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Calls for disaster funding rethink after devastated farmers miss out

Kallee Buchanan and Jess Lodge, Tuesday January 30, 2018 - 11:49 EDT
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The Boxing Day storm caused significant damage in a narrow strip in the South Burnett. - ABC

Despite damage in the tens of millions of dollars, a Queensland region has failed to qualify for disaster assistance, prompting calls for a new way to fund recovery.

On Boxing Day a ferocious storm ripped through areas near Kingaroy, north of Toowoomba, tearing roofs off buildings and destroying crops.

A survey of 89 affected farmers put early estimates of the damage at more than $10 million, but the region has failed to qualify for National Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements (NDRRA).



South Burnett Mayor Keith Campbell said the region failed to reach the trigger point of $400,000 worth of damage to public assets, because the storm struck in a remote area.

"The storm on Boxing Day was absolutely horrible and significant in a fairly narrow strip," he said.

"Trees were stripped entirely of their leaves and there were crops in its path … as well as farm buildings, sheds and many homes had broken windows, roofs completely ripped off and the wind damage was significant.

"Yet we weren't able to achieve the NDRRA support for the reason that the public assets, described as being roads, drainage, council buildings, didn't reach the trigger point [for assistance]."

He said the NDRRA guidelines were set by the State and Federal Governments for a specific purpose and while the ruling was disappointing, farmers could make individual applications to access support.



But he was not critical of the process. He said it raised the question of whether the existing funding framework was enough to cope with the changing nature of disasters farmers across Australia now faced.

"From my association with these farmers on this occasion, if that is replicated throughout the country we should promote and advocate for more of a support mechanism," he said.

"What more can be done is a real question.

"The conversation needs to be had to see whether or not there are other ways to support farming families in these situations."

Finding a new form of support

Even if farmers are eligible for NDRRA assistance, much of it comes in the form of low-interest loans, and many are reluctant to take on more debt.

Peter Howlett grows crops outside Kingaroy, and estimated he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Boxing Day event.

"It was definitely the worst storm that I've ever seen, we had a lot of hail, 20-cent, 50-cent-piece size that did a lot of damage," he said.

"We've had a big hit financially as have other farmers around the area.

"We do need assistance and that's not in the form of loans, I think grants are what we really need at the moment to help get us through the short term."



He said farmers did not want handouts, but they also did not receive high enough prices for the produce they grow to offset the increasing risk they faced.

"Farmers are getting hit harder, whether the weather's changing or whether it's climate change I don't know what it is, but it seems to be more extreme," he said.

"I think because profit margins are tight in farming when a weather event impacts on you it's having an increasing financial effect.

"Ultimately what needs to happen is farmers need some type of income protection or I know there's talk about multi-peril crop insurance, some form of income protection that underpins what we're doing."

He said governments could contribute to a scheme that would allow farmers to get their working capital back, rather than leaving many of them for months without an income or crop.

Losses likely to last years

Kingaroy accountant Danielle Maudsley said the initial assessment of $10 million worth of damage was likely to rise as farmers assessed their capacity to rebuild and replant.



"That cost, in some cases, the feedback is double it, triple it," she said.

"The bigger picture though is not what you can see right now, it's what you can see in 12 months' time.

"Crops may be in the ground now, land may be ready to plant, it's when you're looking down the track at yields and profit margins and what they're getting in return; that's where the larger damage is."

She said the overall economic effect of the damage also needed to be considered.

"You're not looking at the damage to a building or infrastructure, you need to look at the actual economic effect to the area," she said.

"What will happen to these farmers in 12 months time? What assistance can we roll out that will help them over that period?

"People want to be supported … the feeling is that yet again we're not getting any support and they go it alone."

For now the farmers are being supported by the council, the Burnett Inland Economic Development Organisation, and BlazeAid, which was activated to help rebuild.



Murgon camp coordinator Brian Carr has travelled from disaster to disaster with BlazeAid.

He said across the country the need for support of any kind was clear.

"Not all of them are insured, so just having us there helping and showing them that we care and other people care is a light at the end of the tunnel for them," he said.


- ABC

© ABC 2018

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