SUBJECTS: Scott Morrison needs to stop being loose with the truth on drought policy
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: This morning, the Prime Minister went on commercial radio in Sydney – a different radio station I note from the one he spoke on Tuesday morning – to again be loose with the truth and in another attempt to spin his way through drought and the government’s failure to respond adequately to the drought and its impact it’s having on farmers and rural communities more generally. What the Prime Minister announced this morning is that desperate farming families coming off Farm Household Allowance will have an additional six months of allowance. That means that farming families coming off Farm Household Allowance will not come off after four years; they will come off after four and a half years.
What we know is already 600 farming families have had their payment cut off and by Christmas that’s more likely to be 1,100 farming families – almost double the number which have already been taken off. It is a callous act; in fact it is the greatest act of bastardry by any government in the history of Federation to be taking our most desperate drought-stricken farming families off the modest Farm Household Allowance payment. And it won’t help very much to have that payment extended by just six months. Sadly, the weather forecasters aren’t delivering any good news about the time ahead – no summer rains or no meaningful summer rains and no rain in the foreseeable future.
Farming families on this modest payment are amongst the most desperate. It’s a hard payment to qualify for and it’s too hard for too many. It’s not good enough, Prime Minister, to extend the payment by six months and it’s not good enough to say by way of legislation introduced today that if you are taken off the payment this year, you will be able to apply again in 2024. That’s what the Prime Minister is talking about when he says you will be able to apply every ten years. It means if you are taken off this year you will be able to reapply; go through that terrible paperwork process again. In 2024 – 2024 it will be too late for too many farming families. This is a challenge which began as a crisis for farmers and it moved to a crisis for rural communities literally running out of water, and now it is threatening to be a crisis with respect to our country’s food security. The Prime Minister is forcing people off the land by cutting this payment and that’s unacceptable to them, and it’s unacceptable to the Australian economy, and the Australian community.
The other point I want to make is the government is introducing legislation this morning to make these very, very modest and inadequate changes – the Senate doesn’t sit next week, so I have no idea how the government proposes to get these modest changes through but the Labor of course stands ready to facilitate that process as best we can. But its policy and action-on-the-run, again, but again policy inaction which is absolutely inadequate.
Another point I need to make is this. The Drought Minister and the Prime Minister have said they are waiting for the National Farmers’ Federation to write their drought for them. Well, they now have the National Farmers’ Federation’s policy and the National Farmers’ Federation’s President, Fiona Simpson, has made it clear that there is nothing in this policy for the current drought. Rather, the report they’ve written is about future droughts. But the Prime Minister has their report now; he’s now run out of excuses. The time for inaction and talking is behind us. It’s time now to act in a meaningful way to this drought, and I make the appeal to the Prime Minister again. Establish a bipartisan War Cabinet; Drought Cabinet; Drought Advisory Committee whatever he wants to call it because the Opposition understands the seriousness of the situation the country now faces. This really is approaching a wartime-like situation and we stand ready to work with him to make the decisions that will be necessary to ensure enough farming families can stay on the land, that rural communities can survive and we can secure our food sources in this country without becoming too dependent on the importation of our food and fibre.
REPORTER: Do you believe there should be no time limit then on the Farm Household Allowance.
FITZGIBBON: I believe that desperate farming families should not be taken off this very modest payment while ever this terrible drought continues.
REPORTER: Will Labor be moving any amendments to the bill that will be coming forward, whether it’s in the House and in the Senate to extend the length of time people can be on the FHA?
FITZGIBBON: Labor will use every mechanism available to it to try to prevent the government from taking people off the modest Farm Household Allowance. Obviously there would be constitutional restrictions on what we can do in the parliament because it’s effectively a money bill – proposition to spend more money. But I will make this point about that – well, we might be barred from making amendments which have fiscal implications – restoring the payment for these families until this drought breaks, and we all pray that comes in the not too distant future, is a modest amount of money – a very modest amount of money and proportion to the total Commonwealth budget. And if the Prime Minister wants to maintain this fiction – so loose with the truth is he – that he is spending $7 billion on drought, then people everywhere will be asking well why Prime Minister do you find it necessary to cut these farming families off this modest payment.
REPORTER: Should MPs stay in parliament this week until this change is though?
FITZGIBBON: My view is that we stand ready to do whatever it takes to facilitate the changes to the legislation but it will be a lot of work for very little gain. Six additional months for these farming families will help a little, but as I pointed out yesterday, a farmer I was speaking to recently with respect to the potential to provide rebates relief for council rates, said that $30,000 – which is his rates bill – would feed his herd for nine days. That I think puts the $7,000 Scott Morrison is offering into perspective.
REPORTER: Do you think this announcement was made because of that fiery interview we saw with Alan Jones?
FITZGIBBON: I certainly believe that the Prime Minister had a very unfortunate interview with Alan Jones earlier in the week and no doubt that gave him the political fright of his life. I think it may have made him realise that he’s got to stop being loose with the truth, stop this spin and finally act. But sadly, this modest announcement this morning is action, but of course from my perspective it’s just a continuation of his inaction.
REPORTER: You’re saying it’s a modest amount of money. How much money would Labor want to see farmers get?
FITZGIBBON: This is about cash and cash flow. It’s about enough cash to keep food on the table for these farming families, and it’s about enough cash flow to keep the farm business operating to the other side of this drought. Now that might be a very significant amount of money, but how much is too much investment in our food security in this country? The Prime Minister can be, in no doubt, that cutting payments off families will lead more families to leave the land. And of course, the dairy sector is in particular trouble. It was in trouble before the drought because the Prime Minister has not been prepared to lift a finger to assist our faming families. A Code of Conduct was the best he was prepared to do but of course that’s on the never never. Now I noticed today it appears that he might now fast-track that, so we will get a Code of Conduct in December rather than July next year. Well, that would be welcome but Prime Minister, contracts have been written as we speak. It’s already too late for many.
REPORTER: In regards to the FHA, Bridgette McKenzie has said there is about $12 million budgeted for over the forward estimates, it works out at about payments for up to 1600 farmers, do you think that’s enough to be budgeted for for the number of people that could be coming off the FHA given you’re saying up to 1,100 will already be cut off by December?
FITZGIBBON: That’s just another indication that the government is putting its political desire to book a budget surplus, something it should be able to do any way given iron ore prices, the exchange rate etcetera. It’s putting its budget surplus in front of the livelihoods of Australian farmers. At the moment, the farmers should be our priority, not just because they are the soul of the earth, hard working Australians providing our food and fibre, but because they provide our food. And without them, we don’t have food. We don’t want to be drinking imported milk, for example. We don’t want any increases in the importation of our food. We want to be able to continue in this country to continue to consume our clean, green, safe and high quality food and I think that’s what all Australians would like to see.