Help us help ourselves - fund agriculture recovery
In March more than 90 per cent of New South Wales was still drought-declared. A smattering of rainfall across Barwon had provided hope and optimism to a few that there would be better days ahead this year. For others they watched with disappointment the news footage of farmers jumping for joy in rain puddles; it was not them. The drought rolled on; there was no tinge of green in their paddocks. For the areas that received rain, hope was back—there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Businesses in towns felt optimistic; perhaps people would have some money in their pockets to spend on the simple pleasures in life—a coffee in the sun or a new pair of shoes.
Perhaps, I thought to myself, the regional New South Wales economy will come off life support, and the full-blown socio-economic drought might be finally ending. But into the intensive care ward came COVID-19 with a bat swinging. It hit us when we already had our backs to the wall in a fight for our communities. I hope that COVID-19 is the single biggest health and economic disaster we see in our lifetime. I am not here to downplay the impact that it has had on the economy of Sydney, but regional New South Wales was already on its knees when COVID-19 came along.
Assessments show that in 2018-19 regional New South Wales was in recession due to contractions in the agriculture industry caused by drought. Everyone in this State should care about that fact because in 2017-18 the gross value of agricultural production in New South Wales was $13 billion. Agriculture accounts for around 1.6 per cent and for downstream processing around 3.5 per cent of income in New South. On a regional scale, if agriculture is not producing, the new money that is not available affects everyone in that town. Agriculture and farming, when operating at full production, generates money, jobs and investment, not just for the towns in my electorate but for the entire State.
Why do I bring this up in relation to COVID-19? Because regional New South Wales and farming should absolutely be a part of our shared economic recovery. For the first time since 2016, many of our producers are in a position to seriously consider rebuilding depleted herds and flocks and sowing winter crops. But record prices for livestock and the level of debt farmers are carrying is making it incredibly hard for farmers to return to production. If the New South Wales Government is looking for jobs it needs only to provide funding to the agriculture sector to get back on its feet. In this State, job losses due to drought were around 17,500 full-time equivalent in 2017-18 and more than 34,000 jobs in 2018-19. Those jobs are all still there, dormant, waiting for agriculture to kick back into full swing. And what do farmers have once they are back in production? The ability to go into town, settle bills with local businesses and spend money in the main street—creating more jobs for locals and getting the economy going again.
Our businesses in Barwon have been hanging on waiting for the day our farmers will be able to do that. So, Treasurer, when you are looking for ways to kick-start New South Wales and the regions, do not just look at advertising campaigns to get our city cousins to travel out to the bush, but look at the ways we are ready to help ourselves. Look to agricultural production; look at the industry that delivers not only food to your table, but also money to the economy and jobs and opportunity for people. Support the industry to which, during its darkest days, you provided the options of loans and debt. Look to the industry that, despite a lack of help, and all that Mother Nature threw at it, still has farmers on their farms today sowing a winter crop—a crop the farmers had to reach deep into their pockets to fund or, if they are lucky, have been able to turn to a bank to provide the funding.
Look to support them retrospectively; pay them back the money they have sunk into a crop this year, because when they pull that crop off they will do more for the State's economy and the local businesses in their community than what the Government has done through this drought. Regional New South Wales has so far weathered COVID-19, due to the actions of the State Government, and for that I pass on my sincere thanks on behalf of Barwon. I thank the Ministers who acted on my requests and the staffers who were persistent in solving the issues raised. Because politics was cast aside New South Wales is holding COVID-19 at bay. But I am here today on behalf of regional New South Wales to ask the Government to reach back into its pockets and fund agricultural recovery, because that investment will be returned fourfold. For every $1 invested in agriculture there is a $4 return. That seems like a pretty sound economic return to me, Mr Treasurer.