THE federal Nationals will aim to shape a package of immediate drought assistance measures to support struggling farm communities at a party room meeting in Bundaberg today.
Nationals MP Michael McCormack said drought issues would be “front and centre” at the Queensland meeting, ahead of federal parliament sitting in Canberra next week for the first time in 2014.
Mr McCormack said several National MPs had electorates facing a “dire situation”, having gone up to 18 months without rain.
He said the dry conditions were also starting to impact on parts of his Riverina electorate in southern-western NSW, with requests for support coming in from rural constituents in recent weeks.
Agriculture Minister and Nationals deputy-leader Barnaby Joyce upped the ante after visiting drought-hit regions of southern Queensland and north-western NSW at the weekend and indicating he’d be pushing federal cabinet to lend support for those communities
NSW MP Mark Coulton, who attended several of those meetings with Minister Joyce including at Lightning Ridge, is pushing hard for an assistance package.
But Mr Coulton said reports on Monday morning suggesting Minister Joyce was now pushing federal cabinet for $7 billion to help implement an Australian Reconstruction and Development Board (ARDB) were inaccurate.
Mr Coulton said some people at the St George meeting raised the ARDB proposal and Minister Joyce “didn’t howl them down” as he supported the concept “in principle”.
He said the potential longer-term support measure could be discussed via the Minister’s Agricultural White Paper process, along with other proposals “but that’s not what’s needed now”.
Mr Coulton said the key priorities right now are immediate support to transport water and feed supplies, interest rate subsidies and retaining agricultural workers.
“People have asked if there’s an equivalent of the dole that could be paid to keep workers on farm until things turn around,” he said.
He said another suggestion was tweaking eligibility for concessional loans in the $420 million Farm Finance package to help more farmers affected by drought.
Mr Coulton said at a 4.5 per cent interest, the concessional loans offered little incentive for farmers to shift from a bank loan of 6pc interest.
“We took on a whole heap of thoughts and requests and Barnaby Joyce will sift through all of that now with his department and work out a package,” he said.
Mr Coulton said he’d also spoken to Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday about the drought situation and he was “quite aware and quite sympathetic”.
He said while there was an apparent philosophical divide in cabinet over government funding due to the rejection of SPC Ardmona’s request for $25 million in federal government support, he didn’t expect a rift on drought support, given it was a different scenario.
Mr Coulton said the drought was a “natural disaster situation, whereas SPC was more of a business issue”.
He said Minister Joyce also needed support from State government agriculture ministers, particularly to uncertainty in rural communities at the transition away from the traditional Exceptional Circumstances drought support program.
Mr Coulton said his electorate was looking “pretty grim right now” but with no subsoil moisture, farmers and rural communities were also “staring down the barrel” for next year.
“We usually have a party room meeting before parliament starts to work out what’s happening for the year and communicate with each other,” he said.
“I can’t pre-empt what’s going to happen but I’m very concerned about where we’re heading with this drought because it’s grim enough now.
“I think we’ll get something, and I can’t predict what that will be, but there’s a realisation across government that we’re into a serious situation.
“What I’ve been telling people who are contacting me about the drought is they need to get in touch with their financial counsellors.
“State and federal help is available so they need to make that connection with their financial counsellors because if there is a support program they need to be in the system.
“Don’t talk to your neighbour about what’s available, get the right facts.”
Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said Minister Joyce could immediately assist drought affected farming families by restoring the $40 million withheld from the Farm Finance package
He said Labor's scheme was up and running and does what a reconstruction bank should do – shifting farm debt from the commercial banks to the Commonwealth on a low interest/interest only basis.
“Further, there is evidence that the Farm Finance scheme is causing the banks to offer farmers a better deal in a quest to maintain the debt on their own books,” he said.
“Barnaby Joyce continues to publicly call on his cabinet colleagues to act but one simple act by him would make an additional $40 million available immediately.
“Further, a quick and effective response to the growing drought emergency would be to enhance Farm Finance by further lowering the 4.5pc interest rate and adjusting the guidelines to improve access for drought-affected farmers.
“Given the Farm Finance scheme is already operational, the additional money could flow quickly - and for many farm families every day counts.”