Interview with Kelly Fuller, ABC New England North West

Kelly Fuller: Well, we certainly heard the federal government's big drought announcement on Sunday out at Trangie and people are still digesting it. You might have even started progressing through the state government changes that were announced a couple of weeks ago. Those opened up on Monday. We'll explore them in a bit more detail on the Breakfast show tomorrow, giving you a couple of days to begin the process of applying for some of those subsidies.

But in terms of the federal government response, is there any wriggle room in changing the asset threshold and what more can be done off-farm when it comes to assistance with this drought? The Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack is in the region, just landed at Tamworth Airport. Good morning to you, Deputy Prime Minister.

Michael McCormack: Good morning, Kelly.

Kelly Fuller: Thank you very much for a couple of minutes on the show this morning. So, there's been a lot of response to your drought package and the welcome news that the threshold has been increased, that will allow more.

Michael McCormack: Five million dollars.

Kelly Fuller:Yeah, to $5 million. Very welcomed by lots of people, but I guess we're still hearing it may not be high enough, with the value of some properties around here, values we've been told have increased by about seven per cent a year.

So, they are rapidly increasing. Is there any wriggle room, look, to possibly increase, as one famer suggested, $10 million to us on the show yesterday, might help a few?

Michael McCormack: At the moment, and as the Prime Minister has already indicated and as have I, the latest measures are the latest measures. But, we'll keep monitoring this. We'll keep addressing the issues and there's more to come. There's more to come in the package.

I can't see that the drought is going to go any time soon—although comforted by the fact that a long term local I was speaking to on the plane this morning—told me that in 1965, which we know is probably the worst drought in living memory, that the drought broke on 19 August and there was six inches of rain after that. So let's cross our fingers and hope that that's replicated in 2018.

Kelly Fuller: That would be great, that's my birthday. That'd be a happy day.

Michael McCormack: Well, happy birthday to you on that day—you're an August baby like me. I had my birthday last week.

Kelly Fuller: [Laughs]

But would you concede at all that the threshold may not be enough, especially for some of the very highly-valuable back soil properties we have up here in the north west?

Michael McCormack: Again, I say we'll keep monitoring this. And I know Barnaby will be taking readings from his visits around the area and I will too as I go around the nation. And you're right, property prices have increased. They've increased in the Riverina where I come from and, I appreciate that this is an issue.

We've increased it from $2.6 to $5 million. Many, many farmers are asset-rich, but they're cash-poor and that why we've put $12,000 on the table. That's $7,200 for singles. Those cash payments, they're not going to buy a lot of fodder, they're not going to buy any fodder, but they'll pay bills.

Kelly Fuller: Hopefully. It's just that we are hearing that 18 months without an income and still not being able to apply for this welfare package because they're beautiful properties that unfortunately aren't producing are excluded from what generously is on offer.

Michael McCormack: I would also urge and encourage farmers not to self-assess, to actually seek the help of a rural financial counsellor. If they've got the time and they're in the area, come to Attunga Hall this morning at 10 o'clock.

There's going to be other meetings at Narrabri and Moree, Inverell and Glen Innes, where they can hear from Centrelink. They can hear from rural financial counsellors. They can hear from the primary health network if they're having a few health issues.

We've got the government departments, agencies, coming out to talk to people face to face, one on one, privately if they need to, to seek that sort of help. I mean, governments can only do so much but we can't make it rain.

Kelly Fuller: Sure. Absolutely, and look, and while I've got you, I guess I was hoping to focus on some of the other levers that you could be pulling as well, alongside of all this. I guess, some of the list that we've been suggested is, would you be looking at possibly offering some relief on GST on the BAS for farmers. Is that a lever that you will consider puling?

Michael McCormack: There's all sorts of things. And what I would urge and encourage people to do is to feed into their local member, whether it's Kevin Anderson or whether it's Barnaby Joyce. Feed those sorts of messages in because we're going to be looking at what further we can do as a government—as well as a state government—if the drought persists because obviously farmers need a hand, not just farmers, but also this goes way beyond the farm gate. It has an impact on families obviously, businesses.

Kelly Fuller: Yeah, and that—I guess that's what I was hoping to focus on with you this morning is this off-farm assistance and I guess we've addressed the threshold issue, but off-farm is now where we're heading. We've spoken to businesses in Inverell who are talking about payroll tax, state governments looking at offering them some individual assessment there like they do for floods and fire. So that's possibly an avenue.

Michael McCormack: I spoke to John Barilaro just last night about what further measures they can do. And all these sorts of things are going to be part of the conversation going forward.

Kelly Fuller: So are you expecting that there'll be… you say there'll be another package coming soon? Is there going to be a focus on off-farm?

Michael McCormack: Well, we're constantly monitoring it. We're looking at things that we can do. Happy to take advice from those on the ground and happy to take advice from obviously key stakeholders like New South Wales Farmers etc

Kelly Fuller: Sorry, just in your press release you say there will be another package announced soon. So I'm wondering is that going to be a focus on off-farm assistance for people employed by farming?

Michael McCormack: We're looking at a whole range of options. And what we need for it to do, is to rain. And we're looking at a whole range of options as to what we can further to do. And we announced our first range of measures in June; announced another one, of course, on Sunday at Trangie; and we're in constant discussions about what we can further do. But we'd like to seek, obviously, the on-ground advice—free and frank, whatever. That's why I'm out at Attunga Hall today—not just to be with these agencies, but to listen to farmers.

Kelly Fuller: Sure, and I guess I'm just doing exactly what you're asking. I'm throwing a few of the ideas that the farmers are suggesting to us at you.

Michael McCormack: And I've been physically writing them down, Kelly, you'll be pleased to know.

Kelly Fuller: Just a question from one of our listeners, Deputy Prime Minister: When we talk about assets for farmers, what assets are assessed when—w hat do you count—is it just the land value itself, or are we adding the irrigation, things like that?

Michael McCormack: Well, there's a whole mix of those sorts of things. They do assess all those sorts of things. But again, I say, if people are in doubt, it's best to check with one of these rural financial counsellors. They are there. They can sit around the kitchen table with the farmers, with their partners, and they can go through all these range of options. They can go through where they're at, where they need to be, where they could be in the future and also give them advice as to how to future drought-proof their properties and their livelihoods.

Kelly Fuller: I'll throw another one at you. One of the other one's we've had is a suggestion that you look at picking up the interest on mortgages, which is not the principal, but there is precedent for it, it's happened in the past. Would you consider supporting a measure?

Michael McCormack: Well again, banks also have to come to the table in this regard. And look, and some of the banks have, I know Rabo and NAB have, and you know, there's a bit of pressure on other banks to do what they can do in this time of trouble.

I take my hat off to the organisations like R U Aware We Care?, CWA—you mentioned them at the top of the show; the Salvation Army, they've been wonderful, as have so many other organisations.

Kelly Fuller: Yeah, and I appreciate that, and you've done a really good job of highlighting the other roles that not-for-profits are doing. But I guess, this is our opportunity to hear from the Deputy Prime Minister, where some of the ideas that the community is raising with us, which is—a few of these concepts. So the next…

Michael McCormack: Sure, and again, happy to take them on board. But if we are going to make some sort of announcement, we've just made one on Sunday, it's been well-received and obviously we're taking future options and advice on board. Happy to listen and happy to take those on board and we'll collect those, we'll discuss those at a cabinet level.

Kelly Fuller:

Sure. What's your sense though of the pressure on the labour force in the rural sector at the moment? I guess, there's companies telling us by October if things haven't turned around they'll be looking at making reductions, sizeable reductions, to their workforce because there's just no movement, no orders coming through, no processing.

Michael McCormack: And again that's something we need to …

Kelly Fuller: What's your sense of that urgent turnaround?

Michael McCormack: There is an urgency and of course, speaking to a few of the bigger business people just yesterday and their fears of just not having the sorts of work generated by the lack of rain, generated by the lack of opportunity, generated by the lack of work coming through their factories and through their industries and they're looking at that as well. And one of the big risks is that a lot of the farm hands, of course, take off to the cities to find employment.

Kelly Fuller: Yeah, it's a very skilled workforce.

Michael McCormack: So again, that's where I talk to Michaelia Cash, that's where I talk to Scott Morrison to see what we can do—the Employment Minister and Treasurer respectively—as to how to help these regional communities keep their labour force right here.

And that's why I'm also, as the Infrastructure Minister, bringing forward a whole range of road projects and Roads to Recovery and that sort of thing to help local councils. And indeed that could be providing some off-farm income for property owners as well.

And again, that's where the government is there to help, but we can't make it rain. We'll certainly work with communities at a local level and do whatever we can and partner with them.

Kelly Fuller: Okay just finally then, what's your sort of evaluation date on the next announcement? If we're hearing that October is a critical time for some businesses, that by then they'll be backing out.

Michael McCormack:

We'll be resuming Parliament next week. We'll obviously have ongoing discussions. There's not a day goes by I don't talk to the Prime Minister about the drought and my colleagues, my National Party colleagues. So, we'll obviously be having more to say about this in coming weeks.

Kelly Fuller: Alright. Deputy Prime Minister, we appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

Michael McCormack: Thank you so much.

Kelly Fuller: Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack there, visiting the region today.