The drought is hitting farming families hard. It is also hitting the many other businesses and families in rural and regional areas that depend on the success of our farmers for their livelihoods as well.
When droughts hit, there is a lot that has to be done to support these communities make it through these tough times. There is also a lot that is done before a drought that helps build the resilience of our farming communities. Our farmers and the communities that depend on them are no strangers to drought, and neither is the Government.
None of us can make it rain. The drought is no-one’s fault, it’s just something we all have to deal with, each doing our bit. As Treasurer I can assure you that there will be no holding back on what is needed. We will make sure we remain focused on working hard to deliver the support where and when it is needed. Not just today but in the months and likely years to come, long after I suspect the cameras have moved on.
The Commonwealth Budget will support the measures that are needed to provide the support and relief that is required for the bush. This will not be diminished or affected in any way by any other areas of Government expenditure and commitments we have in those areas, be it education, hospitals, aged care, defence or even foreign aid. Those responsibilities will continue to be determined on their merits, they will not limit or take away from what is needed on the drought.
There are some clear things that need to be done, are being done and will continue to be done. That is our focus.
Nothing is achieved by shouting at the sky or at each other. Our focus must be on pulling together, working together and focusing on the task at hand. And we all have specific jobs to do.
Our farmers have taken measures to prepare themselves for times like this. But when the drought persists, as it has, that’s when State Governments step in to provide financial support for transporting stock, getting access to feed and dealing with the many other challenges on the farm. This is what the NSW Government has announced and is delivering.
Some have suggested we should be using our defence forces to truck the feed and supplies in. While I am sure this is well motivated, I would prefer that the financial support for this task is provided to existing transport providers to do that job. We don’t want the army to put truck drivers out of work. That won’t help.
And by delivering food supplies to these districts, we are taking sales from the local businesses and shop owners who are also feeling the pressure. It is better to provide direct cash support instead, to be spent in the local towns, which is what we are doing.
We have to be smart about the way we help our farmers. National Farmers Federation President Fiona Simpson said it best, and I agree:
“We need to find out where the money actually works best, where the support is needed, and what’s going to do the best job for the community, and people need to work together”.
For the Federal Government, it’s our job to ensure that there is food on the table, that kids can keep going to school, that families get the services they need and that the towns and centres that depend on our farming community can remain viable. It’s our job to look after the families, individuals and communities and work together with state and local government, and the communities themselves to do this job.
As a Government, we understand the importance of continuing to listen to our farmers, their communities and to you as to the effectiveness of the measures in place.
The Prime Minister and the Minister for Agriculture and Water recently visited drought affected regions across New South Wales and Queensland to see drought conditions on the ground. They wanted to hear first-hand from our farmers about how these conditions are affecting not only them and their families, but also their local communities. Several good ideas were raised during their visit in relation to existing and potential relief measures and our Government is now exploring those options.
So far, in response we have acted to immediately extend the Farm Household Allowance (FHA) from three to four years. This will provide an additional year of income support to eligible farmers continuing to face hard times. We have expanded access to the programme by relaxing the assets threshold and we have now increased payments by around 50%.
This means direct financial assistance to families and individuals of up to $12,000 extra, this year. This means they can keep buying food at their local grocery store, put fuel in their car and pay their bills. It’s not provided to feed their stock but to feed them. It means they can continue to be part of their local economy, which ends up supporting everyone.
This latest financial assistance package of $190 million takes our support for farmers and their communities experiencing hardship to more than $1.3 billion since we were first elected. In some areas like Queensland the drought has been going on for years. This latest package also includes increased funding for mental health support services.
We have also announced a Farm Liaison Officer through the Rural Financial Counselling Service (RFCS) to ensure farmers are getting the right advice at the right time. The new officer will ensure that Government is receiving a clear picture of how our measures are working on-the-ground in drought-affected communities.
In terms of what is currently available to farmers experiencing hardship, I’ve included some information which might be of interest to you. I would encourage you to read this material. The opinions and information being presented in the media rarely tell the full story.
This material includes information on the Rural Financial Counselling Service, the Farm Household Allowance, the Regional Investment Corporation’s concessional loans, pests and weeds funding and primary producer taxation measures. You can also find more information on the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources’ website.
If you are worried about anyone, farmer or otherwise, who is doing it tough, please encourage them to seek help. Our rural financial counsellors provide referrals to counsellors and support to access programs. There are also a number of phone and web-based support services of particular help to farmers. They allow access to expertise without the need to travel and are fully confidential. The following numbers can be called free of charge for assistance 24 hours, 7 days a week:
• Lifeline 131 114
• Beyond Blue 1300 224 636
• MensLine Australia 1300 789 978
• Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
There will be more that everyone will need to do, including us as the Government, to see this through. We know this and are planning for this. We are listening and taking action. We are not engaging in knee jerk responses. We are consulting and working with people on the ground who know what they are doing, to make sure the relief and support gets where it is needed.
We know this will be going on for a long time yet. And we will be making more announcements as and when is needed.
Australians are also being very generous. For the reasons I have set out above, the best form of support is direct financial assistance. This gets money to the towns where it is needed, is spent in the towns and keeps their local economies alive.
Please make sure that when you are donating you are doing so through registered charitable organisations that have full tax deductibility. Unfortunately there are some out there who do seek to take advantage of situations like these. By giving through recognised and registered organisations you can be more confident your support gets to where it is needed.
I would like to thank those of you who have raised their concerns with my office in my Cook electorate and in Canberra on this issue, I too share your concerns.
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