The Hon Michael McCormack MP, The Hon Mark Coulton MP, Kevin Anderson MP, Gunnedah Chamber of Commerce

Mark Coulton: It’s a great privilege for me to have my colleague, Michael McCormack, the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, to join my state colleague Member for Tamworth Kevin Anderson here in Gunnedah today, along with Mayor Jamie Chaffey and members of the Gunnedah Council and the Gunnedah Chamber of Commerce.

It’s important as members of Parliament and as leaders, as Michael is, to come out and connect with the community and have that discussion and engagement to understand what’s really going on with the town and what makes it tick.

Gunnedah at the moment is riding very well—apart from the drought which is impacting on everyone—but the town itself is in a very strong position. And it was very rewarding this morning to be talking to people in business and others who have great confidence in this community and there’s an opportunity for them to talk to Michael as the Minister to discuss some issues.

So Kev, I might ask you to say a few words and then we finish up with Michael.

Kevin Anderson: Alright, thank you Mark.

Look, it is a pleasure to have the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister here in Gunnedah as well. And it’s something that I think is rare in terms of having… we had Local Government, State Government and Federal Government in the one room today and that’s how you get stuff done. You know, that’s how you make it work. When everybody sits at the table and says how do we make regional New South Wales the best it can possibly be? How do we continue to improve the lives of those who live in our communities? And the way you do that is with those guys around the table, those heavyweights who can make the decision.

So really pleased to have the Deputy Prime Minister in Gunnedah today. It’s onward and upward.

There is so much investment happening in regional New South Wales and it’s our job to keep it going so that people come up with the ideas and we go; okay, how do we fund them? How do we make it work? And how do we make sure that particularly with transport—and we’ll get the Deputy Prime Minister to talk about Inland Rail shortly—but transport is the key. When you have good transport networks, whether they be road, rail or air then you have a country that moves and we’re seeing and hearing B-doubles go past us at the moment.

So when you have a transport network sector move a country then you’ve got a country that’s definitely moving forward in the right direction.

So great to have the Deputy Prime Minister here.

Michael McCormack: Well, thank you Kevin and it’s great to be in the Member for Parkes’ electorate. Mark Coulton is a Minster who gets things done. Mark Coulton is the Assistant Minster for Trade, Tourism and Investment.

Not only has he got 49 per cent of the state in his electorate but he’s also on the world stage making sure that those valuable trade deals are enhanced, making sure that those valuable trade opportunities for his local farmers, for his local small businesses are met.

And we’re also meeting them through such projects as Roads of Strategic Importance, a $3.5 billion investment by the Federal Government into those secondary roads and we’re very much looking forward to working with the Shire such as Gunnedah Shire Council and I acknowledge the great work being done by Mayor Jamie Chaffey and his team making sure that Roads of Strategic Importance in Gunnedah Shire are front and centre of everything that we’re trying to do on the national stage.

But also, this week it’s been very important because we’ve passed the income tax rates. Income tax laws have passed the federal Parliament to put $530 back in the pockets of hard working Australians, hard working Australians in Gunnedah, hard working Australians throughout north-western New South Wales, regional Australia and those tax cuts have been fought very hard by people such as Mark Coulton.

I can’t reiterate enough that he’s been pushing for this Inland Rail. He’s been making sure that that 1,700 kilometre corridor of commerce is going to benefit, most of all, his electorate. Of all the electorates in Australia that is going to receive benefits from Inland Rail it’s the electorate of Parkes.

Half the state is in Mark Coulton’s electorate and despite the fact that he’s a very hard working Minister around the Ministerial table and making sure that national outcomes are influenced by the people of Parkes who he represents, because he is a Minister around that table, but also, never forgetting that he is a local member and getting around his very, very large electorate. Making sure that people are talked to but more importantly listened to and I can’t commend him enough for the work that he’s doing.

Kevin Anderson mentioned the fact that we’re here today with all three spheres of Government, Local Government through Gunnedah Shire. Kevin in the great work that he’s doing as Parliamentary Secretary making sure that the roads and maritime services are kept up to speed and the infrastructure that we need is put into place and through Mark Coulton. So it’s great to have all three arms of Government talking together in the one room with the business community.

Nothing gets done in Australia without the business community. Nothing gets done without those great people of enterprise, those people who take the risks, and I'm very much looking forward, as Mark is, to getting back to Canberra next week to try and to get through the business tax rates, the business tax laws.

Because we need our businesses to be internationally competitive. We need our businesses to be paying 25 per cent tax. They're paying 27.5 per cent, small and medium and family enterprises at the moment. That’s the lowest company tax rate that we’ve had for 78 years, but we want it to be even lower still so that our businesses can maintain their level footing, their international competitiveness that’s so important in Mark Coulton’s portfolio.

More than that, you know, we see Labor trying to push the tax rates through Bill Shorten and his union apparatchiks above 30 per cent. We don’t need that. We don’t need a Bill Shorten-led Labor Government which is going to push energy prices up, which is going to push the jobless rates up, and which is going to make sure that our business tax rates are above 30 per cent and Australia being internationally uncompetitive with the rest of the world.

Any questions?

Question: Minister, turning to the elephant in the room, the drought; what were you told by local farmers this morning?

Michael McCormack: Yeah, look, it is biting and it is biting very hard. And I appreciate that it is a prolonged drought.

I understand that in some communities in Mark Coulton’s electorate that three out of the last four years have been very, very dry. And you know, you only have to look around you to see the brown earth to know that we desperately need rain.

The Government can’t make it rain, but what we can do is we can put provisions in place to help farmers and to help small businesses also through these trying times.

I applaud what the New South Wales Government is doing. Federally, we’ve made sure that the Farm Household Assistance Packages are extended by another year from three to four.

We urge and encourage farmers who are doing it tough to see what services they can access. What we’ve seen far too much throughout north-western New South Wales, throughout central western New South Wales and throughout southern and western Queensland is farmers self-assessing.

So what we’ve also done is we’ve put a lot of money on the table in the order of $20 million to not only put mental health provisions in place, but also to make sure that rural financial counsellors and experts are there and are available for farmers to sit around their kitchen tables and to see how they can access the sort of services that are available.

So don’t self-assess. There are a lot of farmers who are eligible to get help, but only …well, less than half have actually applied for that help, and we urge and encourage farmers who are feeling it tough to sing out, to see what services they can make themselves available to.

And if in doubt, call Mark Coulton’s office, call Kevin Anderson’s office and see what services are available to them.

Question: You said you’ve come out here to listen. What the farmers have been saying time and time again is freight subsidies. The two packages announced, State and Federal, haven’t involved freight subsidies. What’s going on there?

Michael McCormack: Well, we can certainly look and we intend to at what else we can do. At the moment, we’ve unveiled a suite of measures which is going to help farmers at the moment and in the months ahead. But yes, we are and certainly looking at what else we can do. We look forward to working with our State colleagues as well to see what further assistance we can make available.

Question: Why the resistance though, to freight subsidies? It’s a simple thing.

Kevin Anderson: Can I take that?

Michael McCormack: Yes, sure.

Kevin Anderson: We’ve been talking to many, many farmers as well as NSW Farmers over the last four or five months in relation to how do we provide that assistance that’s desperately needed?

Freight subsidies in the past have been provided, but we’re in a different environment now. When you look at drought and you look at everything that sits under drought, each farm is uniquely different. What they were talking about is the assistance they need, not only to help get fodder, help get water onto their properties, but also how do they get better at putting in drought-prevention measures.

So we’ve come up with the Farm Innovation Fund and a $50,000 loan that is interest-free, non-repayable for the first two years so that they can then have access to that instant cash and it does put… it eases the financial pressure on them.

A lot of farmers that are under financial pressure at the moment will have to dig into their overdraft. Say, for example, it’s $20,000 and they're looking to bring in a B-double load of hay. If that’s $20,000 and their cash-strapped as it is, they're digging into their overdraft and their overdraft probably sits at something like over 10 per cent.

So immediately they’ve got to come up with $20,000 and then they’ve got the interest sitting on top of that later on and then you’ve got the red tape of trying to get that rebate back two, three, four, five months down the track. So that puts them under enormous stress.

With the $50,000 on the table that they can access straight away, they are able to then pay for that freight and they don’t have to pay any interest. They don’t have to pay it back for the first two years and then they can look at repayments back.

We’ve talked to NSW Farmers, they support it and the financial modelling that’s on the table at the moment is best suited to those that need it most.

And of course, when individuals want that special assistance and that support measure that is unique to their own circumstance, we absolutely want them to reach out to the Rural Assistance Authority, to Local Land Services, because we will stand ready and we’ll come back. You know, in six months, if this thing is still going on, we’re coming back to look at what else we need to do to support farmers.

Question: What if six months is too late here? This has been going on since Spring; what if it’s too late for farmers out there?

Kevin Anderson: We’re constantly reassessing and six months is an arbitrary date. It could be a month, two months, three months, four months, five months.

So, we are consistently talking to NSW Farmers. We are consistently talking to our local landholders and farmers right across the state. I know Mark is, and I know the Deputy Prime Minister is as well, from his electorate at Riverina.

So this is something that we’re listening to. Our hearts are breaking. We’re deeply concerned about what’s happening in our regions and we are staying very connected and we’ll absolutely make sure that we continue to provide those assistance and those support measures that are needed.

Question: I know you’re talking to NSW Farmers, but farmers we talk to don’t seem to be getting what they want. It makes me question the effectiveness of NSW Farmers as a lobby group.

Michael McCormack: Well New South Wales Farmers is a very effective lobby group, they are indeed. But look, I would also urge and encourage farmers who want to make themselves available, you know, or want to make the services available to themselves, to see what they can access, to see the sorts of services that are out there, to see what help is there.

As I said, again, less than half the farmers who are eligible for the assistance that the Federal Government is providing, and I commend Kevin Anderson and his Government for what they’re doing on a state level, but more than half of the famers haven’t actually accessed the services yet.

So, if they do need these services, please sing out. Ring Mark Coulton’s electorate offices, you know, see what they can get to help them through these trying times and we’ll stand by them and support them all the way.

Question: Minister, could it be they’re not accessing the services because it’s not what they want? Barnaby Joyce has said that perhaps money could be redirected from the big banks, the fines, into subsidies?

Michael McCormack: Well again, we’ve looked at what we can do. We’ve got the Regional Investment Corporation. That’s a measure that we’re establishing at Orange to better support farmers, to better support rural communities, particularly during times of when nature turns against our communities.

We’re there; we’ve got the services available. A lot of the farmers, you know, they look at it and they think I might not be eligible for it, so I won’t therefore apply. But many of them are. Many of them just need to put their hands up to say what is available to me? How can I access it? And then take the necessary steps.

We’re providing rural financial counsellors to come and support them, to sit around their kitchen table, with an iPad, with a mobile phone, and work them through it. We’ve tweaked the criteria. We’ve tweaked the bureaucracy that it takes to get these measures rolled out.

We’re trying to support the farmers as best we can. We’ll continue to do it in conjunction with the state. Again, I know that Kevin and Mark are well aware of the situation; they live and breathe it every day, as do I in my Riverina electorate.

We understand that these are trying times and we’re doing our very best to help the farmers who need the help as well as the small business community who also rely on farmers and of course the weather to help them through these difficult periods.

Mark Coulton: And can I just reinforce to please contact the Rural Financial Counselling Service, or my office or Kevin’s office.

Social media is a wonderful way of communicating but I have seen posts and I’ve seen things that are perpetuated on social media websites that quite frankly are incorrect. And so a lot of the reasons that people are getting upset is because they’re getting the wrong information.

Don’t take any notice of what you hear down the street, in the pub, over the fence. Go to the people that know. And I can tell you I deal with people who have been on household support now for some time and it is worthwhile. They appreciate the support the Financial Counsellor Service are giving them and so go to the source of where the information is correct. Don’t be swayed by what you’ve seen on social media. Some of it’s spot on, but some of it is way off beam.

Kevin Anderson: We’ve got one more then we’ve got to hit the road to Gil. Billy, last one.

Question: There was hope today that there might have been announcement about Grain Valley Road. Michael, earlier on in the breakfast you said unfortunately today you hadn’t brought your cheque book. Is there a potential time frame on when an upgrade of Grain Valley Road might occur?

Michael McCormack: I’m very much looking forward to, in coming months, seeing what we can do and finalising that arrangement with Melinda Pavey.

I know that Kevin Anderson and Mark Coulton have certainly been out there championing this cause, campaigning on behalf of that 17.6 kilometre stretch between Boggabri and Mullaley.

I know how important it is, I know it needs sealing, I know what a critical difference it’s going to make to the farms of this area and very much looking forward to next time I’m here hopefully having something positive to say.