REPORTS suggesting thousands of farmers and regional families have been instantly abandoned due to federal government funding cuts have been rejected by Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce.
Last year’s federal budget delivered $20 million to expand existing social and community support programs to expedite access to mental health and counselling services, for drought-affected families and communities.
It also provided $1.8m to fund additional rural financial counsellors in drought-affected areas while this year’s budget added another $7m to that program, over four years.
Under Mr Joyce’s watch, a review of the Rural Financial Counselling Service has also generated changes to streamline service delivery and improve flexibility to ensure resources can be prioritised for regions facing greater drought pressure.
In contrast, resources can also be shifted from regions where drought and seasonal pressures are less immediate while Mr Joyce has also resisted the review’s suggestion to cut funding by 20 per cent due to having fewer RFCS bodies.
A review of national drought policy under the previous Labor government also removed the traditional “lines on maps” approach of delivering vital in-drought support assistance under the former Exceptional Circumstances program.
After a drought pilot program in WA, interest rate subsidies for farmers and other associated businesses were dropped in favour of delivering family financial assistance payments through Centrelink, to relieve pressures from lost income, with more flexible criteria.
In response to criticism about funding cuts to drought-related mental health support programs, a spokesperson for Mr Joyce said $35m delivered over the past two years had been a one-off payment to extend targeted assistance.
“This government has fundamentally reformed the way mental health funding is delivered, which will lead to significant improvements to mental health services in the regions,” the spokesperson said.
“Currently, the government offers a range of program specific mental health funding streams that are delivered by the Department of Health in Canberra.
“The one size fits all model clearly doesn’t work, so from July 1 more than $360 million will start flowing to Primary Health Networks (PHNs) to commission regional mental health services.”
The spokesperson said PHNs would develop services which were suitable to individual communities while adding much-needed flexibility and ensuring decisions would be made by on the ground representatives in the specific region and “not by bureaucrats in Canberra”.
“It should be noted that areas that are more remote or have higher indigenous populations will receive more money for services,” the spokesperson said.
“The Coalition is also investing $298m in fighting the scourge of ice, with more than $240m available to PHNs from July 1 to commission drug and alcohol services in local communities.
“Given the obvious links between drug use and mental health issues, this funding will further complement the mental health reforms.”
At his post-budget speech, Mr Joyce said the Coalition had provided a “substantial change” to the government’s role in assisting with finance facilities for farmers and the support for families on the land “doing it tough”.
“We have now lent out over $430 million to over 800 farm businesses,” he said.
Australian Farm Institute executive director and now Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Agricultural Commissioner Mick Keogh has pointed to reviews and inquiries held since 2008 that had led to fine tuning and improvements for drought support delivery.
That includes a CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology review of the science and potential future impacts of climate change on drought severity; an expert panel inquiry of the social impacts of drought on farm families and rural communities; and the Productivity Commission’s economic analysis of drought support effectiveness and efficiency.
Mr Joyce has also stood up to harsh recommendations put forward in the Commission of Audit that was held before the Abbott government’s first budget to find significant savings measures.
That Audit recommended abolishing the $700 million concessional loans scheme and the RFCS which prompted the National Farmers' Federation to say those suggestions for budget savings measures showed “limited understanding of agriculture”.
Mr Joyce’s Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper released in mid-2015 said a $3 billion drought and risk management package had provided farm businesses, farming families and rural communities with certainty about how and when the Commonwealth would help farmers with drought.
“Severe and prolonged droughts can place pressure on even well-prepared farm businesses and impact on people’s wellbeing,” it said.
“In response, we are providing a mix of social and business support to help farmers and their families to manage through the tough times.”
The White Paper detailed; enhancements to the Farm Household Allowance; additional rural financial counsellors in drought-affected areas; enhanced social and community support; and up to $250 million per year over 11 years in drought concessional loans for farm businesses.
“The government also recognises the impact of drought on rural communities and is providing $35m to fund shovel-ready, local projects that will create job opportunities in drought affected communities,” it said of the 2015 budget initiative.
“The Drought Communities Program funding will be targeted at projects that stimulate local spending, use local businesses and provide lasting benefit to the community.”
The White Paper also referred to other initiatives including; moves to establish a multi-peril crop insurance scheme; accelerated tax depreciation incentives for building on-farm infrastructure; and improvements to Farm Management Deposits to give farmers tax relief to support income fluctuations caused by seasonal variability.