Private Members' Business: Exceptional Circumstances Exit Grants Program

The people of the Riverina in southern New South Wales and elsewhere too, the primary producers in the food bowl of the nation, were dealt a cruel blow by Mother Nature at the end of last year. But this blow from the Labor government has been just as bad, if not worse.

There are farmers who survived 10 years or more of crippling drought and then had their harvests thwarted at the 11th hour by one of the biggest floods in the Riverina since the infamous 1974 inundation. This caused an immeasurable loss to the Riverina farming community at a time when they can least afford it. And then, when these people needed the government most, the agriculture minister assured them the government would be there to support them with an extension of the drought exceptional circumstances funding. But, through some foul act of betrayal, the government then claimed that it had miscalculated the available funds and that the exceptional circumstances funding was no longer available, abandoning the farmers and leaving them without a livelihood and without any help.

A farmer from Tarcutta in my electorate provided Centrelink with information about his farm to test his eligibility for the exceptional circumstances exit grant under the exceptional circumstances package 2007. 

Based on that information, Centrelink advised him that he could be eligible for up to $150,000 in assistance—assistance he greatly needed after floods had devastated his property. On 24 May 2011 he received a letter from Centrelink stating that, as part of the 2011-12 budget, the Labor government was extending the exceptional circumstances exit package with a change to the eligibility criteria. And then on 11 August he received a letter from the rural programs manager at the Department of Human Services stating that he had a pre-assessment claim approved but all the funding had been fully committed and no further applications were being accepted. 

This constituent had exchanged contracts for the sale of his farm, but this had not been finalised. He believes that if he had been notified that the program was to end he may have been able to speed up the sale process. Instead, he was never given this opportunity. Shame on this government!

This complete lack of consideration as to the impact of suddenly culling the funding for those who desperately require this assistance is another example of the lack of respect and consideration that this Gillard Labor government has for regional Australia. For a government which claims it is interested in regional Australia, it keeps dealing the good people of the regions blow after blow. 

Another constituent, Mr Laurin West, from Ungarie, has also faced the inequality of the rules around assistance for farmers. When the December floods arrived, his property was damaged—and it still requires further repairs. As a father he is trying to help his son get out of debt and leases his property to him at a reduced rate. 

This is Mr West's only source of income. He has had his application for financial assistance declined because the Commonwealth government mandatory eligibility criteria deem that he must be a primary producer and, because he leases his farm, he does not qualify for assistance. The complete inflexibility to factor in Mr West's circumstance being slightly different from the usual primary producer's claim highlights this government's inability to understand the workings of a farm and the handing down of a property between generations. 

It is about time that this government woke up and started listening to regional Australia and noted that regional Australians are hurting from the constant blows they are being dealt, whether it be the introduction of an unnecessary and unwanted carbon tax, the ill-advised Murray-Darling Basin draft plan or the sudden removal of the exceptional circumstances scheme. Regional Australians are the backbone of this country and, with the weight this government is placing on them the country, real Australia is feeling the strain. Why is this government stripping water out of the Murray-Darling system without environmental justification? Why is Labor allowing apples to be imported without sufficiently stringent quarantine protocols?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. DGH Adams): Order! The honourable member will come back to the motion.

Mr McCORMACK: I am, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a summary of all the things that the Labor government has ignored regional Australians on. Why did Labor cut short the Exceptional Circumstances Exit Grants program just six weeks into the extended 52-week program? Does Labor understand or even care about the farm and food sectors? I think not, and there are hundreds of thousands of regional Australians who would agree with me on that very salient point.

Cristy Houghton