Farmers - the new forgotten people?

Farmers - the New Forgotten People says Joel Fitzgibbon

Opinion
Joel Fitzgibbon

Joel Fitzgibbon

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Farmers have become Scott Morrison's forgotten people writes Joel Fitzgibbon.

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It's been a while since the drought dominated the six o'clock news.

No one will be happier about that than Scott Morrison who, soon after taking the top job, told the Australian people that drought-affected farmers will be his first priority.

The Prime Minister now talks of the "quiet people", but our farmers have become his forgotten people.

They've been given a Drought Envoy, a Drought Co-ordinator, a Drought Task Force and a Drought Summit. But they've seen very little meaningful action.

Meanwhile the drought continues to grow worse. Sadly, the Bureau of Meteorology offers no hope that the weather will change in the foreseeable future. Yet Australia still lacks a comprehensive drought policy.

Over six years the Coalition Government has announced a range of drought initiatives, boasting headline-grabbing spending but offering little substance.

A centrepiece of the Coalition's approach has been concessional loans which allow the Government to talk about the capital value of all loans whether lent or not. The loans offer hope to only a few, for whom shuffling debt is a helpful option.

But these loans cost the Government little because the real cost is the administration of the loans plus the opportunity costs of the capital - capital raised at the bond rate which, of course, is much lower than the rate the Government charges our farmers.

The latest big headline-grabber is the "Future Drought Fund" which has allowed the Prime Minister to claim a $5 billion commitment. But the $5 billion headline was created by stealing money from a road construction fund. It's an accounting trick.

The Government has promised to draw down $100 million in interest each year for distribution to undefined bodies for expenditure on undefined drought programs.

Notably, no money will be drawn down until July next year even though the Fund was first announced in October 2018. Our farmers need help now, not next year.

The Government will point out there has have been other programs. That's true. One initiative provided money to local councils in selected drought-affected regions, to bring forward local infrastructure works. But the objective was to stimulate local economies, not to directly assist farmers. In any case, the program closed last December.

So too did a program which channelled modest cash assistance to farming families through various charities.

To be fair, some adjustments have been made to capital depreciation schedules to encourage investment in things like on-farm water efficiency and feed storage infrastructure, but these initiatives help only those with both the capacity to invest and the profit against which they can offset the expenditure.

Those most in need have no such capacity. The Farm Management Deposit scheme has also been enhanced, but again, in the middle of the worst drought on record, few farmers have enough money to put some away for another day.

Arguably the greatest failure has been the Government's management of the current farm household income support scheme.

Drought-affected farming families have for many years had access to the equivalent of a Newstart payment, but with a more generous assets test that reflects the value of on-farm assets.

After years of expensive outlays, in 2012 Australian Governments agreed that special drought-related income support should only be available for a limited period of time during which farmers would be expected to re-build, diversify or leave the industry.

This seemed a sound approach at the time, but back then no one foresaw the severity of the soon-to-come drought. In the current climate the three (now four) year limit on what is now known as Farm Household Allowance (FHA) seems harsh and unfair.

Many farming families are now having their FHA cut off and it's a matter the Prime Minister must re-visit.

The situation is even worse for the many farming families which have found it impossible to access FHA at all. For them, the rules and paperwork have proven too hard to successfully negotiate.

Last week I spent some time in Stanthorpe where the dams are empty, apple trees are being pulled out of the ground and vegetable growers have decided not to plant.

Elsewhere on the Eastern Seaboard our cattle numbers continue to fall as does milk production. What's been a problem for farmers will soon be an issue for us all as food prices inevitably rise.

Farmers will be the Forgotten People no longer, and I suspect the Prime Minister might be shaken into finally taking meaningful action.

- Joel Fitzgibbon MP is the Federal Member for Hunter and the Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Resources

The story Farmers - the new forgotten people? first appeared on Farm Online.

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