Joint Press Conference on Farm Household Allowance, Drought and Water Infrastructure

17 October 2019

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Our country communities are hurting and no one knows this more than the National Party members around me. We understand because we live in these communities. We work with people whose lives are being affected each and every day by this insidious drought which goes on; which has gone on now for way too long and unfortunately, sadly, there doesn't seem to be any end in sight. We’ve had some half decent showers; there was some rain in Tenterfield at the weekend, but it's- one shower, it's not going to end a drought. And even when the rains do come, and they will, it's going to still take many weeks, indeed many months, perhaps years for some of these rural and regional remote country and coastal communities to recover. But recover they will and they will recover because the Nationals are in there fighting for them; are in there supporting them and their efforts. And it's not just farmers; it's also the small businesses in regional communities which we are standing side by side. 

We understand that people are hurting. We understand that they're doing it tough and that's why we've already provided, as Nationals in government, more than $7 billion of assistance and of course, there's more work to be done. At the weekend, we announced a dams package of more than a billion dollars working with the New South Wales, Nationals in Government, to build dams. And in Barnaby's electorate, we announced the Dungowan Dam. It's been talked about for many years; well we're delivering it. Four hundred and eighty million dollars, a great project providing 22.5 gigalitres of water on the Dungowan Creek and of course, raising the Wyangala Dam wall by 10 metres to 95 metres to add a capacity of an additional 650 gigalitres. And of course, the Mole River project business case was also announced and that's going to potentially provide 100 additional gigalitres.

So we're getting on with building dams. We want to work with any willing state government. We don't care what political persuasion they are. We urge the Queensland Government to get on and get cracking with Rookwood Weir. I know, I spoke with Brent Finlay yesterday just how important this particular project is. Of course Emu Swamp Dam, is being provided with a $47 million grant by the Federal Government. This is the LNP, this is the Nationals in government working hard to deliver the water projects that this country so desperately needs and I know how important this is going to be for the people of Stanthorpe in that Granite Belt area, in David Littleproud’s electorate of Maranoa. Forty-seven million dollars, five- including five million dollars for enabling roads, but that's going to create hundreds of jobs in construction and going forward. And of course, today there's changes to the Farm Household Allowance. Vital Changes that I'll get the Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie to detail now.

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:

Thank you, DPM. Today, we'll be announcing and bringing into the Parliament changes to the Farm Household Allowance system which were recommended as part of the FHA review. A review that was led by Michelle Lawrence, dairy farmer from Tasmania, Georgie Somerset, broadacre farmer from Queensland which gave our government much needed advice about a radical simplification needed for Farm Household Allowance. And as a result of our announcement two weeks ago, up in Dalby, we are radically simplifying applying for Farm Household Allowance to get that much needed cash injection to the kitchen table so farming families can pay for the groceries, keep the lights on while they wait out this drought.

So whilst we're doing that, we're bringing in the legislation today, in about half an hour, David, which will see the payment right now. You can receive it for four years over your lifetime. If you're a farmer in this country, you're going to see hardship a lot more than just once in your lifetime. So we're making that four years out of ten; you'll be able to be eligible for Farm Household Allowance. 

This is a fantastic announcement recognising that droughts, floods and market issues can impact the profitability of our farming sector. We're changing how we treat on-farm and off-farm income and now, you'll be able to use your off-farm income up to $100,000 against your business losses that you're being subjected to on-farm to be able to offset that, which is a fantastic change. And we're also making changes today around how agistment will be treated.

I'd also like to announce that, as part of the legislation going through the Parliament today, we will be instigating a drought relief support payment. Seven thousand five hundred dollars for singles; $13,000- up to $13,000 for a couple, farming family; for those farmers who are coming off the Farm Household Allowance program now. This is a one-off payment that they'll be able to apply for to help them in times of need, recognising, thanks to the feedback of the people that live and work in regional Australia, that this drought for many has gone on far too long. Another recognition that our government and the Nationals in Government are standing by our farmers in time of need and we're ready and willing to act now that we need to. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:

Well thanks Bridget, thanks for your leadership on FHA and you’ve obviously come through with this package and we thank you for that because tackling drought is like going up a set of stairs; as it escalates you take the next step and that’s what this Government has continuously done over the eight years. In essence, we continue to work with communities but making sure we also work with states. They also have a responsibility in this, we all do. States look after animal welfare, freight and fodder, that is their responsibility. Ours is to look after farmer welfare. We'll continue to do that. We have a clear strategy that everyone unanimously agreed with, the states and the Commonwealth, after our drought summit to make sure that our strategy is put in place. 

Three key pillars; the here and now - keeping people going, keeping people in business. The farm household allowance - putting money in people's pocket, giving them the dignity and respect they deserve and putting an environment around them with farm house- rural financial counsellors to be able to make the decisions they need to around the strategic direction of their business. Regional Investment Corporation loans - saving tens of thousands of dollars against competitive banks for our farmers, putting money back into farmers’ pockets allowing them to be able to have some breathing space. 

The second pillar is around the community. It's not just farmers, it's also the communities that support them. And that's why the Community Drought Program, a million dollars as a stimulus to actually get these economies going. Building small projects that use local tradies, local materials.
That's how you keep local communities going through this because they are hurting. When farmers don't have money to spend in their communities you need to stimulate them and that's what we're doing coupled with targeted mental health programs, locally targeted to make sure it's fit for purpose for their community. 
And the third pillar of our drought strategy that we've been continually working on is about the future. The Australian taxpayer gives over $500 million a year in tax concessions to help farmers be resilient for drought; through farm management deposits they give tax concessions. Also through write-offs in terms of infrastructure for fodder storage. So these are the concessions that help build resilience from one drought to the next, but also in terms of the drought Future Fund. It will pay a $100 million dividend in the good and bad years. And that plan will be released in the coming weeks by Brent Finlay for consultation with the community about what will be the tools we need to provide our farmers into the future through the good and bad to prepare them for future droughts. It will be them that will decide that, not governments and we will table it in Parliament and it will be decided by Parliament but that is a fit plan for that money.
And thirdly our third part of our future is around the water infrastructure. Now is the time to get D8’s and excavators moving, digging holes and catching the water when it rains. And it will rain and when it comes it will probably come in a big hurry. So we need to have these holes out there dug and ready to capture this water to harvest it. That's just common sense. So that's our strategy in tackling drought. And all I say to those states and to those commentators is let's hold not only the Federal Government to account but the states to account. It's time that when we talk about feeding cattle and making sure they can survive and we keep breeding stock, well under the agreement that everyone agreed to, that is the state's responsibility. Annastacia Palaszczuk and all the premiers need to stump up and get on with the job. We're getting on the job with our part of it and we will continue to be agile and work with the communities to get them through it.
Thanks [indistinct].

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Well said. Any questions?

JOURNALIST:

In regards to the one-off payment for people coming off the FHA, will that apply to the people who have already come off- the 600 odd farmers across the country who have already come off the payment?

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:

Yes. So because of when the payment was started about four years ago, anyone that's come off the payment since 1 July this year will be eligible to apply for the one-off payment. This payment is a hardship payment; it is not a drought payment, the Farm Household Allowance. But- so it is not just drought affected farmers who have been accessing this. We've paid out over $350 million over the last four years to farmers doing it tough. Many, many, many of them have come off the payment prior to their four years because it's coupled with significant financial advice. Farmers are going to have to sit down and talk with the rural financial counsellor about what are their plans for the future, how do they make their business sustainable, do they need to think about succession planning, do they need to sell up and do something else or what changes and system changes can they make on farm to actually ensure they’re sustainably farming going forward.

JOURNALIST:

And are there any caveats or strings attached to how the money is used or is it for them to use as they see fit?

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:

No, this will be a cash payment supporting farming families.

JOURNALIST:

And is there any reason why, as you’ve said, that the drought's gone on for longer than anyone thought. Is there any reason why you won't consider extending it beyond the four-year cap?

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:

Well I get asked this question a lot. The NFF have released their drought policy today. They've asked for the Farm Household Allowance to be a time capped payment. Indeed, our own review conducted by farmers talking to the farming community and the agricultural industry, a comprehensive report and I’d recommend if you're interested in this topic to actually read it, a lot of good stuff in there, we're acting on it, is that they recommended four out of ten. Because what happens in farming in Australia, traditionally we've had the boom and the bust. You've had some really great seasons, made a lot of money and then we've had significant droughts, often for an extended period of time. Through the measures that David mentioned earlier, we've made it easier for farmers to bank the good years so that they can draw on it during the tough years and really smooth out that boom bust cycle that's really typified al lot of farming in the past. And so farmers as they've entered the drought, haven't needed to access Farm Household Allowance from day one because they've had significant reserves in their farm management deposit et cetera. So that's how we've been ensuring over our entire period of government that we've been putting strategies and policies in place to support farmers, knowing that we will have drought. And it's important to know, and I think the Drought Minister raised an important point. You know, agriculture in this country has a really significant and bright future, and we need to be planning for when the rains come and how we can ramp up quickly and effectively to ensure that we get those drought affected communities up and running, but also that the agricultural, food and fibre task is achieved.

JOURNALIST:

How much money are you budgeting for over the forwards to go towards these one-off payment?

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:

It's actually a payment that when people are in need and they meet, and they apply, and are assessed as able to receive the payment, that they get the payment. That's why it's run through the Social Security system.

JOURNALIST:

But you have to have some sort of estimates on how much you’re expecting to [indistinct].

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:

We're expecting around $12 million we've put forward. So Farm Household Allowance, if you're a farmer in need, please apply. We've made it incredibly simple to do. Twelve and a half thousand farmers across the country have accessed the payment over the last four years. Eighty-nine per cent of them as they've exited have said it's really improved their financial situation. So that- it's doing its job. But what we do know, each and every person behind me knows, that there's a whole group of farmers out there that aren't applying. They are not- they're self-assessing that it's not for them. And so we’re- I'm saying, we always say, everyone says behind me, don't self-assess. We've got rural financial counsellors out there who can help you apply, make sure you access this much needed payment, because we don't want any farmer that's going through hardship not accessing the support. Our government and the strong economy can deliver them.

JOURNALIST:

The National Farmers’ Federation yesterday was quite critical of the Intergovernmental Agreement on drought. They say that essentially, it means it lines on borders where if you farm on one side in one shire compared to the other side of that border, you're going to get treated differently. Why after six years of power has the government been unable to bring the states and councils on board so there’s a consistent approach across the country to dealing with drought?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Well actually our national drought policy was actually laid out after the October drought summit in Canberra last year. And indeed, I spoke to Fiona Simpson from the National Farmers’ Federation and Tony Mahar just this morning. They’re actually very satisfied with what we're doing as far as an overall drought package, as far as providing that national leadership for drought measures. Not providing necessarily handouts, but providing that necessary hand up, for our farmers, for our regional communities. And indeed, the National Farmers’ Federation is very satisfied with what we're doing. And I know that Fiona Simpson and the Prime Minister, we're talking about it just yesterday. I know that Fiona Simpson and I were talking about it each and every day this week, and she's very happy as it is the National Farmers’ Federation with what we're doing.

JOURNALIST:

With respect Deputy Prime Minister, that's not what they said yesterday. They said- yesterday they said this agreement is too broad and too [indistinct], it doesn't get into the nitty gritty, and you have lines on borders which are meaning people get treated differently.

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:

Well with respect, the Minister for Drought has actually had to run to introduce this fabulous legislation. But we're meeting agriculture ministers at the end of the month with our regular AGMIN, and I'm absolutely confident that this will be part of David Littleproud’s discussion with state governments as we move forward. He's very- well, I think you see what the New South Wales Government has done, that is a proactive state government in actually getting out there, on the ground and treating the drought as they should, and looking at their areas of responsibility and fulfilling them. But I know David's got that on the agenda for the end of the month AGMIN.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:

Lovely. 

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:
    
Thanks guys.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:

I think we'll leave it there. 

JOURNALIST:

Senator Pauline Hanson is saying that she wants to have the dairy industry re-regulated. Is that something you’re willing to consider? What impact would that have or what are other alternatives that you’re looking at for the dairy industry.

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:

Well the dairy industry doesn't want to be re-regulated. The Australian Dairy Farmers actually put out a statement - I think Monday - saying they are not wanting to see their industry re-regulated, as did the National Farmers’ Federation. The reality is our dairy farmers are doing it tough. And that's why our government has a suite of measures and initiatives to support them. Their input costs are going through the roof - electricity prices, water, grain, because of the drought. And also there's structural issues in the market. Which is why it was our government that announced we were going to put a dairy code in place to assist dairy farmers as they negotiate with their processors. They’ve been through two rounds of consultation. It's in drafting right now. I'm looking forward to releasing that next week for a final exposure draft consultations right around the country, and then regulating that dairy code. Anyone that thinks that the dairy code is going to be the panacea though for our dairy industry is wrong. It is a suite of issues, there are market issues that have to be dealt with. A code will deal with some of that. 

We've also put money into the ACCC to ensure that the competition body of this country has appropriate knowledge and expertise around the complexities of the dairy industry, to ensure that dairy farmers get the support they need. And Australian Dairy Farmers and Dairy Australia have also getting a significant amount of money to ensure they employ people that can help farmers negotiate contractual arrangements with their processors, et cetera. So right across the board, our government has a suite of initiatives to assist the dairy farmers, knowing that they're doing it tough. And the exposure draft for the dairy code to be heading out for consultation next week. 

JOURNALIST:

And with that code, will it be [indistinct]? 

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:
    
No. 

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:    

Lovely. We'll leave it there. Thank you very much.