More heat on fed's drought spending

Scrutiny is mounting on the federal government's drought response as Labor requests the Auditor General investigate the latest funding announcement, and rural leaders call for a policy overhaul.

Last week Prime Minister Scott Morrison jetted into Australia from his US visit and wasted no time in getting to Dalby, Queensland, to announce a new round of drought support including $30 million for farm families, $13m for selected local governments, and changes to make the Farm Household Allowance.

The gloss soon started coming off the announcement when of one of the local councils selected to receive a $1m drought grant returned the offer because, as the mayor Moyne politely pointed out, the district was enjoying one of its better seasons.

 Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon says Singleton has been 'snubbed' . Picture: Simone De Peak

Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon says Singleton has been 'snubbed' . Picture: Simone De Peak

Labor's agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon seized the opportunity to point out flaws in the Coalition's drought policy.

"As large parts of Australia suffer the worst drought on record, the government's response has been ad hoc, confusing and lacking in direction," Mr Fitzgibbon said.

The Hunter MP said the government's funding was guided by "what appears to be political favouritism and pork barrelling" and excluded drought-hit local governments, including some in his electorate.

Drought Minister David Littleproud said Bureau of Meteorology data had been used to select the councils for drought funding, and the process would be reviewed.

Mr Fitzgibbon has written to the Auditor General requesting an investigation of the government's drought programs, as well as its decision not to release the Drought Co-ordinator's report to the public.

He also pointed out the federal government had greatly exaggerated the value of its drought funding with claims it had provided "more than $7 billion in drought support funding".

The $7b figure includes measures which cannot be classed as drought support funding - namely $5b in seed capital for the Future Drought Fund - which will deliver $100m a year for drought preparation from next year, a $1b in concessional loans through the Regional Investment Corporation, and $750m for the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund which can be spent on dams, irrigation schemes and other works.

Country Women's Association of NSW agriculture and environment committee chairwoman Tanya Jolly said regional communities need support for non-farm business or they risk losing services and economic activity that would never return.

"If small businesses in town go out of business during a drought, drought recovery for everyone then becomes even harder, and longer. Once we lose workers and subcontractors, it's very hard to get them back, if at all," Ms Jolly said.

"We don't know how far we are into this drought. We need leadership and strategic decision making from both the state and federal governments.

"We are seeking assistance for all rural businesses, including businesses who are not primary producers.

"People like farm contractors, who are not primary producers and so therefore not eligible for assistance , still have to keep machinery registered and meet their payment commitments, for example, but there's no work, no income. A debt management scheme similar to that available for farm businesses would be a good start."

NFF chief executive Tony Mahar farmers need clear policy parameters so they know what would trigger the next round of support, when it would come and how long it lasts.

"We need a comprehensive and enduring national approach to drought that focuses on preparedness and resilience measures," Mr Mahar said.

"It's absolutely crucial that we have a coordinated approach that ensures all voices are heard and that the responsibility of managing drought is shared across government, industry and community."

Cattle Council president Tony Hegarty supported Mr Mahar's call for clearly defined policy triggers, and argued that broad brush initiatives would be ineffective.

"Trigger points are a good concept but needs will vary from business to business, particularly in relation to the maturity of businesses. So we'll need a raft of policies to accommodate different capabilities," Mr Hegarty said.

"For example, say there's a young couple who have borrowed heavily to get set up, they've got very different needs to someone who's been in the industry for 40 years.

"It might be unfair, but someone that's been around for 10 years is the future and we should look to them before the business that's been there for 40 years."

This story More heat on federal government's drought spending first appeared on The Land.