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Pilot Needed To Get Drought Reform Off The Ground

“DROUGHT reform has stalled in Australia,” National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) President David Crombie lamented today as he called for a pilot scheme to trial a new approach to drought management. “Overhauling drought policy has never been seriously attempted because it’s hard.

“It’s hard politically, it’s hard for farmers currently in drought and it’s hard to get the policy settings right. Yet, most agree – politicians and farmers, alike – that Australia needs to find a better way than the current drought relief model.

“Naturally, there is real anxiety among the farming community whenever drought reform is mentioned. It is vital that any change must not create additional hardships nor should they burden farmers in drought with uncertainty about support mechanisms for them. At the same time, governments are focused on the financial pressures of the current record drought and the anticipation of possible extreme weather conditions into the future.

“The proposal I put forward today addresses these issues.

“At the last federal election we pushed both sides of politics on the need to shift the policy paradigm from ‘drought relief’ to ‘drought management and preparedness’ based on mutual obligation. We said at the time, this requires “a generational shift in thinking” and that “we – as a nation – must rethink how we plan for, and deal with, drought in a changing climate”.

“Our plan is to better drought-proof Australian farms by investing upfront in on-farm climate adaptation and mitigation practices. Things we know work. This proactive investment is a forward-looking solution that, over time, would reduce the strain on farmers and taxpayers for drought relief.

“The Rudd Government, to its credit, accepted these principles when it won Government. However, to date, despite ongoing negotiations between the NFF and the Federal Agriculture Minister Tony Burke, not much has happened.

“So, today, we are calling on the Government to be bold and to put a pilot scheme in place before the next federal election that identifies an area not currently drought-declared to trial a new system based on the principles we have been discussing with the Government.

“Piloting a new scheme in a region not in drought would deliver on the management and preparedness model and drought policy reform principles. It would give farmers and the broader community a better understanding of what the future would look like under the new arrangements and the ability to iron out teething problems and fine-tune the model before any further extension.

NFF’s Seven Principles Underpinning Drought Pilot

“First and foremost, existing support for families currently in drought must not be changed while the current drought persists. Drought-stricken farm families are under immense pressure, dealing with devastating circumstances, and it would be unconscionable to pull the rug out from under them.”

With this proviso entrenched, the NFF supports the following overarching principles:

1. The NFF supports the concept of mutual obligation. To access any new scheme farmers must demonstrate a commitment to sustainable and self-sufficient farming through appropriate business and farm management planning.

2. Individual (rather than regional) assessments are needed to reflect differing farm exposure to climate and drought conditions. Different farms have different needs and, therefore, will be impacted differently. These assessments must be based on individual needs, not geographical lines on a map as is currently the case. This would overcome inequity issues within communities and between communities (those separated by an arbitrary boundary).

3. The Government must support farmers and rural business with the same basic social welfare safety-net available to all Australians, taking into account the particular nature of agricultural businesses.

4. Support for drought management and preparedness needs to be provided through options suitable to farmers and their particular circumstances. Embracing a range of measures, preparedness needs to be more than just spending money on infrastructure. It is about building an understanding of the working environment and utilising skills, knowledge and experience to best manage local environments.

5. The current Interest Rate Subsidy (IRS) is much-maligned, including by many farmers. While this measure has helped many good producers who, through no fault of their own, have been ravaged by drought, the NFF is open to replacing the IRS with a suite of programs consistent with management and preparedness – including risk management tools, sustainability and recovery from drought applicable to the needs of the farm sector. NFF reiterates that the current IRS mechanism and rules cannot change for those in drought. A transition to a new policy must be the approach, an arbitrary cut off would be completely unacceptable.

6. Industry and government need an emergency provision and trigger as part of the new scheme. There may be climate events beyond the control of the very best risk management and drought preparedness – catastrophes that may threaten agricultural production and regional communities. In such circumstances, what’s the plan? These issues and contingencies need to be considered now not later. In such circumstances, government intervention and support will be warranted. However, the intent of the reform is to take the sting out of those events by investing upfront in management and preparedness strategies to reduce the need for future relief measures.

7. As a principle for the future, within guidelines, these measures need to be available to all farmers, applicable to their circumstances, not just those in drought-declared areas.

“This is the framework we’ve taken to the Federal Government and each of the ingredients is essential to gain the support of the Australian farming community,” Mr Crombie said. “Further, drought reform is just one element of agricultural policy. The best drought policy on Earth is worthless if it doesn’t correlate with water policy, environmental policy, increased research and development, taxation, economic policy and the like. The Government needs to address deficiencies in several of these areas.

“I have been upfront with Minister Burke about these issues and the NFF’s willingness to assist in developing policies for a new era in how Australia deals with drought. I have put it to the Minister that a pilot of our new drought policy is a sound approach given the complexity of the issues and on the condition that existing Exceptional Circumstance arrangements do not change.

“It’s time we stopped talking about it. It’s high time to trial a new approach.”

For more information on the NFF’s drought reforms, see its 2008 submission to the Productivity Commission Draft Inquiry Report into Government Drought Support at:  http://www.nff.org.au/policy/submissions.html.

www.nff.org.au

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