Abbott defends drought relief
The Prime Minister announces a $320 million drought assistance package, declaring it is not a special deal for farmers.PT2M8S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-33h6c 620 349 February 26, 2014
The Abbott government has announced drought-stricken farmers will have access to about $320 million in cheap loans and other federal government assistance.
The drought funding package, which was originally scheduled to begin on July 1, has been brought forward to next Monday after Nationals MPs and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce lobbied for more urgent help for farmers, some of whom have not seen rain for two years.
Comparing the severe drought to a "natural disaster", the Prime Minister said on Wednesday that while he could not "wave a magic wand" or "work miracles", his government had a responsibility to help farmers in dire trouble.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce announce a $320 million drought relief package. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
"A farmer in trouble is in a rather different situation to most of us," Mr Abbott said at his press conference at Parliament House.
The Abbott government drought support contains five measures.
The first is an interim farm household allowance, which gives farm families a fortnightly payment equivalent to the Newstart unemployment allowance. The maximum Newstart payment is $700 a fortnight, however Mr Abbott said there would be a more generous asset threshold for farmers to get the payments.
Good rain over the past week eased drought conditions for northern NSW and inland Queensland. Photo: BoM
"You can have up to $2.55 million in net farm assets and still access support," the Prime Minister said.
The second element of the drought package is a concessional loans scheme, in which the government is offering $280 million of cheap loans to eligible drought-affected farm businesses.
Loans of as much as $1 million or half of the farm's debt – whichever is lower – will be available. The loans will be set at interest rates of 4 per cent and will last for five years. Mr Abbott confirmed that the government would take the usual action taken by banks if farmers cannot make good on the loans.
The third feature is about $12 million in extra funding for "emergency water infrastructure schemes". Most of this funding will be available to the most badly-affected farmers in Queensland and NSW, but Mr Joyce said there would be another pool of money available to farmers in other states.
The fourth feature of the drought package is $10 million in assistance for pest management – Mr Joyce cited the example of wild dogs eating sheep – and the fifth is $10.7 million which will be spent on "social and mental health services" in drought-affected communities.
The Prime Minister conceded there was a danger that more cheap loans could defer structural change and keep farmers afloat on unviable land, but said the government would do its best to ensure this did not happen.
"These loans are not to prop up unviable businesses," Mr Abbott said.
Mr Abbott also rejected comparisons to his recent decision to deny government assistance for the Victorian fruit cannery SPC Ardmona. He said the cannery was owned by a profitable parent company in Coca-Cola Amatil, and was not subject to a "natural disaster" like the drought-stricken farmers.
Labor's agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said he supported the drought package, saying it was "better late than never".
However, he said questions remained about the eligibility criteria of the loans and payments.
"The other outstanding issue is long-term drought reform, a process Labor began but the Abbott government had not progressed for six months," Mr Fitzgibbon said.
"Indeed, one of the Abbott government's first acts was the abolition of the COAG vehicle reponsible for drought reform.
"Farmers deserve to know what future drought assistance measures will look like."
Mr Joyce rejected the suggestion that the funding was "too little too late", saying that the government could not "just step away from the situation and close [its] eyes".
"This is a government that does care, it's a government that understands that we will do our best to mitigate the issue," Mr Joyce told ABC radio on Wednesday.
"These are mums and dads... they're not multiple billion-dollar organisations."
The funding comes just over a week after the Prime Minister and Mr Joyce toured the dustbowl of inland Queensland and NSW.
The politicians' visit coincided with a rare downpour in drought-stricken Bourke – the largest since November 2012 – but as Mr Joyce pointed out, the burst of rain would have little immediate effect on farmers' incomes.
Treasurer Joe Hockey has tried to impose a new edict, telling Australians they cannot expect the level of government support they have grown accustomed to.
But Mr Joyce has successfully argued that Mr Hockey's "end of the age of entitlement" mantra should not apply to drought-affected farmers. The Prime Minister has described drought as a "natural disaster" and argued that special circumstances require emergency relief, as governments provide in other times of crisis.
Mr Joyce said he believed most Australians would understand that drought-stricken farmers faced troubles of a different order to manufacturing workers who have recently been denied government assistance.
"I don't think any factory says, well, we're not going to be able to sell anything until it rains," Mr Joyce said. "I don't think any household will say well I'm not going to be able to get a wage cheque in to pay for the mortgage until it rains".
Mr Joyce said the government was already talking to state agencies and he wanted to move "as quickly as possible" to get the loan money flowing to farmers.
The Abbott government would also provide help to drought-affected farmers suffering from depression and other mental health problems, Mr Joyce confirmed.
"If you're under the pump and isolated you go into your room and stew," Mr Joyce told the ABC on Wednesday.
"Even last night I've been speaking to people who are basically extremely depressed and, I tell you what it saps you."
with Peter Hannam