SUBJECTS: Drought Communities Program; African Swine Fever
MICHAEL CONDON: Now, last week on the program we heard from the Prime Minister. He added 13 councils to an eligible councils for funding under the Drought Communities Program, and he put up an extra $100 million, and Victoria’s Moyne Shire – well, they were one of the councils surprised to be included in saying that drought-affected parts of their region weren’t as bad as needing the drought assistance, and yet drought affected parts of this state in New South Wales weren’t included on the list.
Now, the Droughts Communities Program is supposed to deliver benefits to targeted affected regions in Australia, and it found that according to the Morrison Government Muswellbrook was in drought, but Singleton, for example just down the road, wasn’t. Labor’s spokesman on agriculture, Joel Fitzgibbon joins me now, good afternoon.
JOEL FITZGIBBON: Great to be with you, Michael.
CONDON: So, is it correct in saying that there was – we received a text to the program on Friday saying, “Looks like there’s no new money now for any of the electorates that might’ve voted Labor and the Shooters and Fishers – Shooters, Farmers and Fishers in the State and Federal elections?
FITZGIBBON: Well, text messages seem to be in vogue, Michael. Look, this is a terrible outcome, you know, we were all hopeful that when Scott Morrison made his latest announcement on Friday regarding the drought that finally something meaningful would be done. But this, again, was modest piecemeal and ad hoc.
And, you know, obviously we can’t believe when they’re declaring somewhere like Moyne Shire in drought when the Mayor down there is saying, “hey, we don’t need this money please give it to somewhere else,” and, yet, townships like Singleton in my own electorate – or a number of townships in the electorate of Eden-Monaro – are missing out when they are clearly impacted by drought. So, something’s going terribly wrong here.
CONDON: Well, no addition money for areas like Pooncarie, or Walgett, or Wilcannia. There was no additional help for Merriwa, and Murrurundi – places like that. Murrurundi, they’re on level six water restrictions, you know, less than three minute showers and things like that. No extra, no extra help for those communities that have been in drought for a long, long time.
FITZGIBBON: And this is why we need the release of the Drought Coordinator’s Report. I mean, Major-General Stephen Day was recruited to do really important work – to develop a battle plan, to analyse current programs to see how effective they were, to recommend how we might do things better, and we welcome that because the Government had abolished the COAG reviewing process. So, I thought we might’ve been just getting back on track with him, but I think it was just the uniform they wanted not anything meaningful. They’re refusing to release such report from Major-General Stephen Day.
CONDON: And he says he’s handed it in, he’s quite happy for it to be released as well.
FITZGIBBON: No doubt. No doubt, and I suspect the Government refuses to release it because he’s done his job properly and he’s been critical of the inadequate nature of current programs and the lack of strategic direction in drought policy in this country.
The other thing that has to happen is that Scott Morrison has to be honest with the Australian community. He continues to run around saying they are spending $7 billion on drought programs. Now, this is patently untrue. I don’t know who he thinks he’s kidding. Farmers and rural communities know it’s untrue; they’re not receiving any of these moneys. I think his target audience are those in the cities and the suburbs who expect a Prime Minister, a Government to do something for these drought-affected communities.
CONDON: Now, we’re also hearing, in fact, the Federal Water Minister, David Littleproud, was saying, “We’re actually blaming the Bureau of Meteorology.” He was talking about using those figures to determine the areas that were in drought that might’ve needed assistance. Let’s hear a little bit of what he said on RN earlier today:
“Well, with due respect there’s a methodology that’s put in place that’s predicated off the Bureau of Meteorology. They drought map each shire, and as at 30th June, according to the Bureau of Meteorology, 62 per cent of that Shire was in drought. That triggered, along with 12 other shires who were also in drought, our response – which the Prime Minister announced on Friday – to provide them with a stimulus, a $1 million stimulus to help build those communities.”
So, that’s the Federal Water Minister, David Littleproud, laying the blame with the bureau. Your thoughts on that, Mr Fitzgibbon?
FITZGIBBON: It’s always someone else’s fault, isn’t Michael? I mean, they said they were taking responsibility for building dams, and they talked about it incessantly for six years and didn’t turn a sod of soil, let alone build a dam, and now it’s all the state governments’ fault. It’s the responsibility of the states, they now say.
But instead of blaming the Bureau, let’s just have a bit of common sense. David Littleproud should just come to my electorate and, you know, drive from Jerrys Plains to Denman – two small towns very close together – and tell me why one should be included in the drought declarations and one should not. Now, you’d only also have to go to the DPI website in New South Wales to confirm that Singleton is drought affected, or talk to the Mayor of Singleton she will tell you that consumption is down in their town because of the impact of the drought on her farmers.
But one last point – they won’t give us this model. They won’t give us this model. They say, this robust model, they say rely upon, but can I now conclude that Singleton will be included if he’s going to revisit this so called “forensic audit”? Hope spring is eternal is eternal for me.
CONDON: Now the other issue too that’s been raised is in terms of the $3000 cash payment, we really don’t know who’s going to get that, who’s eligible, how many people – that sort of thing. We don’t know a lot of detail about that. Is that something that you’ll be looking for more information on?
FITZGIBBON: The program we were just talking about – the Drought Communities Program – this charitable program was closed down last year. In the middle of the worst drought in our history, they closed these programs down. So, all they did on Friday is re-open them, and this charitable program funnels cash to Vincent de Paul and the like, and hopefully that money makes its way to farming families. Now, that’s a good thing that they’ve reopened that program, but we’ve never really been able to gather any evidence that it’s getting to people or having any meaningful effect.
We just lack transparency in all of these things. I mean, we asked in Senate Estimates recently how many farmers have taken up these various concessional loans and they wouldn’t tell us, Michael, and when they won’t tell you it’s fair to come to the conclusion that the numbers don’t look good for the Government. Yet, taking the capital value…
CONDON: Well, there’s been that criticism that it’s too hard to get the money and the forms are 28 pages long, and hard to fill out.
FITZGIBBON: Yes. It’s too hard to get and most farmers don’t see more debt, or shuffling debt as a solution. But third, we are in the lowest interest rate environment in our history – certainly in my lifetime – and, you know, low-interest loans are not the answer. This is how Scott Morrison gets to his $7 billion, he keeps counting the total value of these loans if they were lent – whether they are lent, or not.
But, when the Government lends someone $1 million it doesn’t cost the $1 million. It costs them – in fact, they theoretically can make money because they borrow it at the bond rate and put a one or two per cent on it…
CONDON: Yes, it’s a loan that has to be paid back.
FITZGIBBON: Exactly. But he counts – they say we’ve got $2 billion worth of concessional loans, and in that he’s counting the total value of the loans if they were lent. I mean, this is just misleading…
CONDON: And we’ve got the Governor of the Reserve Bank saying that we actually need some *inaudible* and some cash into the economy – that the Government should be doing that, rather than worried so much about balancing the budget.
FITZGIBBON: Michael, the history is in 2013 they stalled the Drought Reform Program, then they just kept kicking the drought issue down the road hoping it might rain and then they had the Drought Envoy, the Drought Taskforce, the Drought Summit. Then I think they thought they were going to lose the election so just kept kicking it down the road, and now because of six years of failure they’re playing catch-up. They’re like a rabbit in a spotlight; they just don’t seem to know what to do. Friday brought some hope, but of course, farmers and rural communities have been left bitterly disappointed.
CONDON: Now another question – question without notice – so the African swine fever outbreak in Timor. How concerning is this? And while I’ve got you on the line here – how concerning is this for Australia to have this disease so close?
FITZGIBBON: Well, it’s a very, very serious concern and, you know, I’m even more troubled by the fact that the Craig Review into our biosecurity framework said we needed more money and given the constraints on Government we need to go to industry for money, and they proposed a levy on industry to pay for additional biosecurity measures. We supported that. We said, “Yes, that’s good. Let’s do this.”
Now, the levy was supposed to be in by July 1, the Government buggered it up and then they said September 1, they buggered it up and it still isn’t in. And in that period we’ve lost $20 million worth of additional biosecurity money, and, you know, that’s undermining our system and they need to get this levy sorted out. We still stand ready to back it on a bipartisan basis – me need to get it done quickly, otherwise our biosecurity guard is going to continue to decline.
CONDON: Joel Fitzgibbon, thanks for your time on the program today.
FITZGIBBON: A great pleasure, Michael.