Drought assistance package.


JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE: Well I’m here to say that Labor supports the drought package announced by the Prime Minister. It will be welcomed by many struggling farming families. I should say that it’s a package that should have come about a month ago and every week in fact every day for a struggling farm family is a long day. I’ve been urging for more than a month now for the Prime Minister to do most of what he did today and on that basis of course the package has the Opposition’s support.

A few questions remain unanswered, the two key points are these. First of all we don’t yet know in detail what the new means testing will be for the family payment. We don’t really know yet what the eligibility criteria will be for the concessional loans scheme. If the concessional loan scheme eligibility criteria aren’t significantly relaxed then very few additional farmers will have access to the scheme and of course therefore the money the Prime Minister announced today won’t be spent. But I’ll take it in good faith and assume that the criteria will be significantly relaxed, if that’s the case that will be good news for struggling farming families. Good news today for farmers, it should have come a month ago but Labor welcomes it.

JOURNALIST: Why wasn’t the criteria amended at the very outset when Labor introduced the package to ensure that it was more easily accessible for struggling farmers?

FITZGIBBON: Well the concessional loans scheme was never actually a drought reform package. It was a package put in place to deal with the big issue of the day and that was a growing debt amongst farming communities. It was very deliberately made tight because we wanted to make sure we were only helping farmers that could demonstrate ongoing viability outside drought or whatever might have been the matter affecting their farm business at any given time. That was when debt was the issue, now drought is the issue. And the drought’s been growing worse on a daily basis for many months now and on that basis the Government should have moved more quickly to make sure farmers who are being denied access because of those criteria were now, as a result of the changes, eligible for that assistance.

JOURNALIST: What long term measures should the Government take?

FITZGIBBON: Well, this is the other outstanding issue. Labor was working with the States when in Government to reform drought policy overall and a whole range of expert bodies including the Productivity Commission have been urging those changes for many years, now when we lost Government in September, we were only half way through that reform process and unfortunately in six months the current Government has failed to further progress that reform, it needs to do so. Worse, it has actually abolished the COAG vehicle, SCoPI, the vehicle which undertakes these reform processes. So the very first thing the Government can do is re-establish SCoPI so there’s a dialogue with the States and then get on with long term reform.

JOURNALIST: Are these farmers more worthy of support than say SPC Ardmona?

FITZGIBBON: Yes I believe they are although I believe, no sorry I’ll take that back. I believe SPC Ardmona was also worthy of support. Look, industry assistance should be the exception not the rule. Our first answer should always be no but there will always be cases where assistance is justified. I believe that was the case in the matter of SPC and it’s certainly the case with our farming communities because, you know we want to focus on assisting farmers to become more drought proofed but you cannot ready yourself for a one in 50 year event. It makes farming a special case and of course these are the people who put food on our table and play a significant role in this country’s exports and we can’t afford to allow these people to leave the land in the face of what is very much a natural disaster. That’s a matter on which the Prime Minister and I absolutely agree.

JOURNALIST: We don’t know the eligibility criteria for the concessional loans but we do know from the Prime Minister that hundreds of farmers he believes will qualify.  Are you at all concerned that he only sees hundreds as qualifying for these loans or do you think that will addressed the problem?

FITZGIBBON: Well this is the point I was making, our original package was $420m over two years. The Government had already raided $40m of that out of the package, it’s very unclear today still, how much of this is new money, how much is money which has been put back which had already been taken. But no matter which way you look at it if you start with the original 420 this is about a 60 percent increase in the fund, it’s not a doubling of the fund, so questions remain as to how many additional farm families will be assisted and certainly questions remain about the eligibility criteria and therefore how much of this money will be spent.  It’s easy to budget money if you know it’s not likely to be spent.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the Government should have gone further and put wages assistance, for example, on the table?

FITZGIBBON: Look, I’m not going to run Government from Opposition and I haven’t seen all of the variables the Government was playing with, but it does make some sense to ensure that farmers are able to retain labour and it would simply be a case of relaxing you know, the work activity test so that people could receive the dole, if you like, while continuing to make a commitment on the farm and given the numbers we are talking about I wouldn’t have thought that was a lot of money. So I’m a bit disappointed that wasn’t looked at harder but I’ll let the Government explain.

JOURNALIST: Mr Fitzgibbon, do you think this package sets out a coherent way forward for the longer term drought reforms that we’re dealing with or does it send mixed messages, especially around issues of viability in different farming regions in different states.

FITZGIBBON: I’m not concerned about mixed messages so much as I’m concerned that we still have a stalled reform process.  Now if the eligibility criteria has been sufficiently relaxed then this money will be spent and it’s a one off allocation. So the question remains, what will the future look like in future droughts, and we will have future droughts unfortunately. What assistance will be available to farmers then, or are farmers just have to now wait for every drought and one or two months late get an ad hoc response from Government. We need to resurrect the drought reform process Labor started in Government. Thank you.


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