My question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister. It relates to the Prime Minister’s comments that ‘we would lose something of our identification as Australians if we ever allowed the number of farms in our nation to fall below a critical mass’. Can the minister indicate what number constitutes a critical mass of farms?
Government senators interjecting—
Senator BARTLETT—Will the government be using taxpayer funds to ensure that this critical mass is maintained to protect what Mr Howard has called part of the psyche of our country? How does the Prime Minister’s view differ from the justification used by many European countries that their excessive agricultural subsidies are needed to protect their national character and the fabric of their rural communities? Will this desire to maintain a critical mass of farms preclude the government from providing more structural adjustment assistance for those farmers with marginal economic viability and bleak long-term prospects to relocate to other areas or other endeavours?
Senator MINCHIN—I think the groans from my side of the chamber in response to the suggestion that we should nominate an exact number of properties or farms were most appropriate. I am sure Senator Bartlett understands the facetiousness of that question. But—to deal with it seriously—we are in a situation where Australian farmers are facing a very extended period of quite severe drought. A drought is caused by a lack of rainfall—let us just get that right.
Opposition senators interjecting—
Senator MINCHIN—That is why we have a drought: it has not rained in most of these places for so long. The Australian government recognises that Australian farmers are probably the most efficient farmers in the Western world. They are the least protected farmers in the Western world. They deserve our support at a time like this, a time of extended drought, when their seasons are terrible, when they have no water and when dryland farming becomes almost impossible because of the lack of rainfall. They need our support.
The situation with Europe is quite different, with great respect to Senator Bartlett. We are dealing with a situation in Europe where we have campaigned for years against the very heavy protection provided to European farmers—and also, may I say, to farmers in the USA—but we should acknowledge, and I would hope that Senator Bartlett would acknowledge, that Australian farmers, without those levels of protection and probably demonstrating, as I said, the most efficient forms of rural practice in the world, are in deep trouble. I think that the Australian taxpayers acknowledge and understand why as a government we believe that at a time of drought like this we should support Australian farmers.
That is not to say that there are not farmers leaving the land every day; no doubt there are. For many it becomes impossible for them, even with our levels of support and assistance, to maintain their enterprises. There are programs, particularly within our Agriculture Advancing Australia program, that provide support and assistance for those who get to the point where they realise that they cannot pursue their farming endeavour any longer. But, for those who wish to continue to farm their land, we are providing support by way of interest rate relief and family income support to ensure that they can maintain their productive enterprises through a period of exceptional circumstance drought. But I think all Australians should recognise the struggle that Australian farmers are in, recognise their efficiency and their effectiveness, recognise the lack of protection they receive relative to the farmers in Europe and North America and support them in their time of need.
Senator BARTLETT—Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I ask the minister again: if the justification used for propping up European farmers is, in part, protection of the national character and the fabric of rural communities, why is that inconsistent with what the Prime Minister is now saying is a key goal of his government, which is to maintain a critical mass of farmers to protect part of the psyche of our country? Can the minister also indicate whether, if climate change does demonstrate that lack of rainfall is a long-term problem, the government is going to provide adequate resources to allow proper structural adjustment for people engaged in farming and other activities in rural communities?
Senator MINCHIN—I can only repeat what I said. Given the efficiency and effectiveness of Australian farmers, given the fact that generally speaking they operate with almost no support or subsidy compared with farmers in Europe and North America, given that this is a time of exceptional circumstance—drought—and understanding that Australia has probably always been the most unreliable country in the world, climate wise, to farm in, and therefore farming is a very difficult enterprise—in those circumstances we believe that our farmers do deserve appropriate support while acknowledging that, notwithstanding that level of support, there are farmers leaving the land every day.