SUBJECT: Drought Assistance

JOEL FITZGIBBON:  Well, today I desperately wanted to come out and welcome the Abbott Government’s latest drought package.   Sadly, Barnaby Joyce hasn’t given me the opportunity and unfortunately, Christmas remains very bleak for drought-affected Australian farming families.  This package contains no new money, in fact it takes money out of one farm help package, to fund a new package.  We have seen no changes to eligibility criteria either for Farm Household Allowance or the original Drought Concessional Loans.  The package will do not one thing for farming families this Christmas, it will do very little for any farming family between now and the end of this terrible drought they are now experiencing.  Expectations were raised two months ago when Barnaby Joyce started talking about more money for drought.  Those farming families waiting in anticipation all that time will be very disappointed today.  More disappointed will be drought affected farmers in other States, nothing at all in this package for Western Australia, for South Australia or for Victoria.  They too, of course, have farmers affected by drought.  In fact the Rabobank Farm Confidence Survey is out today, it indicates that farm confidence has hit a new low, particularly in South Australia and Victoria, States where farmers themselves have nominated drought as their reason for pessimism.  So farming families in other States will be disappointed, indeed even in Tasmania ,where Barnaby Joyce boasted today he took money from Tasmania, but he needs to be reminded that the original Farm Finance package was not a drought package, it was a debt package.  And there are struggling farmers in Tasmania.  Barnaby Joyce should reflect on his comments and consider apologising to farmers who are struggling in Tasmania.  I will be happy to take some questions.

JOURNALIST:  So you are saying this is not new money, it is a reallocation?

FITZGIBBON:  Barnaby Joyce has announced no new expenditure today.  There is no new money.  He has taken money out of one farm help fund and used it to create a new fund.  A fund that might give some farmers a Concessional Loan to help them after the drought through Drought Recovery.  But which does nothing to help them this Christmas or any time between now and the end of this terrible drought. 

JOURNALIST:  It’s underspent money - would you prefer it went into consolidated revenue then?

FITZGIBBON:  Money is underspent for two reasons:  one, because some farming families don’t see the loans as a solution to their problem; two, because Barnaby Joyce hasn’t been able to free up the eligibility criteria to ensure that farming families that need the loans are able the access the loans.  And Barnaby Joyce keeps confusing two funds – the original Farm Finance loans which of course were put in place by the former Government to deal with the debt problem, a debt problem which still exists, so that debt solution has now been taken away, but the debt problem remains.  Secondly, there is the Drought Concessional Loans Scheme which this Government put in place but hasn’t been spent.  Nowhere near subscribed to its full amount but Barnaby Joyce keeps merging the two to make it look like he is spending more money on drought than he actually is.

JOURNALIST:  You are saying the funding won’t really help farmers, what would then?

FITZGIBBON:  Well, Barnaby Joyce is the Minister, he needs to find ways to deliver immediate drought assistance to those who are struggling most.  His first act as Minister was to abolish the COAG Committee charged with dealing with this issue.  He says the former Labor Government abolished drought assistance. No - It was moving through a transition to a new model.  A model which would have been determined largely by the Committee that is, the Ministerial Council that Barnaby Joyce decided to abolish. 

JOURNALIST:  Just on other matters, on the Biosecurity Bill, your colleague, Alannah MacTiernan has questioned some of the warrant powers, but they originally mandated under Labor’s original Bill in 2012 , so she is questioning Labor policy?

FITZGIBBON:  Alannah MacTiernan is expressing her concerns through the prism of a terrible experience one of her local companies has gone through in Western Australia.  A company that has been sent to the wall she says because of the actions of the Department of Agriculture and she is absolutely entitled to make comment through that prism and express her concern.

JOURNALIST:  But she is questioning something Labor initially proposed and do you think you would backtrack if you were in government on those warrant powers?

FITZGIBBON:  She is entitled to question those powers, and yes, they were part of Labor’s original Bill.  By the way, an initiative we took two years ago now, here we are 15 or so months into a new government and we still haven’t had that original Bill, as amended, debated in the House.  There seems to be little urgency in this current Cabinet for the real big issues that impact most on rural and regional Australia including agriculture.

JOURNALIST:  The Farm Finance Package was set up by Labor but the previous Minister and possibly yourself also experienced the argy-bargy between the delivery agencies and getting that money on the ground which is now extrapolated to the Drought Assistance funding as well.  The National Farmers Federation is calling on the States to really get behind these farmers and to help, but for some reason there seems to be plenty of good will amongst all these agencies to deliver Federal money but we still aren’t seeing enough gone through to farmers and that’s not just Barnaby Joyce’s fault.

FITZGIBBON:  Well, Barnaby Joyce will have less trouble with the States than I did, or Joe Ludwig did, because we were dealing with six States and one Territory.  Barnaby Joyce is dealing with two States only, to the exclusion of other States, which is where, of course, you will find many farming families are in trouble.  Barnaby is the Minister, sadly he has abolished the very council, the Ministerial Council, that is designed to work through these issues.

JOURNALIST:  What is your message to the new Victorian Agriculture Minister in terms of getting an agreement through to deliver this $30 Million for Victorian farmers?

FITZGIBBON:  Well I have no doubt the new Minister in Victoria, and I congratulate her, will be very keen to make every effort to ensure that the Commonwealth and the new Government in Victoria are working together on this issue.  But I won’t be surprised if on her first day she is expressing anger that drought-affected farmers in Victoria, including and in particular, Western Victoria have been excluded from this package today.  Not of course am I suggesting that the package would be of any assistance to them in any case.  But why is Barnaby Joyce continuing to punish every State and Territory outside Queensland and New South Wales? 

JOURNALIST:  What do you make of the Victorian State Election result, especially, I suppose, rurally where the Nationals dropped away 2 per cent from their vote, what sort of message does that send?

FITZGIBBON:  Well, my strongest interest in the Victorian Election is the size of the swing outside Melbourne as compared to the State swing.  Obviously it was a bigger swing in country Victoria and I think that’s a reflection of how neglected rural communities are feeling both under the Abbott Government and previously under the Naphine Government.  But I think there is a message here for all political parties, I think there is a general view in rural and regional Australia that they are not getting their adequate share and while they produce all of our food and all of our minerals wealth and make such a large contribution to our economy, they are not receiving back their fair share.  They are feeling neglected and I think that is a clear message for all political parties.

JOURNALIST:  The AEC has announced its redistribution of seats and New South Wales is going to lose a seat and there is speculation this may be your seat, are you concerned about that?

FITZGIBBON:  There is a redistribution in New South Wales.  New South Wales will lose one seat.  There is lots of speculation about what seat that will be.  I have been around a long time and I have seen this speculation in the past and what I have learned in the past is that the speculation is rarely correct.  Thankyou everyone.

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