SUBJECTS: Inadequate Government response to drought affected farming families; Government refusal to debate their live export Bill.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: I understand the Minister has just made some announcements about drought, so I thought it appropriate that I respond on behalf of the Opposition. I would like to say I am happy with the Minister’s announcement, that it was a welcome one, but it’s disappointing. What the Minister announced today is, as I understand it, just two things. One is the extension of the payment which farmers already receive, and indeed, a payment many farmers have lost: the Farm Household Allowance, which of course is limited by the determination of this Government to three years. One of the things the Minister hasn’t yet explained whether the many, many farming families who have already been forced off Farm Household Allowance have to go through that horrendous application process again, or whether as Barnaby Joyce once infamously said in the House “they just apply and get it straight away”, I suspect the latter is not the case. We had the extensive drought tour from the Prime Minister and his key Ministers last week I think it was, or the week before. We were hopeful, seven years into one of the most severe droughts that our farmers have ever experienced, that the Minister may have come back, or his Prime Minister have come back, with some new announcements. Not just simply an extension of an income support payment that already exists, or indeed doesn’t any longer exist for many farming families. Of course, Labor supports the announcement on additional mental health funding that is a necessary part of the equation. But what we must accept, as a community, is that the extension of mental health funding, is in itself, an admission of the failure. We don’t want to be forced to spend more money on mental health; we want to help farming families and they need help now. Now this Government has had five years, five years, to make this announcement and again all we receive is a reapplication of the same policies. Barnaby Joyce as his first act as the Minister for Agriculture almost five years ago, abolished the Standing Council on Primary Industries, the CoAG committee charged with progressing the drought reform process which began under CoAG in 2012 and ended with an Inter-Governmental Agreement between the Commonwealth and the States in 2013. An Agreement which was backed by the National Farmers Federation and many other peak leadership groups. The ongoing work of CoAG was to monitor the progress of the reforms and to further add to the reforms. It was unfinished business. But in the last five years, we have had nothing. Now five years on, we have a Prime Ministerial drought tour and an announcement which amounts to pretty much nothing for farming families. In the meantime, the Government is spending $M70 on two pork barrelling exercises. The creation of the so-called Regional Investment Corporation in Orange, where of course the National Party lost a State seat for the first time, in, I think, 69 years. A Regional Investment Corporation which is designed to do something the States already do. The balance of the money is being spent on the relocation of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. A shocking pork barrelling exercise focused on Barnaby Joyce’s own electorate. A pork barrelling exercise which will do damage to our farming community because that relocation, and the process of that relocation, has already undermined significantly the capacity of that Authority to do its work. And its work goes very, very much to the productivity of our farmers. So maybe the Government could think about that money it is spending and think about that money might be spent immediately in helping drought affected farmers, families desperately in the need of help. I think the farming community, particularly those directly affected by drought, will be very, very disappointed with the announcement the Minister made this morning. He doesn’t need another roundtable, he doesn’t need to further consult with the NFF or any other body, they know, he knows, we all know the foundation of drought policy has to start with the acknowledgement that the climate is changing and it is working against our farming community. We have to build resilience, better land use practices, better water efficiency and better drought proofing in the future has to be the core to our approach.
JOURNALIST: Why not simply pass the Government’s live sheep Bill as it stands and try to bring on your own legislation, the Sussan Ley legislation, in the lower House separately?
FITZGIBBON: I could have surprised the Government with my amendments on that Bill to increase penalties. I didn’t. Rather I gave it notice that I would move those amendments, amendments which I believe are supported by the majority of the Parliament. But of course if the Government is confident it has the numbers in the House, and therefore we lose the amendment, then we will simply pass the Bill, unamended. We stand ready to pass the Bill to increase the penalties for those who breach animal welfare standards in the live export sector today. We will move our amendments and hope we win. But if we don’t win, the Bill will be passed with our support. We could do that today and the Opposition stands ready to have that debate today and have that vote today.
JOURNALIST: Can you appreciate why people in this sector are a bit fed up with politicians, you can both agree on something but nothing is happening to bring it in? We are coming into the dangerous period in the northern hemisphere where incidents happen and the exporters responsible can’t be held to the new standards?
FITZGIBBON: If the Labor Party had its way there would not be any northern hemisphere live sheep trade. We don’t believe the Bill to increase penalties will have any real effect because we know historically penalties have never been imposed but regardless we believe it can do no harm and we will support the Bill. There is no reason why the Government can’t bring this Bill into the Parliament today and have it voted on today. It is the Government. It has the numbers it thinks in the lower House. Bring the Bill on. If we don’t win the amendment we will vote for the Bill both in the House of Representatives and the Senate and we can have it through this Sitting Week.
JOURNALIST: Just on drought, do you think it is getting to a point in some parts of the country where conversations need to be had about if the land is still appropriate to farm today as it was one hundred years ago?
FITZGIBBON: I have spoken with farmers who recognise that some land in Australia that we have had under production for the last century or more face dramatically changing climatic conditions which might, in fact, make that land unviable into the future. I believe Minister Littleproud may have made that point himself, I’m not sure. I do welcome the fact that Minister Littleproud has now said that the climate is changing and now accepted the drought is not an occasional event, it is something we will live with basically on a permanent basis and therefore the key response to drought has to be first up recognition, mitigation, adaptation and building resilience in the farming sector.