The Hon. TONY CATANZARITI [5.06 p.m.]: I will speak about a matter of great importance to everyone who lives in rural and regional New South Wales. It is a matter that had seen me receiving daily and continuous calls for help from farmers across my duty electorate areas in the Riverina, and one that can mean the difference between sinking and swimming for those who have been struggling through a drought for years. I am speaking about the Federal Government's unwillingness to continue helping our farmers by withdrawing exceptional circumstances [EC] income support from about 18,000 farmers across New South Wales. The years of drought that have hit this State and this country so hard have been well documented by many. The drought has done damage that will take years of good weather to fix, and the good recent rains that have been so welcome in Sydney have not been as helpful or constant to the regional parts of our State.
Thus, it is shocking to hear the announcement that the Federal Government will be withdrawing the EC income support from 12 New South Wales areas that were previously EC declared. The Federal Government said that the support was no longer necessary, that conditions in New South Wales no longer posed such a significant danger to the livelihoods of our farmers. The New South Wales Government has fought for these areas, providing a detailed submission that included data for 86 individual districts within the 12 areas. It has also provided more than $140 million in assistance since the drought began, including more than $10 million towards the Federal Government's EC business support program.
At the end of the day the decision on whether or not to extend income support is purely based in Canberra. Unfortunately, the States have no authority to either grant EC support or override the Federal Government's flawed decisions. In my own area of the Riverina on 19 January this year I took the correspondence of hardworking local farmers to the Federal Minister for Agriculture, Mr Warren Truss, with a request for help and most importantly to ask him to take time out of his busy schedule to spare even just one day to tour the Riverina to see examples of what is happening across the State, to visit Coolamon, Cobar or Wagga Wagga to meet with the people who have been so terribly affected by the drought and who genuinely need this EC assistance to survive. I never received a response from Minister Truss or his office. I did not receive a letter of receipt, a refusal or acceptance, or a phone call.
For the farmers of the Riverina, there was finally good news. About 600 farmers in the Narrandera, Wagga Wagga and Nyngan districts received an EC rollover from the Federal Government, although it was months late. As a local, I was very happy to see that the people in my areas had won their fight. These farmers had gone without income support payments since 8 December, all the time in fear of never receiving what they desperately needed. The Federal Government just decided that unless you live in the Narrandera, Wagga Wagga or Nyngan districts the drought no longer causes you hardship, and you no longer need help. I believe just one day spent in regional New South Wales will prove how ridiculous that position is. Decisions like these, which leave around 18,000 farmers out in the cold, prove just how much the Howard Federal Government is out of touch with regional and rural Australia.