Doorstop with the Hon. Michael McCormack MP, the Hon. David Littleproud MP and the Hon. Mark Coulton MP Strathmore Farm, Trangie, NSW

Ashlea Miles:

Thank you for coming back Malcolm, Michael, Mark, David. I have more than I had ever anticipated coming back for a second visit and I think follow up is always good and if we can nut out—I think there's some announcements today—if we can nut out some more strategies to build on that. I think hopefully our drought toolbox will be able to become more efficient, more effective and have some long term sustainability in it.

It's an ever evolving process. Drought is unfortunately one of those things that creeps up on you and you don't know you're really in it until you're in the thick of it. So all we can really do is work together and make sure we're on the ground and getting our points across and hopefully we're representing that really well.

So I'd like to welcome you back and thanks for coming in for another chat, it was really good. We don't muck around in our chats, we get right down to it and we tell these guys exactly where we are, what we need and what we feel would be a good future or good path for us to take, so it's not just a cup of tea, although we did have one. It was pretty strategic and we're aiming to get further and more advanced in our drought strategies.

So thank you, thanks.

Prime Minister:

Well thanks Ashlea and thanks Philip you're an inspiration, you and thousands of other farmers around Australia, showing the resilience that makes all Australia proud of you. You put the food on our tables, the fibre that goes on our backs and we have your back, we're supporting you. Now we are the land of droughts and flooding rains we recognise that. It's a very volatile and often capricious climate and Australian farmers are resilient, they plan for drought, they are good managers but it can become really overwhelming. This is the worst drought in New South Wales since the 1965 drought, not many of us remember that very well, most Australians weren't born then. So it is a shocking drought.

Now what we're doing is we came out in June, we stayed in close and constant touch with rural and regional communities and we have made some immediate changes following our trip in June which was to extend the Farm Household Allowance availability from three years to four years. We are also making some additional changes to that, which we're announcing today.

We're going to increase the Farm Household Allowance by $7,200 for singles and $12,000 for couples—that's to say $6,000 for each partner in a couple, a husband and wife for example—and what that will do, is provide additional cash in this coming year because it appears that we're going into a dry spring, it could be a dry spring and a tough summer. We hope the forecasts are proved wrong but the prospects are not great at the moment.

So we want to make sure there is more cash for farmers that are qualifying for the Farm Household Allowance and we're increasing the asset test to $5 million. Now that's obviously a lot of money, but the reality is, farmers who are providing the human capital for this massive industry, one of our most important industries, are sitting on assets from which in the drought they cannot generate any income at all. So that is why that additional cash support is vitally important.

We also recognise the huge challenge of mental health. This is an issue right around Australia. It's a very big issue in the bush. These are bleak times and a lot of people find it very hard to cope. We need to remove the stigma and taboo about talking about mental health. An important development has been putting on the Medicare schedule the availability of tele-health consultations for psychological support, mental health support.

We are changing that again to make it more available under the existing rules. Three of the 10 consultations have to be in person, and one of the first four has to be in person. A lot of people don't want to go into town, they don't have the time to go into town, they're shy about doing so, and so they have three tele-health consultations and then don't have fourth then drop out. They don't have fourth in person.

Now you can do the full 10 over tele-health, Facetime over the telephone or whatever. This is very important to improve that mental health support. We are also providing additional funding for mental health services in regional Australia and we are providing additional funding for the foundation for rural and regional Australia which is going to provide—which is a great institution, which gets a lot of support from the from the private sector as well and philanthropic support and provides over $75 million in small grants to community organisations in drought-affected areas.

So that and other measures are an indication of the way in which we have come out to the bush, stayed closely in touch, we have got keen personal interests in these communities, we have listened, we have heard, we have acted, and we will continue to do that.

This is not set and forget.

As Ashlea was saying, this drought is evolving it's a constant dynamic environment which farmers have to cope with and what we are saying to farmers is that we are listening, we are with you, we feel the challenges you have, and we are determined to keep supporting you.

I want to say thank you to Ashlea and Philip and all of the farmers who are coping with this drought and determined to maintain this great industry and their livelihoods, their families on their land, but I also want to say thank you so much to Michael McCormack, the Deputy Prime Minister, David Littleproud, the Agriculture Minister and Mark Coulton, the local member. And I'll ask them to say a few words because we have been working very closely, as a very tight team, to ensure we provide the support our farmers need. Michael.

Deputy Prime Minister:

Thank you, Prime Minister. We live in a country of droughts and flooding rains, we all know that. We live in a country where farmers have built this country. They are indeed the backbone of this country we are there when they are doing it tough. When farmers do it well, the whole nation benefits. When farmers do it tough, as they are now, the whole nation suffers, and we, as government, are right there by their side, right behind them, and supporting them all the way.

I appreciate the announcements made by the Prime Minister this morning. He understands these issues facing regional Australians. Not just issues facing regional Australians, but they are facing all Australians. Only this morning I had a call for assistance from Tasmania. People down there willing to bring fodder up to New South Wales, Victoria or Queensland, wherever they can, to make sure they can do their part.

On Tuesday, at Attunga public hall, there's going to be a meeting with the “Are You Aware, We Care” campaign, making sure that people can access government services, whether it's the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman's office, whether it's indeed the Social Services, mental health, those sorts of things, government agencies are going to come together and I urge and encourage anyone in and around the Tamworth, on Tuesday, to go to Attunga public hall to see how they can access the services, to see what they can gain from attending one of those meetings.

There'll be others at Inverell and Glen Innes and elsewhere, they'll be announced in the not too distant future. But government agencies are there willing to help. I would urge and encourage farmers to seek that help, to not self assess, to make sure they find out what assistance they can be eligible for. To make sure they can take advantage of those services that are there.

The government's there willing to help. We need farmers, if they are struggling, to put their hand up and reach out and get that assistance, whether it's mental health, whether it's a rural financial counsellor and certainly if it's financial assistance, we are ready, as the Prime Minister has indicated, with this new announcement, this new package of measures, that we're there to help.

We want our farmers to get through this. They will get through this and we need them to know that we are there right by their side right behind them backing them all the way and making sure they can continue to grow the very best food and fibre.

Our farmers are the very best, whether it's Ashlea and Philip Miles here at Strathmore. No matter who it is around the countryside, they are great planners, great preparers but nothing and no-one can prepare them for a drought like this as the Prime Minister has indicated it's one of the worst we've had since 1965. But we'll get through it, we are resilient, Australians are a resilient lot.

They need the help and the New South Wales government's come to the fore last week. We have continued that assistance, that help that we have made available. As the Prime Minister indicated, we provided assistance back in June after coming here the first time and hopefully next time, as the Prime Minister said this morning, hopefully next time if we come back, we'll get bogged.

The rain will come, the rain will come we just need to make sure we are there, we are prepared and are helping farmers all the way. I will ask David Littleproud to make a few comments.

Minister for Agriculture:

Thanks DPM and PM. The fact we are back here shows this is a fluid situation. We as a government need to be agile and we are being agile today.

We have gone away we've listened and we're going to have to continue to listen.

The reality is, the investment is not just about an extra $12,000, this is actually an extra $28,000, in total $28,000, that will be going into farm households around the country. The additional $12,000 will come in two payments but the continuation of the existing farmhouse assistant program will continue on, which is an important component of this.

The other important component is the investment of $5 million into new regional and rural financial counsellors that will be there to assist farmers, to help them to understand what's available to them on the ground. To come out and sit at the kitchen tables like we just sat at and get under the bonnet of the farmers' businesses and help them make strategic decisions and help them plan to get through this drought and prepare them for when the rain does come.

The story of agriculture is a good story. It's one of just add rain. The reality is when the rain comes, we will make a quid, we will make a quid. And I say to each and every one of those farmers out there today, keep your chin up. The reality is, when the rain comes, the good times will come back but we have got to get you through this and your government is here with you, we'll continue to listen and be with you all the way to make sure we get you to when it rains.

So thanks for coming PM and thanks to Philip and Ashlea as well.

Assistant Minister for Trade: Thank you. I'll finish up, thank you, Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, David, Ag Minister and thank you to Ashlea and Phil, thank you for hosting us once more.

We are here today in Trangie, the Parkes electorate is half of New South Wales in landmass and there is not one part of it at the moment that's not in the grips of drought. I think that's something to remember.

We have had droughts before that have been geographically focused. This one is right across. Whether this it's from the farms in the Lachlan Valley or Condobolin or Lake Cargelligo right through to the Golden Triangle north of Moree to the range graziers of the West Darling, everyone is in this drought. So it's important that, because of the variety of businesses and the variety of styles that the support is available to everyone and I just want to reinforce what my colleague said—don't self-assess.

The rural financial counsellors are put there for a reason. They are there to help you access it, these funds, they are not there to try to prevent you from getting it.

Don't listen to what you hear down the street, or over the neighbour's fence. Find out for yourself, get that support, look for the financial counselling and the emotional support that's out there and as the Prime Minister's said it's a fluid situation and we'll keep re-assessing what needs to be done as we go through this time, so thank you all for coming today.

Prime Minister:

Good. Do we have a few questions?


Prime Minister, what's the eligibility in terms of the income test that farmers have to meet? You have raised the threshold for assets, what's the income threshold?

Prime Minister:

It's related to Newstart, it's a complex one, but basically, it takes into account net farm income, obviously, and also has an allowance for off farm income but it's about 9,000 farmers that are getting Farm Household Allowance at the moment. More would be eligible in our view and the increasing of the asset test will make more available too.

But it's very important for them to contact their rural financial counsellors.


So there is not an actual a figure in terms of a salary figure that is?

Prime Minister:

Well farmers generally aren't on salaries because they are running their own businesses.


Some farmers do have off farm incomes.

Prime Minister:

That is right, there is an allowance for a certain amount of off farm income when that is being used to offset losses on the farm. But again, I would stress it's important to contact your rural financial counsellor.


How simple is the process, you admitted yourself just now it is quite complex?

Prime Minister:

Yes, it is complex and that's why, because like with all social welfare benefits, it's important to make sure that the eligibility is carefully managed but that's why it's important to speak to rural financial counsellors and there is a 1800 number that we can provide for people to be able to contact.


What would you say we have had some feedback from farmers who've had phone calls to Centrelink and who have gone through the process and have almost given up before they've completed the application?

Prime Minister:

There are specialist rural financial counsellors in fact we have increased the availability of them. We've increased the availability of them and they are the right people to contact.

Minister for Agriculture:

The application time frames have come down from 25 days to 18 days. The reality is, is as the Prime Minister said, the rural financial counselling service is where you should go first, don't go to your accountant, they look after your tax, the rural financial counselling service is there to look after social wellbeing of these funds, you should go to them first.

There is also a hardship provision within this that can be looked at both on income and assets.


So is that the hardship exemption, does that apply to somebody who is above the threshold, for example?

Minister for Agriculture:

It does, yes.


With regards to the figure itself, how did the government come to an extra $12,000, so you have $16,000 in place, is $12,000 enough?

Prime Minister:

Well, we considered a range of options and this is the figure that we think is the right one, but look, we are dealing with a dynamic situation as I said there is no set and forget here.

This drought is not without precedent. Let me stress that. We are, as we have all said, the land of droughts and flooding rains, but we haven't had a drought this bad for a very, very long time, the Bureau of Meteorology says 1965. I can say from my own experience in the upper Hunter, it's worse than the Millennium drought in 06/07 and a lot worse than the 82/83 drought, which was one of the worst droughts.

These are very exceptional circumstances and it's important that we react and respond with the support that farmers need. There are a lot of other issues associated with this. One of the challenges we are going to face is as—let us look at the situation—the cost of hand feeding is enormous and it's getting higher because grain and other substitutes for feed like cotton seed and so forth are becoming less available, the cost of hay is going up because

people are having to source from it from as far away as South Australia. There is a lot of freight in that.

The State Government here has done the right thing by re-introducing the freight subsidy, that's very helpful. But farmers are destocking and we will have an issue with the size of our breeding herd both of cattle and sheep at the end of this drought. So there are big issues associated with that as well.

We are looking at the drought, the challenge of drought, both in terms of immediate relief, which is really what we are talking about today and we are also looking at how we can do more to support and enable the long-term resilience of Australian farmers.

I want to be very clear about this, by the way, I want to pay tribute to Australian farmers. Australian farmers are some of the most resilient and innovative business people in our country. You know, some farmers are in absolutely diabolical situations. We have talked about some really tragic circumstances.

But Australian farmers know they face the challenges of an unpredictable climate. So they are already resilient. You should never regard Australian farmers as being helpless at all in the face of the climate.

They live in this climate, they understand it better than anybody and our job is to make sure we support them and enable their resilience and listen to them, as we do, so that we can provide additional support so that they can do even better in tougher times in years ahead.


Many residents will say this is too little too late. Should you have acted sooner?

Prime Minister:

Well, look, this is important relief, we have been making changes to our programs constantly, as you know.


Prime Minister, would there be any appetite for some sort of scheme to freight by sea, grain from Western Australia, where they are having a bumper crop this year?

Would the government be able to underwrite a scheme like that? Ashlea earlier quoted the sorts of figures about how far afield she will have to go to get fodder. Could the government underwrite something like that?

Prime Minister:

We are certainly open to that—in the sense that we'll consider it. We have be very careful that any measures we undertake are carefully thought through and don't have unintended adverse consequences. But it's going to be very important to do everything we can to ensure that our breeding herd is not unduly diminished by this drought.

I mean, the longer the drought, the combination of a long drought, high prices for relatively high prices for livestock, there is obviously an incentive for people to destock.

Clearly, I mean I can tell you, in one drought I destocked, I think too early, because it rained not long after I sold and I was kicking myself. In another one, I hung on and I nearly got caught but I didn't. You know, it rained just in time.

So everyone has to make these tough calls. But looking at it from a national perspective, as opposed to the point of view of each individual farmer, we all, all of us, every Australian, every one of the 25 million Australians has a vested interest in us having national herds that are capable of continuing to deliver the livestock we need for our own needs and export obligations.

So the answer is everything is on the table, we'll look at everything very carefully.


Any restrictions on what the money can be used for is it solely for the household or can it be used for fodder or water?

Minister for Agriculture:

It goes into the household. It's important to understand this is an additional $12,000 per household, currently getting around $16,000, so every household in the coming year will have $28,000 put into people's wallets to help them keep bread and butter on the table for them manage that.

The government doesn't tell people how to spend their money, we let them make those decisions and we are proud to say that. We trust farmers to be able to make those decisions, the right decisions for their families and their business.


Are you hoping that more people are going to take this up?

Minister for Agriculture:


Prime Minister:

Yeah, this is the important point that David and I have both stressed about as did Michael about the rural financial counsellors, it's really important to talk to them.

We put a lot more resources in to make sure that there are the counsellors available to get that advice.

Don't get, as you were saying, half-baked advice from someone over the fence or from an accountant that may not know about it. Talk to the people that know, they have the expertise and can tell you swiftly whether you qualify and guide you through the process.

Just one more then we'd better keep moving.


Are there any provisions for local businesses and local communities? What more can the Government do?

Prime Minister:

You have seen one of the advantages of putting more cash into farm households, is that money will be spent in town. We had dinner at the RSL in Narromine last night, and we were talking to local business people about that, and indeed this morning. It is important to maintain that.

That's why the small grants programs in drought affected areas is going to be important. That is also why it's important for local councils to, as they do, get support from the Federal Government to be able to do work on roads and anything that's putting a bit of additional cash into these communities is going to be important. Because you are absolutely right, it's not just the cocky that's struggling, it's also everybody in town as well.

Deputy Prime Minister:

That is why that $15 million is also important for the foundation for rural and regional renewal is so important, because that's going to put money into many of the charities. The government takes its hat off to the number of charities who've stepped up and are really focusing on these drought-stricken areas and making a real difference.


On that line of charity can I just get one last question in—a lot of people are really anxious to help people who are living in drought-stricken rural areas. But there is a push in many areas to deliver hampers, to buy things in the city and to deliver those things to the bush. Can I get some comments from you?

Prime Minister:

Yes that, is a great question. Look, send money. Don't send hampers and tin food. Really, what the charities need is cash which will then go to communities and they will spend it in the town.

If you get large amounts of, as we have had and has come from people's hearts, it's come with love and compassion, but you don't want to be in a position where there is a lot of, you know, tinned food and other grocery items and so forth that are being delivered, and that means then that there is less business for the local town.

So we want to see support that's going into rural communities, we want to see that being spent in those communities. OK. Thanks guys.