AMID calls for a moratorium on banks foreclosing on struggling farms, Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce and outspoken radio host Alan Jones will attend a rural debt crisis meeting in Queensland this week.
The meeting at Winton on Friday will also be attended by Queensland independent MP Bob Katter and other political figures and farming representatives.
Mr Katter said the meeting would not be designed for the politicians to “shoot their mouths off” but for “the people to have their say to the Australian nation”.
“The people must state their demands clearly to and forcefully to the government,” he said.
Mr Katter has also continued his push to establish the Australian Reconstruction and Development Board, to take-over stressed farm loans at a discounted rate of 25 to 30 per cent.
However, the government has rejected the proposal in the first draft of its Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper released in late October.
Chinese are at the gate: Jones
Mr Jones spoke to Mr Joyce about the persisting rural debt crisis in a typically fiery interview last week on 2GB Radio in Sydney, riddled with demands for action.
“Farmers don’t want handouts they want someone to stop foreclosures and of course when the banks foreclose they then sell the farm to someone and the Chinese are waiting at the gate,” Mr Jones said.
Mr Jones described the Nationals deputy-leader as “a class act” who fights with one hand behind his back “in a government that would rather give money to some environmental outfit or to foreign aid, than to help farmers”.
“You’re the best retail politician in the business,” he said in demanding to know what the minister was doing about bank foreclosures on drought stricken farmers.
Mr Joyce said: “No matter what we do, it’ll never be enough, we’ve got to do more”.
“It is at the forefront of my mind,” he said.
“The first thing I did when I came to the ministry was fight for a drought package.”
Farmers don't want handout: Joyce
Mr Joyce said he spoke to “senior operatives” recently to seek more drought assistance funding, with an announcement expected imminently.
He also spoke about the rural debt roundtable meeting he held with banks, the National Farmers Federation and his department in Canberra recently, where the issue of bank foreclosures was “on the table”.
Mr Joyce said he told the meeting: “I don’t want to have to come into this space but if the heat gets too high, and the pressure gets too much, I will, and you won’t like it”.
Mr Joyce also provided figures which said the foreclosure situation was “not catastrophic but not good”.
He said currently in northern Queensland 18 farms are in debt mediation with their banks, 10 are in foreclosures and overall about 3.1pc are 90 days in arrears.
Mr Jones said the government underwrote banks during the Global Financial Crisis and now had a chance to underwrite farmers who “don’t want a handout” and would repay the loans when the drought breaks.
Mr Joyce said he issued a similar message to banks at the rural debt roundtable meeting, saying they were guaranteed $880 billion in the GFC.
Battlers and bastards
Mr Jones described the situation as “absolute bastardy” with battling farmers unable to provide food to feed dying stock.
“Bob Katter told me that there are 5000 to 10,000 cattle dying daily,” he said.
“I mean what does the nation say to families who can’t pay for animal fodder; what does the nation say to the farmer who can’t pay to truck his water; what does the nation say to the farmer who can’t pay the bank overdraft; what does the nation say about the thousands and thousands of cattle that are dying of starvation?
“Well I’ll tell you what the banks say, 'we’ll foreclose and the Chinese (will buy the farms)'.
“When the drought does break and the rain is there who’ll own the farms?”
Mr Joyce agreed he wanted the Australian farm to be owned by the Australian family.
“Mums and dads who own the family farm, that’s what it’s all about,” he said.
“I don’t believe that it’s in the banks’ interest to have foreclosures because they’re going to lose the value of their asset.”
Mr Joyce said the government had also changed the eligibility criteria for the Farm Household Allowance, with over 4300 approvals now and couples receiving $900 to $1000 a fortnight to pay for the basic necessities of life.
The minister was also forced to defend Australia’s foreign investment laws concerning agriculture, during the radio interview.
Mr Joyce said Australia had “the most liberal foreign investment review laws in the world” with “too little oversight”.
He said the Coalition had made an election commitment to bring down the Foreign Investment Review Board’s (FIRB) threshold for foreign farmland purchases from $248 million to $15 million and also increase scrutiny for accumulative purchases.
“It’s not in our national interest to have the whole nation owned by another nation,” Mr Joyce said.
Mr Joyce said free trade agreements with China, Korea and Japan had explicitly said the “terms of engagement” with the FIRB included not only $15m for individual farms but also $53m for agribusinesses and $1 for state owned enterprises.
He said the scope of the FIRB would also be broadened to include people with actual agricultural experience, “off the land”.
The Rural Debt Crisis Summit will be held at Winton Shire Council supper rooms from 11:30am on Friday, December 5, 2014.