I’m pleased to speak on this bill, the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill. In listening to speakers on both sides of the House, I cannot help but observe the political nature of this debate, even though there’s broad acceptance that it’s not a particularly political issue—it’s not. Farmers who may be tuned into the proceedings—and I’m sure most of mine would not be—would probably be pretty scathing in their assessment of the way that many members of this place have approached this debate. If I consider a man in my electorate who was awarded at the recent Queen’s Birthday honours, Brendan Farrell, he has physically and mentally exhausted himself, as have many of the people around him, in order to transport hay from our region to western Queensland. He’s very critical of politicians. He acknowledged that the government has recently increased some drought relief measures, but called for further assistance, mainly relating to hefty freight costs. Brendan heard about a farmer in the New South Wales town of Bourke struggling with drought, and that galvanised him into action. He has now completed more than 11 hay runs to help the drought-affected farmers across New South Wales and Queensland. He has noted that it’s an emotional rollercoaster: ‘One minute you’re laughing, the next minute you’re bawling your eyes out. You can be standing there with people and their kids, just talking about how much it will take to get better.’
Brendan Farrell has been doing this for 4½ years, assisting struggling farmers around the country. He was driven by a desire to simply lend a hand. I’m sure he treats his Queen’s Birthday honour with the larrikin disrespect that we would expect from an Australian of his stature.
I want to bring something of his spirit and his attitude to this debate this evening because this is not a political issue and, unfortunately, so many people in this place treat drought and legislation as something that’s—I won’t say going wrong in our farming communities, because drought is part of a way of life and a farming way of life. They think there’s something that must be done; it’s all about what we do in here. Do we tinker around the edges, as the previous speaker said? Do we add more money, as we did during the millennium drought, in huge quantities that we no longer have? Do we put more personnel on the ground? Of course, we do many of these things, and so we should, particularly around mental health and support, but governments can’t always make it better, and it’s very important to recognise that.
Certainly climate change is biting in rural Australia. Certainly it is in rural New South Wales and in my electorate of Farrer. I can remember people who talked about water flows in the Darling River, the Murray and the Murrumbidgee—I represent substantial parts of those three great river systems—reflecting on how much less water there is. When we talk about the environment and irrigators, we also have to factor climate change in. The extremes of temperature are more noticeable. If you talk to the old timers, you certainly get a long and pretty consistent narrative. I remember the late Peter Cullen, who was a hero in environmental water circles. I clashed with him on many occasions, being very much on the side of the irrigators. I remember him saying Australia has more than 40 years of wetter than average temperatures followed by 40 years of drier than average temperatures. Clearly that pattern is persisting, but within those broad blocks of years the extremes are getting greater. We are going to be confronted with drought and we are going to be confronted with the necessity to support our farmers.
I’m very pleased that I believe this government has a strong and supportive drought assistance policy. We must work more closely with state governments, of course, because farmers don’t notice the difference. The No. 1 thing they are calling for in my electorate is freight subsidies. I talked about Brendan Farrell and his hay runners, and that’s what they do—they pick up hay and they transport it north from farmers who donate it. Members of the community donate the money to allow that to happen. Freight subsidies are vital because that’s what you’re doing—you’re moving fodder to animals and keeping your breeding stock going because if you lose your breeding stock, you lose a lot of heart.
I’ve been a farmer myself for 17 years, through some of the worst droughts and the worst times on the land. There were some highs in there as well, although sometimes, looking back, I find it harder and harder to find them. I remember reading a Time international article talking about the Australian drought, when it didn’t often talk about Australia at all. There was a quote on the back page from somebody in rural Australia saying, ‘You can’t send a man out day after day to shoot his stock.’ I cut that page out and pinned it on the wall of the office. I looked at it every day because the last thing I wanted was to go out and shoot stock. Eventually, with the price crash for sheep, that’s exactly what happened, but it wasn’t necessarily in the context of a drought.
I represented western New South Wales during 10 years of the hardest drought we have ever seen, with dust storms and heartache. I can remember visiting properties where people had destocked. You would think that once you had destocked, you could then put everything in a holding pattern because you didn’t have to worry about your stock dying and you didn’t have to worry about transporting them away or transporting feed in. But, interestingly enough, what actually happened to farmers when they destocked and lost their stock was that they suddenly felt completely irrelevant; they’d lost the reason to get up in the morning. It had an extraordinarily negative affect.
We had some amazing rural financial counsellors in my electorate during that time. I want to mention Brian Dodson, who was one of them. He’s still well known. You’re only supposed to deal with the finances, but he was there for every single member of a farming family. They didn’t want to talk to someone they didn’t know about personal problems—it gets very personal—so they talked to him. I’m sure he crossed the line a few times when it came to the engagement that he was supposed to have.
But he was there when he was needed, because when you have to make the tough decisions—and we talk about the tough decisions—they are extraordinarily difficult to make.
We, as a government, probably spent a billion dollars in interest rate subsidies for exceptional circumstances interest rate relief and household support during that drought. That was an extraordinary transfer of funds from taxpayers to farmers. If you look back on what happened to that money and where it went, an awful lot went to the banks. I would regularly challenge them with, ‘What are you going to do about it, because you’re getting your payments made where, in different circumstances, you would be writing them off?’ A lot went to the banks. A lot went to farmers who subsequently didn’t make it.
The difficult thing with farming is that when you’re well set up and you’ve worked hard to give yourself a buffer, it’s not just about hard work. A lot of it is luck. If you don’t have a huge amount of debt and you’re not a young farmer, then clearly you’re going to be better prepared for a drought. A lot of it was: ‘I’ve done all of the things that I’m supposed to do and I don’t qualify for any drought support because my partner works off-farm and I’ve got too many assets.’ There was genuine annoyance from some of the farmers when they saw others who, in their view, might not have prepared so well, or might not have run their properties so well, or their farm programs were effectively getting quite a lot of government support. It did create divides in rural communities, and that was unfortunate.
If our objective, as a government, is to sustain the rural sector, then there isn’t any point in large transfers of funds to people who ultimately don’t stay in the rural sector, whose properties get bought out. But there certainly is a point in supporting those families from a human perspective, making sure that they have time to adjust, to properly exit their properties and to do so with dignity and move on to another stage of their lives. Certainly, the drought support did that. I would run into those individuals in the towns of Western New South Wales and North-Western Victoria quite regularly and realise that they’d left their farms behind. Sometimes they had been fourth or fifth generation farmers, and they were fine. It always surprised me a little. I’m not saying that all of them were fine. There were two things that made them fine. One was that they actually had sold their properties for good money. No matter how tough it got the value of land didn’t go down—we don’t expect that and it’s very difficult to see that that could happen in the current situation. They sold and they got paid a good sum of money and the next thing they did actually validated their purpose in life—they had something to get up in the morning and do. Often it was working at an engineering shop or working for a rural services industry that supported farms. So, their extraordinary knowledge about farming and the rural sector was put to really good use. It is the sort of knowledge that they used every day but never realised had a value.
So, there is always light at the end of the tunnel, but the task for government is to make sure that we put the supports in place. Whether that be rural financial counselling—we’ve expanded the service and we have good rural financial counsellors in my electorate. I just want to talk about the local situation. Griffith and Hay have had no rainfall this month and very little for the previous three months, so it is critical that the government assists farmers and rural communities during these times of hardship. The Farm Business Concessional Loans Scheme, Farm Household Allowance, the Managing Farm Risk Program, the Rural Financial Counselling Service, and so on, support the effects for farmers and managing—it might be pest animals, it might be weeds in drought-affected areas and it might be financial preparedness.
The Farm Household Allowance, which is the subject of this bill, was launched in July 2014 and it has helped more than 7,900 people, which is pretty good. It’s essentially an adjustment payment that comes with free financial counselling, through the Rural Financial Counselling Service, to help farmers restructure their businesses. The amendments that we are moving today include an extension of the time, from three to four years, that these services are available, which is a more appropriate time frame to assist farmers when they might need to transition to get back on their feet. It has been pretty scary for some of them. Many, I have to say, who have been the recipients of government support year after year after year have recently been told by their financial counsellors: ‘Actually, that’s it. There isn’t anything left.’ So, this extra year is very valuable.
I want to give a shout out to those rural financial counsellors: Darren Macartney at Hay, Graham Christie at Coleambally, Murray Freshwater at Deniliquin, Haidee Laycock, who looks after Griffith and Leeton, Linda McLean at Hillston and Graeme Witte, who’s the counsellor at Wentworth.
You think of drought in Australia as being about the wide plains, with dust and no grass growing, and of course it is, but it’s also about irrigation water, because, when a drought bites, the requirements for water for irrigator agriculture increase considerably, the reason being that you don’t have any prewatering of your pasture. The other tension that enters the equation is that your water allocations—which next month I suspect will start off at zero—stay pretty low, so you really have to be concerned about your farm program. If you’re an irrigated farmer, you’ve invested a lot more money, it’s a much more intensive operation and you often need activity, which means you need to run a farm program.
With the drought in about 2003, I remember taking the then Prime Minister, John Howard, to Finley. No other Australian Prime Minister had visited Finley before or has done so since. He was incredibly impressed by the people who serviced the rural sector there and the fact that irrigation was different. What we then did was change the rules for the exceptional circumstances program to assist irrigators, recognising that the normal parameters of that program mean they didn’t qualify—but they then did. We also added small businesses because John Howard met an incredible woman called Robyn Mott in an accounting service in Finley. She did so many things for the community for nothing, and she made an amazing sponge cake which I’m sure he’s never forgotten. He came back and said to Sharman Stone, the then member for Murray, and me, ‘We need to find a way to extend this to small businesses as well.’
I use those examples because I know that the government now stands ready to do exactly those things—or not exactly those things but to act in a similar way: to watch closely to see how bad this drought gets. It’s creeping from northern New South Wales down into my electorate. You don’t say things are bad or worse, but it hasn’t gone on as long as what we saw in 2003. But, if it does, I know that this government and this parliament will stand ready to assist and take the necessary next steps.
Coming back to Brendan Farrell and his hay runners, he does it without government—he doesn’t particularly like politicians—and he does it with the community. The community is always ready to help. So wherever you are in Australia, if you can help and there’s an opportunity for you to do that, I encourage you to. I know that so many will step up and support our rural sector.