2NM RADIO AM - Bushfires, Farm Household Allowance
JESSICA ROUSE, HOST: This morning I’m joined by MP and Shadow Agriculture Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon. Joel, how are you doing this morning?
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Yes, I’m pretty good Jess unlike so many others that are facing these terrible fires.
ROUSE: It is just a – it’s a heart breaking state of affairs across New South Wales and Queensland at the moment. I mean, we’re not even in summer yet and these bushfires are just ravaging the area including in your electorate in Hunter. You were out at Greta over the past couple of days.
FITZGIBBON: Yes, so I was in and around Greta, Branxton and North Rothbury yesterday. It was just terrible to see people standing on footpaths viewing the smoke and the fire, and just hoping and wondering whether it’s going to again come back in their direction. Thankfully, firefighters and others got things under control around Leconfield yesterday, but you know we never know what is ahead.
And the other North Rothbury, Jess – and it’s just such a credit to both the residents and the firefighters – the grass around some of those homes in North Rothbury is burnt right up to the perimeter of the house, to the doorstep basically, but the houses aren’t burnt. So, a magnificent job has been done there in extraordinary circumstances – an extraordinary outcome. So again, I extend our collective thanks to all our firefighters and emergency services personnel, they are doing an amazing job and, of course, thank you to our community for being so courageous in such difficult situations.
ROUSE: Our firefighters are absolutely incredible, we can’t speak highly enough about them, and we’ve all been talking about these fires this week and our politicians have been as well. Appropriate or not, there’s been a lot of debate on it this week about the impacts possibly of climate change on bushfires and that’s why it’s so bad. New England MP, Barnaby Joyce, has certainly had a lot to say on it – what are your thoughts on the discussion that’s being had around this this week?
FITZGIBBON: I’m with the Prime Minister on this one, and indeed Anthony Albanese said something very similar yesterday – people just need to tone the debate down. Surely we can’t be having a debate about whose fault all of this is in the middle of a crisis. We’ve got people about there risking their lives to help others. We have people who have their lives threatened by the situation in their homes or in their communities, and the last thing we need is politicians playing a blame game.
And what concerns me most, Jess, is that within that blame game there’s a whole lot of extended rhetoric and exaggeration, and if you like “fake news” going on about the causes or otherwise of these events. We need to get our people through this terrible situation, and yes we can have a conversation about those things after the events
ROUSE: Yes, yes. No – I do definitely agree with you on that one. Moving on to other news that’s been around this week – there was a mandatory, or a bill, being put into Parliament – kick started by Senator Pauline Hanson – around the dairy industry and a mandatory Code of Conduct and also a minimum farm-gate price for milk. Now, this one only just didn’t get across the line.
FITZGIBBON: Yes, really unfortunate Jess. You’ll recall that going into the last federal election Labor took a policy to propose the implementation of a minimum farm-gate milk price. We know our dairy farmers are in crisis. They’re facing what I call a “cost-price squeeze.” Their costs are continuously going up, particularly now due to the drought but the price they receive for their milk is stubbornly low. It remains too low. People know that, you know, the big retailers are selling milk at a dollar a litre or just a bit more now. So, we’ve got to do something about that.
And we gave the Government another opportunity to embrace this idea in the Senate this week. We teamed up with Pauline Hanson. Some might say that was an unusual partnership, but to do good things we’re happy to work with anyone in the Senate, and her bill did basically two things reflecting what we promised during the election. One is the fast tracking of the introduction of a mandatory Code of Conduct, which levels the playing field. It helps farmers negotiate with the big processors because obviously there’s a big market power imbalance there.
And, of course, to introduce a minimum farm-gate milk price which is a pretty simple concept. We had an entity, a regulator, like the ACCC come in and determine the cost of producing a litre of milk in X particular dairy region because they all vary of course. Then the regulator would set a minimum price just above that cost. Now the farmer would still be free to negotiate the best price for the processor as has always been the case, and in the future if this was embraced they’d have the help of the mandatory Code of Conduct to improve that market power imbalance.
But, the Government rejected this. The Liberal and National Party Senator sat on the wrong side of the Chamber voting against our dairy farmers, and it was so frustrating to lose it by such a small margin, but we won’t rule out having another go.
ROUSE: Well, that’s right. I mean both these things really need to work together for our dairy farmers particularly when negotiating contracts and trying to get what’s best going to benefit them, and often that can be confusing and having this mandatory Code of Conduct would benefit that. And the states are looking – well, New South Wales is looking to do something along those lines.
FITZGIBBON: Exactly, but just remember the mandatory Code of Conduct alone won’t fix the problem.
ROUSE: No, it won’t.
FITZGIBBON: Making the playing field a little bit more level for the farmer when he’s negotiating with the processor is a very, very important part of the formula. But we need more significant intervention than that. We, you know, we deregulated the industry in 2000 and it’s had its benefits, but by any measure it’s been a bad outcome for our farmers and the only way we help our farmers is to – by legislation – ensure that they get a minimum farm-gate milk price. In other words, every litre they produce they get a profit from – a minimum profit – but still free to negotiate a better profit.
ROUSE: While we’re also on the topic of our farmers. The Farm Household Allowance is certainly something you’ve been very vocal on and the fact that farmers have been taken off it. Now how I understand it is that once upon a time it was three in every ten years that farmers could access these payments. Then it was changed to four in every ten, and now it’s four years and then lump sum payments – possibly. Now, we know that you don’t agree with this.
FITZGIBBON: I just can’t believe the government is taking Farm Household Allowance off drought-affected farmers in the middle of a drought Jess. Now for fairness I should say that when this time-limited payment was first conceived there was a view amongst the Commonwealth and the states that Farm Household Allowance should not be a payment forever – it should be a payment for three years while you changed your business model, you know, maybe diversify your business, maybe do things differently –improve your productivity somehow, or you think about getting out.
But when that was conceived no one could have imagined we would be in such a severe and protracted drought. Now, the test of viability should not be whether you can make it into sixth, seventh, eighth or even ninth year of drought. Circumstances have changed and when circumstances change you change your policy, and the Prime Minister has now taken 600 farming families off Farm Household Allowance from July this year, and they’ve been struggling on without that payment ever since, and I just think it’s wrong.
And it would be very easy for the Prime Minister to say, “Look we’ve got that wrong, we’re going to restore these 600 families and we’re not going to take any more families off the Farm Household Allowance while ever the drought is ongoing.” It’s pretty simple. I know it costs a bit of money, but we’re going to lose our farmers and we’ll be asking ourselves where our food is coming.
ROUSE: So really, at the end of the day, what you’re asking for is for Farm Household Allowance to be changed and extended. These farmers haven’t been taken off, you know, because of the situation we’re in, they’ve been taken off because whatever situation we were in the four years was up and that was it, and these lump-sum payments were hopefully going to help them get through. So really, we need to go back to the drawing board and look at this as a whole and extend it, and work on that.
FITZGIBBON: Well, as John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” And since that payment was first conceived, the facts have changed dramatically – or at least the circumstances have – and, of course, these are the most desperate farming families. It’s hard to get on Farm Household Allowance. Too many farmers have found it too hard. But, I think it’s a count of fact, Jess, to be taking – it’s a very modest payment…
ROUSE: It is, yes.
FITZGIBBON: You know, $250 a fortnight. It’s a very modest payment going to these people, and it just puts food on the table and demonstrates how important it is to them. And it just makes no sense to be taking them off the payment when the drought is so severe.
The Prime Minister when he became – when he came to the job, he said that he’d make drought and our farmers his number one priority. Well, here’s an opportunity – restore their Farm Household Allowance. It’s pretty easy.
ROUSE: Yes. Now, farmers definitely need more cash in their back pocket upfront. Joel thank you so much for your time this morning, we’ll catch up with you in a couple of weeks.
FITZGIBBON: I look forward to it, Jess. Thank you.