| June 26, 2018

Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2018

It's always fun to follow on from Labor when they're talking about agriculture and water issues. We're talking about drought through New South Wales and Queensland. It's a very serious issue. If Labor had their way, they'd have a man-made drought. They'd follow the Greens down the path of handing all the water in the Murray-Darling Basin back to the environment. They'd have a water crisis in the Goulburn Valley. They'd have a water crisis throughout the Murrumbidgee. They'd have a water crisis down throughout the lower reaches of the Murray River. They'd have a water crisis made by politicians. They'd have a water crisis that's fake. They would inflict that pain gladly on the people down the Murray-Darling Basin just by carrying out their policies—their policies that they are very proud of when they come into this House. In relation to looking after our farmers throughout the Goulburn Valley, we spend most of our time fighting Labor and their ridiculous stance on water policy. So it's a bit tough when we have the Labor Party come in and want to lecture us about how we should be doing more for our farmers when their own policies would see many of our farmers unable to carry on the farming practices that they have done for two, three or four generations—ever since we've had irrigation throughout the Goulburn Valley and the Goulburn region.

This support package, the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2018, is critically important. I was able to see firsthand how important this sort of assistance package is during the milk crisis that took place in the early months of 2016, when Murray Goulburn announced that it was going to drastically cut the price of milk. It was quickly followed by Fonterra and many of the other processors. Not only did they cut their prices for milk into the future but they then requested this ridiculous clawback where they wanted the money that farmers had, in their opinion, been overpaid. They wanted tens of thousands and, in many cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars repaid to the processors. This put so many of the dairy farmers throughout the Goulburn Valley and Victoria in an incredibly tough position. With the little that they were being paid for milk in those months, it was virtually impossible for them to process milk for the cost that they were able to sell the milk. This put them in a ridiculously tough position. Many of them were forced to park their cattle in different locations where they didn't have to rely on irrigation water. They had to take the charity of hay that was brought down from other parts of the nation to assist them with their feed. More than anything, they simply had to plough on. They had to get out of bed at 4.30 or five o'clock in the morning, milk the cows in the morning and milk them again in the evening, knowing that they were financially going backwards all the time to the tune of many thousands of dollars per week.

I must acknowledge the previous Leader of the Nationals Barnaby Joyce on his role during that milk crisis. He went immediately down to the Goulburn Valley to talk to and meet with the dairy farmers, the milk producers and the processors. He was there to immediately offer this support with the farm household allowance and to immediately offer low-interest loans, which were picked up. Yes, there were problems with the extent of the forms that needed to be filled out. But, when you think about the many hundreds of thousands of dollars of commercial loans that the government was effectively taking over, offering security for those properties was a very complex issue. We were able to act and to try to put in some assistance for many of these farmers during these very stressful times.

It's an issue that gets lost often when we're talking about these times of drought and the milk crisis, where production costs rise above the farm gate milk prices. The traditional farmer in that situation is under an enormous amount of stress and financial pressure, and mental health becomes a very important issue that needs to be dealt with very carefully. This is where, again, the counsellors from rural finance come in—mediation counsellors and people who are able to help with the financial restructuring and to help the farmers fill out many of these applications.

The big message that we were telling our farmers was: 'Do not self-assess. Make sure you get the help that you need so that you can have independent people come in and look at your books and your business and, in relation to other pieces of off-farm income that may have been coming into the household, see whether or not you are able to access part or all of the just under $2,000 per couple per month at the maximum.' Effectively, just in the area of the farm household support, that is putting about $23,000 to $24,000 per year on the table for those families. When you read that in conjunction with access to a low-interest loan—again, the former minister was able to make these low-interest loans available for up to half of your loan—we found that many people were taking advantage of that as well, and the combined saving was somewhere in the vicinity of $50,000. This is a fantastic opportunity for government to help those farming businesses that have the capacity to see their way through this to a fruitful future in the following years, and that's the way it has been.

The dairy industry now has improved markedly. There are still many farmers out there that are really doing it tough, and there is no set model of a dairy farmer at the moment. If someone were to ask you, 'How's dairy going at the moment?' you can't really answer that question, because the models within the dairy farming structures are so diverse and so different. If a farmer in the Goulburn Valley owns their own water, that's an enormous benefit, an enormous plus. Obviously the debt profile of the various farmers makes a huge difference. Their ability to produce their own hay and feed also makes a very big difference to the economic viability of our farmers. All of these factors swirling around together will somehow or other give you a profile as to how our dairy farmers are going. As I said, they are just so diverse and so different. It is very difficult.

But this bill is now going to show the benefits of this farmer support package. The benefits to these households are going to be extended for another 12 months, and it's a fantastic thing that the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud, has been able to push through. As I said just recently, the right thing to do for the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Assistant Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Mark Coulton, along with the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud, was to tour those outback regions of New South Wales and Queensland to make sure that they see firsthand what seven years of below-average rainfall has meant for those areas from northern Victoria up into Queensland.

I have been speaking to quite a few farmers about farm household support and farm household allowance recently, and I just want to quote one farmer who spoke to me just recently and said:

As a farmer directly impacted by the Murray Goulburn Milk price drop in April 2016, the effects have been long lasting. The impacts on cash flow have been long and unrelenting.

Being able to access the Farm Household Allowance during this time has provided some breathing space and peace of mind knowing that assistance with reduced cash flows; you can put food on the table each week and provide the essentials for your family, while you attempt to rebuild your business.

Our assigned case manager has been very supportive through the process over the past 2 years in assessing our situation, providing guidance and developing a plan for the future.

This is the part that often gets left behind. Yes, we are helping initially with farm household support by putting some cash on the table to help pay for groceries, for school fees and the essential bills. We are helping out in the medium to longer term also with the low-interest loans that can be worked into a business to take up to 50 per cent of outstanding loans. The case managers from Rural Finance are put in the business as well to give them the support they need with counselling. They have that financial acumen introduced into the farming business as well to see where their future lies. In the message I received that was hugely appreciated.

It is great when you come into this place and see these genuine benefits. We're helping these people and making a real difference. This is a practical situation. We are making a difference to these people who are in a very tough position at the moment. They needed this support. Some of these three-year periods of drought are coming to an end. Now it's going to be extended for a further 12 months. This, along with farm management deposits, gives us an opportunity to help people get themselves through really tough times.

This is something we in the National Party are really supportive of. It's fantastic that many people have seen the worst of the dairy crisis and are now working through it and can see a bright future. There are still many others who, with their water costs and debt profile, are in a very precarious situation. It would be a good thing if they could produce milk at a price below what they are paid for it. Certainly the 830-odd farmers who were assisted through the dairy crisis have been very appreciative. Hopefully, this is something that they will look back on and say: 'Thank goodness the government of the day understood what was needed and were able to move quickly and give us the assistance they gave us so that we got through the very toughest of times. They put counselling around us so that we could in a calm and measured way assess our future and either exit the industry with assets intact or push ahead and create a more promising future.'

I commend this bill to the House. I certainly hope that these measures are there for the next crisis, because we know that when you live in Australia you are always going to have crises when it comes to farming practices.

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