| March 01, 2017

Debating Farm Household Allowance

Delivered: Wednesday 1st March 2017, House of Representatives, Parliament House.

Mr DRUM: The truth is sometimes hard to hear, shadow minister.

Mr Champion: Where's your proof?

Mr DRUM: So, effectively, this is what happened. You are complicit in your actions to people who previously used to have some regard for you and your stance on agriculture. However, any credibility that you may have had has now been lost due to your stance and your behaviour throughout the backpacker tax debate in this House. It was quite disgraceful. The fact that you thought that such an important issue was such a joke—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! I call the member for Murray back to the—

Mr DRUM: I think you will stand condemned for that.

The scariness of Labor and agriculture does not just end with the backpacker tax and their behaviour but moves on to water. Certainly, there is a certain shadow minister for water in this House who seems to think that we can still take even more water away from productive agriculture and send it down the river for environmental purposes for South Australia's benefit. When we are trying to look after communities and when we are trying to do the best we can for productive agriculture—and I see the shadow minister has had enough; out he goes. That would be right. I hope he is going to see Mr Burke and have a talk about water, but he is probably not. He will probably just go and have a gag about the backpacker tax. This is an incredibly important issue for the seat of Murray and the people who are in agriculture right on the Murray-Darling Basin.

Reports have recently been done in relation to the damage that has been caused by taking water away from communities. I know that the review that took place in the northern parts of the Murray-Darling Basin shows there has been considerable damage to those communities around St George, Dirranbandi and other areas in the north. That is why they have had to change their targets for recovery in those areas. These reviews are still yet to be done in the southern part of the basin. But, nevertheless, the thought that the Labor Party in this place still thinks that you can take an additional 450 gigalitres of water away from productive agriculture to, effectively, keep the Murray Mouth open and to keep lakes at the bottom end of the Murray River system freshwater when naturally they are estuarine lakes, seemingly beggars believe.

This particular bill, the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2017, is dealing mainly with farmer household allowance and the support that this government is providing for farmers. At the moment, the major concern is within the dairy industry. It must be also noted that when the dairy industry was plunged into the crisis that it was through the advice being given to the farmers and the clawback provisions that took place in May of last year, the Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce was very quick to act—getting into the heart of the dairy regions and putting forward a $550 million package, a support package, a rescue package, to help those farming businesses that needed some assistance and trying to help, in the best way possible, by offering up farmer household allowance and low-interest concessional loans.

I know the shadow minister, again, starts laughing and mocking the concept of low-interest loans. But if you have a 2.47 per cent opportunity to borrow money at, that is something that is very, very serious. Many of our farmers are laden with debt. The ability to switch your loans over to 2.47 per cent has the capacity to save many farmers in the tune of $30,000 to $40,000 per annum. This, coupled with farmer household allowance, which can bring in to a couple in the tune of around $25,000 per annum, is a sizeable support package for a farming business that is doing it very tough due to world commodity prices being very, very low. They are not as low as they were previously under the Labor government, I might add. In 2009, the price started at $3.60 and ended up at $4.49. Those prices were still considerably lower than what they are today and what they were during the middle of the crisis that we have now.

Whilst we do have a crisis now and we have a government that is prepared to accept that we have a crisis in the dairy industry—that is why we are putting these packages together—the crisis is not as bad as it was under Labor, when they did absolutely nothing to support the industry. Here we have another clear example that the Labor opposition are quite happy to stand up here today and take a mocking view of what the government is doing to try to assist farming businesses, dairy farming businesses in particular, while we go through this downturn in the world price of milk. By the way, it is just starting to work its way back up slightly. We now have a price to Murray Goulburn providers of around $4.95, Fonterra at $5.20 and ACM at around $5.30.

So there is a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, and we certainly hope that those businesses that have decided to hang tough and keep their herds together and keep their staff on board are going to be able to make profits either now or very shortly into the future. But we have been through a very tough patch. We have been through a situation where many farmers have been getting up at 4.30 in the morning to milk their cows, repeating that at night, just so they can keep their herds together, even though they know they are making a loss. It is heartbreaking and demoralising, and we need to make sure that we have a government that understands this and is prepared to offer the assistance that we have.

One of the issues that were highlighted during the round tables that the member for Hunter spoke about, headed up by Bridget McKenzie, was timeliness—the time that it took to get hold of the farmer household allowance. Yes, there were some delays and yes, we have acted. Again, one of the key provisions in this bill is the streamlining of the application process to enable people to get farmer household allowance with a shorter application time and a shorter waiting time.

One of the other main provisions in this bill, again mocked by the member for Hunter, is the concept that to have an asset such as water, which is a key ingredient for dairy farmers, can hardly be considered an off-farm asset. It is very much a necessary part of the farming business. Therefore, we have brought that particular asset, whether it be $400,000 or $800,000 or $1.5 million worth of water—that is now treated in the same way as is farm equipment and other cooperative bonds and so forth. They are a necessary part of doing business in the dairy industry. Now farmers that have those assets are going to find themselves eligible to find their way to receive farmer household allowance.

It is also worthwhile looking at some of the statistics in Victoria, where the main cohort of farmers who have been in need of farmer household assistance are located. We now have a situation where over 1,650 farmers are receiving farmer household allowance. This has grown steadily over the last three to four months, where it was identified that many farmers needed assistance either with financial planners or financial counsellors to help them get through the paperwork. This is the Australian taxpayers' money that we are making available on a three-year basis to enable farmers to get through a tough patch and find some off-farm income. Ultimately we are trying to give these farmers, who are doing it tough through no fault of their own, through the world drop in milk prices, an opportunity to put food on the table as an emergency act, so they can send the kids to school, provide those children with food, allow the basic bills to be paid and put a business case around their farming business to ensure that there is a bright outcome at the end of the day.

It is not a lifetime on security, which I think was what the member for Hunter might have been angling at, that we need to get rid of the three-year—I do not know where in the world his thought processes are coming from when he wanted to be critical of having a three-year time line on this support package. It just seems to be that whatever the government is doing he is going to oppose and mock it. But we saw how serious the member for Hunter was when it came to an area such as the backpacker tax, when his behaviour was so disgraceful. There was a real opportunity for him to stand tall and to assist farmers, and he just took them as collateral damage to cause the government some embarrassment on the day.

What we have here is an opportunity to look back at where we have come from. Initially the farmer household allowance was very difficult to get hold of. We were talking about the number of Victorian farmers that were able to access it. They were less than 100 initially. Now we have worked through this. The roundtables that Senator McKenzie held were incredibly well attended. We had an opportunity to take the departments and bureaucrats out of Centrelink, the dairy industry representatives, the peak associations—we took them to the communities. We had meetings at Tangambalanga, in the Gippsland area, around Camperdown and at Congupna, my home town. The concept of taking these roundtables to the people, rather than having them drive into the nearest regional city, was something that we thought was important part of showing the people that we are prepared to listen and we are prepared to listen in their patch.

One area, by the way, where we have not been able to help with the assistance package is the cohort of predominantly New Zealand nationals who are out here, many of them in a share farming capacity. They are ineligible for the farmer household allowance and low interest loans. We have offered assistance for those who wish to become nationalised Australians, but certainly we need to keep those farmers in our thoughts as well. Because of their nationality they are ineligible for these assistance packages.

What we have done in this area has been decisive and it has been responsive. It was in May last year that Murray Goulburn announced that they had been overpaying their providers and were going to, all of a sudden, not only start to dramatically drop the price of milk that they were paying their farmers but they were also then going to try to claw that money back. It was only within a matter of days that Barnaby Joyce was in Shepparton and was talking to the peak associations—was talking to the VFF, was talking to Dairy Australia—and the farmers represented under those umbrella groups. He was outlining the support packages he was going to put in place. When that was difficult to assess, he put in place a series of round tables to find out exactly where farmers needed additional help. Now that that has happened, we see the introduction of this bill. We will see more and more assistance and more streamlining for people having access to the farm household allowance.

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