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Farmers wanting to take care of themselves but needing Government help to make it happen

By national rural reporter Kath Sullivan, Monday September 23, 2019 - 10:21 EST
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The Macquarie Marshes are a stark reality of the water crisis in NSW. - ABC

"At the end of the day, we should be able to look after ourselves."

Tanya Cameron is weary.

The NSW farmer and national president of the Country Women's Association is sick of the drought, and the Government's response to it.

"We should be able to make enough money to look after ourselves. I think that's what everybody wants to be able to do," she continues.

More than a quarter of Australia's farmers are now eligible for welfare payments for up to four years in every decade.

Based on the value of their assets and income, the Government says 24,000 farmers are now eligible for a fortnightly payment of up to $600.

That's almost 30 per cent of the country's farmers potentially on welfare, for 40 per cent of their careers.

If all those who are eligible were to take up the payment, it could cost taxpayers about $1.5 billion per decade.

Some Australians might think of that as a burden on the public purse — after all, what other industry is afforded the same safety net — but consider it in the context that this year alone Australia's farmers will grow almost $60 billion worth of produce.

It's also not likely to be a problem anytime soon, because despite the country experiencing one of its worst droughts, fewer than 7,000 farmers currently access the payments.

Dole-like payment to help farmers

Calculated like Newstart and administered by Centrelink, the payments are known as the Farm Household Allowance (FHA).

But there's doubt it is working as it should.

"Were' in unchartered territory now. This drought has gone on longer than anyone anticipated," Ms Cameron says.

"If there are eligible farmers out there who aren't applying, that's a fault in the system, and that is something that needs to be addressed."

Designed to keep bread on the table and milk in the fridge, the FHA is available to farmers experiencing any hardship and is considered a cornerstone of federal drought assistance.

A condition of eligibility is that the farm enterprise "must have significant commercial purpose or character" and that the farmers "engage in activities aimed at improving their circumstances".

A farmer led review of the FHA, ordered last year by then agriculture minister David Littleproud, .

The report found having Centrelink administer FHA "added unnecessary complexity, and simply did not work for farm business operators".

"One farmer described Centrelink and social security as 'catering to unemployed wage earners' rather than employed business owners," the review reported.

The report is currently sitting with Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie, who assumed the role after May's federal election.

The minister says she'll have more to say on the FHA soon, but Mr Littleproud has cautioned that to separate farmer welfare from Australia's welfare agency could potentially jeopardise agreements with Australia's trading partners.

Subsidising farmers to stay on the land

As a rule, Australians generally don't subsidise farmers.

A recent OECD study of government support for farmers found Australian farmers received the lowest levels of support in the developed world, second only to New Zealand.

And , don't count.

There are cheap loans available for the drought-affected, and in the 14 months to August this year the Government had provided 211 loans to the value of $200 million.

The Prime Minister has also talked up a recently legislated which from next year will draw down $100 million a year to be spent on drought preparedness.

So far there is scant detail about how the fund will be spent, but this week there was progress when former National Farmers' Federation boss Brent Finlay was appointed chair of the fund's consultative committee.

Rural Australians will be hoping his role is more fruitful than that of special drought envoy Barnaby Joyce and coordinator-general for drought Major General Stephen Day.

Appointed more than a year ago, the pair have received a mixed reception in drought affected Australia.

An attempt by the Federal Opposition to have Separately, before his drought tenure ended.

So as farmers and their communities wait, as and rivers run dry, in many ways the FHA is the best Australia currently has to offer.

It is worth noting that under Mr Littleproud's ministry several changes were made in attempt to increase farmer access to the FHA.

The changes included extending the asset threshold test — down from $2.6 million to $5 million — extending the offering from three years, to four in every 10, and cutting the paperwork involved in applying for FHA.

But questions remain whether that is good enough for this increasingly sunburnt country.

Farm lobby wants welfare changes

National Farmers' Federation president Fiona Simson sees FHA as "a safety net that is available to most other Australians in the same sorts of circumstances that farmers find themselves in in the middle of the drought".

There are plenty of small businesses across regional Australia, those that also rely on the rain falling at the right time, wondering why they can't access the FHA.

Ms Simson says she wants the FHA to be more flexible, adaptable and agile to meet the needs of an ag sector she believes can almost double in value over the next decade.

"We do see that it is an important part of any future drought policy, that we have this safety net but we need to make sure that it's working, that it's easily accessible when people need it, and that it's flexible enough to cater for the diverse range of businesses that are agricultural," Ms Simson says.

That's a future drought policy Ms Cameron has almost given up on.

"We live where we live because we like being in that space, everybody likes being their own boss, they like being able to see to the horizon, we like where we live," the farmer and CWA president said.

"We've been asking for a long time, and no-one seems prepared to actually listen and try to develop a long-term strategy.

Now Australia's dedicated Minister for Drought, Mr Littleproud, says the Government's strategy is about "alleviating the strain on farm households and small businesses in the here and now, while building resilience in communities for when the next drought hits".

But Ms Cameron says doubts are spreading.

"Our expectation of support from Government when we're in a situation like we're in now, our expectation has been damaged and we're sceptical now... we don't believe.... there's a lot of scepticism around whether the Government can actually do anything to support farmers," Ms Cameron said.

"It's very disappointing to think that we can't expect some sort of resolution from the people who put their hands up to be our leaders, with the resources that they have at their fingertips, in their staffers, in experts who design legislation, surely we should be able to expect some concrete way forward ... I just hope it comes soon."

In the absence of rain, hope it seems, is all that is left.


© ABC 2019

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