Show us the money, say pastoralists

29 Nov, 2010 04:00 AM
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Bill (left) and Liam Johns, Killara station, Meekatharra.
Bill (left) and Liam Johns, Killara station, Meekatharra.

PASTORALISTS have been left wondering where their government-supported drought relief is, with many claiming that the recently announced $5 million dry season assistance package is largely geared towards farmers in the Wheatbelt and South West.

Many stations in the Pilbara, Gascoyne and Murchison are entering their eighth year of drought, but the news of one million dollars in funding for high-volume water tanks for 100 drought-affected shires was not exactly helpful to the pastoral community.

Agriculture and Food Minister Terry Redman visited Meekatharra at the end of August flanked by a group of local pastoralists who outlined to him just how tough the situation had become for them and where the government could offer some assistance.

Waiving pastoral rates and taxes and offering subsidies for agistment and freight were some of the options offered to Mr Redman.

Liam and Penny Johns run the 262,000 hectare Killara station near Meekatharra with Liam's father Bill.

Liam said at first glance, the $5m dry season assistance package did not appear to offer much, if anything, to pastoralists.

He said given the package was predominantly community-based, it was not much use in towns like Meekatharra which had a high percentage of government-assisted housing.

Mining, shire and aerial contract work has kept the Johns family busy for the last 12 years and provided them with an income during the drought years.

They currently run about 800 cows, their core breeding stock, as they destocked heavily earlier on.

They had subleased a further 485,623 hectares in hope that when it did rain, they would be better prepared to increase their numbers.

After 10 years they reasonably thought they were due for some rain but unfortunately that did not happen, although the sub-leased country has allowed them to retain their breeding stock.

For them, there have been no benefits from the Federal Government's $23 million so-called Drought Pilot, which began in July and Mr Johns said it had been of no more use to them than the previous Exceptional Circumstances (EC) declaration system.

It seems this latest funding effort is not much better.

"We get no benefits from the Drought Pilot," Mr Johns said. "We can see that it's different to EC but because we supplement our income so much with contracting we can't apply.

"But we have to contract work because we don't want to fall behind.

"Once that happens you might never catch up again."

A spokesperson from Mr Redman's office said measures in the Dry Season Assistance Package were available to pastoral areas and in the last 10 years pastoral areas had received $8.6 million in assistance through Exceptional Circumstances and a further $1.2 million in State-funded Dry Season Assistance Schemes.

The spokesperson said farmers and pastoralists could earn up to $6500 on-farm and $20,000 off-farm before becoming ineligible for the Farm Family Support assistance under the Drought Pilot.

They also said the Drought Pilot assets test was more relaxed and allowed farming and pastoral couples to have up to $2 million in net assets.

The Johns were among the pastoralists who spoke with Mr Redman in August and Mr Johns said they were still dealing with the same issues they raised with him then.

Mr Johns said they were not looking for handouts, but instead assistance in other forms such as solar rebates and help with supplementary feed and freight costs.

"A lot of the solar systems will need the batteries replaced soon," he said. "I've only got a small system and you're looking at roughly $22,000 worth of batteries.

"Those sorts of things would be quite handy."

Mr Redman's spokesperson said subsidies for agistment and feed were classified as "transactional subsidies" and were not permitted under the terms agreed to with the Federal Government for the Drought Pilot.

But Mr Johns said the main burden for the majority of pastoralists continues to be pastoral lease rates, which have skyrocketed over the years.

"The increase in our unimproved values is what's causing our rates and taxes to go up so much," he said. "That's one of our main issues and if the government was really serious about helping that would be something they could look into.

"We did hear something about a consideration for having rates waived or part waived, but our invoice came through a couple of months ago and we paid it, because there was no mention of it at that stage.

"So I'm not too sure about the details but we'll be looking into it."

Lands Minister Brendon Grylls last month issued a reminder to pastoralists that they could apply to the Pastoral Lands Board (PLB) for rent relief and said the application process was "manageable and efficient" and applications were processed quickly.

Mr Grylls said he had asked the Department of Regional Development and Lands to write to all pastoralists reminding them of the availability of rent relief, but a number of pastoralists Farm Weekly spoke to knew little about it.

Those that did said the application process was complicated and the level of information they were required to hand over seemed unnecessary.

Mr Grylls confirmed that the Department of Regional Development and Lands had written to all pastoral lessees advising them of the rent relief provisions but said to date the department had only received three applications.

He said a number of lessees had requested the application forms.

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