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Drought Review Process

RURAL AFFAIRS AND TRANSPORT LEGISLATION COMMITTEE  Estimates  MONDAY, 23 MAY 2011 - Full Transcripts

Senator SIEWERT:  Firstly, can we go through where we are up to with the drought review process and how any future process for drought and exceptional circumstances now ties in with the pilot in WA now that has been extended.

Mr Mortimer:  The budget measures set out that an extension of the WA pilot has been agreed with WA and WA has issued a press release, from their part, setting out what they are going to do. In the immediate sense those measures will be implemented, and that will be done through a national partnership agreement extension with WA. That agreement will ensure that the pilot measures continue for another 12 months, which is the period through which the review will be finalised, and the next steps of drought policy will be settled between the Commonwealth and the states and within the Commonwealth itself. 
Senator SIEWERT:  Sorry; could you go back over that last bit.
Mr Mortimer:  The review panel that is now examining the pilot—
Senator SIEWERT:  This is the review of the pilot which is due to report in September?
Mr Mortimer:  That is right; the head of Bio is Mr Mckeough. That is due to report at the end of September. That report will be the basis of discussions between Commonwealth and state ministers for agriculture, who have been engaged in this process over the last couple of years. As you are aware, there are shared arrangements around drought policy between the Commonwealth and the states, so they will come to a position of where they want to go. Then the outcome of that will go into the Commonwealth budget discussions next year as well as the state budget discussions for their part. We are expecting that the outcome will be settled as a result of budget 2012.
Senator SIEWERT:  When you say 'settled' in terms of the budget, are we now talking about an overall approach Australia wide?
Mr Mortimer:  Yes. 
Senator SIEWERT:  I have a series of questions I want to ask about the package for WA, but I just want to ask a bit more about funding et cetera from a national approach, because that has not been settled. Is that why—and, I am sorry; I was a bit distracted because I was trying to find where my marker was on drought in here—in the forward estimates of 2012-13 and beyond, nothing is budgeted for drought?
Mr Mortimer:  That is right. The measures are there—and we can go through them in detail—but it is for one year only. Any funding beyond that will be the subject of separate budget discussions. 
Senator SIEWERT:  The one year only is the assistance, so there is the one year only further assistance for the pilot and then the one year only for the other measures. 
Mr Mortimer:  One of the drought measures, the farm grants assistance measure, will be provided over two years, but that is being provided, I think, through the Treasury portfolio. Perhaps Mr McDonald can—
Mr McDonald:  Yes. 
Senator SIEWERT:  Do I need to ask Treasury for that particular one?
Mr Mortimer:  We can get it to you on notice, if you like. We might be able to tell you here and now. Not all of the measures that have been delivered for the WA pilot are indeed reflected through this portfolio, and some of them are referenced in the part of the papers which talks about measures delivered by other portfolios or agencies such as Centrelink. We can take you through that if you wish. 
Senator SIEWERT:  I will be in Centrelink next week so we can follow it up there, thank you, rather than putting you to that trouble. Can I go on specifically, please, to the WA pilot. I have seen the update from earlier this year. I think it was December—and we asked in February. I would just like to update the figures from February, if I could. I am specifically interested to look at where some of the locations for the applications are coming in. I am conscious of privacy issues. We are talking about a large area of Western Australia, and I am particularly interested in looking at the regions where you are getting applications from. Does that make sense?
Mr Mortimer:  I understand that. I am not sure that we have that level of detail with us now. We can tell you the number of people who are benefiting from each of the measures but, subject to advice from Mr McDonald, I am not sure we have the applications by region. 
Mr McDonald:  We do not have the information for a geographic spread with us here at the hearings. 
Senator SIEWERT:  Could you take it on notice?
Mr McDonald:  We will take it on notice, but we will have to check whether that raises any privacy issues, given the numbers of people available accessing support. If you wish, I can take you through each measure, if that helps. 
Senator SIEWERT:  Yes, that would be good; thank you. 
Mr McDonald:  There are a number of measures under the WA pilot of drought support measures. To start with, we have got the farm planning measure, which involves up to $7,500 for farm businesses to access training. As of 13 May, 400 applications have been approved through that program, and 391 of those farm businesses have gone through that program and completed. One last group, the remaining nine, is being completed in the Carnarvon region. For the Building Farm Businesses—that is, the grants of up to $60,000—as of 13 May, 195 applications have been received, with 65 of those being approved and the remainder being assessed by the WA Department of Agriculture. With regard to Farm Family Support, which is the income support program, as at 13 May we have 374 recipients accessing that support. There is a measure called farm social support, which is a range of initiatives delivered by Centrelink, the FaHCSIA portfolio and the Department of Health and Ageing. The Centrelink initiative involves a number of initiatives but includes rural services officers out there to assist farmers on the ground. It also includes rural social workers. 
The rural service officers have made over 6,800 contacts with customers, and that has involved 723 farm visits. We have rural social workers who have made over 1,000 customer visits in the WA pilot region, and over 200 of those have involved farm visits. There is also the mobile office which travels around Australia. That has made a number of trips to the pilot region, including visiting over 26 communities in the Western Australian pilot region. 
Senator NASH:  The rural service officers you are talking about, are they initiated by the rural service officer or is that as a request for them to visit from the farm household?
Mr McDonald:  It could be either. So what that means is that it is a service that is going into someone's house. 
Senator NASH:  Could you take it on notice—and I understand you would not have that now—to give us the breakdown of where they have been invited and where they have initiated the contact?
Mr McDonald:  I can check with Centrelink, yes, and take that on notice. There is the FaHCSIA rural and regional family support initiative, which involves contracted providers of family counselling services. They have made over 2,100 customer contacts since 1 July last year. Then there is the Department of Health initiative which is the online mental health counselling for youth, and there have been 32 registered users of that program to date. We also have the farm exit support program. One grant has been paid under that, and there have been 26 applications to date. 
Senator SIEWERT:  In that case I do not think there has been any progress since last time, has there?
Mr Mortimer:  There had not been one paid last time but this has been paid since then.
Mr McDonald:  The key challenge there is that we have a number of applications in but, to be found eligible and receive a grant, you need to have sold your farm. The big hurdle for a lot of those applicants is that they need to sell their farm before they are granted their payment. 
Senator SIEWERT:  I think you said there are 26 applications. 
Mr McDonald:  Yes. 
Senator SIEWERT:  They are all still waiting to sell. 
Mr McDonald:  Some of them are going through being assessed but, for all of them, yes, they are still awaiting sale. Within that 26, there are four applicants who have been through a pre-assessment, which is a preliminary assessment of their circumstances and, subject to the sale of the farm, they may be found eligible if all their circumstances stay the same, but that is all dependent on that sale of farm. Finally, there are two other measures: one is called Beyond Farming, which is the mentoring of those who are considering exiting by former farmers. We have got 20 former farmers signed up to do that and there are 12 current farmers who are seeking that support. There is the Stronger Rural Communities program, which involves grants to local government authorities and rural community organisations, and there were eight grants awarded under that program.
Senator SIEWERT:  Eight grants out of how many applications?
Mr Mortimer:  A couple of hundred, I think. They were assessed by the National Rural Advisory Council late last year and that council made recommendations to the minister. There was a considerable number, but the funding allowed for eight that were ranked as highest against the criteria. 
Senator SIEWERT:  It was the funding that restricted how many could be funded?
Mr Mortimer:  The funding was agreed to be 300,000 and the total value of the grants that were sought exceeded that considerably.
Senator SIEWERT:  By how much?
Mr Mortimer:  I cannot remember; I will have to take that on notice.
Senator SIEWERT:  If you could, that would be appreciated.
Mr McDonald:  I would just add to that, applicants could make an application for up to 300,000. There was just under $900,000 in total program funds available and the minister made a press release on 10 November 2010 which announced the successful project proponents.
Senator SIEWERT:  The new funding that has been announced is $44.1 million, for the extension of the trial?
Mr McDonald:  That is the Australian government's contribution.
Senator SIEWERT:  Yes, and the state, if I remember correctly, is 22.
Mr McDonald:  No, it is $11 million.
Senator SIEWERT:  I thought it was higher than that. In terms of all the subprograms under this program, they are all going to continue?
Mr Mortimer:  No, there is one that will not. The Rural Communities Program will continue in broad but the Commonwealth will not be contributing to it. WA has announced that they will provide funding for a set of activities within that program
Senator SIEWERT:  Under Royalties for Regions?
Mr McDonald:  No, it is not quite decided yet. They have indicated to the Australian government they will provide some initiatives within that space, if I can characterise it that way, but it is still being finalised with the Western Australian government.
Senator SIEWERT:  Is that separate to the additional funding they are putting into the pilot?
Mr McDonald:  No. They have said that they will contribute a sum of money to that and I will just look that up for you.
Senator SIEWERT:  Can I just clarify: that is out of the $11 million?
Mr Mortimer:  Yes. It is part of their $11 million; it was an amount of $1.307 million.
Mr McDonald:  That is correct. 
Senator SIEWERT:  I want to go back, before I move on, to this issue about geography. Could you give us a breakdown into pastoral properties and farm businesses? If you cannot, give us inter-regions.
Mr McDonald:  We will have to take that on notice and see what we can make available.
Senator SIEWERT:  That would be appreciated, thank you. I am not criticising the decision to expand it or to continue it, but can you go through the circumstances that have led to that; if, in doing that, you had taken into account some of the findings of the review already; and whether the review will be extended to cover the new circumstances? 
Mr Mortimer:  The pilot was extended at the request of the WA government and it essentially allows for the ongoing provision of support across the state under the measures that have been provided in the pilot over the process and through the period of where the process of finalising the new policy will be settled. As I said earlier, it is expected that the new process will be settled so that an outcome can be determined in next year's budget, with a view to implementation after that; so the pilot will cover that period. The review itself will not be extended, the 30 September deadline remains the same, and that is important in terms of allowing time for the consideration of its findings by Commonwealth and state ministers and taking it through to the Commonwealth budget process, as well as budget processes in the state. That is the set of arrangements around that.
Senator SIEWERT:  In terms of the review, how soon after they have reported will it be publicly released?
Mr Mortimer:  That is an issue for the government.
Senator SIEWERT:  I have to ask that every time, just in case.
Senator Ludwig:  I am happy for you to ask it.
Senator SIEWERT:  Is it expected that that review will be released prior to you making an announcement on the future policy approach in the next budget?
Senator Ludwig:  I have not turned my mind to it. I will take your question on notice and have a think about it. It would be my broad view, because it does require the state and territories also to have a look at the review findings and settle some of the outcome from that. The sequence of events I would envisage, unless someone here corrects me, would be that the review will report its findings to the WA government and me. Then, examining that, we will make some decisions about what we think the future should look like. They will be then matters for us to progress through, I imagine, a COAG process. I do not want to second guess where that will end up either, but you can see the sequencing does mean that it will require the review findings, the WA government and ourselves to examine those, and then, particularly as we move forward for national examination of these issues, a COAG process again. There is some work to be done but that is broadly the outline of how things will progress, if that helps.
Senator SIEWERT:  Yes, it does in terms of the timeline. I do not necessarily see the connection—I understand how you need to take the findings into account and take it to COAG et cetera. To me, that does not necessarily mean it is mutually exclusive from then releasing the actual review publicly so that the rest of us can understand the findings.
Senator Ludwig:  Because it is both WA and ourselves, it will be also contingent on a WA decision on that as well.
Senator SIEWERT:  I appreciate that.
Senator Ludwig:  If I could give you some comfort, it would be my broad view that all of these reports, reviews and things like that should be public. I think I have been consistent across this department with that. That would be my general approach but, when I get the review, I will make a decision then.
Senator SIEWERT:  The extension of the boundaries now covers the whole of the southwest agricultural region. Is that correct?
Mr Mortimer:  That is right
Senator SIEWERT:  Is that on the request of the WA government under current seasonable circumstances?
Mr Mortimer:  It is at the request of the WA government.
Senator SIEWERT:  In terms of the amount that you decided, the $44 million, how was that amount reached? 
Mr Mortimer:  It was negotiated between ourselves, the Commonwealth, that is, and the WA government. There is a principle that the WA government would provide 20 per cent of the funding but, beyond that, it was negotiated in terms of being able to fund the key elements for the bigger pilot area. Clearly, the most costly of the three items are the farm-planning venture, farm business grants and the income support, so it was negotiated with an envelope to ensure that, on the basis of our estimations, it would fund uptake by people in that area against the eligibility criteria.
Senator SIEWERT:  If we get time, I would like to follow another couple of questions.

 

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