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Farm Household Support

The Greens are supportive of the Farm Household Support Amendment Bill 2007.

However, it raises a number of issues that we think are important and need to be given an airing and discussed. Drought, we know, has a devastating impact on the agricultural community-on farms themselves, on farmers and on their families. Senator O'Brien has mentioned the impact on mental health. Drought also has an impact on small businesses, on businesses within the agricultural community, on towns, on the health of towns and on the environment and natural resource management.

We believe it is important that Australia provides assistance to our farmers and to our rural communities; however, we believe we are ignoring the elephant in the room-that is, that climate change and its interaction with drought has an impact on Australian agriculture and on our farmers.

In the second reading speech by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Ms Ley said:

The Australian government is committed to building the sustainability of the agriculture sector and providing assistance when it experiences severe downturns during rare and severe climatic events.

We are all witnessing the devastation of the current drought.

We have been in drought for a considerable period of time and it is having a devastating impact, but the Greens would argue that this can no longer be treated as a rare and severe climatic event. We are entering a period of climate change and of greater climate variability than Australian farmers have ever faced before. We need to acknowledge that fact and begin planning to ensure that our policy initiatives of financial support and the incentives we provide to the agricultural community take that fact into account.

I am not convinced that the government has got it yet. I highlight the Prime Minister's comments that he made on 6 February this year in the House of Representatives when talking about the interaction between climate change and drought. He said:

I do think that the jury is out on the connection between climate change and drought, and that is a view shared by the shadow minister, the member for Kingsford Smith. I thank the House.

The point there is that he has not acknowledged and does not acknowledge the link between drought and climate change, and I am desperately concerned that we will see an ongoing cycle of having to provide exceptional circumstances support to an ever-expanding group of farmers who are increasingly affected by drought that is in fact increased climate variability caused by climate change. It is time that we reflected this in policy formulation and in the way that we structure other programs such as adjustment.

Just last year or in 2005, when Mike Young, then a senior CSIRO scientist, dared to produce a paper looking at the impact of structural readjustment on water reform, he was panned outrageously, I believe, by the now Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Mr McGauran, implying that he was scaremongering and that he did not have the facts right and questioning how he could attack adjustment and exceptional circumstances. Mr Young was pointing out that adjustment, as it has been carried out in Australia over a number of past decades, was not having the desired satisfactory impact. He had been through the research and established that these adjustment packages were not producing the required and desired policy outcomes.
Mr Young also looked at exceptional circumstances and drought risk. He pointed out that there is a risk that adverse climate change may be mistakenly interpreted simply as prolonged drought, which I think is exactly what is happening.

So while we agree that of course right now we need to help our farmers, we also need to acknowledge that we are living in a drying climate and we need to be planning for that. Australia is the driest inhabited continent on the planet. We are going to be subject to climate variability and climate change that will inevitably have an impact on our farmers.

The limited research that has taken place to date indicates, certainly in Western Australia, that farmers are finding it increasingly harder to adjust to climate change. Western Australia-and it is nothing to shout about-is probably being subjected to climate change earlier than the rest of Australia. As I have said in this place before, the Western Australian government has taken that into account, for example, when planning for our water resources. It is an absolutely documented fact that our rainfall in Western Australia has decreased substantially. Our farmers have been adjusting and adapting to this, but it is reaching a point where they will no longer be able to adapt. So assistance and help are needed in order for them to adjust to these drying circumstances and we need to be looking at that in our policy formulation.
I note that the National Farmers Federation has in fact been calling for a change and an update to the national drought policy and for policy reform. I have been tracing some of the correspondence and some of the public calls that have been put out. I noticed they go back a number of years, so I spent some time on websites today looking at where Australia is up to on that. The latest information on drought policy reform that I could find on the website of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry was a reference to it in June 2006, when there had been some discussion on drought policy reform but in fact no significant progress. There is no new drought policy in this country. I would have thought that drought in this country would have warranted much more active policy discussion, considering the long-term drought that we are in and also considering the impact that climate change is having on agricultural communities.

It is essential that we start addressing this issue into the long term or we are all going to be in this place every year talking about exceptional circumstances that will no longer be exceptional circumstances. Long-term changes are happening as a result of a combination of seasonal variation and climate change, and they need to be factored into assistance packages and adjustment packages. The Greens will be supporting this particular bill, but we want to see some pretty dynamic change in the way the government addresses climate change. An acknowledgement that there is an interaction between drought and climate change and that we are no longer dealing with rare and severe climatic events would be a good start. We are going to be dealing with frequent, more dramatic events and with long-term change into the future.

This morning a number of senators, I think, and a number of members of the House of Representatives were at a forum, put on by Land and Water Australia, on how farmers are managing climate change. Our farmers are trying to address climate change, but I believe that not enough is being done to help farmers address climate change. In particular, when you look at the more marginal areas, farmers in those areas are going to be hit earliest, are now being hit, and climate change will progressively impact on other farmers in areas that traditionally we have not seen as marginal.

The sooner we get our heads around these facts, the better: we can no longer do business as usual and these will not be 'exceptional' circumstances. We need to consider what policy mechanisms are needed into the longer term, including, for example, stewardship support, further and more intense research on alternative crops, and industry development. We need to put money into research into alternative crops and industry development, so that people can have a diversified cropping system but also diversified income sources so that they can deal with climate variation. These are all things that need to be addressed; otherwise, every year we are going to be back here talking about 'exceptional circumstances'. These circumstances are no longer exceptional; they are the norm, unfortunately.

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