SUBJECT/S: Drought assistance package; Senator Conroy.


SUBJECT/S: Drought assistance package; Senator Conroy.

LAURA JAYES: This is largely bipartisan, or a package that does have bipartisan support, and I’ll talk to the Shadow Agricultural Minister Joel Fitzgibbon about that now. He joins me in the studio. Is that pretty correct, it is a bipartisan support? Is there any elements of this that Labor won’t be supporting?

JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE: We welcome the package, we support it, it should have come a month ago and I have been calling for at least a month for the Government to do pretty much what it did today. We still don’t have all the detail on the eligibility criteria for the concessional loan scheme, but so far so good.

JAYES: I’ll get to those details in a moment, but the drought had well and truly taken hold by early last year when Labor was in Government. Why weren’t any steps put in place way back then? Forget the last month but what about the last 12 months?

FITZGIBBON: Well, they were and all the publicity and discussion around that time last year was all about farm debt. So we put in place a $420 million package to deal with that issue, it allows farmers to shift a lot of their debt off the books of the commercial bank onto the books of the Commonwealth. As the drought continued to hit particularly earlier this year when it got very severe I began to call for them to relax that eligibility criteria, to make it a more focus on drought rather than just debt, and that’s what they have done today. Well, we think they have, I haven’t seen all the detail, that’s what I have been asking them to do. What I don’t understand is why they didn’t do it a month ago and I don’t understand why they took $40 million dollars out of the Farm Financing Package -  that is the concessional loan package - as one of their first acts in government.

JAYES: I just want to stay on the timeline for one more question. This drought, and I was in Broken Hill two weeks ago, and many of the farmers there said that they have been suffering through this for two years, they haven’t really had a profit on their farms for two years and that really this assistance needed to come much earlier. They are not talking about a month ago, they are talking about eight months ago. So why didn’t the previous Labor Government look at this household assistance for example relaxing that earlier?

FITZGIBBON: Well two points. I’m with the Prime Minister on this. This assistance today is justified on the basis that we really are now facing a natural disaster. We hadn’t reached that point you know a year ago. But secondly we were if you like half way through a reform process when we lost Government and unfortunately in six months the Government hasn’t picked up the ball and progressed that process in fact sadly one of their first acts was to abolish the COAG Committee charged with progressing that reform so that’s the other big hole in today’s announcement. We’re still ad hoc, we’re still band aid, farmers don’t know what sort of assistance might be available the next time we have a drought.

JAYES: On the eligibility criteria for household assistance, I understand the threshold is reduced to $2.55 million, the house will be exempt and you are allowed $280,000 of off farm assets so at least when you look at cash flow and getting assistance in that way that would be, is it your understanding, open to most farming families.

FITZGIBBON: Well I think so and this is the other thing that I have been calling for for at least a month so I don’t know again why it took so long but yes, this relaxes the eligibility criteria, it gives more farm households access to what you might describe as a dole welfare payment -

JAYES: But you’re concerned about the eligibility criteria when it comes to accessing those concessional loans -

FITZGIBBON: Concessional loans -

JAYES: Is that correct? -

FITZGIBBON: That’s right, and they haven’t given us the detail. They’ve said that they have put $280 million additional to the program remembering it was $420 before they took $40 out so we don’t know what’s new but on any measure it’s only about a 60% increase on what was there so it’s not as if it’s a doubling of the concessional loan program. Now how quickly that gets spent and how many farmers have access to it will depend on the detail, depend on the eligibility criteria and we don’t yet have that detail.

JAYES: Does it concern you that the Prime Minister said today hundreds rather than thousands, is that a bit of a warning sign?

FITZGIBBON: It does and it could be a signal that he does intend to keep the eligibility criteria fairly tight and that of course won’t be any assistance to some of those struggling most and it is also a hint that while he has talked about spending $280 million, he might not spend $280 million.

JAYES: I want to look at a smaller part of this package now and that is for mental health counselling because issues such as suicide, anxiety and depression is quite wide spread. Mark Coulton made an interesting comment this week, he thought this could be overstated in some cases. Do you agree with that and what kind of assistance do farmers really need on the land? Lifeline for example said there are some small issues for example if you are out in the paddock you don’t even have mobile reception so you can’t call Lifeline, so how important is that face to face.

FITZGIBBON: Well Mark’s comment was courageous, I wouldn’t have used that form of words. But in fairness to him I think what he was trying to say that usually the root causes of suicide are much deeper than one event. I assume that’s what he was trying to say so I’m not going to be too hard on him but this is a very serious issue, it’s very real and it will be $10 million well invested.

JAYES: Just finally on the long term solution and this is something that the National Farmers Federations has been a bit critical about and the Government says that this will be tackled in the agricultural white paper at the end of the year, does the Government need to tackle in this process, I guess discrepancies between states? Queensland and New South Wales, for example, some of the farmers in Broken Hill were saying that across the border they are competing with farmers that already have had assistance from the states in you know for the last 6 months so how can that be sorted out and is it going to take a little longer than just the COAG meetings?

FITZGIBBON: Well I live in the federation and I’m a long term supporter of the abolition of the states but that’s another question. These are always big challenges, and you know the reason the states signed up to the initial parts of drought reform is that it actually saved the states a lot of money and I think they need to do a little bit more of the heavy lifting. I found our relationship with the state’s difficult when I was Minister and I think Barnaby Joyce will find it difficult in the future as well.

JAYES: Well he said that the Agricultural White Paper will be out by the end of the year, would you support for example farm management bonds and depreciation assets, are they two elements that the Labor Party would be willing to support.

FITZGIBBON: Well, first of all in terms of the relationship with the states again one of Barnaby’s first acts was to abolish the very committee that got the states and commonwealth together, I really don’t understand that move. Look I’m not going to, I mean long term drought reform is a process that you have to undertake with the states and after a lot of consideration, it’s not for me to be making that policy on the run today. I’ve got to say that the white paper terms of reference isn’t very specific on drought so I think that’s been a bit of catch up on their part and I don’t understand why they don’t have resource sustainability as part of the terms of reference on the white paper. Resources sustainability is the key challenge for our farming community.

JAYES:  OK I have to ask you just finally as a former Defence Minister about your colleague Senator Conroy he withdrew his comments yesterday but should he apologise.

FITZGIBBON: Well I said on the doors this morning that Stephen can speak for himself.  Generally speaking he has my support and does a good job and given his latest statement it’s obvious he regrets what happened last night as well. 

JAYES:  Can I just go to the broader issue just for a moment then. Do you think there is a situation where by here the Government has created operation sovereign borders and brought military chiefs into the political fray, do you think there could be some blame the Government here for elevating that stuff?

FITZGIBBON:  Well in some sort of defence of Stephen I mean what you saw last night was a very deep frustration, frustration brought on by a whole myriad of approaches this Government is using in response to the border security issue and we find it disappointing and frustrating and I think most Australians do as well.

JAYES:  Joel Fitzgibbon, thanks so much for joining us.

FITZGIBBON:  It’s a pleasure.         


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