In parts of my electorate of Paterson, people are struggling. They are struggling to recover from what was, by many accounts, one of the harshest summers in living memory.
Vegetable farmers were unable to grow crops due to hot and arid conditions, tanks were bone dry, and salinity levels in the depleted Hunter River and others made irrigation impossible. Beef farmers were forced to handfeed and spend exorbitant amounts of time and money on water cartage to prevent stock deaths due to dehydration. The livelihood of our milk producers was further threatened by the unavailability of water, which made sanitation in their dairies incredibly difficult and, in some instances, impossible. Carefully crafted bloodlines of prize beasts were unceremoniously sent to the slaughterhouses because it was financially impossible for farmers to keep them alive.
In Paterson, we may have had some decent rain since the soaring mercury in the summer months, yet we still have many thousands of animals relying on handfeeding, as we know that the winter grass doesn't have the sugar content of the summer grass. The situation is ongoing.
In other parts of the country, there is no respite in sight. In fact, we've seen properties and communities in New South Wales and Queensland that have been paralysed by drought for seven years. Even if this drought breaks tomorrow, we live in an age of uncertainty. The ever-evolving challenge of climate change and the volatility
of our weather patterns will ensure many unknowns remain. Even farmers that have seen the vagaries of the weather over many decades have said to me, 'I've never seen it like this, Meryl; I've never seen it like this.'
This government hasn't lifted its finger in five years to give them a hand—and the former agriculture minister skulks out of this chamber.
I place on the parliamentary record my anger at the inaction by prime ministers Turnbull and Abbott, and ministers for agriculture and water resources Joyce and now Littleproud, for the unacceptable and indeed unforgiveable amount of time it has taken to act.
It really is not good enough.
The Turnbull government could have eased the suffering of many, many farming families across our nation years ago, and instead it has stood by and ceremoniously hand-wrung, and not much else. They went on this tour, this selfie tour, of parts of drought affected Australia. They didn't come to my electorate of Paterson.
I congratulate them on extending the farm household assistance for another 12 months, but it is a small sticking plaster on a gaping wound that is our farming community, who need something much better.
The scenes the Prime Minister and his entourage witnessed were not new. These aren't new scenes. As my esteemed colleague the member for Hunter pointed out, a listening tour at that point in the drought cycle was just ridiculous. There was nothing new left to learn. We've learnt the lessons. We've known for decades what goes
on in drought, but what we don't know is how it has changed and accelerated the way it has.
This government has had five years, through the SCoPI process, to supposedly put in place things that will help farmers decide if they can make a living off the land, if they need to be doing other things and retraining, if they can drought-proof their properties over the long term. This government has decided: 'No, no, we haven't done any of that in five years.
The big-ticket item is extending the farm household assistance measures for an extra 12 months.' It will be welcome, as the member for New England said, to keep the wolves from the door for another 12 months, but it certainly doesn't help the fact that the wolves have been killing the herd for many years and we've just stood by
and let it happen.
It is nothing more than an eleventh hour photo opportunity, and really this government should be hanging its head in shame.
The Intergovernmental Agreement on National Drought Program Reform expires on 18 July. I ask you: did this government need to wait until this agreement was expiring to do something? No, it should have been doing something over the last five years.
And this mob hold themselves up to our rural and regional communities as some beacon of understanding of farming. I tell you what: my family goes back generations in farming as well, and they can absolutely see that this government has not done the right thing by farmers. You're all talk and no action on farming, and that is the great disgrace. You've had five years to do something meaningful and instead you've stood around and done nothing. You haven't even put the architecture in place to set people up for the next five years.