ABC NEWS 24 - Drought assistance package

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TUESDAY, 18 FEBRUARY 2014 SYDNEY SUBJECT/S: Drought assistance package.

JOURNALIST: Well for more on the drought assistance package we can talk to the Opposition’s Agriculture Spokesman, Joel Fitzgibbon. Mr Fitzgibbon thanks for talking to us. Now we’ve heard a lot about this drought assistance package, that the Government is looking at. Do you support their initial plans for what’s likely to come out?

JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE: Well effectively we haven’t heard much at all. The Prime Minister keeps reinforcing this idea that he is on the side of the farmers - that he wants to do something - but yet continues to give us no detail and says, you know, an announcement will be made in a number of days or even weeks. Now that might not seem a long period of time for him but farmers are going to bed  - and their families  - every night, wondering whether the next day there will be a package and whether indeed, that package might apply to them. Now that’s pretty tough on them.

For weeks now I’ve been saying on behalf of the Opposition; “just do it, you have our support, we recognise the severity of the drought, we’ll even facilitate legislation through the Parliament if that’s necessary. Just get on and do it”.  And I don’t understand what Tony Abbott is waiting for. He has had his picture opportunity, he has had his tour, he surely by now understands the problem. He has said he understands and something needs to be done, yet he seems to be waiting

JOURNALIST: But isn’t it a good idea to travel out to some of these affected areas and actually talk to people who are involved and to speak to them first-hand about what they actually do need. They’ve mentioned that there is going to be more income support also loans assistance and welfare services like mental health support and that a package will be announced within a week, but isn’t it still a good idea to actually go out and speak to these people.  

FITZGIBBON: I welcome the tour. Nothing focuses the mind more than going to see first-hand but it wasn’t likely to change his view. He surely knew prior to the tour how bad it is and what needs to be done. The NFF, the leading farm organisation, had a press conference last Thursday outlining exactly what they believe needs to be done. He didn’t need to wait until he undertook his tour. He has known for weeks he needs to do something. I think he knows what he needs to do and certainly we have been offering some advice on that front. He just needs to do it.  

JOURNALIST: So how much assistance do farmers need in the current situation?       

FITZGIBBON: Well how long is a piece of string?  And of course every farm situation is different and the drought is more severe in some places than in others.  But I’ve been saying for a long time there are three things that he should immediately do at least. First get on with something on the Farm Household Support package. Loosen up the means test bring it forward if he can,  although I think there might be some logistical problems in bringing it forward. Certainly I would believe  - on advice - that he needs to legislate. He missed an opportunity last week while both houses of parliament were sitting.  With the Opposition’s support he could have got a package through both houses. Now, we go back next week but the Senate doesn’t so there is a lost opportunity there. He needs to enhance further Labor’s low-interest loans scheme, he can do that with a stroke of a pen no problem what so ever and third but very importantly, he needs to resurrect the COAG process. See we were half way through a drought reform program when Labor lost office and the process has since stalled. Six months in, not only hasn’t the COAG Committee met he has abolished the COAG Committee responsible for drought reform. He needs to resurrect it and resurrect the process.   

JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister has also ruled out long term subsidies saying that the farming and agriculture industries need to be competitive and self-sufficient. Do you think that is, do you agree with that, that there should be long term subsidies? Or do you think it should be as the Prime Minister has said like a disaster relief package.

FITZGIBBON: Well the drought reform process up until now has enjoyed bipartisan support and I think it will continue to do so.  And we all agreed that the old system of big interest rate subsidies was bad public policy. A whole myriad of organisations agreed including the Productivity Commission. The problem is that we got rid of the EC process but in six months we have done nothing to put something in its place. And if we had been re-elected our next step was to continue that COAG process and look at something in the area of emergency relief programs for natural disasters. Now the Prime Minister has been talking about natural disaster as well so I think we agree on that we just need him to do something.     

JOURNALIST: He said within a week so it looks like something will be done or announced at least within a week. With your experience in this sort of sector, what are some of the main things that really help farmers? Is it relief from interest rates on loans and different things like that. What are some of things they really need to get through this drought putting politics aside?

FITZGIBBON: Well at the end of the day it comes down to cash doesn’t it? Whether you’re needing some additional feed or whatever the need may be you need cash to pay for it so you’ve got to get money into the pockets of the farmers and if the farmers can demonstrate to the banks that the Government is about to provide assistance on the cash front then it takes the pressure off in terms of the banks as well.  So this is where the Farm Household Support Payment is so important.

JOURNALIST: We’ve have also heard today about the trade deal with South Korea. That’s also likely to help some people who are struggling on the land.

FITZGIBBON: In the medium to long term yes and of course the trade deal began under the former Labor Government so it’s a bit unfortunate that the Government doesn’t give recognition for that. But I was a bit concerned today when I saw the Government suggesting well, yeah, we haven’t done anything on drought yet but we’re doing lots for farmers through the South Korea free trade arrangements but that’s something that will come into place at the end of the year and of course it will be sometime before farmers really begin to see some benefit from that. So it’s a bit churlish to say well…  

JOURNALIST: (interrupts) It’s still good news for farmers

FITZGIBBON: (interrupts) oh, it’s good news and happily, the Government has now agreed to release the terms of the agreement - something that they have been unprepared to do up until now. The Opposition now has an opportunity to study the detail of the agreement and determine whether it’s in the national interest as I’m sure it is but you know with all of these agreements within these agreements there are winners and losers and we want to be reassured that Australia is very much a net winner.

JOURNALIST: Ok, Shadow Agriculture Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, thanks for talking to us.

FITZGIBBON: It’s a pleasure 


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