Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2019

I rise to speak on the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2019. Five years ago, the Liberal-National coalition government introduced the farm household allowance program as part of the suite of measures to assist our farmers who were doing it tough. During this time, we've made a number of changes to ensure the program meets the needs of Australian farming families, whether that be putting food on the table, paying household bills or buying school supplies. Today, we are seeking to make further changes to improve the program to ensure it is fit for purpose.

Farmers are unlike any other recipients of government support. They have a full-time business to run, livestock to care for, crops to market and properties to maintain. I know this personally as someone whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were farmers. Indeed, in my office, which is just on the other side of this wall here, I have an old milk can from my grandparents' dairy farm. On the wall are cane knives that were used by our family. I do this to make sure I never forget how tough it is being a farmer. I also know this as a senator who spends his life on the road, travelling around regional, rural and remote Queensland. Indeed, just this last weekend, on Friday, I went up to the Tully Show, one of the finest agricultural shows in Queensland, where the Liberal National Party had a stall. I was able to meet many people there and look at the bananas and the sugar cane that was being judged. I would like to acknowledge all those who were winners in the various contests, and can I thank Andrew Cripps and his parents for all work his family do for the community up there. I should acknowledge Paul Scarr also went to the show on Friday afternoon.

On Saturday, I was out in Hughenden. I think senators will be interested to know that Hughenden is the capital of the Flinders Shire Council. The mayor there is Jane McNamara. I was there representing the government, observing the signing of an agreement between the shire council and a company called CNVM Investments to build a meat processing facility and a feedlot in Hughenden. This is something a lot of people have done a lot of work on over many years. They are doing that because the solution to what is happening in rural, remote and regional Australia is not only what is in this bill here today but also in what councils and businesses are doing out in rural, regional and remote Queensland and Australia. When our farmers are doing well, our regional economies are doing well. When our farmers are doing it tough, not only do our regional economies do it tough, but the cities do tough. We must demonstrate our willingness to make sure they get the hand-up they need.

Before I get into the substance of the bill that's before us here today, I want to look at what else the government are doing to support regional Australia because we have got a vision for regional Australia. We want people to move to and live in regional Australia. We want regional Australia to grow. I say that as someone who lives in regional Australia. I live on the Darling Downs. I live on a patch of dirt, just outside of Warwick. Senator McKenzie, your cabinet colleague Minister Littleproud lives on the other side of Warwick. My office is in another region of Queensland, on the Sunshine Coast. We on this side understand regional Australia because we come from it and we want to grow it. We want to back our regional economies. We want to create new and better-paying jobs and give the families the opportunity to keep on living in regional Australia and stop that drain to the cities.

Just a few weeks ago at the Bush Summit in Dubbo, the Prime Minister announced that the Minister for Agriculture will lead a national plan to enable agriculture, fisheries and forestry to become a $100 billion industry by 2030 and that is pretty exciting—very exciting, actually. The Prime Minister announced the government will establish a House select committee that will look at the future of rural and regional Australia, to be chaired by the member for Barker, Mr Tony Pasin MP. It shows that not only are we delivering but we are thinking about where we want to take rural and regional Australia. That is a very important thing that the government is doing. The committee's work will pull together positive stories from across regional Australia, and its work will be vital in it lead-up to a formal statement from the Deputy Prime Minister to the House of Representatives later this year. The government will announce further details on this committee as time moves on.

The government will continue to invest in our regions through major programs like the $841 million of Building Better Regions Fund and through the launch of Regional Deals, which bring together three tiers of government to build a better future for our regions. I want to talk about the BBRF. It is one of the best programs that any government, in my view, has ever done in Australia's history. It is brilliant at enabling small communities to get funds to invest sometimes in big projects—up to $10 million—or very small projects, for example, the Wondai Regional Art Gallery. Senator McKenzie, I know you have been there because you popped into a second-hand store and I had been there two days before! The reason we went to Wondai was because the art gallery in Wondai is one of the best regional art galleries in the country. It got a BBRF fund of about $50,000, which the volunteers were able to use to improve the kitchen facilities for that art gallery. Their annual art show is coming on 4 October—for those who are interested.

Back to Hughenden, the government was able to put $5 million into the construction of the Hughenden Recreational Lake. While I was in Hughenden on Saturday, I was able so inspect the lake and see the work that has gone on there. The federal government put money in through BBRF, the state government put some money in and the council put some money in. It is a brilliant facility for a small country town that has been doing it tough. The grey nomads can go there, spend their money and the kids in town will have somewhere to swim.

Now, as announced in the 2019-20 budget, the government is investing in Regional Deals, providing $172 million as part of the Hinkler Regional Deal. For those who know Keith Pitt, he never takes no for an answer, so he's delivered for his communities in Hinkler and the greater Wide Bay region. We have $45 million with the Barkly Regional Deal in the territory, and $3.2 million for the Albury-Wodonga Regional Deal. This will help respond to local priorities and drive productivity in each of those regions.

Something else the government is doing that is close to my heart is the Rural Financial Counselling Service. After my parents had to sell the family farm, dad became one of the first rural financial counsellors in the country. It is something I have lived through and know about. It is a brilliant thing that the governments have been doing at a federal and state level in terms of trying to help farmers stay on the land to make sure they can run their farms as businesses. This assistance provided through the FHA is complemented by the critical Rural Financial Counselling Service. The coalition government has increased the investment in the service to more than $77 million. It is a brilliant investment. Because our farmers are doing it tough, between 1 July 2018 and 30 June 2019 there were over 6,600 active clients, which is an increase of more than 1,700 client from the previous year. That's why last year the Australian government increased the funding by $5 million from $16.7 million to $21.7 million. Rural financial counsellors provide premium, tailored, invaluable support for farmers in helping them identify financial and business options, assisting with negotiations, and providing referrals and helpful information on available support. The support is tailored to each client's need and is entirely confidential. Rural financial counsellors are highly mobile and can visit on-farm and have a meeting in an office or other mutually convenient location.

What is not said often about the financial counselling service is that often it is the opportunity for Mr and Mrs farmer to have that conversation with someone. It isn't just the bloke or his wife; it is both the farmers, having that conversation with someone about how the farm is going financially. There is always this emotional support that goes there, to sit around that table and have a conversation, sometimes just about life. Especially if you're out working on a farm, and you're out on the tractor or whatever, you don't get to speak to humans too often. For those who are listening on their tractors at the moment—they do listen! Senators may have a giggle, but they do listen to us! I will probably get critiqued on the number of 'ums' I have said in this speech—farmers are some of the most informed contributors to public life in Australia, because they spend so much time listening to Senate debates.

In terms of how we're helping those in rural and regional communities, there is also drought support. This has been touched upon by Senator McDonald, and I acknowledge the comments of Senator Hanson before. Helping our farming families and their communities through the drought is a key priority for the Australian government. Something that some people may not be aware of is that there are children in Queensland—I look at the students in the gallery—who are yet to experience rain. They are yet to experience precipitation falling on their heads, so long has been the drought in their home communities. That is a tragedy for them as young Australians and is a tragedy for their communities.

So we know they are doing it tough, and the government's been listening. We always know we can do more, but I think we are doing a good lot at the moment. As part of the government's ongoing, immediate and long-term drought response, the government is providing more than $7 billion in assistance and concessional loans to support those affected by drought. Our support and assistance measures cover a range of areas, including financial assistance, investment in infrastructure, rural and regional mental health, combating weeds and pests, making information easier to access, and improving existing services such as the farm household allowance, which is what this bill is about, and the Rural Financial Counselling Service.

In relation to pests, one of the things that we are particularly good at doing in Queensland is the wild dog fences, in terms of ensuring that farms can be fenced off from the wild dogs. What we are seeing in parts, especially in south-west Queensland, is that sheep are returning to areas where they were driven out from because of the combination of the drought and, more worryingly, because of what wild dogs were doing. For those who have been behind this program, the wild dog exclusion fencing, it is a brilliant, brilliant program of the government, trying to stop this particular—I won't say invasive species, because everybody loves dogs—but these dogs need to be shot on sight or fenced out from people's properties.

We're providing support to farmers based on preparedness, risk management and support in times of hardship, including drought. It does not depend on where a farmer lives on depend on them being in a particular industry. One of the key investments is through the establishment of the Future Drought Fund, which will provide a secure and sustainable source of funding to strengthen drought resilience. This is making sure that, in the times when it is good, people can make sure they have themselves prepared for when it actually goes bad. Now is the time to fix up the waterways, fix up the dams and fix up that infrastructure that is on people's farms. Following the passage of the Future Drought Fund Bill 2019, $100 million will be invested annually in projects that help Australian farmers and communities to be more prepared for and resilient to the effects of drought.

Now, there are other measures that can assist farmers to stay on the land. Through the Regional Investment Corporation Australian farmers can now access up to $2 million in low-interest loans. That's double the previous limit of $1 million. The government has also doubled the total funding available for low-interest loans in any given year to $500 million. These loans will help farmers in hardship, including those affected by the current drought. The first five years of these loans will remain interest only. Eligible farmers with existing government loans will be able to refinance their loan with the Regional Investment Corporation to access the interest-only period. Recently the government announced additional support for farmers recovering from drought through concessional replanting and restocking loans of up to $200,000, which will be made available through the Regional Investment Corporation.

I'll turn, in the time that is left, to the farm household allowance. The farm household allowance program has a more generous assets test and other special dispensations. The farm household allowance program includes income support for up to four cumulative years, up to $1,500 to have a farm financial assessment of the farm enterprise completed by a financial professional, up to $4,000 for each person in activity supplements and up to 17 one-on-one case management meetings. It also includes a healthcare card, pharmaceutical allowance, rent assistance, telephone allowance and remote area allowance where it's deemed to be applicable. It is uncapped and a demand driven program, ensuring that no-one who is eligible misses out.

Since its commencement, the program has provided support for more than 12,000 Australians and paid more than $340 million. The farm household allowance program is not just a drought measure; it helps all farmers facing financial hardship. But we must ensure that it remains fit for purpose, which is why we are seeking to make a number of improvements to the program. They include extending the program from three to four cumulative years, implementing the supplementary lump sum payments in the 2018-19 financial year, removing the profit from the forced disposal of livestock from the program income test if it is put in a farm management deposit, and simplifying the application form.

Last year, the government temporarily increased the net farm assets test eligibility threshold from $2.6 million to $5 million. This move recognised that, while farmers may have substantial assets, they have no income to meet daily expenses. When you travel around Queensland, this is something that you hear quite often. Farmers have been destocking their properties. They've got no money coming in, they're pulling kids out of school and they're selling off other assets. What that means is that, when it rains—when the good times come again, as they always do—the farmers are unable to restock because they cannot afford to restock, and they are unable to grow their crops because they do not have the money in the bank to make sure that the business can grow.

This move, while recognising that farmers may have substantial assets, as I've said earlier, helps them grow their businesses, and that's very important. As a result of this increase, nearly 280 new recipients have come on to the program, and during the election campaign the Liberal-National coalition government promised to make this change permanent. This was one of the many promises that we made during the election campaign and one of the many promises that we're going to deliver. It formed one of the key components of our election manifesto: supporting farmers in drought.

This bill delivers on that election commitment by amending the Farm Household Support Act 2014 to set the net farm assets threshold at $5 million. This change will allow up to 8,000 more people to access the program above the previous threshold. It means these farmers will not have to sell their assets and risk some or all of the future income-producing capacity of their farm business. It also recognises that farm assets can be difficult to sell quickly and, during tough times, are often sold for less than they're worth. We know that in Queensland. You only have to look at the pages of Country Life in terms of the properties that have appeared a year ago and come back three or six months later. There is no interest in buying these properties, because the properties are drought impacted. We don't want these farmers selling these properties at such a loss that will impact on their ability to retire debt or invest in other businesses.

This bill will also amend the treatment of income from business such that allowable deductions can be claimed against related income—that is, allowable deductions associated with on-farm business income will be able to be deducted from the income, and off-farm deductions will be associated with off-farm income. This clarification is consistent with the policy intent. It will not have any financial consequences for recipients.

The Liberal-National government is providing immediate relief efforts, whether through the farm household allowance or through more direct grants that have been made to councils around the country to support our farmers. I don't want to keep going back to the Flinders Shire Council, but I went to the north-west about six weeks ago and $1 million that had been provided to those drought-impacted councils has been gratefully received by those councils. What is interesting is that—whether it is Longreach, Blackall, Tambo, Winton, Flinders, McKinlay or Richmond—they are all spending their $1 million but they're all spending it in different ways, and that's the best thing. We don't need the federal government telling people how to spend money; those on the ground know what to do with it. This Liberal-National government stands behind farmers in need. We are prepared to provide a genuine, long-term investment in drought resilience and drought-proofing Australia. For that, I commend the bill to the Senate.