Mr HUSIC (Chifley—Government Whip) (19:37): In this place we have discussed at great length and experienced across the country the pain that was brought as a result of the floods that swept through Queensland and also parts of New South Wales and Victoria. As a nation we responded quite quickly, both in a personal capacity but also through businesses and in particular through government, where we had to take a number of critical measures to help people meet their immediate needs and also to be able to rebuild parts of the country that had been absolutely devastated by flood. By way of contrast for many people, when they cast their minds back a short period of time, there was the disbelief that we could get to a situation where some of the worst floods would hit a few short years after the bulk of the country had been held in the grip of terrible climatic conditions, specifically drought.
Even though I am a city-based MP, I remember how people across the nation had been affected by drought either in their own capacity in cities that were concerned about depleting water supply or by seeing on their TV screens the devastating impact of drought and the way it did require people to make, as the member for Calare mentioned a few moments ago, an emotionally-charged decision to leave something that may have been in their blood for generations, farming, simply because they could no longer make ends meet under the circumstances that mother nature had brought to bear in relation to them. A range of different measures was taken up to assist people—and reflecting on the words of the member for Calare—in making that ‘emotionally-charged’ decision. The Exceptional Circumstances Exit Grants were set up, time-limited, one-off exit assistance for farmers whose farm enterprise was located in an area covered by an EC declaration on or after 1 July 2010—formerly it was 25 September 2007—designed to assist eligible farm families in financial difficulty that chose to re-establish themselves outside farming. The program consisted of a grant of up to $150,000, and it also comprised an advice and retraining grant of up to $10,000 to help in planning for farm exit and relocation of up to $10,000 to pursue new employment opportunities. A condition under the program was that farmers were required to sell their farm enterprise and leave farming. The program was clearly stated to be available until 30 June 2012 or until all funding had been taken up. The program was closed a few months ago, in August 2011, after additional funding was allocated from the original $9.6 million to $14 million, and all farmers who met the guidelines at the time of closure will be paid.
It is important to note that the program was closed when it was fully subscribed so it did not reduce the number of people assisted. But it is also important, particularly given the contributions made by numerous members in here relating stories from their own electorates, that the government has said that any person who believes that they have been adversely affected by the closure of the program is able to seek a review or appeal, and the government is working with individuals to lodge act of grace claims—and that has been remarked upon during the course of this debate—meaning that each case will be considered upon merit.
We have sought as a government to stand by rural and regional Australia through the drought and will continue to do so. And it is important to note that as at 30 September of this year 504 farmers received an EC exit grant since the program commenced under the previous government in 2007, and a number of applications are still being assessed. Obviously, ABARES is forecasting a stronger outlook for 2011-12 with positive crop and export forecasts and some people will be in a position where they can stay. But for people who have had to make that truly wrenching decision to leave the farm, we are, as has already been reflected upon, certainly there to provide assistance to people who feel that they have been unduly and unfairly affected. This debate will certainly prompt further scrutiny and obviously trigger further review as to what can be done to help people in the circumstances.