Assistance for Famers

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL (Lyons) (18:43): I rise to add my support to this Farm Household Support Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2020, one of a series of bills we have seen introduced to the House expanding government assistance to our farmers who are undoubtedly doing it tough and to also add my support to the amendment of the shadow minister. Across my electorate of Lyons, particularly the east coast and Southern Midlands, farmers are struggling to feed livestock let alone make a living because of the lack of rain. Earlier this month, farmers in the Baghdad Valley publicly called for a new irrigation scheme which has been long planned, long promised and long delayed by the Tasmanian state Liberal government.

John Medhurst, a farmer, has six tractors and a harvester sitting idle because it so dry. Normally, he would be flat chat this time of year. The drought across the Southern Midlands has been the worst he has seen since 1966. I might add that the Southern Midlands has not been drought-declared by the government, unlike Glamorgan-Spring Bay and Break O'Day on the east coast. I don't know what is needed for a drought declaration from the government to free up $1 million in assistance—perhaps the imminence of an election! The fact is the Southern Midlands is very dry and it needs that money. John says that all the water holes on his property are dry. Nearby sheep farmer Edwin Batt, who used to swim and fish in the creek on his family property, says that the lake is long gone and the creek is bone-dry. He wants the Tasmanian government and Tasmanian Irrigation to get serious about a Southern Midlands irrigation scheme which will provide water security for the region's farmers.

That's what this is all about: providing water security to the region's farmers, which provides an income for farmers. TI has made it clear the scheme is not on its list of high priorities, and it is focusing on delivering schemes elsewhere in the state that are easier and quicker to deliver. But we won't give up. The fact is water security is top of mind for farmers across my electorate. With water security, farmers will have less need to rely on measures such as farm household assistance. But water security in Tasmania is hampered by a lack of a statewide water strategy and the existence of a grab bag of entities and authorities that are each accountable for their own narrow areas of interest but are not accountable for delivering water in any holistic way. Essentially, we have Tasmanian Irrigation, or TI, which enters into partnerships with farmers and the federal and state governments to deliver water for crops and grazing. We have TasWater, an entity owned by the state's councils but runs independently from them, to manage and build infrastructure and deliver drinking water supply. We have the Hydro, a state government GBE, which manages water resources for its electricity generation. They each stick to their own knitting, with none taking a holistic review of water resources for the state.

I've made it clear that it's in farmers' best interests and the interests of Tasmanians as a whole for a statewide water strategy to be developed that examines how much water we have and where it is; how much water is falling from the sky and where; how much of it can be harvested and how; and how feasible it is to move it from where it is not needed to where it is needed. It staggers me that this work has not been done already. I'm sure there are valuable bits of information squirrelled away in various reports. TI will have some information, Hydro will have some and TasWater will have some, but, as far as I've been able to determine, no-one has taken a look at our state as a whole. No-one has taken a look at Tasmania's water resources as a whole—about how we could manage those resources and what we need to do to get best use of them while, of course, maintaining environmental flow. This may all seem a bit off the beaten track when it comes to the specifics of this debate, but I'll say this: if we get water security right, then we provide economic security for farmers, and that is very much at the heart of this bill.

As to the specifics of the bill before us, because of the capital tied up in farms and equipment and because of the importance of primary production to our economy and because we need food and fibre to live, farmers simply cannot walk off the land and seek another job when their income dries up along with the rain. It's for these reasons it has been entirely appropriate that government assists farmers to stay on the land during the lean times in the expectation that, when conditions improve, we are all better off for them having toughed it out. We are talking relatively modest assistance, with payments akin to what people are provided on Newstart. The assistance helps, but every farmer would prefer rain to earn their own income again and not have to receive it. This bill aims to provide relief to farmers by essentially calling off the collection dogs in the event of 'overpayment of assistance'.

Farmers rightly have a special place in our collective national heart. They encapsulate so much of what we like to think of as our national character: resilience, good humour, a no-nonsense work ethic and zero tolerance for airs, graces and bull. But farmers are not the only people in Australia who are struggling. It is important that, while assisting farmers, we do not forget other Australians who also need assistance. If only the government had shown the same empathy for the thousands of Australians formerly receiving Centrelink payments: the victims of the robodebt scandal, who have been chased down with demands for repayment of so-called overpayments. They were overpayments that, in many cases, did not exist, because they had been calculated using a dodgy formula—an illegal, unethical and disgraceful process that this government continues to refuse to apologise for. If only the government had shown those many Australians the same sympathy it shows farmers. It seems, though, that for this government some Australians are more worthy of its attention than others.

More and more Australians, whether they are pensioners, farmers, jobless, students, casually employed or even employed full time in a low-wage job, are struggling with the basic cost of living. Interest rates may be low, but mortgage payments are high. Those who can't afford a deposit have to rent, but rents are skyrocketing. In a regional town in my electorate, just last week I saw a three-bedroom weatherboard house for rent for $500 a week—in a regional town. Public housing lists are a year long for high-priority people. Electricity prices are up, despite promises from the government to get them down. Wages are flat, underemployment is rife and wage theft is rampant. Private health insurance is increasingly out of reach, while public health queues are at record highs.

We all know that poverty is rising in Australia. The latest Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey found that there was an increase in the number of people living below the poverty line. ACOSS's 2020 report Poverty in Australia 2020 found that there were 3.24 million people living below the poverty line, including 423,800 young people. This means that more than one in eight and more than one in six children in our country are living in poverty. The poverty line in Australia is $457 a week for a single adult living alone, or $960 for a couple with two children. Australia has the 16th highest poverty rate out of the 34 wealthiest countries in the OECD—higher than the UK, Germany and New Zealand. Most people living below the poverty line are renting. Almost half of all renters who are 65 and over are in poverty. If you're in poverty, you earn less than $457 a week, and yet Newstart, of course, is around $279 a week. The median rental price in Hobart is $450 a week. Once you've paid the rent, there's nothing left. Don't get sick and visit your GP in Tasmania. We've got the lowest bulk-billing rates in Australia. In my electorate, most of it regional, which includes, of course, farmers, a visit to your GP is likely to result in an almost $40 out-of-pocket cost. That's up 30 per cent since 2013. If you see a specialist, it's going to cost you almost $70, an increase of $22 since 2012-13.

While the federal government has turned its back on struggling Tasmanians, offering limited support by way of critical emergency accommodation, it's even withdrawn support for crucial food relief providers like Loaves and Fishes. This organisation provides 70 per cent of emergency food in Tasmania, preparing up to 5,000 meals per week, servicing 220 community food programs and 38 school breakfast clubs with produce and healthy, nutritious meals. And I say all this because farmers deserve our sympathy, deserve our support and deserve our assistance, but there are so many thousands of Tasmanians and Australians who do too. It's not just farmers who are struggling. The Morrison government's withdrawal of support for Loaves and Fishes places it at dire risk of closing. It had some interim funding support, but that expires next month, and there has been no promise that it will be renewed.

Those opposite will say that the best form of welfare is a job—an effective catchphrase which simply means nothing to the people in my electorate who can't afford to feed or house themselves, or indeed the 50,000 Tasmanians who need more work. Data from the ABS shows that more Tasmanians than ever are finding it harder to get enough work to make ends meet, with 70 per cent of new jobs created since 2014 being part time. Underemployment is the worst it has ever been in my state. 'The best form of welfare is to get a job. Give it a go and you get a go.' That's the catchphrase; that's the slogan. I'm sure it offers comfort to the tens of thousands of Tasmanians who can't get a job because there simply aren't enough vacancies. Statistics show that there are 27 Tasmanians competing for every single job available. Maths tells you that it doesn't work. It's a real crisis, but instead of policy and action, this government is content to use slogans to address the entrenchment and growth of poverty that it not only oversees but also causes.

Just before I finish up I will come to the issue of Labor's policy on net zero emissions, which of course will provide significant opportunities in the agricultural sector. The subject of this bill is farm income and farmers' income security, and there are great opportunities here with Labor's net zero emissions policy—moved of course and administered by the shadow minister at the table, Mark Butler. And it's not just Labor saying this. Professor of Food Sustainability at Charles Sturt University, the Hon. Niall Blair, who is a former New South Wales Nationals agriculture minister and primary productions minister, says this is a good policy, and he says that the opportunities are great for the agricultural sector. He says:

… investing in research and helping farmers change some agricultural practices will not only reduce CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions but sequestering carbon can reverse some of the damage. Additionally it makes farmers more resilient to climate change.

He goes on to say:

We could unlock billions of dollars from government and industry funds, paid directly to farmers to help improve their natural capital, their soil, vegetation and farming practices—

not to mention innovation and research—

which, in turn, will reverse the effects of climate change. This will also ensure our commodities are acceptable to eco-wise consumers in a competitive market where already 70 countries have committed to the net zero target.

Labor's not alone on this. It's those opposite who are standing alone. They're standing in the past. They're standing in history on this issue. Labor is on one side with the New South Wales government and other state governments and more than 70 countries, and former agriculture ministers in coalition governments, who say this is a good policy, it's a good plan, and the opportunities are great for the agricultural sector. The opportunities are great for farmers to be able to diversify their income streams so that, when drought and other disasters come along, they've got a diversification-of-income ability. That's what the net zero carbon emissions policy unlocks. It unlocks opportunity for the regions and the agricultural sector. And that opportunity should be recognised by those opposite, particularly those who represent agricultural and regional seats, because there is a real opportunity here to unlock billions of dollars in investment and opportunity.

We do support the bill, because the shadow minister has moved the second reading amendment. We all support our farmers, particularly those who are still doing it tough. Of course the shadow minister has made reference to those farmers who are still at risk of being cut off from assistance, and he has called on the government to reverse that, and I stand with him on that. But I commend the bill to the House.