Doubts over drought relief

PARCHED LAND: It’s tough going for Singleton farmers Eric Worth and daughter Leonie Ball. Picture: Max Mason-HubersHUNTER farmers are not counting on any handouts following the federal government’s announcement of a $320million assistance package to support areas struggling with drought.
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The emergency package includes concession loans, fortnightly welfare assistance and funding to improve mental health services.

Yet there are doubts about whether many people will be eligible to claim any of the relief funds, even though they are doing it tough.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in his announcement yesterday that the government was responding to a ‘‘natural disaster’’.

‘‘The determination of this government is to stand by Australians in good times and bad,’’ he said.

‘‘We can’t work miracles – there are no magic wands – but we will do what we can to help in difficult times.’’

The drought assistance package will provide $280million towards concessional loans up to $1million, which will be available at 4per cent interest over five years.

The Interim Farm Household Allowance, which has been brought forward to March 3, will offer fortnightly payments similar to the Newstart Allowance. Although it will be made available to farmers outside the drought-stricken areas, they can only have net assets valued up to $2.5million.

Leonie Ball, who owns property north of Singleton with her husband Gregory, said she didn’t think she would be eligible.

‘‘That doesn’t help us at all,’’ she said.

‘‘But I would like more detail about what is offered, who is eligible and who is not.’’

The package was ‘‘a bit hit and miss’’, and the wider community did not accept how tough it was.

‘‘For us to get a payday takes three years,’’ she said.

‘‘Just because we have a larger holding doesn’t mean we’re better off. Hopefully there’s something for everybody and not just a few.’’

The package will provide $12million towards water infrastructure, $10million for pest management and $10.7million to boost social and mental health services.

Ian Moore, who runs a farm at Jerrys Plains, said he had never received drought assistance in his life.

‘‘I don’t think it’s the answer but something’s gotta happen,’’ he said.

‘‘I don’t know how they’re going to implement it.’’

Both Mr Moore and Mrs Ball said the package was not a long-term solution and something needed to be in place before disasters hit.

The Nationals duty senator for Hunter, John Williams, said the package would assist Hunter farmers and that it offered more generous criteria for accessing income support.

He encouraged farmers to avoid self-assessing, saying that relief would be awarded on a ‘‘needs basis’’.

‘‘Drought concessional loans, totalling $280million, will allow eligible farm businesses to restructure their existing debt or provide finance to meet ongoing costs,’’ he said. ‘‘This is not a hand-out. It’s a hand-up.’’

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