QUEENSLAND LNP MP Bruce Scott has added to a growing chorus of critics demanding an overhaul of the federal government’s drought policy.
The National Farmers' Federation (NFF) has also accused every State government except Queensland of being "missing in action" with the provision of bureaucratic support to assist rural communities facing compound impacts from extended dry conditions.
Mr Scott said the government had established a drought policy program throughout the year, in terms of low interest concessional loans and farm household support payments.
But he said as the season had worsened in several “hot spots” across his Queensland electorate and parts of western NSW, drought policy gaps had appeared.
Mr Scott said the $700 million made available in the government’s drought concessional loans scheme and Farm Finance package was “flowing through” to farmers.
But he said more consideration also needed to find ways of using that money more effectively to assist struggling rural communities.
Like the NFF, he questioned the effectiveness of national drought policy measures and working relationships between the States, following the removal of Exceptional Circumstances (EC) support by the previous Labor government.
“I think we’ve got to separate drought from exceptional drought; the one-in-100-year drought and the impact that type of event is having, not only on the landholder but also on the commercial sector of those country towns who are so dependent on the wealth that’s created out on the land,” he said to Fairfax Media.
“I’m very focused on these hot spots and how we get through the drought.
“We need to focus on the impact on those towns where there’s no cash and how those small businesses are faring, because they’re job creators.
“When there’s no money out of town, there’s no money in the town. I’m concerned also, as we get towards the end of this school year, what the situation will be for these families.
“They’ll be looking at their job security and deciding whether they stay in the community or go elsewhere.”
Retaining 'human capital'
Mr Scott said having signed free trade agreements (FTA) with Japan, Korea and now China, the government needed to support farming communities to ensure “human capital” was retained, to help deliver on the agricultural component of those deals.
“One of the great assets that people on the land have in their possession today is the knowledge they’ve accumulated over generations, and you don’t buy that in a text book,” he said.
“It’s important we keep that knowledge and that understanding - reading the weather signs and knowledge of the markets and the capacity of land to produce.
“As we sign these trade agreements, we also need to ensure we retain experienced people who understand management of the land, to ensure we can deliver more of the food we hope would flow from these trade agreements.”
Mr Scott said the eligibility criteria for farm household support could be simplified along with superannuation thresholds in asset tests, for accessing farm finance.
Other Nationals MPs have supported redirecting $100m underspent in the Farm Finance package to provide concessional loans to farmers in Walgett, NSW, also suffering a one in 100-year drought event.
That move would see concessional loans of 2 to 3 per cent over 10 to 15 years provided to farmers, to assist with replanting and restocking once the drought breaks.
Coalition agricultural backbench committee chair and Victorian Liberal MP Dan Tehan has also said drought policy would be a higher priority for the government, once the FTA was concluded, given drought conditions are also worsening in parts of his home State.
States not co-operating
NFF president Brent Finlay said money and systems were currently in place to provide drought support for farmers but most State bureaucracies weren’t co-operating, at the expense of drought-stricken farmers.
“There only seems to be two governments that are active in supporting farmers who have been in drought for a number of years - the federal government and Queensland,” he said.
“They are the only ones who are actually being seen to be proactively addressing farmers concerns, so where are these other States?
“Some parts of NSW have been in drought for three years and now the drought is moving into Victoria so something needs to be done very soon to get these other bureaucracies working.”
Mr Finlay said EC was removed in May 2012 but that wasn’t a green light for State governments to “walk away from their farmers and farming communities”.
“I don’t think the Australian public would want government to walk away from providing support for these long-term drought-affected areas,” he said.
“Some short-term measures were introduced at the start of the year and I said back then our members would be very concerned if we reached October and it hadn’t rained but here we are now in November and that’s what’s happened.
“We want to see some urgency from those States that aren’t engaged in this space.”
Mr Joyce said the redirection of the underspent $100m had been agreed to by the Treasurer and Finance Minister.
“I will be making sure we progress this and I apologise for the delay,” he said.
Farmers should not have to wait: Fitzgibbon
Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said the Coalition government should be capable of doing more than one thing at a time.
“Drought-affected farmers should not be waiting for the conclusion of the China-FTA negotiations,” he said.
Mr Fitzgibbon said Mr Joyce was now talking about moving Farm Finance package funds into the drought loans scheme, which would be ineffective in the absence of changes to the scheme’s eligibility criteria.
He said Victorians were unable to apply for concessional loans because the government had only extended the program to NSW, Queensland and WA.
“I don’t know where the roadblock is – that’s for the minister to sort out – but I do know that pouring more money into drought concessional loans won’t allow one additional farmer to qualify,” he said.
“I think it’s a sleight of hand to say, ‘I’m going to take $100 million out of here to put into drought’ when he (Mr Joyce) can’t spend the money he already has in his drought package.
“And he can’t spend it because farmers are finding it impossible to qualify.”
Mr Fitzgibbon conceded the current drought policy approach was ad hoc and repeated calls for Mr Joyce to reinstate a State ministerial forum, to address long-term drought policy.
“A long-term drought strategy was where the former Labor government was heading,” he said.
“(But) here we are more than 12 months on from the election and nothing has happened.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said government backbenchers are, “lining up to say the drought package is not working”.
“For weeks now he’s (Mr Joyce) been saying, ‘yes I understand that and I’m going to do something about it’ (but) we’re still waiting.”