Drought package ‘falls short’

Liz Bell

A $5 MILLION drought package just announced by the state government falls short of providing urgent relief for drought-stricken farmers and doesn’t hit the target, according to farmers.

It’s a sentiment shared by the drought-stressed Anderson family in Wellington Shire, and reflects a wider view around the farming community that money spent by governments on drought relief is not going where it is really needed.

“I laughed a bit when I heard what the $5 million will be spent on,” Giffard West farmer Trent Anderson said.

“It’s all about dealing with some of what the drought has caused, not trying to help us immediately or fix the problems in the first place.

“If they just paid $5 million to provide some rate relief, it would flow on through the community, but they can’t see that.

“Jaala Pulford came out here a few weeks ago and said at least we had until February to pay our rates, but we’ve been paying rates quarterly for a long time, so that’s how out of touch she is.

“My rates bill is due pretty soon.”

During a visit to Gippsland at the end of August, Agriculture Minister Jaala Pulford spoke to farmers, including Mr Anderson, to find out where best to direct drought relief assistance.

Mr Anderson urged her to take a strong message back to parliament that immediate financial relief, alternative feed sources and cutting red tape on pest control and welfare assistance were on farmers’ wish lists.

But the funding package announced on Wednesday will result in $1.2 million spent on a drought employment program in Wellington and East Gippsland shires, $1.4 million on drought assistance grants for infrastructure, $1 million on technical and business support, and the rest employing a drought coordinator, funding a community resilience program, financial counselling and $400,000 for mental health support.

Mr Anderson said the mental health support was “useful”, but some of the package was “a waste of money”.

“So there’s infrastructure grants to help us contain stock, but we still won’t have anything to feed them once they’re contained,” he said.

The $1.2 million to support a new drought employment program will give farmers the opportunity to earn an income off-farm by working with local Catchment Management Authorities.

But Mr Anderson said he, like many farmers, could not leave their land to work elsewhere because of farm commitments.

The Victorian Farmers Federation has also called for “major action” in Victoria and more than “short term” solutions.

President David Jochinke welcomed elements of the drought support package, but “the point has now been reached” where more had to be done.

“Victorian farmers are highly resilient, adaptable and innovative,” he said.

“Nevertheless, there are circumstances of prolonged dry and drought where self-reliance and sheer determination are not enough on their own.

“That point has now been reached in parts of Victoria.

“Dry conditions, late season frost events and high fodder and water prices going into spring are all currently creating challenges in parts of the state.

“Farmers have highlighted the need for measures including relief from fixed costs such as their council rates, as well as improved heavy vehicle regulation to facilitate movement of hay and fodder, investment in stock containment areas and appropriate mental health and counselling services.

“The VFF notes the state government has listened and responded to some, but not all of these calls with its package announced today.”

Mr Jochinke said the lead up to the election was a good time to secure a commitment from political leaders to “a vision which delivers for agriculture and does not ignore the long-term issues which Victoria’s farmers have been raising for years”.

“We need a decent regional and rural roads network, we need relief from the rates burden with reports coming in of increases of up to 40 per cent on some farm properties, and we need to address the infrastructure deficit between rural and regional Victoria.”

Gippsland East MLA Tim Bull said he was pleased the minister acted quickly after visiting a Bengworden farm with him two weeks ago.

“To have the minister come back this week, a fortnight after she toured local farms at my invitation with this package is a credit to those who took the time to inform the minister of their plight and their challenges,” he said. 

Mr Bull said he stressed to the minister “several times” that the situation would require “ongoing monitoring”.

He said Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Peter Walsh, has visited farmers from across the district this week with Gippsland South MLA Danny O’Brien and East Gippsland MLA Tim Bull, including Steve and Lisa Harrison’s farm in Giffard West yesterday, and John Freeman’s property in Briagolong today.

Eastern Victoria MLC Harriet Shing said the impact of drought, high fodder, falling stock prices and water costs were all biting hard across Gippsland, and the state government was supporting farmers and their communities doing it tough.