Centrelink process fails farmers needing assistance - Speech to parliament
I would like to support the Agriculture and Water Resources Legislation Amendment Bill 2016 and take the opportunity to focus my comments on one small section of it dealing with the Farm Household Support Act 2014 and the provision to remove the delegation of the secretary's rule-making power.
That is really what I want to focus my comments on tonight. For some background to this I would like to quote from the Senate Standing Committee on Regulation and Ordinances in 2014 where it talks about this particular delegation. In that context it talks about the role of the Farm Household Support Act 2014 as:
… generally treated in the same way as newstart and youth allowance. This means that where there is a reference in the Social Security Act or the Social Security Administration Act to newstart or youth allowance, it is as if there were also a reference to farm household allowance. The farm household allowance, the activity supplement and the farm financial assessment supplement are all treated as if they were social security payments. As a result, the general rules in the Social Security Act and the Social Security Administration Act relating to how to make claims, how payments are made and review of decisions apply in relation to payments under this Act.
I just want to set that out because, in my electorate of Indi, we have had enormous problems over summer with the Farm Household Support Act. The reason we had problems was that the farm household allowance is treated in the exact same way as relevant social security legislation. Tonight I would like to put to the House, to the government and in particular to the minister that it is time we relooked at this and actually separated out the farm household allowance from the social security legislation, because it is causing the government an enormous amount of bad will, it is causing enormous problems for farming families and farming businesses in my electorate, and I think it is going to continue to cause a lot of trouble for the government. I suspect it could be easily remedied. I encourage the minister in particular to pay some attention to the special needs of farm family businesses when they go through tough times, like when they go through drought, and they need access to farm household support. But treating them as if they were social security recipients is not the answer.
I would like to briefly bring to the House the result of some work the minister delegated to the Senate, to Senator Bridget McKenzie. Over December Senator McKenzie ran a series of roundtable meetings across Victoria. The report that the minister sent to my office shows some of the problems that dairy farmers in particular are having with this household support. In the report they name interaction with Centrelink as being a problem, they talk about the application process of getting FHA, they talk about processing time lines, they talk about options to deal with crisis situations, they talk about the need for case management, they talk about FHA policy and some of the problems with it, they talk about assistance that is available, and they talk about other parts of the FHA system that caused problems. I am calling on the minister to read this report urgently and come back to members of parliament who represent large dairy farming communities to talk about what we are going to do about these problems. You have done a great job getting the report. Now I am calling on you to act on it.
I would specifically like to focus on the problem by telling a story to the House tonight of people in my electorate, the problems with the farm household allowance because it has been treated like social security legislation, and some of the very specific problems that have presented themselves. These are current problems that have come into my electorate post the roundtable that Senator McKenzie organised before Christmas.
I acknowledge the work of Cindy Lucas, a community person in my electorate. She, in her own personal capacity, writes that these are some of the problems that she has been picking up through talking to dairy farmers. She talked about dairy farmers who have applied more than once—in fact, twice—and how their application has been declined based on the amount of assets that they have. It is very hard for them to get information on the assets test and the valuations that go with it. In the first application, this particular person was told after six weeks that they were approved. Then a computer glitch led to that application being lost. It was then found that the value of their personal shares had increased, which put them over the threshold. They sold shares to reduce their personal debt and they reapplied for the FHA. They were told in early December that they were being declined due to being over the threshold. But there were a number of errors made during this process: duplicated bank accounts, using bank accounts which had been closed for 15 years and uncertainty over house valuation. The constituent told me that they were concerned that the assessments were not accurate and that there was no place to improve it. Her suggestion was that they have a face-to-face meeting with Centrelink staff to actually get it all sorted out, but even though they have been using the RFSC, the Rural Financial Counselling Service, there do appear to be discrepancies in where box details are entered and where they need to explain the nature of their business. This particular third-party story shows that there are real problems when we put farmers into the social security system—and we all know what problems social security is having at the moment with resources. I just wanted to table that as one case that causes real difficulty to my constituency.
The second letter I will briefly talk about is from an accountant in my electorate. He has written to me. I would like to read some of the letter into the Hansard:
I have a long career of about 40 years in the finance profession and currently manage a portfolio of agribusiness clients for a large Australian bank
… … …
It is well known that most dairy farmers … have been impacted by the terrible actions of the major dairy companies … These income reductions, in the order of 25% for many farmers, has resulted in many otherwise viable dairy farms being made financially unviable.
In my experience—
farmers of all persuasions are generally resilient people who are too proud to put their hands out for government assistance. I am aware of several farmers who have reluctantly applied for government financial assistance through the Centrelink. Common responses to the my questions about how these applications are going is "it is a waste of time", or "bureaucratic nightmare", or "service from Centrelink is non-existent". In particular I know of one family whose application for Farm Household Assistance has been dragging on since early June ….
So there is a general sense that this is not really working. In the removal of the delegation, I call on the secretary of the department to pay particular attention to these cases where social security is being administered and it is causing great distress. As I said before, we know this is not new: we know the minister has his report, that it has been delivered to him, so my call is for urgent action by the minister to actually sort these problems out.
One of the things that happened before Christmas in the dairy industry in northeast Victoria was that all of these farmers were trying to get household support. We thought we had got through the bulk of the problem. What we have found now is that over summer many of the farmers are putting their cows out because they are dry. They are putting them onto the back paddocks and they are not actually milking. Of course, if you are not producing milk you are not getting paid for your milk, so there is another whole band of farmers who are going to experience lack of money coming into their households. They will need to apply to Centrelink for this farm household support and we know that all of the problems we experienced before Christmas are going to come back again, and we are going to have another inundation of people coming to my office saying, 'These still haven't been sorted out.'
In summary, the application process is confusing, tedious, disjointed and is poorly explained. The amount of documentation that farmers are asked to provide to support their application is exhaustive. There is an apparent lack of proactive follow-up by Centrelink staff, and the applicants often seem to be put through a number of different Centrelink staff rather than just have one person handling it. That need for case management is absolutely urgent, and it is taking far too long to get results.
I will draw my comments to a close on this legislation. The changing of powers of delegation I think is welcome, but in doing so I call on the department, I call on the secretary, I call on the ministers—both for agriculture and for social security—to get together and to give us the service delivery that we need in a timely fashion, and to provide the resources to the department and particularly to the Centrelink staff in rural areas so that they can do their job, which we know they want to do but they just are not able to do. I will be voting for this legislation, but I have taken this opportunity to issue a call from the heart, in fact, to let us resolve this problem we have with farm household support. Thank you.