PRIME Minister Tony Abbott has been urged to find more support for drought-hit agricultural regions in northern NSW and south-west Queensland.
Radio broadcaster Alan Jones pressured Mr Abbott during an interview on 2GB Sydney on Thursday suggesting Australians would support a drought tax similar to the flood levy introduced by the former Labor government.
Mr Jones said a female listener had pleaded for support to help with shifting livestock to areas where there’s feed, before they die.
“She said to me, Alan, the government can find huge amounts of money to send to people overseas who are in crisis, but they don’t help us,” he said.
“Maybe, she said, if more farmers shot themselves in public it would get some help from media and the government.”
Mr Abbott said that was a “very, very good question”.
He then referred to a “poignant passionate plea” in the Coalition joint party room meeting last week from Queensland LNP Senator Barry O’Sullivan about the need to support rural communities hit by drought.
“He said if there’s a flood, if there’s a fire, if there’s a storm, the emergency services come and they fix the problem as best they can, but with a drought it just gets worse and worse over months and years and eventually no-one comes because there’s not much left,” Mr Abbott said.
“It was a very poignant passionate plea and after that, I sat down with the most affected local member, Bruce Scott, the Member for Maranoa in Western Queensland and I said, ‘look, what can we do?’
“He and I agreed that we would work on some local projects that would be important signs of faith by our country in these parts of Australia and important demonstrations of the commitment that the rest of Australia has to these parts of our country.
“But… there is no easy answer.”
Mr Jones raised the issue of the flood tax introduced by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
“If tomorrow you said we’d have a drought tax – and we hate taxes, but a drought tax – and this is going to go exclusively to look after this dreadful problem where people are shooting themselves, animals are dead and you’re saying I’ll get John Howard and Paul Keating to administer the funds and we’ll see if we can provide food for these people, transport or whatever we can do,” he said.
“I believe Australians would say, because it’s the kind of people we are, ‘God, I hate taxes, but gee, isn’t this one of the better taxes we’ve ever been asked to pay’.”
Mr Abbott said, “That’s a very fair point, Alan”.
“As I said, I am talking to the local members about what they think the best way forward is,” he said.
“I accept that this is a terrible, terrible tragedy for the people of Longreach and that part of Western Queensland, for the people of Walgett and that part of Western NSW.
“It is a long, long time.”
In February last year Mr Abbott and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce visited drought stricken regions in western NSW and south-west Queensland before announcing a $320 million support package, underpinned by concessional loans.
At the time, Mr Abbott said the government’s support differed from corporate welfare they’d avoided paying SPC because those communities were suffering a natural disaster.
In December, the Coalition allocated an additional $100 million in longer-term low interest concessional loans to relieve pressure for producers in those regions experiencing one-in-50 or one-in-100 year droughts.
Mr Scott recently spoke in parliament about investing in a check fence or dingo barrier to keep out wild dogs which have contributed to a massive decline of the sheep industry in his electorate.
“West of my electorate, wild dogs or dingoes mixing with domestic dogs have really brought the industry to its knees,” he said.
“Since the early 1990s there has been a slow reduction of up to 80 per cent of the population of sheep in Central Western Queensland in my electorate.
“In that area of my electorate it has been estimated that wild dogs cost producers something like $11 million in lost production every year.
“That is a very, very conservative estimate.”
Mr Scott told Fairfax Media building the check fence was one of several small and medium sized “shovel-ready” projects he was talking about to Mr Abbott, other ministers and his local community, to help provide economic relief.
He said out of work shearers, kangaroo shooters, pastoralists and other community members could be engaged in the projects to help retain experienced workers.
Mr Scott said the projects would also help build legacy infrastructure that would also serve the community long after the drought breaks.
NSW Nationals MP Mark Coulton said he was also involved in discussions about a similar strategy for a package of projects to support drought-struck communities in his electorate.
Mr Coulton said the projects would help to retain experienced and skilled workers while “saving communities”.
Mr Scott said another prerequisite of his project package was for goods and materials to be purchased locally as well as using local labour “to create jobs”.
He said other support measures like drought loans and income assistance were also being discussed but the project package was a new priority.
“This has been on my agenda for some time and I’m pleased the Prime Minister is now plugged into it, and other ministers who are in the discussions, and I’m the conduit with the local community who are also plugged in,” he said.
“The PM visited these areas last year which started the process of returning drought support which was abolished by the Labor party and so he now appreciates and understands that the rain still hasn’t come and the conditions have actually become worse so we need to act.”
Mr Scott said he’d had discussions with producers and had a committee working on a strategy for producers to return the sheep industry to power “for all the right reasons”.
“With the government producing an Agricultural White Paper and with there being a desire to develop Northern Australia, I want to see a strategy for pastoral Australia that will enable those areas to regain the capacity to produce wool and sheepmeat,” he said.
“It will require investment in a check fence - or a dingo barrier fence, as we have known them in the past - in Central Western Queensland.
“The committee has put together a good proposition, and they do need money for that.
“I am going to do all that I can to get an investment, supported by government at state and federal levels, so that we will see a check fence become a reality.”
In the interview, Mr Jones also pointed to the Commonwealth government providing $100 billion between now and 2020 for a Renewable Energy Target to subsidise wind turbines and solar panels.
He said, “$100 billion to do what? To disfigure the environment and jack up the price of electricity”.
Mr Abbott said that’s why the Coalition was working with the Labor Party and the federal Senate crossbench to try and reign in the RET.
“You’re right, it is pushing up the price of power,” he said.
“It has been pushing up the price of power.
“It will continue to push up the price of power and it will result in an overbuild – a massive overbuild – of wind turbines unless something is done about it and that’s what we’re working with the crossbench and the Labor Party to try to address now.”