In Parliament

2008 AUG 28 – Drought Assistance


August 28, 2008

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (12.03 pm)
— I rise today to speak on behalf of Gippsland’s farmers, who are urging the federal government to continue to provide drought assistance in my electorate. I say at the outset that Gippsland relies heavily on its agricultural production.

We are a world-class producer of dairy products and in normal circumstances our lamb and wool producers, along with our beef farmers and horticulturists, are strong and viable enterprises. Indeed, the combined value of agriculture to the Gippsland region is more than $1.1 billion per year. I must also say that, as a whole, Gippsland farmers are a remarkably resilient bunch and they are not prone to exaggeration, nor are they likely to put up their hands for help unless they really need it and genuinely believe they are entitled to assistance.

It is against this backdrop that I rise to give voice to their frustration with the government’s decision to end the drought declaration in my region. The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry announced last week that exceptional circumstances assistance for the central and east Gippsland regions would not be extended beyond 30 September this year. I understand that the minister’s decision was based on a recommendation by the National Rural Advisory Council, or NRAC. I also understand that NRAC failed to visit Gippsland to inspect conditions on the ground and, to the best of my knowledge, failed to consult local government representatives and farmer organisations in Gippsland. This lack of consultation with the local community would help to explain why the decision is completely out of touch with the reality of the situation in Gippsland.

I am very pleased to report that some parts of Gippsland are starting to emerge from the drought: the Macalister Irrigation District is showing very positive signs, and our farming families in the Maffra region are filled with hope for a very promising season. But, unfortunately, for many other farming families the recovery has been patchy, to say the least, and there are large parts of my electorate which have missed out on drought-breaking rain.

Since the announcement was made by the minister, my office has been contacted by farmers who are bewildered by the decision. They are still experiencing a significant rainfall deficit compared to normal years. They are reporting conditions which are as severe as anything they have experienced in decades on the land. There is no sign of recovery and they are still faced with the exceptional circumstance of a prolonged drought.

Farming families in the Tambo Valley, the Omeo and Benambra regions, the Buchan Valley through to Gelantipy and Tubbut; on the Red Gum Plains around Bengworden, Meerlieu, Hillside and Lindenow; on farms around Cowwarr and Seaton; and at Mount Taylor near Bairnsdale and further to the south around Yarram, Woodside, Giffard and Seaspray are all contacting my office and reporting the continuation of extremely dry conditions. I recently visited Buchan, and the drought has left the hillsides barren. Locals tell me it is the worst they have ever seen. Tomorrow I will visit Swifts Creek in the Tambo Valley and also inspect the Omeo and Benambra region, where local farmers have invited me onto their properties.

As much as I love this part of my electorate, I am not looking forward to the visit. Several farmers I have spoken to on the phone have described the hardship they are facing, and the stress and financial uncertainty it has brought to their families is already obvious in their voices. Indeed, a highly respected local GP, Dr David Monash, was reporting on Gippsland ABC radio today that the medical profession in Gippsland is concerned about the mental and physical health of farmers and their families. I share those concerns and bring them to the attention of the House today.

I am by no means an expert on agricultural conditions, but I can see that conditions are terribly dry and I trust the opinions of local farmers ahead of those who have not visited our region. I am very disappointed that no-one from the government has taken the time to meet Gippsland farmers and gain a firsthand understanding of their situation. I invite the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and the experts from NRAC to come to Gippsland and take a closer look at the conditions in our region. I fear that there are no signs of recovery and, as we all know, even when it does rain it will not be raining money and there will still be a need to assist farming families as they get back on their feet.

(Time expired)

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