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October 13, 2008

Mrs HULL (Riverina) (9.10 pm)
— I move:

That the House:
(1) recognise the seriousness of the drought situation across rural Australia; and

(2) calls on the Government to:
  (a) recognise the need for long term commitment for Exceptional Circumstances (EC) declared areas, and to provide continued support to allow those areas to fully recover from the drought;
  (b) look at the history of EC declared areas and the direct correlation between longevity of declaration and hardship inflicted;
  (c) commit to the extension of support programs to allow those areas to fully recover regardless of meeting current EC requirements; and
  (d) extend EC assistance to all rural based businesses who meet the criteria.

Mr Chester — I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (9.20 pm) — I rise to speak in support of the motion and, in doing so, seek to highlight the extremely difficult conditions facing many Australian farming families and their communities. I deliberately refer to ‘farming families and their communities’ because, when a drought hits regional Australia, it hits us all, from those on the front line in our nation’s diverse farming enterprises to the small businesses which supply them, to the teachers, doctors and health professionals who often deal with the social consequences and to the families themselves. Quite apart from the obvious economic impacts which other members have spoken about tonight, droughts are insidious as they sap the energy and enthusiasm of our farming families and communities and corrode the hopes of the next generation.

This motion calls on the government to recognise the need for a long-term commitment to exceptional circumstances funding declared areas and to provide continued support to allow those areas to fully recover from the drought. It is timely that I speak today on behalf of the people of Gippsland who have recently seen the inadequacy of the current EC system, as I have mentioned once or twice before in this House. While I am pleased to report that there has been a breakthrough in Gippsland and the EC funding has been extended until next April, I stand here today firstly to apologise to the Gippsland farming families for the unnecessary and additional stress and hardship that they have been exposed to in recent weeks. I am sorry that the system failed them when the National Rural Advisory Council and both the state and federal ministers agreed that EC funding should be discontinued in Gippsland from 30 September this year. It was a mistake, and I am pleased to say that it has been addressed.

The original decision was made after a desktop analysis by NRAC. There was no visit to Gippsland, no attempt to assess the circumstances on the ground and no effort to listen to the concerns of locals. It took considerable time and effort—and that is time away from the farming enterprise and it caused a great deal of stress for our farming families to get NRAC to actually visit Gippsland and recognise the need for an extension to the EC funding, which has since been implemented by the minister. I thank him for that. There needs to be a long-term commitment for EC declared areas to support communities like Gippsland as they recover from this drought. Perhaps just as importantly, NRAC representatives must visit or receive an on-the-ground assessment of conditions before any decision is made to remove any EC funding from a region based on lines on a map.

As we all know, when it does eventually rain it will not be raining money, and there will be a lag time in this recovery process. I urge the federal government to continue working in partnership with state and local government to support communities throughout Australia as they emerge from the drought. There is a direct correlation between the number of years in a drought and the community’s capacity to recover by itself.

We have seen in the past that during a drought period regional areas lose skilled workers and many young people move on, literally seeking greener pastures. Governments must invest in the capacity of these regions to help them get back on their feet when the rains do come. The Victorian state government, for its part, has been dragging its heels on this issue, but today, thankfully, a support package in the order of $115 million, I understand, has been announced. It stops short of the $20,000 cash grants which the Victorian state government has provided in the past, but I understand that the package does include a municipal rates subsidy, which has been strongly supported by the Liberals and Nationals in Victoria. I believe the states must continue to do their part in addition to the federal government’s EC assistance packages because it helps to send a message to the farming families that we certainly value their contribution, and they are important contributors to the future of our rural and regional communities.

Money is going to be needed for basic survival, let alone on-farm works such as fencing and maintenance work along with productivity related things such as improving pastures. All of these things fall behind when conditions are tough and money is tight. I believe our challenge with EC funding is to support these farming families to basically get them over the hump, knowing full well that they will prosper again on the other side when the rains come. This is not welfare or charity; it is an investment in the future of our nation’s productive farming enterprises.

On that point, I strongly urge our farming families in EC affected areas to seek information on whether they are entitled to any assistance. Do not do the self-assessment and do not take the view that this is some form of welfare if you access the income support or the interest rate subsidies which are available through exceptional circumstances funding. After meeting with several groups of farmers in my electorate, I fear that many of them are too proud to put their hands up and ask for assistance which is available to them. It disappoints me that the state and federal governments on both sides of politics in the past have spent a small fortune on advertising and propaganda but have failed to inform enough of our farming families about the benefits which they may be able to access. In closing, I commend the member for Riverina for moving this motion and urge all members to recognise the seriousness of the drought situation across rural Australia.

(Time expired)