Interview with Kim Landers, ABC AM

Kim Landers: Despite the hardship many of our farmers are experiencing, the Federal Government has acknowledged that thousands of eligible families have not applied for the financial help that's on offer.

The Government announced on the weekend that it's topping up the existing Farm Household Allowance with up to $12,000 in two lump sum payments. The Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals' Leader Michael McCormack is heading to Attunga near Tamworth in New South Wales today to attend the first of a series of public hall meetings to help farming families navigate this system. I spoke to him a short time ago.

Deputy Prime Minister, good morning.

Michael McCormack: Good morning, Kim.

Kim Landers: You've acknowledged some farmers are reluctant to seek help. What's the Government doing to convince them to put their hand up?

Michael McCormack: Well, this morning we start a series of meetings with Government department representatives from such areas as the Australian Taxation Office, Health, Human Services, Regional Development, Cities and Infrastructure—that department—Jobs and Small Business; Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman.

But as well, we've got the Salvos, CWA and R U Aware We Care?, meeting at Attunga Public Hall, the first of a series of meetings. Others to follow at Narrabri, Moree, Glen Innes, Inverell and wherever else we need to do these sorts of meetings to assure farmers that we're here, that we're right beside them, that we care as well.

We've provided household assistance, up to $12,000. A couple of lump sum payments. We've increased the threshold to $5 million. We've put more mental health support on the table. But we're urging and encouraging farmers not to self-assess, to make sure that they take advantage of the help that is there.

There's many, many, many farmers who at the moment haven't actually made themselves available of the assistance that is there for them and we urge and encourage them to do just that, to put their hand up.

Kim Landers: To get this Farm Household Allowance though, there are more than 100 questions on a form. You've got to supply oodles of supporting documents—title deeds, rate notices, all your bank account details; list of your assets and liabilities, and some farmers are telling us it's just simply too much. Is the system to onerous?

Michael McCormack: We've also tweaked the system so that it is simpler. We've also made sure that we've got rural financial counsellors on hand who can sit around a kitchen table with farmers and their partners to work through the process with them.

So again, I say there is help available. Sure, there is paperwork to fill out. There's always paperwork to fill out. It's not just a matter of turning up and getting the assistance. But once they're in the system—and many of them already are—once they're in the system and once they've proven that they're eligible, the assistance will be there.

And there's $12,000. $7200 for a single. We'll be there to help them pay bills. We'll be there to, as the PM says, help their body and soul essentially. It's not going to do everything for them. It's not going to pay for all the fodder. But there are other means available to them to help them through that.

And to that end I take my hat off to many of the organisations, some of them which have sprung up through social media. Others, the Hay Runners, all those sorts of organisations that have sprung up over recent months to help and assist these farmers who are really struggling. And when farmers are at their best, the nation's at their best and when they're at their worst the nation's also at the best because they chip in and help them.

Kim Landers: Looking longer term, the intergovernmental agreement on drought reform expired at the end of June. The Prime Minister told us yesterday that the Government is in constant contact with the States and Territories on this. So when will it be done?

Michael McCormack: Soon. And we need to make sure that we have the conversation, the national conversation, about what we can further do to help further drought-proof our nation and that comes through many means and ways.

That comes through having discussions with key stakeholder groups, including obviously state governments, local governments, but also the National Farmers' Federation, the various state bodies such as AgForce, NSW Farmers and the like. I had a chat to their new president last night.

Look, we need to really have the conversation about what we can further do to help our farmers and make sure we better drought-proof our nation.

Kim Landers: If I could turn to another topic, Australia's population will hit the 25 million mark tonight. Is it time the Government came up with a formal population policy?

Michael McCormack: Those discussions have taken place too and I'm just pleased in the infrastructure space we've got a 10-year tax plan as far as rolling out the right taxation ends we have.

But as I said, as Infrastructure and Transport Minister, an investment pipeline there, for a decade long, to help ease the congestion. To make sure that we build the infrastructure that our nation needs.

So both through tax and infrastructure, we're making sure that we've got that long-term vision over the next decade to make sure that we're well-placed to cope with, well, 25 million tonight. Who knows how many it will be in ten years' time, but we've ...

Kim Landers: What would you be comfortable with? What number would you be comfortable with?

Michael McCormack: Oh well that's a difficult question. I mean, Australia needs more population.

Our regions are—many of our regions are—crying out for more people to be able to fill the jobs to ensure that we take advantage of those trade opportunities that the Liberals and Nationals have created in South East Asia and elsewhere to make sure that we can grow the food and fibre once the rain returns and the drought is over we're going to be a nation that's going to go so far ahead in so many ways.

But we need a population and that can only come as well through, obviously, through good immigration policies, which we have.

Kim Landers: Finally, is your Nationals' party room locked in behind the energy policy known as the National Energy Guarantee?

Michael McCormack: We need to make sure that we've got that sensible plan while meeting our emissions targets. We're doing that.

We've got an offer on the table for the states—reliable, affordable energy. It's all about bringing the power bills down for households, for businesses, for everybody and that's what the National Energy Guarantee does.

I'm pleased that the ACCC has said that we need obviously that baseload power, and that there's obviously a future there for all forms of power to be in the mix. Energy retailers are obviously obliged to supply sufficient quantities of reliable power.

They'll do just that under the National Energy Guarantee. The onus is now on the states to agree to that.

Kim Landers: Deputy Prime Minister, thank you very much for speaking with AM this morning.

Michael McCormack: All the very best.

Kim Landers: The Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals' Leader Michael McCormack.