Mark Coulton MP, Federal Member for Parkes

Rural Adjustment Amendment Bill 2009 Second Reading

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

I rise to speak on the Rural Adjustment Amendment Bill 2009. Essentially, this bill is to extend the period of tenure for the members of the NRAC board. I do not have any major concerns with that. I think the members of the NRAC board are quite competent, and its chair, Keith Perrett, has done a good job. I am a little concerned about why this is happening. As we look into the budget estimates, that there are no forward estimates beyond 2010 for drought assistance alarmed me a little. Hopefully, that is just like an optimistic weather forecast and that we will get out of it, but I am concerned. I am also concerned about the subtle changes in the way that drought is being referred to by this government and how the government perceives agriculture in general. In a report that came out last year, the word ‘dryness’ has replaced the word ‘drought’. Dryness then becomes a permanent state of affairs rather than a drought, which has a beginning, a middle and an end. I am concerned about that. I will speak about the issues of my electorate of Parkes in a minute.

The other issue that concerns me is that all of my electorate has come out of exceptional circumstances funding. I have had farmers trying to apply for the transitional funding and finding it very difficult. There is quite a large document and most need assistance with it. Not many of them have been successful. One of the criteria in this document is for a farmer to put his climate change strategy for his farm. I was a farmer for 35 years and I just find that a very vague thing to have to do. If they are successful after filling out the form and have a climate change strategy, they then have funding that enables them to undertake some sort of TAFE course or training to improve their management. I find that patronising to the farmers of Australia. What is being said in fact is: the reason that you are having financial difficulties is not because you are in drought; it is because we are now in a period of permanent dryness and, basically, you lack the education to handle these changes, so we are going to fund you to do a course to improve your management. I believe that teaching a farmer to adapt to climate change would be tantamount to teaching your grandmother to suck eggs.

We will not go into the debate of whether the climate is changing or whether climate change is man made; it is about incremental changes over a period of time. Farmers have dealt with changes in climate on a short-term basis—from periods of drought to flood to frost to high temperature—and they have adapted to that very well. What they have not been able to adapt to is where, in certain areas, they have had drought for seven, eight or nine years, which has been recorded as possibly the worst drought in 100 years.

There were reports of drought in the 1900s. My father talked about his father talking about the big drought in 1900 to 1910 where the Gwydir River, which runs through the area where I live, completely ceased to run and had a body of grass over it. So long-term, serious drought is not new to Australia. One of the things that probably changed the way we looked at our climate was the period of the fifties and sixties, which were exceptionally good years for agriculture, particularly in eastern Australia. Maybe that became the benchmark on which we judge things. I feel that there is a shift. I think this shows there is a clear lack of understanding of the level of expertise in the hands of farmers in rural Australia today.

The member for New England mentioned no-till farming and tram tracking—a whole range of things for moisture retention. Indeed, 30 years ago my brothers and I were some of the first people in Australia, in conjunction with the New South Wales department of agriculture and Monsanto, who did work on zero-till farming. It was quite revolutionary at the time. Following on from that, the University of Sydney, at the Livingston Farm at Moree, really bit the bullet and modified machinery. Indeed, the way that we farm now is entirely different. If farmers today farmed like their fathers or grandfathers did they would have serious problems.

We need to have a clear understanding that the problems farmers are having now with drought are not of their own making. I am speaking generally. Obviously there are cases where there is poor management, but in general it is not of their own making; it is because of a period of exceptional lack of rain for the many, many years. The tragedy of this is that quite often the people who tend to survive these long periods of drought are the older farmers, the more established ones, the ones who have not taken any risks and do not have a large amount of debt. Obviously some of the ones who cannot hang on have large amounts of debt and may be overextended. But the real tragedy is that quite often the most vulnerable are the young farmers. I have a stack of them in my electorate. More often than not they get a tertiary degree, work, gain a lot of managerial and agronomic experience and then come back and put that in place with the corporate knowledge of their family and do very well, but they have extended themselves. While someone who has a higher level of debt, because of buying a farm and purchasing machinery, can handle a couple of years, seven or eight years is nearly beyond them.

The real tragedy of this drought is that we are losing many of our young people. As the world starts to really think about where food comes from, I am really concerned about where our farmers of the future will come from. I firmly believe that the family farm is the most efficient unit of agriculture. I speak from personal experience. I have to say, it can be quite a stressful unit to work in, but on the whole it is the most efficient way. It is a game that you can learn from knee-high. The best farmers I know are the ones who have combined generations of experience with modern education and learning. I am concerned that we will lose those farmers.

Specifically, in my area I have places that have not been badly affected by the drought. The northern parts of my electorate and, indeed, my own area have been quite fortunate. You can see in the areas that have not been affected by drought, as you go around as a member of parliament, that the age of the community is much younger. But unfortunately that is not the same right across my electorate. At the moment the last regions that were taken out of drought funding, where farmers lost their EC payments, were in the southern part of my electorate. I am talking about Dubbo, Wellington and Mudgee. I am not going to be overly critical of NRAC because basically those areas have had a bit of rain and there is a green tinge. NRAC only makes a recommendation on seasonal conditions and, ultimately, it is up to the minister to decide whether there has been a sufficient level of recovery.

In the last two or three months I have dealt with a considerable amount of correspondence and phone calls. And I acknowledge the staff from Minister Burke who are here today taking note of this debate. It is notable that they are here and I know that they are aware of correspondence that has come through me because I handed it on. I know that all governments battle with the problem of the lines on a map. I have had a conversation with the minister about that and the problem of people in isolated pockets. The member for New England alluded to it being a problem in his area as well.

But this is no consolation for people who find themselves now with no foreseeable income. They have sold everything they can to get through the drought. It is extremely frustrating for them. Lambs are now at record value but, because of the drought, they have had poor joining percentages and they have not had enough feed for long enough to finish their livestock, whether lambs or cattle. So they have been severely hampered financially.

To top it off, wheat growers in the area were severely disadvantaged last harvest because of the shemozzle caused by the removal of the single desk. There was not even a price for grain after harvest. They were extremely stressed financially and did not have the ability to store their grain and market it throughout the year—as is the way now with grain marketing. They did not have the ability to purchase infrastructure to store that grain, nor did they have the ability to hang onto it. They had to sell it to the first person who would give them a price. I was somewhat disturbed by one of the minister’s last contributions in this place with regard to this when he claimed that there had been an advantage in dollar terms because of the deregulation of the wheat market. Plainly, out on the ground, that is not the case.

I believe that the minister—and I have contacted the minister—needs to engage with the farmers. It is one thing to be the one to deliver good news, but I also think that leadership and ministerial responsibility means that you have to deliver the bad news and you have to explain the reason behind that. As the minister and the government work out where we are going with this drought funding, I think it would be very beneficial for him to speak now to the farmers who have come off EC so that they can explain to him exactly what this means. In a lot of cases it means selling out. It means leaving. While there is an ability to obtain household support, what has been keeping these people going is the interest subsidy and the removal of that interest subsidy pretty well means that they are going to have to move on.

Maybe some farmers in the Coonamble, the Coonabarabran or the North West Slopes areas, who got an extension last year for seasonal conditions, will be able to organise finance, because there is light at the end of the tunnel for them. But I think the ones who missed out last year and the ones who are in a fairly dry period this time will have trouble in obtaining carry-on finance.

So I would ask the minister to take seriously his responsibility to his constituents. The agriculture sector, despite the years of drought, was responsible for the positive balance of trade figures in the first quarter of this year. The agriculture sector has the ability to carry its weight as a viable part of the Australian community but it needs help to get through this period of time. There are indications that the season is changing and that we might be looking for a crop this year, but we need to nurture these farmers.

We need to put money into research so that we know where the next best thing is. In farming I firmly believe that, if you think you know how agriculture works, you should get out of it because it is an ever-changing feast. How I operated my property, on the knowledge I had, was entirely different from the way my father operated, and I have to say that in the couple of years I have been out of the industry things have moved on. My brothers now have tractors that are completely satellite guided and the precision they have and the savings they make are quite spectacular.

I would ask the minister to come out and engage with the people on the ground. He is very quick to get on his feet and play politics in this place. He is very quick to poke fun at the Nationals and ‘cockies corner’, as it is referred to—that name might be a badge of pride up this way—but the people in regional Australia want him to be out there and want him to engage. They want him to speak with them and explain to them why he thinks they no longer need support to get through this drought. He might be able to explain how they are going to carry on with their farms. He might be able to explain who is going to produce the food for this country—and it is not 20 million people we feed; it is 70 million. If Australia stops carrying its share of the load in food production, it will not be Australians who go hungry but someone in a Third World country that relies on our exports.

While I do not have any problem with change in the terms of ENRAC, I do have a serious problem with the way this government is dealing with our farmers in this particular situation. I ask that this government—and the minister in particular—give some serious consideration away from the politics. I would gladly allow him to spend as much time as he likes. Rural Australians are very polite and respectful people and they would treat him well, but I think he needs to stop concentrating on point scoring in here and engage with his constituents.

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