SUBJECTS: Drought policy; Farm Household Allowance.
PETA CREDLIN, HOST: Mark Coulton, Joel Fitzgibbon, thanks very much for joining me tonight. Obviously I am here in Dubbo, Mark, this is your seat. Unusually I have to say for a politician, I got around today and yesterday, you are very well regarded in the area, but there is a lot of consternation about drought policy and whether or not it is really hitting the mark. What’s been your feedback as you’ve been in and around your seat?
MARK COULTON, MEMBER FOR PARKES: Yeah, look Peta this drought has been going on for a long time as you know. It’s in 2015 when we first had the first drought announcement out in Bourke, so obviously this really does impact on peoples’ demeanour and obviously it is very difficult to hit every mark with the policy. So, I understand people are really, quite overtaken by the drought and obviously different farmers and different businesses have different circumstances. So, you know, I represent a lot of farmers; I’m certainly not hearing that from all of them, but some of them are I think that are doing it a bit tougher are probably looking for assistance.
CREDLIN: Joel Fitzgibbon, you know you have been quite a prominent agriculture Shadow Minister for Labor. Often the Labor Party doesn’t really resonate in regional communities. You’ve been outspoken on the government’s drought package; some parts you’ve accepted, some parts you’ve said they need to improve. I’m hearing a lot of people are frustrated with the offer of loans, both the complexity of the loans but also the fact people don’t have much liquidity at the moment in any event. What would Labor prefer to see on this package on the drought?
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Thanks Peta. Well, of course, I am of the bush and represent a significant agricultural region – not as big or as numerous as Mark’s, but certainly the Hunter is a significant agricultural regional. And of course, I travel the country a lot, I’ve witnessed firsthand how bad the situation is and it is very, very hard. Look, my criticism starts with the lack of a scenarios plan. That is working out what are the contingencies. I mean is the dry spell going to go on for another year, two years; three years? And then having an overarching strategic plan in readiness for each of those scenarios, that’s what you’re doing when you are planning for battle and we really are facing a war out there, it’s very, very bad. That’s the starting point. I think the big missing piece of the jigsaw at the moment, otherwise, is getting feed to cattle, for example. It’s pretty – there’s not much point farmers borrowing more money for consumables. I shared with Alan, on another occasion, the story of the dairy farmer who I asked what a rate relief would mean for him on his land. He said well that’s about $30,000 a year and I asked what would that do for him. He told me it would feed his herd for nine or 13 days, so it gives you a sort of feel what sort money is needed to keep breeding stock, in particular, and I think government could be more innovative and creative in assuring we can do just that.
COULTON: Peta, on that…
CREDLIN: Mark, I know that the National Party – I know there’s been lots of debates in National Party party room on these sorts of issues, and I know the Prime Minister says some of them are state issues and some of them are federal issues. But what would you say to that?
COUTLON: Sorry, Peta that did breakup.
FITZGIBBON: Yeah it did break up for me too Peta.
COULTON: Just could you repeat the question? Sorry.
CREDLIN: Mark, what would you say to the issues – what would you say to the issue of government stepping in and assisting with freight and doffer subsidies.
COULTON: Well, look the NSW Government – part of the Drought Summit that was at Parliament House last year was a division of responsibilities. The state governments are looking after animal welfare and I got to say I know I’ve been a farmer a lot longer I have been a Member of Parliament, Peta, and a lot of my family and closest friends are battling this drought and I know that they’re using the fodder subsidy, the freight subsidies carting as late of last week carting hay up from Southern NSW and Victoria. A lot of the donated hay the NSW Government actually paid all the freight for, so there has been assistance through the state governments for fodder. The reason that we’ve gone down the loan path with no repayments and low interest and the payment at the backend of the program is that farms are so variable, it’s not – across the boundary fence and across the region we have different sizes, we have different farm mixes, we have livestock producers, we’ve got pure grain produces and so the idea of the loans is it puts flexibility and it allows the farmers to take up the level assistance that’s suitable to them. If you just put out a blanket cash relief, it would hit the market in some places and in other places, Joel alluded to that with his dairy farmer, these are large businesses these days and the numbers that they need – the amount of money they need to keep going is quite large and that’s why it is quite important that we got these low interest loans.
CREDLIN: Just on that, Mark Coulton, a lot of people don’t think that you’re hitting the mark – government, and NSW Government here of course, but governments here not hitting the mark in relation to freight and fodder, and they don’t want to hear from the Prime Minister or anyone else this line that it belongs to one state jurisdiction or one federal jurisdiction. Is there anymore that both layers of government can do together to get through the worse of this drought?
COULTON: Look, I’m only getting every second word, but I think what I’m saying, you know, I talk to a lot of farmers and I’m across my electorate all the time, and so I’ve got a pretty fair idea of what they want. Some people are taking up these loans, I know the announcement last week for loans for regional farm related businesses is very popular, but don’t forget there is about 12,700, I think heading towards 13,000, farmers now on the Household Allowance, and that over four years is worth $100,000. That’s not there to buy fodder, but it’s there to allow the dignity of purchasing the essentials of food and basic household essentials. And so, that in itself has taken pressure off some families knowing that those items are covered, and then how they manage their business is another fashion. You know, those that have looked after the stock are, you know, the market has held up quite well so that they are – it’s not like it’s been in previous droughts where I’ve been involved where the stock becomes worthless. So, that’s still holding up, land prices are holding up so equity is staying in there and these loans give the ability of farmers to restructure their finance over a different period of time and a lower rate of interest.
CREDLIN: Alright, Joel Fitzgibbon, you’ve been very critical of the government’s plan to take people of the Household Assistance allowance after four years. There was obviously an announcement recently that people would get a cash payment at the end of the four year period, but my understanding is they’ll still come off the Farm Household Allowance. What’s your understanding? Have you been able to move the government on this?
FITZGIBBON: That’s exactly right, Peta, and farmers don’t want Mark and I to get into a stoush. I know Mark is doing his very best…
CREDLIN: No they don’t.
FITZGIBBON: … for his local constituents, in particular the farmers. But it is true that the government is as we speak taking families of the Farm Household Allowance. By Christmas, they would have taken 600 off, I think, and another 600 at least soon after that. So, that’s a real problem; I think it’s a very, very bad mistake to be denying farmers that payment while the drought is ongoing. Just on the loans, I’ve already made the point that more debt, or the reshuffling of debt, is not very helpful to farmers, but the farm loans Mark was talking about, that is the zero interest loans for a while then, and the business loans, won’t be available to farmers or small business until January of next year. In fact, we won’t even see the guidelines until then, so the Prime Minister is pretty good at rolling out to the cameras and announcing these things but they are very slow to come into effect, and sadly some farmers won’t be able to wait until January or later next. For some of these farmers, the end is coming very, very soon. I was talking to one dairy farmer this week who was just in despair. He said he can’t keep going back to the bank, but in any case he doesn’t see these loans even, if they were available now, being of any assistance to him. And this is a large scale, efficient, innovative dairy farm; not a smaller player and I look at him and I think well if you can’t do it mate, who can?
COULTON: I might just clarify a couple of things if I can…
CREDLIN: Just Mark – Mark, just quickly before we go, what hope do you have that the government will extend the Farm Household Allowance beyond the four year period? We don’t throw people off the dole, why are we throwing farmers of the allowance?
COULTON: And we are not doing that either. What we are clarifying is that at the end of that there is a $13,000 cash payment, the legislation has gone through the House so that can be done on a six monthly basis, it’s at the same rate of the allowance. So, that will be continued as the drought continues…
CREDLIN: Yeah, but just Mark, let me be very clear. Mark, let me be very clear, they’re coming off the allowance. They are coming off the allowance, yes they might be getting a cash payment but in technical terms they are coming off the allowance.
COULTON: They come off the allowance and when they come off the allowance, they get a payment which equivalent to six months of the allowance and after the six months there is a possibility if they still need that assistance that they can get that payment again. That legislation has gone through, so those people will not be abandoned, they will be able to continue getting the funds at the same rate but they will not be on the Farm Household Allowance, they will be getting these lump sum payments as they come out. So the farmers that coming off now are eligible to a $13,000, I think it’s $13,600 off the top of my head, allowance which is equivalent to what six months of the payments would be. The Farm…
CREDLIN: And to just be very clear, I’ve got to go, you’re saying they then can come back, Mark Coulton you’re saying to be very clear here you’re saying that when they finish the allowance, they get the lump sum, can they come back on? Can they come back on?
FITZGIBBON: Not automatically, Peta.
COULTON: No, not automatically but they can apply if they still need it and as the drought continues like we’ve been doing all the way through, we have the ability to adjust and amend policies to fit the needs as they continue to bite.