An update to the Parliament on what the State Government is doing for farmers and communities across NSW
Mr KEVIN ANDERSON (Tamworth) (11:46): I take this opportunity today to update the New South Wales Parliament and my colleagues on what the State Government is doing to support farmers and communities across regional New South Wales at this very difficult time. Some say that this is the worst drought since 1965; as this drought goes on, those who have been on the land for generations say that it is even more severe than that drought. Farmers are checking the history books about the severity.
We need to acknowledge the difficulties of farming communities that are experiencing these severe drought conditions across the State. Every part of New South Wales—even the cities—has been drought declared so it is incumbent on everyone to show support. I know that many organisations in the city and in communities across regional New South Wales have put their shoulders to the wheel. Members of those organisations have put up their hands and asked, "How can we help?" I am talking about organisations like local Country Women's Association, Lions, Rotary and Apex clubs, and other community organisations as well as Rural Aid, and the R U Aware, We Care campaign. Another organisation has started in Gunnedah in regional New South Wales through the Chamber of Commerce to look at what it can do to support farmers who are experiencing severe drought conditions.
This drought will continue. There is no sign of it abating yet, so we need to ensure that we stay at the table and remain open to helping farmers. I congratulate those communities that are banding together. I have seen examples of fundraisers in small town halls and other places where communities meet. Farmers gather in town halls, where they get the chance to share, network and talk about what is happening with their farming enterprises. These gatherings help to alleviate the farmers' sense of isolation and help them to understand that they are not alone. Recently, 22 government agencies made presentations to the farming community in the Attunga town hall as part of a soft entry approach aimed at giving farmers the opportunity to decide which agencies could assist the various areas of their business that need support. Farmers were given the opportunity to approach their chosen agencies, say g'day and get the relevant information. Similar events were held in Gunnedah, in the Tamworth electorate, and they also played an integral role. There have also been fundraisers in the Gunnedah community expressing extraordinary amounts of goodwill.
I recognise the extensive Emergency Drought Relief Package of more than $1 billion offered by the State Government. Earlier this year the funding stood at $500 million, with a further $584 million announced in June. The further funding is targeted at helping farmers to survive one of the driest winters on record, resulting in failing crops, drastic water shortages and diminishing supplies of fodder to sustain livestock. However, I note the resilience of our farmers despite all this hardship on the land. They are looking for opportunities to continue to stay on their properties and survive this drought. When they get up each day, they look at how to make sure that they will be on their land in the future. Part of the additional funding is the $194 million for freight subsidies to help stock farmers seeking fodder for their livestock. During periods of drought, freight tends to be a significant component of the expense of running a farming enterprise. With the help of this additional funding, up to 50 per cent of the full cost of transporting fodder and water for stock and livestock, up to $30,000, is available and will be backdated to 1 January.
We said we would constantly reassess drought conditions, and that is exactly what we are doing. This constant reassessment is a reflection of how serious this drought is. My New South Wales parliamentary colleagues are well aware of the significant hardship faced by many residents of rural and regional New South Wales. Just yesterday a drought fundraising event was held in the Speaker's Garden. I thank all those who contributed to this event, particularly the Speaker, who hosted it. The event included a barbecue and the highlight was the fundraising auction, with the member for Lismore, Thomas George, playing the role of auctioneer. Nearly everyone in the New South Wales Parliament attended the event to do whatever they could to support our drought affected farmers.
We often hear from residents of regional and rural New South Wales that they are not heard and that they do not hear too much out of the city. This was not the case yesterday, with one of the attendants from this Chamber, Danny Heldal, spending $2,500 on auction items as his contribution to the drought appeal and making sure that our country cousins know that their voices are heard. I also thank the New South Wales Parliament catering team for its donations to the barbecue. We are raising awareness of the drought appeal. Today the Parliament is talking about the issues faced by residents of rural and regional New South Wales and what residents of the city and others are doing to support their country cousins.
The Government is providing emergency funding for farmers by waiving Local Land Services annual rates, fixed charges on water licences, registration costs for class one agricultural vehicles and interest on existing Farm Innovation Fund loans. The Minister for Roads, Maritime and Freight, who is currently in the Chamber, has also announced the relaxation of some rules and regulations concerning the carting of hay to make it easier for a hay carters to get vital fodder to the farmers who need it most. This includes relaxing the width and height restrictions that carters were bound by. We have also allowed B-triples and road trains access to areas in New England and the north-west to allow more fodder and freight into those areas. I thank the Minister for Roads, Maritime and Freight and the Minister for Primary Industries for working hand-in-hand with the Deputy Premier and the Premier to make sure that we look at every available opportunity to help drought-affected farmers.
We are also looking at the mental health, wellbeing and resilience of our farmers. I am pleased to announce that we will partner with Centacare at AgQuip, which is holding the largest agricultural field day in the Southern Hemisphere in Gunnedah next week. This three-day event will give farmers the opportunity to talk to someone about what they are feeling. It is very difficult to do the same thing every day when facing these tough conditions. Many farmers would benefit from having the opportunity to talk to someone about what they are going through, and I will have more to say about partnering with Centacare to look at counselling and mental health services for our farming communities. This will form part of the support package from the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health, where farmers can access statewide coordinators to link rural people to the help that they need. Additional counselling support is available through the National Association for Loss and Grief, a Dubbo based non-government organisation.
We acknowledge that we need to get better at weather forecasting as part of supporting our farmers to be better prepared for drought. We know this drought will break in time—God willing it will break—and we need to know what to do to prepare for the next drought. Weather forecasting is always improving, and for some time there has been concern about accurate radar information for the residents of Western New South Wales. As part of the Government's package, $25 million has been allocated to construct and operate three new Doppler radar weather stations in the Central West and far west to give farmers more accurate weather forecasting. These new radars will deliver fast, accurate and live weather updates to help our farmers to make timely business decisions about when to sow or harvest crops and when to move stock. This will boost productivity and save money. We are heartened to know that these weather stations, which have been on the books for some time, will soon be delivered. They will provide better weather coverage for an additional 30 per cent of the State at least.
The drought package also includes new management of kangaroo numbers. Kangaroos are becoming an increasing problem as the drought bites. Farmers with a water allocation who are able to irrigate are finding increasing numbers of kangaroos ripping up their land. Mobs of kangaroos are also encroaching on our towns, villages and even cities in regional New South Wales. Feral goats are emerging from the mountains and causing havoc by destroying what farmers have planted and being a hazard on rural roads. More and more animals are being hit by vehicles, which is posing a problem for motorists. Another part of the package is up to $5 million for helping local councils to repair dirt roads damaged by the temporary access program for heavy vehicles carrying feed, water and livestock.
We will continue to communicate with affected communities about what services are on offer. We encourage our farmers not to self-assess. On a daily basis I have been fielding calls from farmers saying, "I don't think I am eligible for that service or subsidy", "What's the deal with this?", "How do I access that?" or "I don't think I am able to get that sort of assistance."
We say to farmers, "Please don't self-assess." We want farmers to go to the DroughtHub website, which has a full list of the available assistance and support measures. To visit the website, farmers can google "DroughtHub" and a raft of assistance and support measures will come up. The website has information about the New South Wales drought package, support for primary producers, Freight Watch, emergency drought relief packages, animal welfare during the drought, management, wellbeing, skills and training, the latest New South Wales drought maps and frequently asked questions, and there are plenty of those. We do not want farmers to self assess; we want them to have the facts and to say, "Yes, I can get this support; I am eligible for this assistance." That support can come from Local Land Services, class 1 agricultural vehicle registration, fixed charges for water licences, the Farm Innovation Fund and drought subsidies dating back to 1 January.
We need to ensure that our regional communities feel supported. I encourage people to go to DroughtHub and to have a look at what is available and what support measures are there. We need to reach out and keep communicating. People can contact the NSW Rural Assistance Authority on 1800 678 593 and staff will be able to guide and support farmers and offer the information that is desperately needed. Local Land Services offices across New South Wales are able to provide information about support, as well as what is available on DroughtHub. We look forward to AgQuip in Gunnedah next week. AgQuip is the largest agricultural field day in the Southern Hemisphere. Tickets to the event are already sold out, so we encourage farmers to come along and link up with their mates, network and share ideas. Who knows; they may come up with some fresh ideas because of what their neighbours are doing and how they are managing.
It is a great opportunity to network and to say "G'day, how are you going? Are you okay?" We often do not ask those questions unless we are having a cup of tea or coffee with our mates. The Red Cross and the Country Women's Association will be there. Many organisation will be there, as well as the Rural Assistance Authority and Local Land Services. We will stay at the table; we are not done yet. We need to continue to think about what to do next as we work towards the end of this year and next year. It is getting harder to find and source feed. We need to think about where we are going to get feed from. Do we bring it in from Western Australia or from Tasmania? That is already happening; truckloads of feed are coming across the Tasman and from Western Australia.
Mrs Melinda Pavey: And from Kempsey.
Mr KEVIN ANDERSON: And from Kempsey. The Minister for Roads, Maritime and Freight is in the Chamber and she said that truckloads of feed have been donated and are coming from the coast, which is outstanding. We need to think about how to support our landholders in the future, which will mean thinking outside the square at every opportunity. It could be through payroll tax not only from a farming perspective but also from a business perspective. Only two days ago I spoke to a livestock and bulk carrying company owner who said that because the company is carting fewer cattle it has been forced to take its trucks off the road. Those truck drivers still have payments to make and families to feed. We can see the flow-on effect in regional towns and communities.
When donating to small communities and towns, cash is always a good option because families spend cash in the towns in which they live. They buy their coffee and groceries and support the shops that have supported them throughout the years. We want that to continue. When thinking outside the square, we have to consider restocking and replanting and what will happen over the next three or four months. We want our farming communities to know that the New South Wales Parliament stands beside them. We know how desperate the situation is. Some farmers have prepared well and are holding their own, but others have not been so fortunate. We stand with them and support them. The unity that is coming from the New South Wales Parliament is heartwarming. The divide between city and country is evaporating like the water from the dams and rivers in regional New South Wales. We stand as one to support our farmers and we will continue to do so.
The voices of regional members of Parliament and those across regional New South Wales are being heard by the top tiers of government—by the Premier, the Deputy Premier, the Minister for Primary Industries, Minister for Regional Water, and Minister for Trade and Industry and the Minister for Roads, Maritime and Freight. They play a key role in ensuring that we are able to fund the necessary programs, supports and assistance packages, which will be needed in the coming weeks. We stand with the farming community and we thank them for their great work. I remind farmers that the Rural Assistance Authority stands ready and can be contacted on 1800 678 593. I plead with farmers not to self-assess or to ask whether they are eligible to receive support. We stand with our farmers. I thank the New South Wales Parliament for doing the same.