Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (17:19): I rise to speak on the Future Drought Fund Bill 2018 and related bill. When Scott Morrison became Prime Minister on 24 August 2018 he made it abundantly clear that one of his main priorities was to deal with the ongoing drought. He’s shown great attention to that task and more latterly, I must say, he has also shown the same compassion, concern and urgency to finding ways to assist those in the north of Queensland affected by flood. He’s to be congratulated.
While the government cannot control the weather, the government has delivered a strong suite of programs to assist farmers and farming communities to cope with the drought. For the first time, as far as I can remember, a government has recognised that drought impacts on more than just farmers. There’s a significant effect on local businesses. I’m very pleased that Minister McKenzie was able to respond to my request and deliver $1 million of federal Drought Communities Program grants to 13 councils in my electorate of Grey and 17 in total in South Australia. Many of them have already received approval for their projects and are progressing quickly. These guarantees will help mitigate the severe ripple effects of the drought felt in rural communities and stimulate their local economies.
For farmers directly, the government contributes across a wide range of programs, including farm management deposits, farm household assistance, the Rural Financial Counselling Service, concessional loans for drought and farm business development, assistance to benchmark properties to prepare for multiperil crop insurance and large increases in the resources for mental health services. The Liberal-National government recognises that farming keeps the country economy humming and our rural and regional communities vibrant. It has committed $7 billion in new assistance for drought affected farmers.
This kind of expenditure is unpredictable, generally not budgeted for and presents a real test to any budget. So far, the government has been focusing on addressing the effects of the current drought, and that is right and appropriate. However, also exercising our minds is how we prepare better for droughts in the future and how we build resilience for the long term. We all know that Australia is the land of droughts and flooding plains. As sure as night follows day, when this drought is over, another one will come.
This bill addresses that challenge and will establish the Future Drought Fund and will provide an additional credit of $3.9 billion, which will grow until it reaches $5 billion. Through this fund, funding to the tune of $100 million a year will be available for drought resilience initiatives, while the balance is reinvested in the fund. The Future Drought Fund builds drought resilience through long-term investment in our communities, which will enable our $60 billion farming industry to continue to flourish.
The money from the fund will assist primary producers, non-government organisations and regional communities to prepare for and respond to the impact of drought. It will encourage primary producers, non-government organisations and regional communities to adopt self-reliant approaches to manage exposure to drought. It will provide services and research; assist in the adoption of technology advice and infrastructure to support long-term sustainability in the event of drought, through capital and ongoing initiatives; and enhance the public good—that is, the benefits are not solely for the individual farm entities.
In short, the Future Drought Fund will deliver infrastructure projects, promote the adoption of new technology and help improve environmental and natural resource management on farms. The fund will help give our farmers and regional communities the tools to prepare for, manage and sustain their businesses through drought. It is a far better proposition to invest in resilience than to have to provide bandaids. It is far better for farmers to be able to withstand drought than to have to rely on assistance. It’s far better to invest in stronger communities so that they are able to deal with the pressures of drought than to have to resuscitate. Since we know that the challenges of drought vary from farm to farm, district to district and town to town, the fund has flexibility to support local solutions to ensure that we continually adapt and build our capacity in all of our drought-prone communities.
Regrettably, instead of playing a constructive role in helping our farming communities, Labor have continued their long history of attacks on country people. Many of our farming communities clearly remember how Labor butchered the agricultural policies when they were last in government. They haven’t improved a lot since then. Once again, they have decided to play politics with the future of our farming communities. Under normal circumstances I would find the behaviour by Labor regrettable; but in the middle of an unprecedented drought, when farmers are at their most vulnerable, it is simply deplorable and destructive. Labor is, as their wont, just playing for cheap political points. What we’re trying to do on this side of the House is to establish the long-term solution, a proper preparation for the future.
Among other things, and as the previous speaker has said, Labor have claimed that this important investment in drought resilience is at the expense of important road and rail projects, many of which will benefit our farmers and regional communities. That is absolutely false. Our investment in infrastructure is at record levels. As for the Building Australia Fund, they would learn with just a very small amount of effort that the fund holds $3.9 billion—that is correct—but that all the commitments under the fund have been completed and accounts finalised. There are no more payments required. That’s why we’re shifting the balance to the Future Drought Fund.
The government has also been accused of raiding the NDIS to shore up the money for the fund, and this too is false. The government had previously suggested that the $3.9 billion sitting idle in the Building Australia Fund be used to fund the NDIS, but, because of opposition from Labor in the Senate, this suggestion never came to fruition. The member Grayndler, just a few moments ago, was complaining about the use of this fund to establish the Future Drought Fund. I have a memory from 2007, when Labor came to government. There was $2 billion in a regional telecommunications fund, the interest of which was to fund the rolling out of new technologies across regional and rural Australia. That is the money that should’ve been used through the six years of Labor government to actually fund a mobile phone blackspot program, but they chose not to invest. So when the member for Grayndler talks about his care and compassion for rural and regional areas and lists off all the ways that his government—should they be elected—will assist rural and regional Australia, I’m drawn back to that time when we had $2 billion confiscated and put into Kevin Rudd’s first attempt at an NBN. It was going to be a $4 billion program. That money, that $100 million to $200 million a year should still be there; it should still be funding the rollout of blackspot towers in rural and regional Australia, but it’s not. So their record is not good in this area.
To return to the NDIS, because of the strongly improved budget fortunes brought about by the government, with responsible economic and fiscal management we have instead secured the future of the NDIS through alternative funding. That’s a great outcome. It’s the same NDIS that Labor left only half funded when it was ousted from office. We can therefore repurpose the funding from the Building Australia Fund without curtailing critical infrastructure projects and without affecting the funding for the NDIS. I strongly encourage Labor to put aside their party politics and support this important bill, to enable farmers and entire communities to droughtproof for that future by supporting them to invest in on-farm water infrastructure and other important infrastructure in rural and regional areas.