Federal Treasurer, Joe Hockey, and agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce travelled to western New South Wales and western Queensland yesterday to hear from local farmers about the impacts of drought on their businesses, their families and their rural communities.
The visit included stops at Walgett, NSW and Charleville, Qld.
In February, the Coalition Government announced a $320 million Drought Support Package, which followed extra assistance for farmers announced in November 2013.
The Commonwealth is currently rolling out a range of measures including Drought Concessional Loans, Farm Finance Concessional Loans, Farm Household Allowance, pest management funding, water infrastructure funding and social support measures.
“While we are delivering a significant support package for both drought affected farmers and those facing financial hardship, we are also committed to ensuring that all of our measures reach those in need,” Mr Hockey and Mr Joyce said in a joint media statement following their trip last night.
“Today isn’t about us telling people what we are doing however. It’s important to get out to the bush and visit farms to meet directly with some of our dedicated and hardworking farmers.
“It’s about listening to farming families and their communities about how we can adjust current programmes or consider other measures to assist those facing a record 1 in 100 year drought event.
“Walgett is a hub for our wool, wheat and cotton industries and Charleville is known for sheep and cattle farming.
“The farmers we met today in these communities are facing a drought challenge on a scale we haven’t witnessed before.
“Our message today to drought affected communities is that we are listening and we’re committed to working with them to ensure they have a sustainable future.
“The Coalition Government is committed to creating a strong and profitable agriculture sector for the 21st Century where all our farmers can prosper. Since coming to office we have also worked to improve farm viability through expanded market access and through free trade deals with Korea, Japan and are currently negotiating one with China.
“We remind farmers that there is still a range of support measures available now for farmers in need who are doing it tough.
“The Australian Government encourages farmers to talk to the experts at Centrelink or the Rural Financial Counselling Service and find out about the support options available–there’s help available with the forms too.”
The visit represents the first time Joe Hockey has met directly with drought affected farmers since he became Federal Treasurer following the election of the Abbott Government 12 months ago.
In February of this year, the ideological differences within Coalition ranks over the issue of drought assistance was publicly highlighted when Mr Hockey made comments pointedly stating that the “age of entitlement” was over.
At the time the Abbott Government had just rejected a request by Coca Cola Amatil for $25 million in suport to keep its SPC Ardmona Cannery in Shepparton open. That decision was seen as a firm sign that the Coalition Cabinet was being dominated by the ‘economic dries’ within the Liberal Party who oppose Government assistance to industry.
That position was reinforced a few days later when the Liberal Treasurer responded to media questions about drought support by stating that farmers needed to adjust to the regular swings and roundabouts that were part and parcel of living and working in a tough country like Australia.
At the same time Federal agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce was attending a drought crisis meeting in his former home town of St George in western Queensland, acknowledging the severity of the drought crisis but also the battle he and his minority Nationals colleagues faced to convince the full Coalition Cabinet to support assistance measures for drought-affected farmers.
Mr Hockey appeared to ease back on his hardline comments in the ensuing days when he said the issue of Government handouts for large corporate-owned entities such as SPC Ardmona or Holden was a different issue to drought support for farmers. The Government would not treat ‘mum and dad farmers’ the same way as businesses backed by multinational companies. The Abbott Government viewed drought as ‘an entirely natural disaster’, he said.
Soon after the St George crisis meeting and Mr Hockey’s comments, the Prime Minister Tony Abbott accompanied Mr Joyce on a tour of drought stricken regions including Longreach and Bourke, where ironically their landing was greeted with grey skies and the onset of steady soaking rain. Mr Abbott acknowledged that the rain would not spell the end of what had been an intense two-year drought and told locals he did not want country Australia to become a museum piece.
Less than a week later Mr Abbott and Mr Joyce announed the $320 million Drought Support Package. Mr Abbott used the launch to reinforce his Government’s position that it sees drought as a ‘natural disaster’, creating a distinction between government support for farmers battling a natural disaster with the calls for financial support to rescue the corporate-owned SPC Ardmona and the vehicle manufacturing industry.
Rowell Walton via the rural debt roundtable raised $540M from the Labor Government yet the best the LNP can do so far is $320M . One does have to question the ingrained belief that Labor is our enemy and the LNP are our friend
Do either of the major parties really understand the Bush ?
One comment from the rural debt roundtable was ” our politicians and agro – politicians have let us down badly ” . I reluctantly have to agree .
We were warned of the potential for a low farm income problem 50 years ago yet nothing has been done to avoid it . We are hearing of lack of financial literacy being the issue but this was addressed from the Senate inquiry into Farm Debt in 1994 . So lack of financial literacy is a “red herring”
This Inquiry also said drought is the expression of a much deeper problem . Are we going to reinvent the wheel all over again and just treat the symptoms again?