Fiona Simson, president of NSW Farmers, spoke to the media following the federal government's $320m drought assistance package.
Ms Simson was joined by NSW Farmers Sarah Thompson from the organisation's rural affairs committee and policy director Angus Gidley-Baird.
Watch the video above, or read through the transcript below.
Fiona Simson: We very much welcome the federal government’s announcement today for drought support to many areas of regional Australia. We had asked for a package that would address a multitude of needs out there in regional Australia within agriculture, and today we have been given such a package. We hear of five key elements, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced five key elements to address many of the needs and we are very pleased that he has been able to address so many of the needs in the one package.
Firstly we hear about an extended income support package. Currently we have members who are unable to access any income support despite being without income themselves for over two years due to the restrictive nature of the eligibility test and eligibility criteria. We understand that these eligibility criteria have been expanded which will hopefully allow many more people to access essential dollars to put food on their table, fuel in their car, pay their electricity bills and keep their families running.
We’ll have to monitor how that actually rolls out in regional NSW and regional Australia to make sure that people can actually now access some of the benefits that people in the cities take for granted. We also welcome an extension to the concessional loans scheme – and while we are still getting our heads around a lot of the detail – in this actual scheme we had asked the government for access to loans with a lower income rate similar to those that is provided in other natural disasters.
We had asked the government for an extended loan period and for a larger amount. We are still to find out the details of this announcement but we believe that the government has delivered on a number of these key important measures.
Concessional loans are an integral part of any natural disaster support provided by government and we think it is right and proper that concessional loans which should have no budgetary impact on the government – nil revenue items because they will be paid back when agriculture is strong again.
We also welcome the government’s announcement in respect to feral animals, water infrastructure and personal crisis grants – we understand that they will be contributing extra funds to these programs and clearly they will be welcomed out in regional Australia as people are fighting very real problems in respect to feral animals.
Water infrastructure grants actually provide a great vehicle for farmers and communities to drought-proof themselves and it is a good time to access this sort of money to make valuable improvements on your farm in respect of water infrastructure. Last but not least the personal crisis money will also be welcomed.
We need real resources on the ground – we need people on the ground with guaranteed longevity so that we can actually place very some very good people on the ground that can assist people in this time of personal crisis so we do welcome this as well.
Clearly the prime minister indicated this was a package for the here and now and that is what we wanted. We wanted investment in our industry and investment in our regional and rural communities to ensure that we are here for the long time. We will continue, however, to talk to the government about the future and to monitor the drought and how long it lasts. We need to be focusing on the government’s white paper – the competitiveness of the white paper – we need to be focusing on measures that will enable our industry to go forward and compete in the future. We hear about what a strong industry we have, our industry contributes billions of dollars to the GDP and there is a great future for our industry but we need to to be able to make sure we are competitive and we need to work with the government through the white paper to make sure that we can do that. We really thank Barnaby Joyce for his personal advocacy and also the government and cabinet for supporting rural and regional Australia and agriculture industry in this announcement today.
Reporter: Is the package enough? Is it going to meet the need that is currently out there?
Fiona Simson: Clearly we have been asking for measures for the here and now – we wanted urgent investment and investment that was actually going to deliver dollars – not just to the families of regional and rural Australia, but to the communities of regional and rural Australia. We will need to monitor how that package rolls out and what needs it’s actually able to fulful. At the moment we are grateful in this very difficult economic climate that the government has recognised the need and has acted and has also I’d say left the door open for further discussions should we need to come back to the government and talking about what we need in regional and rural Australia .
Reporter: What is on the horizon for this region? There are many farmers that would argue that they are in drought.
Fiona Simson: Yes, certainly. This region is a little bit different because it’s usually a winter rainfall region and we hear of a water drought down here. So clearly we need to be monitoring this region, but also on a state basis. So we need to understand that drought support is actually delivered on a state level and a federal level. The state government needs to be responsive in terms of its monitoring programs, it needs to have trigger levels in place so that it can be very, very proactive in determining when this region is in drought. People in this region should have a clear understanding from the state government that there should be a transparent process about when they trigger drought and what measures are in place to help them through this process.
Reporter: Is it a case of too little, too late should this have come sooner?
Fiona Simson: It is well acknowledged that drought is well entrenched in some of these areas for several years and we have certainly been frustrated with the state governments response and slow response. However, we are grateful for any support and I think the recognition that is provided by this package is something that many farmers and many regional and rural communities will welcome today.
Reporter: Is there anything that wasn’t included in today’s package that you as an organisation would have wished for?
Fiona Simson: I think we do still need to look at the details – it’s very early days. We are only just getting our heads around this detail, but clearly one of the things that we will continue to be lobbying for is the exclusion of farm assets in the farm household income support package. We don’t think that the inclusion of farm assets – an asset that is not producing any income and that you are not able to sell – is actually appropriate to include in the assets test. Whilst we understand there has been some tweaking of the criteria around that which should hopefully enable more people to access that package, household income support is just a package that people in the city take for granted if they don’t have income and don’t have a job or have a means of getting any, so we think that should be available to more farmers.
Sarah Thompson: I think it’s a point of concern and it’s very pleasing that the government has tweaked this because using the transitional income support which has been the measure of transfer from the old system to the new system – we clearly identified that there was lack of accessibility for many people. We’re very pleased that it has been looked at, but we will need to monitor it to see where other people may not be able to get it. Certainly the exclusion of the working farm asset is something that we have lobbied for for a long time, believing again that if you can’t sell it you can’t generate an income from it. It’s not very appropriate to have it as part of the asset whether you can get some income support.
Reporter: From what you’ve seen on the ground here in the Riverina do you anticipate that farmers in the region will get some assistance from this overall statewide package?
Fiona Simson: Certainly farmers in this region will be able to apply for the federal package just like farmers right across the state will be. I think it’s an interesting point that now that we don’t have exceptional circumstances in place – you don’t actually – there is no process of federal drought declaration. So farmers in the Riverina will be able to apply for all elements of this package. However, it’s absolutely critical that the state process is also very transparent in terms of how farmers in the Riverina may be able to qualify for drought support if it is needed in this region. There is a series of maps and trigger maps in place that are used to make these decisions. And we do need to make sure we continue to improve this process to work with the Local Land Services boards so that everybody is very clear about what has to happen before they can trigger support at a state level. I might ask Angus to comment more on that.
Angus Gidley-Baird: As we understand, this federal package is available to all farmers in NSW and across the country actually. It doesn’t relate to the state drought declaration process. Perhaps water infrastructure grants which are currently tied to the state drought declarations which were made at the end of November and February, but apart from that as far as we’re aware – it’s available to all of them .
Reporter: You may have noticed we’ve had a bit of rain here this morning. How does the rain today fit into the overall scheme of things?
Fiona Simson: Unfortunately rain doesn’t – one rainfall doesn’t break a drought and some of the areas we’re seeing across NSW – I actually missed the rainfall this morning so I’m thinking it didn’t potentially break the drought – I think some of the areas across NSW have received widespread rains over the last week, but what is important is continuation of that rain. Clearly we now have a soil that is absolutely depleted of moisture. There is no sub-soil moisture, there is no moisture there to grow the crops. There is no moisture there to grow the pasture and we need continued rainfall for many weeks to actually fulfll those soil reserves again and to create groundwater. And, travelling around this region, I have been down here over the past couple of weeks at the Henty Field Days and again this week. There is a shortage of groundwater and it is very dry so I think clearly the people down here will need continued rain, they will need their seasonal break, which is when it normally occurs - in about April I think it is down here - to make sure they actually get their crops in the ground.
Reporter: There is an argument that farmers that have created a viable farm before drought time propping up farmers that weren’t proactive. What’s your reaction to that?
Fiona Simson: I think this is all about viability and ensuring that viable industries and viable communities can stay strong for the future. There are multitudes of reports now from very well respected organisations such as Deloittes that paint a picture for agriculture and there are extremely viable businesses and companies out there are operating, who in a natural disaster are just finding that they are unable to fulfil their financial commitments, and that is what this package is about. You need to be viable to access this package, there is an application process that you go through. This is not about propping up an unviable industry. This is about investing in a strong industry and a strong community with a very strong future.
Reporter: Just on the ag white paper. How can farmers down here achieve efficiencies on their farms?
Reporter: These are the sorts of questions we should be discussing in the ag white paper. NSW Farmers is holding a competitiveness forum in Tamworth on 10 march we’re we are going to raise some of these issues and I think people need to be very engaged in this space. What are the actual issues that are affecting competitiveness? How can farmers be better prepared to actually look after themselves and not have to rely on the government to support them through these difficult times? Should we be looking at issues such as multi-peril insurance? Should we be looking at issues such as expanding the farm management deposit scheme? What other things should we be looking at that is actually affecting our competitiveness? What about supermarket pricing? What about varieties of crop? Research and development? There’s a whole facet of things that need to be discussed. I know talking to Minister Joyce – he is keen to have these discussions in the competitiveness white paper and I think from an agricultural point of view that this white paper is from the prime minister and cabinet – so it is a very high level white paper with the capacity to inform government decision-making at a very high level.
Reporter: Is the white paper any different from the food plan?
Fiona Simson: We would hope so because clearly the food plan hasn’t had a lot of impact and I think that is one of the things. Farmers are sick of talking – we don’t want to talk too much more – we want to bring forward some very good new ideas. But more than anything else we want action, we want implementation, we want the government to show that they have a vision for regional and rural NSW – we want the government to show that they have a vision for regional and rural Australia and I think they have acknowledged that agriculture is one of their five pillars – it is one of the five pillars going forward. The announcement goes some way to back up that vision that they have and a strong, competitiveness paper with implementation date, with key target strategy behind it and a suite of policies will show farmers that they are fair dinkum and they are ready to assist agriculture to achieve it’s potentional.
Reporter: Given that the terms of reference have already been set down for that white paper – are they in a straight jacket with what they can and cannot say?
Fiona Simson: I think the terms of the white paper are quite broad. I might ask Angus to comment a little bit more on that.
Angus Gidley-White: From our point of view the terms are actually quite positive. The language that they’ve used and they're talking about – the competiveness of the industry, the profitability of the industry, the productivity of the industry. Compared to the food plan which is a little bit more broader across the industry and looking at food production rather than food supply chain rather than the profitability of farming. From that point of view, the terms are positive from our point of view they are broad enough and focussed on making sure that farming is a profitibale thing in the future so I think they are good.