TASMANIAN Independent crossbench Senator Jacqui Lambie is threatening to blow up the ‘Barnaby Bank’ in the final stages of the farmer support loan administration facility’s enabling legislation passing through federal parliament.
The Regional Investment Corporation (RIC) bill is currently before the Senate and is a signature policy for Nationals leader and embattled federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce.
But Fairfax Agricultural Media understands Senator Lambie has threatened to vote against the legislation at the last minute and is now demanding a series of measures and funding from the Coalition government in exchange for her support which are unrelated to agriculture policy.
The bill was due to be voted on today in the Senate following an extended debate this morning - which commenced earlier in week - including a critical examination of amendments moved by Labor and pressing questions asked by the Greens.
However, progress has been stalled while nervous talks continue to try to convince Senator Lambie of the broader threat of her stance, to farmers nationally.
A series of emergency meetings were held with Senator Lambie’s office late today to try to secure her vote but the talks have so far proven futile, leaving the future of the RIC in a vulnerable position and with it potential support measures for battling farmers.
Mr Joyce said he was “obviously disappointed” the RIC’s future - which was set to provide benefits to all Australian farmers, not just those in Tasmania - could potentially be “thwarted” at such a late and delicate stage, in its implementation.
But he said talks with Senator Lambie would continue to try to make her “see common sense” and to help understand the broader ramifications of her demands on the farm sector and on water infrastructure funding for projects to support economic activity and improved output, in agricultural communities.
“The ultimate outcome here could be nothing for everyone but we’ve parked the bill for now,” he said.
It’s understood the concessional loans to be administered by the RIC could potentially save distressed farmers about $200,000 over a five year period in reduced interest payments due to lower rates, versus maintaining existing loan payments at higher rate-levels, with bigger banks.
The $4 billion facility was revealed by Mr Joyce as a core agricultural election policy promise during last year’s federal campaign and has been welcomed by farm groups nationally as a means of cutting red tape to deliver enhanced support measures.
It is due to be based as an entity within Mr Joyce’s department and aims to remove state bureaucracies to streamline the delivery of billions of dollars in drought support and concessional loans to struggling farmers including to ease financial and social pressures like those sparked by unforeseen crises like that which hit the dairy industry last year, and to administer water infrastructure funding.
After the May federal budget where the new $4 billion facility was allocated $28.5 million for its set-up coasts, Mr Joyce announced the RIC would be based at Orange in regional NSW by mid-2018, as per the Coalition’s decentralisation agenda.
The enabling legislation passed the Lower House in mid-August with amendments and is now being thrashed-out in the Upper House, but Senator Lambie’s changed stance is now placing its future in grave doubt.
Labor and the Greens oppose the enabling legislation along with two key conservative crossbenchers in Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm and former Liberal and now Australian Conservatives Senator Cory Bernardi.
The Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) is supporting the bill’s passage along with One Nation’s four members.
Independents Derryn Hinch and Lucy Gichuhi voted with the government during debate today that focussed on amendments to the RIC, to try to address Labor’s concerns with the federal facility’s governance measures and proposed eligibility criteria for accessing concessional loans based on hardships endured by farmers.
The Greens have cited staunch opposition to the RIC based on the minister holding “unfettered” powers without parliamentary or cabinet oversight opening the potential for pork-barrelling.
One of the votes on amendments to the bill during today’s debate resulted in a deadlock at 30 votes each way, with Senator Lambie absent from divisions.
Senator Lambie was initially elected in the previous parliament for the Palmer United Party but split after falling out with leader Clive Palmer to turn independent and was returned at last year’s federal poll under her own political brand.
She has previously drawn criticism from the dairy industry’s mainstream representative bodies for proposing to establish a 50 cents per litre milk levy to go straight to dairy farmers, in response to the dairy price crisis.
But that plan was labelled an industry tax that would breach local competition laws and international trade rules and an unworkable solution, by Australian Dairy Farmers.
But while the Nationals are keen to ensure the RIC legislation is passed, given Mr Joyce’s heavy political investment in the core election policy pledge, some Liberals are understood to remain opposed to the concept of initiating a new facility that they’ve long-believed could morph into a government bank.
O’Sullivan: RIC to overcome “inconsistency” of current arrangements
Queensland Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan has been working closely with Mr Joyce to secure support for the RIC initiative to help farmers in need, including urgent talks with Senator Lambie today.
He told Fairfax Agricultural Media the RIC was “simply a consolidation of what has been going on for decades with federal government support to agriculture”.
“Currently, where you are drought affected, you are entitled to certain support from the federal government through concessional loans, and there are other measures that the government implements from time to time to support these people to put bread on the table while they survive these drier conditions,” he said.
“At the moment, these loans are administered by the states.
“One of the driving forces behind this was that we've found - certainly in the near term, in the last four or five years - that some of the states have not administered these loans properly.
“You can have a property in Queensland and go across the border into NSW and be confronted with different loan conditions set down by the states.
“This inconsistency has caused a great deal of difficulty for many producers around the country.
“This bill is about consolidating this work into one central point where we'll have a national body that administers these loans.”
Senator O’Sullivan said the funding for the RIC already sits in the budget.
“It's not looking for additional funds; it is about managing the existing funds much more efficiently than we have seen in the past,” he said.
“By consolidating it under one Commonwealth roof, the Commonwealth will have the ability to move nimbly across the nation.
“In this case, it will make us nimble enough to intervene in the lives of producers and people in agricultural pursuits by supporting them at a much earlier stage; therefore offsetting some of the critical issues that occur when they get into such distraught financial circumstances that there's no recovery.”
As well as concessional farm support loans, the RIC will also deliver the $2b National Water Infrastructure Loan Facility which provides concessional loans to the states and territories to fast-track priority water infrastructure projects.
So far, more than $764 million in farm business concessional loans have been approved by the federal government to over 1400 farm businesses, while about 1150 farm businesses have also been approved for a drought-related or farm finance concessional loan totalling about $615m.
In addition, 257 farm businesses equating to more than $149m have been approved for a dairy recovery concessional loan.
Until the RIC is established, the existing loans will continue to be administered under current arrangements involving state and territory agencies.
Ruston: “extraordinarily increased level of intervention” proposed by amendments
Assistant Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Anne Ruston was in the driver’s seat responding to questions by the Greens and ALP during today’s debate and vented her frustrations at the ongoing inquisition.
“..at the risk of repeating myself for the 14th time, the current situation, which everyone seems to be quite satisfied with, allows the executive of government to undertake and make these decisions in relation to this particular suite of products (loans) that are in the marketplace,” she said.
“These products have a very specific role to play and that is to assist our farming community when situations of hardship affect them - most often not of their own making.
“Currently, we have a suite of products.
“Definitely, after the consultation and discussions that I have had in my role as the assistant minister, and also through my role as someone who's lived in rural and regional Australia for many years, the ability for responsiveness in these loans is something that's been criticised for some time.
“We have a situation right now where we are providing this assistance to communities across the whole of rural and regional Australia.
“We're seeking to do so by a mechanism that is now going to enable it to be more streamlined and more responsive and which is actually going to provide a better service to those people who are affected.
“To have a situation as you're proposing, where we have some sort of extraordinarily high level of parliamentary power to be able to come in and make decisions in relation to stuff - decisions that have in the past always been made by the executive arm of government, for the reasons that I stated previously - is, first of all, an extraordinary precedent to set.
“But think about the farmers who wish to be able to get access - very often with some level of speed.
“You're suggesting here that it's appropriate for us to have this extraordinarily increased level of intervention by this very parliament.
“That is something that is quite unprecedented in the level of intervention that you are proposing by suggesting that every single thing has to come here to somehow get ticked off by you.”
But Labor Senator Carol Brown said her party opposed the RIC bill as it would establish “another boondoggle, a pork barrel, by the Deputy Prime Minister and minister for agriculture”.
“The government is claiming that establishing the RIC will put competition on the banks to provide better support to farmers doing it tough - but this is already happening by the delivery of concessional loans by the state and Northern Territory governments,” she said.
Leyonhjelm: all better off without government banks
Senator Leyonhjelm said the Liberal Democrats opposed this bill because its main purpose was the establishment of another government bank, to consolidate the provision of loans to struggling farmers.
“I love Australian agriculture and that is why I condemn this bill,” he said.
Senator Leyonhjelm said, “We would all be better off without government banks”.
“Without government banks, taxpayers would not have to pay the administration costs of government banks and would not have to fund loans that generate less of a return and have a higher risk of default,” he said.
“Agriculture is one of Australia's finest industries, but it could be even better if the bleating no-hopers in it were allowed to go broke.
“Good Australian farmers know who the bleaters are.
“They are the ones who remember one year of green pastures back when John Farnham was topping the charts and consider every year since to be drought rather than normal.
“They are the ones who hold out their hands for drought relief every decade or so.
“They are the ones who think they have a God-given right to be always paid the best prices they've ever received for their produce with a government guarantee, and they are the ones who think you've insulted their mother if you suggest their individual survival is neither critical to the economy nor critical to our food security.
“The bleaters in Australian agriculture are the ones who complain to The Nationals about everything but their own incompetence.
“And The Nationals respond by providing handouts, concessional loans and government interference in commercial negotiations to keep the bleaters on the land.
“If the bleaters were left to themselves, they would ultimately have no option but to change their ways or sell up, which would allow neighbouring farmers to expand and apply their more entrepreneurial, innovative spirit to the new acreage.
“Australian agriculture would benefit.
“Where Australian agriculture goes, so goes the nation.”