Speech: Farm Household Support Amendment Bill

Speech: Farm Household Support Amendment Bill Main Image

Mrs PHILLIPS (Gilmore) (19:13): This government is a desperate government. The government doesn't stand up for farmers, even though they like to say they do. Right here in this House in question time today, the minister for agriculture said they were helping farmers with the drought and bushfires, but I know what my farmers are telling me and that's just not the case. Time and time again the Morrison government has turned its back on local farmers. Farmers have endured six years of ad hoc responses to the drought from this government. Promises have been made, platitudes have been said, but confusion and chaos have reigned.

The farm household allowance is just another case on an ever-growing list, another ad hoc policy by a government with no comprehensive drought policy and no plan to help farmers. To be eligible for the farm household allowance you need to meet various criteria—fair enough. But what many farmers have been saying is the paperwork is too much and it takes too long to process the claims, and many simply don't fit the criteria. This is an all-too-familiar story with the government: farmers being made to jump through the hoops only to find they can't get help.

I've written countless times to the minister asking for my council areas, Shoalhaven, the Eurobodalla and Kiama, to be eligible for drought assistance. You would think that would be a simple thing. The New South Wales government has declared those areas in drought. Farmers certainly have been saying they are in drought; they have been suffering from it. But the Morrison government keeps denying this reality, on so many occasions, despite the evidence, despite the calls.

In the middle of the recent bushfire crisis, when the majority of my electorate was on fire, the drought minister announced the new Drought Communities Program extension eligibility criteria. I have been asking the minister for months to review this program, to admit that we are in fact in drought. We have seen several versions of the eligible list of councils, but never with my council areas. Instead, on 28 January this year, while bushfires raged in my electorate, the minister again told local farmers they were not in drought. He had not been listening. He had raised hopes of farmers once again, only to dash them. He told them they could still not access help under the Drought Communities Program—because, according to the minister, they are not in drought. But over the summer we've seen that drought in action, with the driest of conditions and the worst, raging bushfires imaginable.

On Friday just gone, I met with bee farmers Vince and Maria at Pointer Mountain, Yatte Yattah, on the New South Wales South Coast just outside Milton. Going up Pointer Mountain, I was gobsmacked at the destruction I saw. It is perhaps not in the news, but it should never be forgotten—the destruction, the barren, blackened land, and the brave, brave stories of so many in a bid to save homes, animals, farmland, businesses and memories. Vince and Maria told me their harrowing story to save their place. Vince and Maria fought the fires. I saw how close the fire was, the different directions it was coming from. Look across this chamber and imagine a 70-metre wall of flames. That's right—where you are, the flames. Vince and Maria had moved some of their beehives to where they thought was safe, but it wasn't so. Although their shed was saved, many beehives were sadly lost.

But the devastation across so much of south-east New South Wales poses a new threat to Vince and Maria and fellow beekeepers. No bush equals no food for bees. No food means bees starve, and when bees starve there's no honey. So, when Vince went to the local recovery centre to find out about grant assistance, he was told he could get help with water, fuel and pollen supplement—that is all. Vince eventually got the giant bulk sugar, but that still has to be turned into syrup—a long, complicated process.

So the question comes: how do beekeepers survive? They've lost the bush that feeds the bees. The grant and loan criteria are so complicated and don't take into account the years and decade-plus that it will take to recover. What does the minister say to Vince and Maria? What does the minister say to fellow beekeepers? Today the minister spruiked what a good job his government was doing. So I say to the minister: Meet with Vince and Maria. Stop the grandstanding and start listening. Fix the bushfire assistance for farmers and our small business owners.

Local farmer Rob, a fifth generation farmer, has been dealing with the drought for years. Rob has fought hard, absolutely tooth and nail, to get some action to address the drought, to address the crisis in our dairy industry. Rob's farm was hit by the fires four times. It was devastating, heartbreaking for a farmer with such a history on his land. Afterwards, he described his property as a lunar landscape—not a desert anymore, a lunar landscape. Since then, he has led the call for Australia to step up and lead on climate change: Farmers for Climate Action—a concept this government doesn't seem to think exists. For farmer Rob, there is no question: climate change is driving this. Those opposite want to convince us all that farmers don't want action on climate change, but it's farmers who are leading the way. They are absolutely on the front lines and they have been crying out for help from this government.

The inconsistencies in the government's drought programs are causing more heartbreak and more distress for farmers. Farmer Daniel tried to access a drought loan through the Regional Investment Corporation. He was rejected because his property was only partially listed on the desertification maps. How one farm can be partially in drought and partially not is a mystery to me, but this is what the government is putting people through—different maps, different rules, sifting through website after website, program after program, promise after promise.

I visited South Coast Dairy in Berry only last week—a great, locally owned and operated cooperative. I talked to them about the impact of the fires. With the roads closed, their milk couldn't get out. As you can imagine, milk doesn't last forever, so they lost an enormous amount of stock and are trying to navigate the available assistance—a very complicated process. Essentially, if you don't suffer direct fire damage, there is very little for you. It's an industry already struggling with the drought, unfair milk prices and now the financial impact of the fires. But there is no help for them. It's really all too common a thread: the money is just not getting through. Whether it's money for the drought or money for the bushfires, it isn't going where it's needed. The farmers in my electorate just get on with it. Farmers are a strong bunch and they don't like to complain. They don't go looking for handouts or ask for people to solve their problems.

A week ago, I attended the Kangaroo Valley Show. This was a very important show. The bushfires just weeks before had come close to Kangaroo Valley, to the west. Many people lost their homes and livelihoods, but, in true Kangaroo Valley spirit, the show must go on. I have to say that, after spending two full days talking with people at the show, I was amazed at the stories I heard. One resident, who devastatingly lost her home, had her jam in the shed and the shed was saved, so she proudly entered the jam in the show. I'd say that's pretty special jam! Agricultural shows are wonderful community events. They bring us together, in good times and in bad. In the poultry pavilion, I met a couple who had also suffered damage during the fires but were able to exhibit their rooster. They had not accessed bushfire assistance; they were just getting on with it. So I was pleased to be able to provide some help. But this is a common story I am hearing from people over and over again. They can't access help. They don't know what is out there or it is all too hard to go through the mountains of paperwork.

Take Gerry from Conjola, for example. His waratah farm has been left absolutely desolate. They were hit by the fires twice. They stayed the first time and they stopped the flames at their door, but it was all too much and they decided to go when it came again. I spoke with Gerry last week and he told me about how, after weeks, he finally felt like he could reach out for help. He felt up to it, so he went to the recovery centre in Ulladulla. He spent 2½ hours filling out paperwork. By his estimate, he got 10 per cent of the way through. He couldn't take it anymore and he walked away. It was retraumatising. It will be two to three years before Gerry gets his flowers back to the point where he can sell them. He looks out every day at his blackened waratah shrubs. They are starting to sprout small bits of green—a little bit of hope, which is something very welcome on the South Coast. But people like Gerry need more help.

I come from a farming family. I know about the struggles that dairy farmers face, and I am heartbroken by the stories I am hearing. I don't want to see farmers leave the land because they can't get the help they need to survive because the government have their heads in the sand like a flock of ostriches, all simultaneously sticking their heads down—nothing to see here!

This is the 14th time the government has amended this bill. Labor has been raising concerns about the farm household allowance since 2014—six years ago—and here we are still talking about it. The government just does not have a plan to help farmers. It doesn't have a plan to help the dairy industry. I have said, time and time again, I will work with the government on these issues. I have put out my hand and asked them to come to the table to talk with local farmers in my electorate and hear what they have to say. I will keep saying this. I will keep fighting for farmers. It's in my blood, it's in my heart, and I won't stop until the government takes action.

Farmers in my electorate feel absolutely let down by this government. After all the promises those opposite made before the last election, they think that farmers didn't notice when they abandoned them. Well, they did. I know I did, too. We simply need a bipartisan approach to develop a national comprehensive drought policy through a drought cabinet. My local farmers need a drought declaration by the Morrison government. They need a fair price for their milk. They need help to rebuild after the fires. They need quick access to assistance programs. They need the processes to be simple and clear. They need a government that listens. I say to every farmer on the New South Wales South Coast: I stand with you and I will fight beside you. I will fight for you every day.