SHADOW Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon is claiming a salutary political victory over his National party rival Barnaby Joyce, after a vocal debate over drought support payments that boiled throughout the week in Canberra.
Yesterday, Mr Joyce was forced to correct an answer he made during Monday’s question time on the number of drought support applications, which Mr Fitzgibbon said amounted to “an enormously embarrassing retraction”.
Mr Fitzgibbon had originally asked Mr Joyce to say how much the government had actually paid in doubt assistance to farming families, following announcement of the government’s drought assistance package eight months ago.
Mr Joyce said nearly 4000 applications had been approved for the farm household allowance which was “a substantial amount of money”.
“This means that they are receiving between $900 and $1000 a fortnight,” he said.
“We have actually changed conditions so that we can bring dignity back into these people's lives.”
Mr Fitzgibbon intervened several times during the answer including raising a point of order on relevance, which the Speaker rejected. But Mr Joyce was also forced to withdraw his comment referring to an interjecting opposition MP as a “clown” during the fiery exchange.
Mr Fitzgibbon’s displeasure focused on the Minister’s suggestion in his answer that the Interim Farm Household Allowance money is delivered “straight away” once an application is made.
“This, of course, is incorrect,” Mr Fitzgibbon said in a statement.
“Farming families applying for Farm Household Allowance are finding the process a bureaucratic nightmare.”
The exchange spilled over into question time yesterday when Mr Fitzgibbon asked why the Minister hadn’t returned to the House to correct his previous day’s statement on drought support.
Mr Fitzgibbon said Mr Joyce’s embarrassing plight was worsened by the government’s efforts to protect him from giving an answer, through senior Coalition MP Christopher Pyne.
“The point is that there was no discrepancy pointed out that needs to be corrected,” Mr Pyne said.
“There was simply an assertion made and therefore there was no question.”
Despite persistent objections from Labor frontbencher Tony Burke and Mr Fitzgibbon, Speaker Bronwyn Bishop ruled the Opposition’s question wasn’t completed within the required time frame.
“The lesson from this is that people should abide by the standing orders and ask their question within the time allowed,” she said.
But later in the day, Mr Joyce made a return to return to the House of Representatives to correct the figures he provided in Monday’s question time answer.
He said 4957 applications have been received for the Farm Household Allowance, with 4551 fully processed, 4098 applications approved to date, with 4011 recipients currently receiving payment.
“According to estimates - which is the best we can do - 3500 recipients have transitioned from Interim Farm Household Allowance payments,” he said.
“Payments to farmers who had been in receipt of Interim Farm Household Allowance and had applied for Farm Household Allowance continued without interruption until their applications had been assessed by Centrelink.
“Further specific inquiries on this should be directed to the department that actually administers this, which is the Department of Human Services.”
However, Mr Fitzgibbon told Fairfax Agricultural Media he remained dissatisfied with the Minister’s answer.
“It was an enormously embarrassing retraction for Mr Joyce made worse by the fact the government tried to protect him from the question yesterday,” he said.
“His answer last night only sought to highlight that up to 1000 farm families are still waiting for financial support and he can’t even give concrete figures, all he said was 'it’s our best estimate'.
“But he should be in a position to say how many been people have been denied this support and how many pending.
“Estimates are simply not good enough.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said he would pursue the issues with the Department of Human Services (DHS) in Senate Estimates today and with the Department of Agriculture next week.
“But there can be no doubt, on any measure now, that the government’s drought policy announced in such fanfare in February after the infamous and well-covered Prime Ministerial drought tour has been an absolute failure and drought assistance is not getting to drought-affected farming families.
"This drought is still very much alive and still hurting farming families,” he said.
Mr Joyce’s office said the corrected statement last night was about being accurate with the numbers - 406 applications were on hand for processing and not 1000, they said, while 453 have been rejected.
DHS figures had also indicated the average time to process a claim was 42 days, since July 1, the spokesperson said.