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Push To ‘Rebuild’ Drought Relief

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Special Envoy For Drought Assistance and Recovery Barnaby Joyce and Coolabunia dairy farmer Damien Tessmann discussed the issue of $1-per-litre milk at a drought forum in Murgon

December 18, 2018

Red tape and difficult Centrelink paperwork were two of the issues raised at a special Drought Forum held in Murgon on Tuesday.

The forum, hosted by BIEDO, provided an opportunity for local farmers to give feedback to Special Drought Envoy Barnaby Joyce and Member for Wide Bay Llew O’Brien.

Mr Joyce was appointed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison earlier this year to visit rural communities to gather information to advise the government on drought policy.

About 60 people sat in a large circle in Murgon Town Hall to hear the pair speak, as well as share their own views about how the Federal Government could better tackle the problems the drought was creating.

Mr Joyce said many parts of regional Australia were in the grip of a “water drought” rather than a forage drought.

“When you have a shortage of food for farm animals you can go and buy some,” Mr Joyce said.

“Yes, it’s expensive but you can do it. But when you run out of water on a farm, you’re out of business.”

He said the obvious solution was creating more dams, but environmental activism was the biggest obstacle that stopped them being built.

Mr Joyce admitted the Federal Government’s Farm Household Allowance (FHA) looked more like an unemployment package rather than drought relief, especially with some of the questions asked on the application form.

He said Centrelink’s bureaucracy had helped create a new industry for Rural Financial counsellors because so many farmers were unable to complete the paperwork required to access FHA benefits without their assistance.

The only solution was to rip up the FHA scheme and rebuild it from scratch as a genuine drought relief package, Mr Joyce said.

Other issues raised at the meeting included:

  • The need for more low-intensity, early intervention mental health services to tackle depression and suicide during drought
  • A need to broaden the focus of drought-recovery programs to recognise that the needs of horticulturalists and grain growers were different to the needs of graziers
  • More consideration be given to providing funding for farm dam desilting and expansion during drought, because farmers were generally too cash-poor when their dams dried up to finance this themselves
  • The extension of the FHA to include businesses in regional towns, because the drought impacted them as much as the farming communities they served
  • A modification of the Farm Management Deposits scheme to encourage farmers to save more for inevitable droughts, but not penalise them when they drew down on their account to meet drought costs

While not entirely drought-related, the problem of $1-per-litre supermarket milk and the devastating impact this was having on Queensland’s dairy industry were also discussed.

Coolabunia dairy farmer Damien Tessmann said his family had faced a very bad year in 2002, and since that time had modified its farming business to make it more drought-resistant.

The biggest problem they now faced – along with every other Queensland dairy farmer – was they could no longer obtain a fair price for their product.

Mr Joyce did not hesitate to lay the blame for this situation at the feet of Woolworths and Coles, which control almost two-thirds of Australia’s $100 billion grocery market between them.

Mr O’Brien, who played a key role in the establishment of the recent Royal Commission into banking, said he was now pushing for a Royal Commission into the supermarket industry.

“Coles and Woolworths are destroying the dairy industry with $1-per-litre milk,” Mr O’Brien said.

“In 2011 the ACCC prosecuted Coles for unconscionable conduct against some of its suppliers and fined the company $10 million.

“I believe there is a pressing need for a Royal Commission into these companies.”

Mr O’Brien said the Federal Government was also working on a mandatory code of conduct for the dairy industry which would regulate producers and processors.

He believed the new code – when it was released late next year – would put extra pressure on Woolworths and Coles to price milk more fairly.

Mr Joyce said Australia needed a law that would allow the Federal Government to break up big companies that abused their market power.

He said the United States, Canada and United Kingdom all had divestiture powers, and he believed Australia needed the same.

The meeting was also addressed by South Burnett Mayor Keith Campbell, who spoke about the $2 million water feasibility study that will be undertaken across the South and North Burnett.

The Mayor said he had recently held initial talks with a local water users group.

He hoped to hold further talks with them in the near future once the study’s initial scope and plan had been determined to ensure the study didn’t overlook any critical local issues.

“If we do this right we can effect a significant change in our economy for many years to come,” Mayor Campbell said.

Everyone spoke to after the forum concluded said they thought it had been a productive meeting, and hoped the two MPs would continue their work on improving drought relief efforts and tackling supermarket dominance when they returned to Canberra.

Member for Wide Bay Llew O’Brien addressed the meeting about the need for a Royal Commission into supermarket giants Woolworths and Coles

South Burnett Deputy Mayor Kathy Duff, Member for Wide Bay Llew O’Brien, Barbara Hockey and BIEDO CEO Kristy Frahm chatted over afternoon tea

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