The Government's Drought Package Offers No Plan, but Loads of Debt

JESSICA ROUSE, HOST: Member for Hunter and Shadow Minister for Agriculture – Joel Fitzgibbon – joins us now. Mr Fitzgibbon, what did you make of the Government’s new drought package announced yesterday?


JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE AND RESOURCES: well it was a disappointment, Jess. The fact that we’ve had drought announcements on almost a weekly basis, tells you that we have policy on the run - ad hoc, piecemeal policy. We still lack a national drought plan and of course the key focus of yesterday’s announcement was more loans and therefore more debt for our farmers or at least more shuffling of debt, and in this interest rate environment it’s the last thing they need. What they need is cash, food on the table, cash flow in their farm businesses and that’s what this Prime Minister should have focused on yesterday, and sadly they did not commit to restoring all those farming families back on to the Farm Household Allowance. He’s talking about 1800 farming families coming off that income support at a time when they really need it. It’s a great disappointment.


ROUSE: there was more money put towards drought-affected councils as well, an additional $1 million each. We did ask Michael McCormack why Singleton had been left off again and he said Council needs to write to David Littleproud and tell them that they’ve been left off and why they shouldn’t be left off. What are your thoughts on that?


FITZGIBBON: that’s a terrible cop-out, Jess. You know, all those ministers know I’ve been complaining about this now for many, many months, and they’ve already given us the answer: there’s no point in writing again. The answer is that they say only 11 per cent of the shire’s workforce works in agriculture – the number has to be 17, and we fall short and it’s a ridiculous proposition with these arbitrary numbers. Singleton is just as much in drought as Muswellbrook is, [inaudible] they should change that rule or ignore that rule and hand over the support that Singleton deserves.


ROUSE: are you taking any positives out of yesterday’s announcement?


FITZGIBBON: yeah, money to councils for infrastructure can only be a good thing but the government is wrong to present it as a recipe for improvement on the drought-front. I mean, councils might be able to bring forward a roundabout project, or a footpath project, that they wouldn’t have done in the short term because they didn’t have the money. That’s a good thing so I’m glad they’re spending more money there, but that should be the ordinary work of government – it doesn’t deserve a pat on the back and it won’t help any of our drought-affected farmers.


ROUSE: so Joel if you were in power what would you do differently – what would you do?


FITZGIBBON: I don’t like to go back, but six years ago they stalled the drought reform program. I would never have done that and we’d be in a different place today if they hadn’t abolished the COAG process responsible and stalled that program. But certainly I’d sit down with the states and reinvigorate that strategy, develop a truly national plan: mitigation, adaptation, water infrastructure and of course income support which is well-targeted and sustainable throughout a drought – not one that cuts you off during a drought. You know why they’re cutting people off, Jess? Because they have this obsession with a budget surplus. And you know, in other words Scott Morrison is building up to that trophy surplus at the expense of our desperately drought-affected farmers.


ROUSE: that’s the same comment that was used yesterday by New England MP Barnaby Joyce, as to why the Government can’t just give more lump-sum payments instead of these loans.


FITZGIBBON: exactly, Jess. This is what farmers need. They don’t need more debt and of course the thing about these loans is this: you have to pass the viability test. In other words, just like with a commercial bank, you have to be able to demonstrate your viability into the future. Now some farmers are in their seventh, eighth and even ninth year of drought and it’s pretty hard to demonstrate viability in those circumstances. We know from in the past – this is not the first concessional loans program the Government has had – there’s been a dozen of them they just keep rebadging them and changing the interest rate. What we know is that farmers don’t apply for these loans either because they’re too hard to secure with all the paperwork et cetera, or they can’t demonstrate viability. I mean, when a drought-affected farmer is desperate enough to go seeking a loan you know they’re starting to struggle, but they have to show that viability. It’s very, very difficult.


ROUSE: it will be interesting to see how many farmers take up those loans or renegotiate their previous loans. Joel we really appreciate your time this morning


FITZGIBBON: a great pleasure, Jess.

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