Federal Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig.AUSTRALIAN farmers can still access drought protection measures while Federal Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig continues pushing for new reforms with the States.
Minister Ludwig will meet with State Agriculture Ministers throughout Australia at the next meeting of the Standing Council on Primary Industries (SCoPI) on October 26 to consider a proposal for a national package of drought-related programs.
Minister Ludwig said the Australian government was committed to supporting Australian farmers, their families and regional communities to prepare for and manage the long-term effects of drought.
He said the Federal, State and Territory governments have made that same commitment through the SCoPI.
If agreed to by ministers at the next SCoPI meeting, the new drought reform package will then require agreement from individual State governments, prior to its proposed implementation from July 1, 2014.
Minister Ludwig said it was important to acknowledge that while the new package was being considered, existing measures could still help farmers prepare for future challenges, including drought.
These included support for farm families through the government’s Transitional Farm Family Payment; the Farm Management Deposits Scheme, and the Rural Financial Counselling Service.
The traditional Exceptional Circumstances (EC) assistance program remains unchanged while agreement on the new package is being reached.
It’s understood that there have been no legislative changes to the existing laws and States can still apply to the National Rural Advisory Council (NRAC) for an EC declaration.
Although the legislative mechanisms to trigger an EC declaration remain, the States have agreed, at the last SCoPI meeting in April, they won’t pursue EC during the transition period.
Australia was officially declared drought free for the first time in more than a decade after existing EC declarations ended earlier this year.
Minister Ludwig said the expiry of EC declarations provided an ideal opportunity to transition from the traditional response of reacting to drought crises to a more proactive policy approach.
A pilot drought program in Western Australia over the past couple of years has assisted the development of the new protective measures, with an increased focus on risk management and preparedness.
Australian farm Institute executive director Mick Keogh has been extensively involved in the WA drought pilot review and is also the NRAC chair.
Mr Keogh said the States and the Commonwealth had agreed there would be no more EC declarations and no EC interest rate subsidies – widely known as business support measures – during the transitional period until 2014.
But household income support measures remain in place which can provide Centrelink payments for farm families and members, who meet an income or asset threshold test.
He said those families would not be reliant on an EC declaration or a “line on a map”, but would have better individual support with income of about $25,000 per year.
Mr Keogh said NRAC’s observation was that the income assistance measure had been “very well received” during the drought pilot program, where drought had also occurred in WA at the same time.
“It meant the farm household had regular income to pay bills in their local town, pay school fees, buy their kids shoes and so on,” he said.
“It was evident to us that this financial support was also going into the local community.
“But the comments we heard about the EC interest rate subsidies was that they changed the bottom line on the farm’s business debt, but there was no money available for spending on household necessities.”
Mr Keogh said while some parts of the country were experiencing dry conditions this year they still fell “well short” of what would formally trigger an EC declaration, by being a one-in-20 weather event.
He said some parts of WA’s southern wheatbelt and parts of Western Victoria were facing three-monthly rainfall deficiencies – but still fell short of EC declarations.
Mr Keogh said parts of north-western NSW were also looking quite dry, with some farmers concerned about crop production outcomes, but they also fell short of triggering an EC declaration.
Some parts of South Australia near the Eyre Peninsula are also experiencing below average seasonal conditions.
But most of the pain was in WA with rainfall patterns in some areas experiencing their lowest rainfall on record.
“The Western Australians always need rainfall from early June to September – during their crop growing seasons – but some of those southern areas missed out on that rainfall this year,” he said.
“But I suspect we’re still a long way short of what would be an EC declaration.”
Mr Keogh said the drought pilot program had been operating in WA over the past couple of years which would assist those growers and communities in dealing with dry conditions this year.
LinksAustralian Government’s Transitional Farm Family Payment
Farm Management Deposits Scheme
Rural Financial Counselling Service
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