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Drought assistance on Ag Minister's list

Amy Phillips and Anna Vidot, Monday October 14, 2013 - 17:37 EDT
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Julia Creek grazier, Phillips Curr points out some droughted cattle to agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce. - ABC

The Federal Agriculture Minister says he's looking into changes to the farm finance assistance package.

The scheme was introduced by the former Labor Government and aims to provide eligible farmers with low interest loans.

Some graziers, in Queensland in particular, have called for the re-introduction of exceptional circumstances loans - a feature of the previous drought scheme which provided fortnightly payments to struggling farmers.

Barnaby Joyce toured parts of north-west Queensland on the weekend but says he won't make any public announcements until he's consulted with the federal cabinet.

"I've been looking at that now for a couple of weeks as to how we can do it better and looking at the settings that are currently in place and also bouncing ideas off people from Queensland rural adjustment Authority, I'll be suggesting some changes to that process to try and make it something that people can get access to."

The Farm Finance debt relief package was first announced by the former Labor Government in April, but it is only now started delivering money to some Victorian farmers. Six months after the then-agriculture minister Joe Ludwig announced $60 million per state, over two years, for concessional loans, only Victoria, NSW and Queensland have signed up to deliver them. Negotiations with the Northern Territory, Western Australian, South Australian and Tasmanian governments are ongoing.

In Victoria, the scheme has been oversubscribed, meaning that some eligible farmers could miss out on a loan of up to $650,000.

Peter Nee is the general manager of operations at Rural Finance Victoria, which is administering the loans scheme in that state. He says Rural Finance Victoria is still working through the 151 loan applications it's received so far; 28 have been approved so far, worth a total of $10.6 million. A little more than $8 million of that has already made it's way to 21 Victorian farmers.

"We are still accepting applications, because as we're working through them we're finding that some aren't necessarily eligible," Mr Nee said.

"We're funding as many as we can, but we're making it clear to people who still are wanting to apply that we guarantee funding in the future."

In New South Wales, about 130 applications were received before the deadline at the end of September. Queenslanders have until the end of this month to apply for a concessional loan.

The Farm Finance package also includes additional rural financial counsellors and changes to make the farm management deposit scheme available to more people.

While farm groups welcome the money and support the scheme offers, Farm Finance is only due to run for two years.

Farmers in drought can currently apply for the Transitional Farm Family Payment, paid at the Newstart rate. From mid-next year, that will be replaced by a catch-all 'hardship' payment called the Farm Household Allowance, which will also be paid at the Newstart rate.

Despite these arrangements, the National Farmers Federation is concerned that there is still no comprehensive national drought policy to replace the controversial 'Exceptional Circumstances' scheme which existed during the Millennium drought, and the interest rate subsidies that were a central part of the EC scheme were scrapped in June this year.

The NFF vice president Brent Finlay is also chair of the national farm lobby's drought policy working group, and will meet with Agriculture Minister Joyce tomorrow to discuss policy options.

Mr Finlay says that for farmers already in drought, there's simply not enough on the table right now.

"No there's not, and that's what we're hearing from across Queensland and the Northern Territory as well.

"Also, it's not just the drought support that goes to the individual entities. Interest rate subsidies, that was the money that was spent in the community. So whatever comes onto the table, and those are the discussions that we have to have [with Minister Joyce] it's whole-of-community, it's whole-of-business support," he said.

"We're looking forward to talking to the Minister this week. We've had a number of discussions by phone, and I met him a couple of weeks ago at a forum in Townsville [in north Queensland]. But [I'm looking forward] to actually sitting down with him tomorrow and see what the thoughts of the new government are, and to work through the process with them.

"The pressure for an outcome needs to support the Minister and the Department of Agriculture, to actually work towards that.

"We've talked about this for way too long. Now's the time to actually do something about it."

Meanwhile cattlemen in the north west of Queensland would also like to see more markets opened up for their cattle so they can be profitable after drought.

Marcus Curr from Yelvatoft station near Camooweal asked the Minister why more beef can't be exported out of the port of Townsville in north Queensland.

Phillip Curr from Arizona station near Julia Creek says more help with reducing transport and fuel costs would also help the industry.


© ABC 2013

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