Mr COULTON (Parkes—Assistant Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment) (19:11): I rise tonight to speak on the Farm Household Support Amendment (Temporary Measures) Bill 2018. I have lived in a rural area all my life. I was a farmer for 33 years before I came here. I've been through quite a few droughts. I may have seen one or two as bad as this one, but I certainly haven't seen one worse. We are heading into uncharted territory. I think what makes this one so particularly difficult is it covers such a large area. Normally in a dry season graziers have an option to find pockets of feed for agistment by sending livestock to another area. Generally there would be grain or hay available from a more immediate area. This year, because the entire eastern side of Australia west of the range is in drought—from Central Queensland right down to Victoria, including my electorate—it's become particularly difficult. So I am in support of these changed measures.
It needs to be pointed out—and the member for New England touched on it—that the household support is to provide the basic significant essentials for a farm family. It's food on the table, school uniforms for the kids and maybe fuel for the car—those basic essentials—so that, when things are particularly tight financially, one of those concerns about looking after your family is removed. So the extra funding, the extra $12,000 per couple because of the exceptional circumstances, will be greatly appreciated.
The other change is the extra money going into the Rural Financial Counselling Service. That is the key organisation in helping these farm families access the support they need. I think the message is getting through, but in the earlier days of the drought there was a lot of misinformation going around on social media discouraging people from actually applying for this support, saying that it would be too hard. Now, thankfully, that message is getting through and people are applying, but that is putting extra tension on the staff of the Rural Financial Counselling Service. There is provision in here for more staff. That recruitment is happening now, but that's an important recruitment—you can't just pull people off the street and turn them into rural financial counsellors. So we need those things.
Some other changes were announced this week. I just want to pay tribute to my senior colleagues. I've been around this place now for over a decade. I've got to say that I have never seen a greater interest in the affairs of regional Australia through a drought than I have in the last couple of months. Our Prime Minister, our Deputy Prime Minister, our ag minister, our regional telecommunications minister and our regional development and local government minister have all been hands-on. The Prime Minister has been in my electorate twice. He's been out for drought tours, I think, four times. As a matter of fact, the Prime Minister—it might be pertinent tonight to remind people of some of the things our Prime Minister has done—has actually been personally ringing some of my most affected constituents not only to offer comfort but to ask for direction as to what they might be looking for. I want to put that on the record tonight, and I think that tonight, of all times, it's probably more pertinent that that recognition is made.
Our entire senior ministry, including the Deputy Prime Minister and the minister for agriculture, have done a sterling job on this. This drought is difficult. We're taking the edge off it, but the idea that we can take the tension and the stress out of drought is just not plausible. There are funds in this amendment for more mental health support. That can be delivered just as community forums, like a barbecue get-together and an opportunity for people to socialise.
I remember that in 1992 we were in a particularly bad drought and a group of my friends and neighbours did a tech course on beef-cattle management. It was more about getting out, having a chat and socialising once a week and getting away from the daily grind that the drought brings.
We do have some problems that we need to deal with that are coming up, and they are particularly difficult problems. One is the shortage of grain. That can be largely overcome, and it is at the moment, with grain coming around from Western Australia. We are already seeing that. There have been half a dozen ships, thanks to the Western Australians. It looks like they're looking for another harvest this year, which will be a big help. Hay is a bit more difficult, because hay, per tonne, is more expensive to cart. To cart it long distances is difficult. Hay is getting in very short supply. A lot of charities have snaffled up hay, which is well and good, but it has also created a shortage for the people who are funding their own way, who have prepared for this drought and who have money put aside for this drought. They are now really having difficulties in sourcing hay.
The member for New England mentioned the Great Artesian Basin and the further flow for the GABSI, the Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative, which is a very important initiative. Where that initiative has been rolled out, those graziers have managed to last longer into the drought because they've been able to manage their pasture better because they've got water reticulated water across their properties.
The other thing that was mentioned on the weekend with the announcement was the money to local governments. Eighteen local government areas will get funds; and the unincorporated area in western New South Wales, which doesn't have a local government, will get funds. That will be very, very important to create employment for those people who may not be getting employment because of the drought but who would be expecting to get upcoming work with a harvest, fencing or rural work like that. With supplies being purchased in those local communities, it would be a stimulus to the towns.
While we're on that, I've got to pay tribute to our cousins who live in towns and cities for their great interest and support. It has been overwhelming. The country people are overwhelmed by your support, but there are a couple of other things you can do to help. I know you can send things, if you want to send a food parcel, but that can have a negative effect for the local supermarket. If you want to help, send some cash. Give cash to one of the telethons or one of the reputable non-government organisations that are managing this. They know where that money will go and they'll spend it locally, in those local shops.
But, if you want to do a more fun thing to help regional communities, go and have a long weekend in a country town. Go to Brewarrina and have a look at the oldest man-made structure on earth—the fish traps. Visit the local community. Go to Bourke and visit the outback centre. Go up to Moree and swim in the hot pools. Go to Dubbo and visit the zoo. There are a whole range of things across my electorate that are very worthwhile. Those dollars that you would spend—at the local pub; on having dinner; at the motel; on getting petrol at the local service station—would be very, very much appreciated.
The other thing is the accelerated depreciation for hay and grain storage, fencing and water. That was announced in the first iteration of the white paper, with an accelerated depreciation of three years. A number of people have come to me and said: 'Because of that tax advantage, I have silos full of grain—or I did, at the start of this drought. I've managed to put in water systems so that I'm not relying on dams that go dry. I've been able to fence up my property so that I'm managing pasture better. And I'm not destroying my property because of overstocking in certain areas during the drought.' That has been very, very welcome. And these announcements made on the weekend to bring that back to one year will be very, very welcome.
I just want to make another comment, and this is coming to me from a lot of my farmers. They are very appreciative of the support. They're very appreciative of the attention. But there is a bit of a concern that they are being portrayed as somehow helpless, as not in control of their own destiny, and as having got into this situation because of their own actions. Admittedly, some—and some of those have actually become, somewhat, media stars—may not be the best farmers and the most prepared, and quite often they are the ones that get attention. But I want to talk about the vast majority of farmers in Australia, and particularly those in my electorate, who are resilient, who are professional managers and who do know what they're doing. Most of them are just getting on with it. They are a little concerned that their industry is being devalued not only in the eyes of the rest of Australia but also in the eyes of those in the export market who might worry that Australia won't be able to meet its commitments to them. So we just need to keep in mind that these are mostly professional, well-run organisations.
I've been listening to some of the comments and the amendment from the other side, and, quite frankly, they are incredibly patronising. I was here—I think it was in 2009—when the then ag minister, the member for Watson, removed the word 'drought' from government policy. The member for Forrest would remember that day very clearly. I certainly remember sitting here on that day. They said: 'We're no longer going to talk about “drought”. We're replacing that with “dryness”. We're going to remove all drought policy. We're going to put in a trial'—I think it was in Western Australia, with a few dollars attached to it—'to help farmers adapt to climate change.'
Well, I've got to say: it's becoming very clear that climate change is real. There could probably be a debate on what can be done to abate it. But the idea that farmers aren't adapting to this changing climate is a nonsense. If the farmers today were farming like their fathers and mothers or grandparents, they wouldn't be there. The evolution in agriculture—with zero-till farming, and with the GM cotton crops that are growing more kilograms of produce with less diesel and less water than anywhere else in the world—is because of the innovation of farmers. Every drop of rain that falls on a farm now is utilised to fill up the profile of soil, to enable farmers to grow a crop. And the few crops that we do have about this year have been grown on stored moisture because of the management of those farmers.
Livestock farmers now are managing their pasture in such a way that there is no run-off until their profile is full. They have fenced their properties so that they are managing these pastures properly. Not only that, but there is the breeding that is going into their livestock, with the gene technology identifying certain traits in genes of livestock and breeding for those traits. The irony of this is that, when the front page of the Telegraph ran a story about a farmer shooting 1,200 sheep, lambs at Forbes made $300. And that is because of the management and the advancement of the farmers of today.
They'll get through this and Australia will continue to lead the way in production and will continue to lead the way in agriculture. These changes to the household support that we're debating tonight will help them get through that particularly difficult time.