Primary producers have been quick to reach out to the north Queensland Rural Financial Counselling Service after the federal government’s announcement last week that it would extend financial support under the Farm Household Allowance.
According to RFCSNQ counsellor, Rachel Bock, even before Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, had finished speaking, she had received several messages from drought-affected producers keen to access the funding extension.
The Farm Household Allowance, a payment of $529 a fortnight for individuals and $477 a person for couples, subject to an income and assets test, was a three-year scheme initiated by the Abbott government. Last week it was announced that it would be extended by a year.
As of May, there were around 2300 people who had exhausted their three year eligibility period for the allowance. There are about 2000 people currently receiving an FHA and about 8000 who have used the program overall.
The payment is tied to a requirement to work in with a rural financial counsellor.
Rachel, based in Longreach, said while the details of the changes are still surfacing, she urged producers, either those who have exhausted the payment, are on the payment or who have not yet applied, to make an appointment with a rural financial counsellor now to start the process.
“Although we won’t know the full details of the application process until it has been passed through parliament, you’re losing nothing by contacting us today,” she said.
The allowance is an adjustment payment available to all eligible primary producers, not only drought affected operations.
Nationals leader, Michael McCormack, urged farmers not to self-assess their eligibility for FHA but to use the expertise of dedicated support officers at the Department of Human Services on the Farmer Assistance Hotline on 13 23 16.
Contact RFCSNQ for more details of how to apply for the payment.
The announcement of the additional short term relief was welcomed by AgForce, saying at the same time it was eager to work with federal and state governments on an enduring, long-term drought policy.
President Grant Maudsley said it would help eligible farmers who have had little or no income to continue to put food on the table and meet essential household expenses.
"The prolonged and severe nature of the drought has taken an enormous financial, emotional and environmental toll on many regional Queensland communities over the past seven years, and overwhelmed even the best efforts of many producers to prepare," he said.
‘Whole of community’ action
The LNP senator who began calling for urgent drought assistance in March said that while the announcement would be strongly welcomed, further support measures from the government would be needed to ensure ravaged western communities can survive and rebuild from one of the worst droughts in Australian history.
Senator Barry O’Sullivan said Minister Littleproud’s announcement to extend the FHA from three to four years would ensure thousands of Australian farmers had the certainty of a financial safety net for the next 12 months.
However, he said government attention would now need to shift towards initiatives that provided cash flow for entire rural communities gripped by drought.
“I wrote to the Prime Minister in March and was soon joined by a dozen western Queensland mayors calling for increased drought support for our rural communities,” Mr O’Sullivan said.
“The effects of this drought reach from the farm gate into every corner of these communities. Every single person is impacted – from the mechanic to the council worker to the grocery store manager.
“Thousands of jobs have been lost across central western Queensland and well over half of all business owners are paying themselves no wages at all.”
Mr O’Sullivan said the Prime Minister had earned significant support and respect from the people of western Queensland during his recent listening tour through drought-gripped regions.
He said ‘whole of community’ action was required to ensure townspeople as well as farmers could survive and recover from this prolonged drought.
“Government can’t make it rain, but it can deliver a steady stream of new initiatives that will allow money to flow through these communities again – and I plan to continue pushing for more action from my government,” he said.
During the drought listening tour that visited Blackall, Charleville and Boulia in Queensland in early June, Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud announced a further $20 million to keep Rural Financial Counselling Services going for a further two years across drought stricken areas.
There was also a $2 million commitment to support two key organisations delivering mental health services to these communities via telehealth.
Regional Development and Local Government Minister, John McVeigh, has since said his talks with councils in affected areas showed him they continued to be focused on local works programs, like the existing Drought Communities Program, to ensure ongoing work for council work teams, using locally-sourced materials and local contractors.
According to Nationals leader, Michael McCormack, Cabinet is working on a package of broader measures where feedback and suggestions from farming communities will continue to be listened to and considered to formulate plans, with announcements expected at some stage in the future.
“Minister Littleproud will hold a drought roundtable in coming weeks with key farming stakeholders, including the National Farmers’ Federation and state farming groups, to discuss the longer term approach to national drought policy and improved preparedness,” he added.
“While north western NSW and south western Queensland are facing immediate pressures from drought, other parts of the country will inevitably confront the same situation in future, given the predictability of the Australian climate’s volatility.
“The government’s response needs to include broader considerations of potential risk management measures and build on ongoing reforms, responsibly.”
Grant Maudsley said AgForce looked forward to taking part in the drought roundtable to develop an enduring policy and long term strategy focused on preparedness, support during drought and assistance to enable rapid recovery.
"AgForce has proposed an 'Agricultural Business Cycle' approach to drought policy which aims to move industry and governments from focussing on responding in crisis to supporting and empowering producers to better manage climate risks," he said.