Farmers seek long-term support as $320 million drought relief package unveiled

”Akin to a natural disaster”: Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce announcing the drought package on Wednesday. Photo: Alex EllinghausenPeter Martin: Budget magic behind drought relief

Hundreds of drought-battered farmers will be able to access discount loans of up to $1 million within a week – but the farming sector says it will push for more ”long-term” financial support.

Farmers welcomed the $320 million drought-relief package announced by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce on Wednesday.

But National Farmers Federation president Brent Finlay said ”many members” wanted a return to the cash grants available under the old ”exceptional circumstances” interest subsidies.

The scheme, which cost taxpayers more than $1 billion in covering the interest payments of struggling farmers, was suspended by Labor in 2012 when there were no drought-affected areas.

The NFF is also pushing for new tax breaks to encourage farmers to reduce debt levels in good seasons, with a suggestion of 150 per cent write-offs for those who pay down debt.

The NFF wants drought once again categorised as a ”natural disaster”, which would qualify those affected for the type of one-off cash support from states and the federal government that flood and bushfire victims receive.

In outlining the drought package, Mr Abbott made it clear he saw the drought ravaging NSW and Queensland as a natural disaster and dismissed comparisons with the government’s tight-fisted approach to industry assistance requested by companies such as SPC Ardmona.

”Some of you might be inclined to say, well, this is a special deal for farmers. No, no, this is akin to a natural disaster and state and federal governments have always stood behind people wherever they are hit by natural disaster,” he said.

He also held out the prospect of further assistance.

”If circumstances dramatically change, obviously the government will respond further. We think this is a significant and timely response to the existing crisis. If we get new difficulties, well, obviously we’ll adjust to them.”

The drought package includes household assistance (maximum $700 a fortnight) based on net farm assets of up to $2.5 million, $280 million in concessional loans with a 4 per cent fixed interest rate over five years, $10.7 million in social support, including mental health services, and $10 million to eradicate feral pests.

The measures will be available from Monday. Mr Joyce said he had rung state governments to get help moving. The scheme will be administered by the NSW and Queensland rural adjustment authorities and Victoria’s Rural Finance Corp.

On Thursday, the Climate Change Authority will issue its latest report on Australia’s commitment to cutting emissions. Its draft report, issued in October, said the government’s 5 per cent by 2020 target would leave Australia lagging behind countries such as the US.

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