Abbott holds fire on drought package

AGRICULTURE minister Barnaby Joyce has defended the federal government’s decision to wait until at least next Monday’s cabinet meeting to announce a drought package.

It follows the much criticised delay by the state government in announcing its own package for 20 NSW shires and the Far West Unincorporated Area last Wednesday.

Speaking at Tamworth airport yesterday morning before flying out to Victoria and on to South Australia to visit citrus and wine growers, Mr Joyce said he was “hoping to get an announcement” made by the federal government on Monday.

“The prime minister said we are talking about days, not weeks,” he said.

He also said it was imperative to get it right.

It was “important we come up with a package to help people deal with the drought”.

He responded to Palmer United Party and Federal member for Fairfax Clive Palmer’s idea to have a drought fund created instead of the ad hoc approach by Australian governments to drought through the years.

“We’re getting suggestions from a whole range of people – it’s one of the reasons we have the White Paper (seeking views from people in agriculture which should be presented to parliament by the end of the year),” Mr Joyce said.

He scotched reports that the $420 million Farm Finance Package released in November would be increased to $700 million, saying Australia was already in debt.

“Where are we going to get the money?” he said.

Loans at 4.5 per cent under the $420 million Farm Finance Package had already been “fully drawn ... in some areas”.

“We’re looking at how we can do that better and cheaper,” Mr Joyce said.

“So many people are ruled out of this, whether they can get the transitional rural farm payment (for example).”

But he could not guarantee the new package would supply “cash grants”.

Mr Barnaby fronted the media yesterday after his trip, accompanied by 

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, to Bourke, Longreach and Broken Hill on the weekend and Monday.

At Broken Hill’s Mt Gipps Station, Mr Abbott said agriculture was at “the heart of our country” and the federal government would help drought-stricken farmers.

“I accept that this is a very serious problem for country Australia and it doesn’t just affect the farmers; it affects everyone living in the areas which clearly depend upon farming for their whole life,” he said.

The current drought, said by many to be the worst in living memory, was more akin to a natural disaster than to an ordinary cyclical event.

Mr Abbott said the government was “not in the business of subsidising business”.

“We do not subsidise business, but what we do do is help citizens to cope with natural disaster,” he said.

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