulty in managing the EC arrangements going forward. But I do make my comments to highlight some of the failings of the current system which, while it was changed from time to time by the previous government, still does not meet our needs. The lines-on-the-map methodology of ruling regions in or out of drought assistance has created many problems in Gippsland in just the past 10 months. I accept the need for a better system, but it must be a better system for regional areas, not just better for the government to administer. I take the minister at his word that there are no plans to pull the rug out from under farming families who are currently in receipt of EC assistance measures at the moment.

I also take the opportunity to put the minister on notice. If there are any steps taken to reduce the level of support or otherwise compromise the treatment of Australian farming families, he will face a battle beyond his wildest imagination. Again I refer to the member for Riverina and I invite the minister to view the tape of the member’s contribution if he has any doubts about the passion with which we in the Nationals will continue to represent the interests of farming families. The member for Riverina may be small in stature, but she is a firebrand in her electorate and she will stand up for the needs of her community and those of all regional Australian families every step of the way. The farming families of Australia deserve our support and I will stand shoulder to shoulder with them and other regional MPs to ensure that assistance is provided in the future when it is needed.

The minister has flagged, in letters to me and in the public domain, that he will be seeking to introduce a new system. I stress that his new system needs to be fairy, it needs to be equitable and it must send a message to farming families across our nation that we will not abandon them. The minister has the opportunity to send that message to farming families—that this parliament and all who sit in this place will not abandon the farmers of Australia. We need to send that message loudly and we need to send it clearly. Our farmers need to know that this parliament respects the extraordinary contribution they have made to our nation’s development and will continue to make to our nation’s prosperity in the future. Australian farmers are world-class producers and they are selling their products into a corrupted world market. In many cases, there is no level playing field, but Australian farmers are consistently the best on the ground. If there were a Brownlow Medal for excellence in agricultural production, it would be awarded to the Australian farming sector year after year.

Gippsland farmers are at the forefront, with world-class wool producers, dairy farmers, beef farmers, horticulturalists, timber producers and many more. All of these people are doing an extraordinary job in our community. The member for Murray referred to the impact on the dairy industry of the corrupted world markets and the impacts of the government’s proposed emissions trading scheme. I urge the minister to also engage with the dairy industry in Gippsland and beyond as our farmers deal with the current crisis they are facing. Farming families are the backbone of many regional communities and we need to help them prosper not only to protect the food and fiber resources of our nation but to support the social and economic prosperity of communities across Australia. I have spoken before in the House on this topic. At that time—and again today—I deliberately referred to farming families and their communities’, because when drought hits regional Australia it hits us all, from those on the front line of our nation’s diverse farming enterprises to the many small businesses which supply them: the teachers; the doctors; the health professionals, who often deal with some of the social consequences; and the families themselves. When a drought hits a region, it hits every person within that region.

I think the member for Pearce put it beautifully in her speech when she reflected on the impact she saw in one of her early visits as a member of parliament. Drought is not a matter of ‘odds and evens’ on the watering of the prize roses that it may be in the city. It hits the economic prosperity of the individual families in regional areas, their neighbors and the towns themselves. It has a dramatic effect on the social life of the community. The other often neglected issue of drought is that it affects the environment of the farms themselves and the broader environment of the region. It is for those reasons that there needs to be a long-term commitment to EC declared areas and to support communities like Gippsland as they move into the recovery phase of the drought. As I mentioned earlier, there are signs of recovery in Gippsland, although they are patchy at the moment. It is an old truism that ‘When it does rain, it won’t be raining money’ or, as the shadow minister put it just the other day, ‘It rains opportunity’. With that opportunity comes the prospect of possibly more debt as the farming sector invests in equipment, in stock and in seed—to take the next gamble, as it were.

It does take time for communities to recover and there will be a lag time in the recovery process. I urge the federal government to work in partnership with state and local government agencies to continue to support communities throughout Australia as they emerge from this drought. There is a direct correlation between the length of years in drought and the community’s capacity to recover. During a drought regional areas suffer as they often lose skilled workers, and many young people move on—literally seeking greener pastures. Governments must invest in the capacity of these regions to help them get back on their feet. Money is needed, as we emerge from drought, for on-farm works such as fencing and basic maintenance along with productivity related investments in improved pastures, which are often neglected during periods when many farmers are suffering from reduced incomes.

Our challenge in the future, when we address this issue of EC funding, is to support viable farming families—to get them over the hump, knowing that on the other side they will prosper. This is not welfare or charity; this is an investment in the future of our nation’s productive farming enterprises. And on that point I urge our farming families in EC areas to seek information on whether they are entitled to receive assistance at the moment. I urge farmers not to self-assess. They should not take the view that it is some form of welfare if they access the income support or interest rate subsidy. I have met with many farming groups in my electorate over the past 12 months and I fear that many individuals are too proud to put their hands up for assistance, or do not realise that support is available for them. It disappoints me that state and federal governments—not just the current governments—are prepared to spend a small fortune on advertising propaganda but fail to inform our farming families about the benefits which they may be able to access when it comes to EC assistance in their areas.

I believe there is a place for reasonable government advertising to inform farmers and the accountancy profession that farmers may be entitled to some forms of assistance as they deal with the impact of drought. I touched previously on the issue of the environment and the impact of droughts. I want to return to the topic because it seems to be a favourite of the minister. He just cannot seem to talk about farming without firstly seeking to discredit the Nationals and secondly referring to climate change. I know the minister is most pleased with himself when he stands at the dispatch box and ridicules the Nationals but he does a great disservice to the industry which he is meant to represent in this place.

When the minister does engage as to topics—his main focus is always climate change—it is as if he is too scared to talk about agriculture. It is probably some sort of recognition that there are members on this side of the chamber who have forgotten more than he will ever learn about the farming sector. I want to make a few points in that regard because I believe the minister’s obsession with talking about climate change is counterproductive to his relationship with many in the farming sector. At the risk of being seen to give relationship advice, may I suggest to him that he put aside some of his inner suburban obsessions whenever he moves out into the regional areas.

Through its political approach to the issue of climate change I believe this government is responsible for dividing Australians on the important issue of sustainable environmental management. By its constant attacks on people who raise any concerns about the current CPRS legislation it is driving a wedge between many regional Australians, who are instinctively uncomfortable with the doomsday scenarios which the Prime Minister likes to propagate.

Farmers and rural landholders are the practical environmentalists of this nation. They have a vested interest in caring for the land and they are keen observers of the weather and longer term climate patterns. Many farmers in my electorate have rainfall records dating back several decades. They know the land and the environment in their locality better than anyone else. They have been taking steps over many years to restore the land to balance. As each bit of research has come along the most successful farmers have learnt more about managing the environment and the productivity of their land.

They have embraced new technology. They have demonstrated their ability to be early adaptors. Throughout history, as they have learnt more they have employed those practices on their land. And their landuse improvements are constantly evolving. That is why any cuts to research funding are such a disaster for agricultural industries.

The feedback I am receiving in Gippsland is that farmers are worried about the long-term drought and they are investigating different techniques and investing in new ways to manage their properties. But they are also telling me that this is nothing new—farmers in Australia have always faced the challenge of growing our nation’s food and fibre in a difficult and variable climate. That is not to say that they do not believe that the climate is changing; it simply makes the point that they are innovative and able to adapt if they are not crushed by the heavy hand of government regulation. It is in this context that I urge the minister to focus more on the things we must all agree on if we are to achieve positive environmental outcomes, rather than on pursuing a political objective of wedging people on either side of the climate change debate. As I said, farmers are the great practical environmentalists and there is overwhelming support for sustainable environmental practices in my community, both in the context of the long years of drought and of better seasons ahead.

In conclusion, I want to refer briefly to the Productivity Commission’s report on government drought support. And I take up the comments from the shadow minister, who said in this place:

That Productivity Commission report is the most ruthless thing that I have ever seen in any industry in my time …

It is a ruthless report. The recommendations are quite scathing and amount to a complete gutting of the existing support programs. There are recommendations that EC interest rate subsidies should be terminated; EC small business income support should be terminated; EC relief payments should be replaced. All of this is subject to what the report calls ‘transition arrangements’. It does amount to a root and branch overhaul of drought policy and it raises many serious issues which bear greater consideration at the appropriate time.

I urge the minister to engage with leaders in the industry before he rushes to implement these recommendations. There are many wiser heads than mine and— dare I say it?—wiser heads than the minister’s when it comes to the practical application of agricultural policy across this nation. And I refer to my earlier comments that there must be a strong message of support to the farming sector that its contribution to our nation is of value now and will be similarly valued in the future. I thank the House for the opportunity to speak on this bill and associated issues and I wish the NRAC members well in their future deliberations.

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