Farmers look to Canberra as drought crisis worsens

By Rashida Yosufzai

The government has vowed to accelerate a new policy offering income support for farmers. Photo / Getty Images
The government has vowed to accelerate a new policy offering income support for farmers. Photo / Getty Images

For Australia's farmers there are three certainties in life: death, taxes and drought.

The tumult of all three is crashing down on many of them as drought grips parts of New South Wales and Queensland.

More than 60 per cent of Queensland is drought-declared and much of central northern NSW has reported well-below-average rainfall for the past two years.

Some farmers have been forced to shoot starving cattle. Talk of debt-laden farmers committing suicide reverberates in rural communities.

Farmers are mentally tired and run down, says National Farmers Federation (NFF) president Brent Finlay. And their resilience is gone.

"We don't know if we're near the start of [this drought], near the middle, or the end."

While some farmers consider a collapse in their livelihoods, others are looking to Canberra for help.

It may be a long road.

Historically, Australia has struggled for a consistent approach to drought policy.

The nation's first, implemented in the mid-20th century, focused on drought-proofing the agricultural sector.

It was scrapped in the 1970s when it was accepted that drought was inevitable, not preventable.

It took another three decades for that policy to be shelved and the focus shifted to helping farmers help themselves.

The 1992 National Drought Policy also introduced grants, interest rate subsidies and relief payments.

Climate change was factored in as it became part of the public consciousness under the Rudd and Gillard governments.

Current drought policy recognises the increasing prevalence of a variable climate but scraps two types of relief payments - the exceptional circumstances payment and the transitional farm family payment.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has vowed to bring forward the policy - offering struggling farmers fortnightly income support for up to three years - from July 1 to the first half of this year.

When state and territory primary industry ministers signed on to the national drought programme reform last year, the drought in NSW and Queensland was worsening.

Subsequently 2013 was declared the hottest year on record and the driest in certain parts of the country.

Farmers say the new scheme does not adequately address the multitudes of issues facing the sector.

The NFF would prefer to see a package focused on helping farmers prepare for drought. The federation is looking at a range of tweaks, including a review of asset tests and increasing the size of the farm finance package; and new measures such as helping farmers with labour assistance.

Others have floated the idea of an assistance package to help with mounting debt.

University of Canberra academic Linda Botterill believes policymakers failed to capitalise on a comprehensive 2008 study of the social, economic and environmental issues. She says there is a case to be made for some form of taxpayer-funded assistance, but now is not the time to try to work out the form that should take.

"It needs to be well thought through in advance, and not developed in the heat of an argument of a drought," Professor Botterill told the ABC.

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce is working on a set of acceptable assistance proposals for Cabinet and acknowledges it will be a battle to convince colleagues.

He faces resistance among the economic hardliners, with the Abbott government having drawn a line in the sand on government assistance to industry.

The agricultural sector faces the prospect of being put in the same basket as manufacturing.

So far the Government has made assurances that drought relief is different and it won't treat "mum and dad" farmers the same way as businesses backed by multinational companies.

Treasurer Joe Hockey was having a bet each way this week as the case mounted for more help.

He reminded farmers Australia was a "tough country" and they needed to adjust to regular "swings and roundabouts" in agriculture.

But he rejected Labor advice to farmers not to hold their breath for more help, given the Government's rejection of assistance for car maker Holden and fruit processor SPC Ardmona.

The comparison was wrong, Hockey said, because the Government treated drought as an entirely natural disaster.

Joyce wants to emphasise the human aspect of the drought to convince his Cabinet colleagues of the case for more support.

"There is just no financial support for these people. They're not getting any money coming into their homes for lights and hot water, let alone labour and water and fodder," he said.

His solution? "I haven't quite worked that one out yet."

Joyce saw for himself how bad things have become in drought regions, noting even the kangaroos were dying in their thousands.

Finlay warns that even if the drought breaks tomorrow there will be a long period of recovery.

"This is no longer about animals. It's not about corporations. It's about human beings," he says.

- AAP

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