AUSTRALIAN farmers have come out in staunch defence of the ‘Barnaby Bank’ amid a tense political stand-off that’s threating its enabling legislation passing the Senate.
Tasmanian Independent crossbench Senator Jacqui Lambie has held up the Regional Investment Corporation (RIC) bill’s progress through federal parliament, in holding the government to ransom for her critical vote, raising vexed questions about its future.
The legislation has now been parked in the Upper House amid the stalemate but won’t be sitting for the next two weeks, in order to hold a determining vote.
However, the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) has supported the RIC as a way of streamlining drought support loan delivery and other fiscal support measures to struggling farmers like those provided by the Coalition government during the dairy farm-gate pricing crisis last year and has warned Senator Lambie’s position carries shades of the backpacker tax disaster and its politicisation.
The RIC is a signature policy for embattled Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce who says Senator Lambie’s demands for funding and other measures from the government - believed to be unrelated to agriculture - risks delivering “nothing for everyone”, leaving battling farmers at risk of losing about $200,000 in savings over five years in loan repayments.
As the RIC bill stalled in the Senate last week, the NFF President Fiona Simson and CEO Tony Mahar visited Tasmania where they held a series of talks with local farmers, farm leaders and politicians.
Mr Mahar said the NFF understood concessional loans - like those to be delivered via the RIC with less red tape - were helping Tasmanian farmers with $47 million worth approved to local farm businesses since 2013-14.
“Of course we want the RIC to have all the governance and transparency measures in place to ensure it is accountable and delivers efficiencies - that’s what our support is based on,” he said in reference to amendments debated last week in the Senate.
“That being said, the NFF thinks it important that all members of parliament who claim to support their local farmers are true to their word.
“Any suggestions of threatening to withhold support for the Regional Investment Corporation bill that will prevent farmers having better access to cheap loans would be very disappointing.
“We need investment, innovation and collaboration to reach the $100 billion target for industry.”
Mr Mahar said NFF was of the view that a streamlined and accountable RIC would “significantly improve the government’s ability to respond to the changing needs of the farming sector – such as the industry crisis Tasmania’s dairy farmers are facing”.
“Having been in Tasmania last week I know how important dam and water infrastructure investment programs are in helping farmers grow and diversify their businesses and I expect the Regional Investment Corporation water infrastructure loans scheme will be an important component in further expanding the water infrastructure program in Tasmania,” he said.
“It’s always great to hear politicians say they are supporting farmers and like the backpacker tax (but) we want our politicians to work together for the interest of farmers and not pay political games with their futures.”
The $4 billion federal RIC agency is to be based within Mr Joyce’s department and aims to remove state bureaucracies to streamline the delivery concessional loans to struggling farmers and administer water infrastructure funding of $2b.
Shortly after the May federal budget where the facility was allocated $28.5 million for its set-up coasts, Mr Joyce also announced the RIC would be based at Orange in regional NSW by mid-2018.
He also referred to the RIC in his leader’s speech at the Nationals federal conference last month while highlighting the government’s decentralisation agenda.
“We are setting up a $4 billion bank in Orange – the Regional Investment Corporation - so that it can work with Paraway financial, with Macquarie, with the National Australia Bank lending unit, with the department of agriculture there, to create that financial centre in regional Australia,” he said.
“We have a vision for creating our Chicago….that deals with commodity prices and community trading.
“It’s our vision, it’s the National party vision and we are doing it – not talking about it, doing it.
“The legislation for the Regional Investment Corporation is in the Senate now.
“We are doing this and it’s the big dig difference to talking about it.”
Senator Lambie has declined to comment in regards to her position on the RIC and demands from the government in exchange for her vote.
But she had a heated and now infamous exchange after fronting Ms Simson at a media conference over the backpacker tax - shortly after the NSW farmer became NFF President late last year - where the Tasmanian independent Senator accused the NFF of “playing lap dogs for the Liberal National Party” and having no “backbone”.
“I’m very aware of what your position is – not in the best interests of the farmer,” Senator Lambie said.
“I’ve spoken to my Tasmanian farmers and I know what they want.
“Get out there and speak to your farmers with your gum boots on.”
The Greens and Labor oppose the RIC along with Senators Bernardi and Leyonhjelm but it’s backed by One Nation and the Nick Xenophon Team and other crossbenchers.
During last week’s debate, NSW Nationals Senator John “Wacka” Williams said the RIC was “a good plan” to administer the $2b farm business loans program and $2b National Water Infrastructure Loan Facility.
“The Regional Investment Corporation will be governed by an independent board and a CEO with relevant commercial experience to effectively manage public funds and it will be fully funded from the interest payments on Commonwealth loan schemes,” he said.
“It will be located in Orange and will be fully operational by July next year.
“No longer will the Commonwealth have to barter with the state government to process drought and dairy concessional loans to help farmers - this will be a one-stop shop.
“With the Regional Investment Corporation, the Australian government will be able to deliver the support to farmers in need and cut out the middleman.
“We need a rural investment bank, if you want to call it that.
“A one-stop shop avoiding so much of the red tape, rules and regulations from the states is where farmers in tough times can seek a cheap loan to keep them going.
“We need finance to build dams.
“Minister Joyce has made it quite clear: the Coalition make no apology that we are determined to build dams.”