PRESS CONFERENCE, HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
THURSDAY, 13 FEBRUARY 2014
SUBJECT/S: Drought assistance.
JOEL FITZGIBBON: What we saw reflected in the faces of NFF leaders this morning is the pain and suffering of thousands of farming families right down the eastern seaboard and indeed in most states in Australia and it’s time to act and it’s time to act quickly. We’ve heard a lot of talk from the government over recent weeks about a drought which is growing worse week on week but we’re yet to see any action.
I’m here to offer or extend a bipartisan hand to the government. Labor will support quick action in order to help these farming families. And there are three things the government could do immediately without any real fanfare; You can quickly legislate, and we will facilitate, changes the farm income support allowance so more farmers have access to financial assistance.
They can further enhance Labor’s farm finance package ensuring that more farmers have access to it, drought affected farmers have access to it, and it won’t cost billions of dollars, it can be done with a simple phone call to the state, it just needs a little change to the guidelines. Third, they need to progress the COAG process.
The drought reform process begun by the former Labor government is only partially complete. The EC initiatives have gone, they need to be replaced.
It was Labor’s plan to work on replacing those through COAG through with an emphasis on some sort of emergency disaster relief payment. The problem is 6 months into government this government has done nothing to progress these reforms.
Indeed, worse, it has abolished the very COAG vehicle, SCOPI, the COAG vehicle that deals with these issues.
Barnaby Joyce needs to act and act now. He enjoys the bipartisan support of the opposition. I have respect Barnaby Joyce, I believe he cares about farming communities affected by drought. We want to work with him to deliver that assistance and to deliver it quickly.
REPORTER: Mr Fitzgibbon given only one applicant in WA for the farm finance package since it was really announced last April and Ken Baston, the minister there, changed the criteria and announced the application period open on January 20. But still, it’s been a very long time and no assistance has been delivered there and the farmers are really hurting on the fringes of the Eastern wheat belt there and there just given up on it. There’s not enough money and eligibility’s too tight and its really become a political football now. And has fails to deliver genuine support. Do you think the farm finance package should be scrapped and start again?
FITZGIBBON: When the farm finance package was designed we could never have envisaged the severity of the drought farmers are facing now. Very deliberately we gave the states flexibility. Flexibility in the way they targeted that debt relief program. Western Australia took a different path. I don’t criticize them for that, they know their farmers well but those adjustments did delay those programs. I’m saying now that given the severity of the drought it’s time to ensure all drought affected farmers have access to the scheme and it’s a scheme with a low bar that can be done quickly and with an interest rate differential that can really make a difference for them.
REPORTER: Part of what the government is saying about industry assistance about other industries is that these industries need to evolve and change their techniques. How much of that can be applied to farming?
FITZGIBBON: Well how long has farming been evolving? A long long time. And our farmers are innovative and have shown a capacity to prepare for drought. But we are dealing here with natural disasters. Natural disasters of a scale that no farmer can possibly plan for or be ready for. That’s what makes farming so much different in addition to the fact that these are the people providing our food and food security. It’s what makes farming different than other industries. I think industry welfare should always start with a no and be looked at on a case by case basis. I think in anyone’s language there is a very strong case from providing additional assistance to farm families at this point in time
REPORTER: A lot of farmers have been quite critical or the former Labor government’s scheme that is going to come into place in July which scraps EC requirements and they say a more comprehensive package is needed. What do you say to that in terms of that criticism considering you’re saying that something more substantial is needed from this government.
FITZGIBBON: Well Exceptional Circumstances was scrapped with the support of the then opposition and it was a bipartisan approach and with the support of all the states.
But the missing piece of the jigsaw is the next step. Now six months ago we left government with a plan to further progress those reforms. In other words replacing EC with some other form of initiatives, probably with a focus on emergency relief in the case of natural disasters.
Six months on we’ve had no COAG process, no progress of those reforms. Indeed as I said the COAG vehicle charged with progressing those reforms has been abolished by this government so I don’t see any hope that were going to get any further reform at the COAG level. Something’s the government can do today unilaterally.
But we won’t see proper reforms at the COAG level until Barnaby Joyce reinstates SCoPI, that’s the Standing Council on Primary Industries, the COAG vehicle, sits down with the states and finished the process the former Labor government began with all the states and indeed the then opposition.
REPORTER: What do you think Mr Abbott will achieve this weekend by visiting some of these areas suffering from drought.
FITZGIBBON: Well going out and visiting always helps. You can look at the footage on television, you can read the newspaper articles, you can listen to the experts from the NFF and from other bodies. But getting out on the ground and seeing the pain being felt is something that can really help one to fully appreciate what farmers are facing.
So it will do no harm for Tony Abbott to get out there, but what’s important is the response and we’ve been waiting for weeks now. I’ve been offering bipartisan support for weeks, making my own recommendations or suggestion about what the government could do and do quickly, having a looks not enough. Farmers need help and they need it yesterday.
THURSDAY, 13 FEBRUARY 2014