Federal MP Bob Katter.INDEPENDENT MP Bob Katter wants the federal government to consider an extra $1 billion of support for debt-ridden farmers in the next three years to prevent “disaster” in regional Australia and a fire sale of properties.
At a rural financial round table with Treasurer Wayne Swan in Brisbane yesterday, Mr Katter planned to call for a government-funded reconstruction board to buy farm debt and lease land back to farmers.
Mr Swan agreed to host the round table after visiting Mr Katter’s north Queensland electorate of Kennedy in July and hearing from farmers that they had been hit by extreme weather events, the live export debacle and a funding freeze.
Mr Katter said farmers who were forced to sell were accepting discounted prices and this would worsen without government intervention. “If this is not quarantined and becomes a fire sale, then it will also break out in areas like the Gold Coast, Cairns and the northern rivers of NSW,” he told The Australian Financial Review.
Other proposals Mr Katter said would be discussed at the closed-door forum included a land bank to counter the sale of farms to foreign investors and allowing farmers to sell off accumulated losses. Rural debt in Queensland rose 19 per cent from 2009 to 2011, to $16.9 billion. Average debt per borrower grew 17 per cent, to $1.073 million. The independent MP also said farmers were struggling because interest rates were higher and farm subsidies lower than in competitor nations. He said a reconstruction board, similar to a system that used to exist in Queensland, could help farmers through tough times.
“We’re looking at about $100 million over three years. You’re not going to lose all of that but there’s no doubt it will be at risk,” he said. “The alternative is Treasury taking massive tax losses when these people go down.”
Mr Katter’s fears for the future of farming were not shared by bankers attending the round table.
Rabobank state manager for Queensland and the Northern Territory, Brad James, said farmers were dealing with uncertainty around commodity prices and the strong dollar, and cattle producers were still coming to terms with the disruption to live exports.
“But I’m not seeing anything now that says there’s a crisis,” he said, adding that farmers were not interested in handouts from government.
National Australia Bank general manager agribusiness Khan Horne was “very positive” about the outlook for agriculture. He said the government could support the sector by providing tools to help farmers prepare for tough times, including by enhancing tax incentives for them to use farm management deposits.
“We have gone through the drought policy review and interest rate subsidies have gone. If that’s the case, we need more self-help instruments for farmers,” he said.
Mr Swan said that having grown up in rural Queensland, he understood farmers did not always find it easy dealing with banks.
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