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Tony Abbott's drought tour: Longreach grazier John Milne hopes PM will 'persevere' with agriculture industry

By Peter Lewis in Longreach, Sunday February 16, 2014 - 21:08 EDT
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Longreach grazier John Milne musters sheep on his Longreach property. - ABC

Longreach grazier John Milne hopes Tony Abbott reached just one conclusion after he dropped by for lunch on Sunday and took a first-hand look at the impact of drought on his sheep and cattle property.

"Well I'm hoping at the end of it he basically thinks we're worth persevering with and [will] work with us to get agriculture right," Mr Milne said.

He and his wife Joanne and a couple of their dogs were busy mustering and drafting sheep at Loongana Station - a 14,000 hectare property that has been in the Milne family for just over a century.

Typically he plays down the impact of the drought on his operations, suggesting that a lot of his neighbours and fellow Queensland graziers are much worse off.

"Last year we received less than half our annual average rainfall (which is 450mm) and that affects the amount of feed and water on hand and stock carrying capacity," he said.

The options are to send as many sheep and cattle away on agistment to properties that still have grass or sell into an already over-supplied market.

"Either way it's expensive - costs have doubled yet your income is halved," he added.

Mr Abbott's whistlestop tour to Longreach also included stopovers at Bourke and Broken Hill.

The Prime Minister did not announce any specific assistance measures on Sunday - instead it was a listening and learning trip ahead of Federal Cabinet considering the issue in more detail.

"We've got to look after people's immediate cash needs and then we've got to enable people to get back on their feet," he told graziers.

Abbott assures farmers 'more will be done'

While Treasurer Joe Hockey has warned various struggling industry sectors in recent weeks that the "age of entitlement is over", the Prime Minister says drought-affected farmers are in a distinct category not dissimilar to a natural disaster.

"I know that more needs to be done – and it will be done, in a way that's fair and fiscally responsible," Mr Abbott said.

The National Farmers' Federation (NFF) has put forward a case for drought assistance to help a range of areas, from immediate household income support, to freight subsidies for feed and water, to assistance that will help struggling livestock.

The farm lobby group has also flagged a relaxation of eligibility criteria for low-interest loans and a version of the Newstart Allowance to keep paying farm workers who might otherwise be laid off and leave town.

Mr Milne said he and his neighbours would also take advantage of the Prime Minister's undivided attention to address the longer-term viability of farming in Australia.

He is convinced that primary producers are paying a heavy price for the cut-throat competition in Australia's retail supermarket sector.

"Margins now are so tight that even after a few good seasons, it doesn't take much to stress family farm businesses," he said.

"It's a boom-and-bust cycle with our seasons out here. And that's not about to change.

"And we always seem to be in crisis mode when there's a drought - instead of having a clear coherent strategy."

Mr Milne was blunt in terms of what the bush needs and expects from its industry and political representatives.

"Basically I think Australians need to decide whether they want agriculture in Australia or not."


© ABC 2014

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