Farmers suffering through the crippling drought will be able to access greater government assistance sooner as part of a $320 million drought support package announced by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Primary Industries minister Barnaby Joyce just minutes ago.
Mr Abbott used the launch to characterise the drought as a ‘natural disaster’, creating a distinction between government support in this case, and earlier calls for financial support from SPC Ardmona and the vehicle manufacturing industry.
Under the comprehensive package announced this morning, the Government will:
* Bring forward income support arrangements for farmers and their families. More generous criteria for accessing income support will be made available to farmers and graziers from March 3, instead of 1 July, as originally planned.
- Extend concessional loans to eligible drought affected farm businesses. Drought Concessional Loans totalling $280 million will be allocated to give eligible farm businesses the resources to recover from the effects of drought.
- Provide funds for water infrastructure. To assist drought affected farms to access water, $12 million will be added to existing emergency water infrastructure schemes, including supplementing those in NSW and Queensland.
- Provide funds for pest eradication. $10 million in assistance will be available for pest management in drought affected areas.
- Provide funds for counselling support services for farmers, through social and mental health services in communities affected by this drought, totalling $10.7 million.
“Farming is a very significant part of our economy and will play a critical role in our economic future,” Mr Abbott said during the package launch in Canberra this morning.
“This is a government determined to stand by the people of Australia in good times and bad,” he said.
“Farm businesses and farm families across Australia are suffering financially and emotionally as a result of the prolonged drought. This drought assistance package is to support farm businesses, families and communities that are experiencing hardship and to help them recover when the current drought ends,” Mr Joyce said.
Industry groups welcome announcement
Cattle Council of Australia said the Prime Minister’s support of the Australian agricultural industry and his announcement of immediate drought assistance measures were timely for the nation’s beef producers.
President, Andrew Ogilvie said the drought was having very real consequences for the beef industry, with record kills and exports in 2013 as producers offload stock.
The beef industry made up a large proportion of the Australian agricultural sector, with 57pc of Australian farms reporting to produce beef.
“Australian beef producers have been experiencing widespread drought conditions and the Government’s decision to bring forward drought support arrangements will provide some relief,” Mr Ogilvie said.
"Govt has listened": NFF
NFF president Brent Finlay said the announcement demonstrated that the Government had listened to the NFF’s call for a short-term drought relief package, and consequently, has delivered many of the measures proposed by the NFF.
“We welcome the Government’s commitment to bring forward a package that is both fiscally responsible and considerate of circumstances suffered by rural communities in many parts of Australia,” Mr Finlay said.
“We thank the Prime Minister for his recent visit to drought-affected regions. We commend Minister Joyce for his continued efforts as a champion for Australian agriculture. We also appreciate the bipartisan approach from Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Joel Fitzgibbon,” he said.
The measures delivered in today’s announcement will address many issues faced by farmers in drought, including rising debt levels, capacity to make household payments, limited water for livestock, personal stress, and managing pest animals.
While some of the measures called on by NFF were not included, such as rural workforce assistance and the delivery of independent professional advice, the NFF will continue to focus efforts on longer-term drought policy reform.
“This package is designed to provide assistance here and now. We must keep agriculture on the national agenda. We need to ensure clear and defined drought policy is a matter of priority for the Government,” Mr Finlay said.
“The long-term policy void is not good for farmers, the Government or the broader community. We need a drought policy framework that focuses on preparedness but also recognises that in-event and recovery support is sometimes needed, as we have seen today.
“Farming communities must have a solid understanding of available options now, and into the future. Uncertainty on agricultural policies is not helping the competitiveness of Australian farmers. We will be looking to address many of these matters through the Government’s Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper,” Mr Finlay said.
Farmers affected by the drought should contact their relevant state authorities to inquire about appropriate assistance, and should not self-assess.
Aid will help to keep jobs in the bush: McVeigh
Queensland agriculture minister John McVeigh, welcoming the Federal Government's drought package, says it will further help Queensland's drought-affected farms and keep jobs in the bush.
"More disposable cash in farmers' pockets means they can meet their local bills in town and get rural communities and economies going again," Mr McVeigh said.
"This assistance is for here and now, there will be a long recovery time so will still need to discuss long term drought policy with the Federal Government at the right time. The Prime Minister recognises agriculture has a great future beyond this drought."
Mr McVeigh said the loans up to $1 million would allow eligible farm businesses to refinance existing debt at a lower interest rate and would cover up to 50 per cent of eligible debt.
"I'm also very pleased the Federal Government has brought forward the new Farm Household Allowance, starting March 3, which will put food on the table and help pay the bills," he said.
"The new payment comes with a more generous asset test ($2.5m) than the previous allowance ($1.5m), ensuring more farmers and their families can receive support in these difficult times. This will also include farmers automatically receiving a Health Care Card."
Mr McVeigh said other measures included an extra $12 million for water infrastructure, and for Queensland this would mean an additional $6 million to the Queensland Government's Drought Relief Assistance Scheme.
"Their extra $10.7 million for Mental Health programs will help support people suffering from depression, and the $10 million for control of feral animals, particularly wild dogs will be very welcome in Queensland."
Mr McVeigh said 70 percent of Queensland was drought-declared, and while there'd been some good rain in the north west and central west, it had been patchy and many areas had missed out.
"This funding will add to the Newman Government's efforts, which include last month's announcement of an extra $20 million in support.
"This is in addition to the $11.2 million we announced in May last year, taking our total state commitment to more than $31 million. This is a record state contribution and $5 million more than was provided in 2007-2008 during the so-called millennium drought."