A prime outcome of a drought listening tour, like the one with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull who accompanied me and other senior government ministers and members this week, is being able to share first-hand knowledge, to enhance government policy development.
Meeting with Jacqui and Cameron Tickell on their 12,900 hectare grazing property “Rylstone”, outside of Charleville, Queensland, we discovered in real time how hard the drought was biting their farm business and subsequent challenges.
The Tickells’ property has received only 23 inches of rain in the past three and a half years, against their annual average of 19 inches, and just seven inches over the past 18 months.
This ongoing dry-spell has meant cattle have been forced to survive almost exclusively by feeding on mulga, to supplement lack of pasture, with Cameron saying it has comprised up to 80 per cent of his herd’s diet, over the past six years.
The mulga plant maybe a stranger to most city-folk but is well-recognised and highly revered where it grows in agricultural communities in south-western Queensland.
Its proven resilience and the capacity to feed livestock such as sheep and cattle during the toughest of droughts has proven invaluable over time.
Despite the dry conditions, mulga retains a level of nutrient value to help sustain livestock and also fixes nitrogen into the soil to help improve soil quality and build resilience.
And just like the mulga tree, the Tickells and other farming families and communities in the Charleville region, and those in north-western NSW also facing prolonged periods of drought, are also resilient by nature.
That’s why our government went out to listen and learn more about what we can to help safeguard their futures.
Both in their mid-30s, Jacqui and Cameron represent the young, innovative future face of farming and have taken on the risk of running a business where Mother Nature plays a pivotal but often fickle role in determining their fate.
While the Australian Government can’t make it rain, we can and do provide support for farmers such as the Tickells to fall back on, just like the mulga tree, when times are tough.
Such support also provides a more stable footing for Ashlea and Philip Miles and their farming family to continue a professional and innovating business on their property “Strathmore” where we visited this week at Trangie near Dubbo in north western NSW.
It must be remembered the Australian Government has several, ongoing programs in place, underpinned by multi-billion dollar investments, to support our farmers in times of greatest need.
Such examples include; Farm Household Allowance support payments; low interest Concessional Loans; Farm Management Deposits (FMDs) and other taxation relief measures; the Rural Financial Counselling Service; and mental health support programs.
FMDs have always been a popular option for farmers to lower their tax burden and manage fluctuating finances driven by seasonal fortunes, with this government making ongoing adjustments to further improve the program, to adapt to farmers’ changing needs.
Another example of our ongoing drought policy refinement includes making sure the Commonwealth Federal and State Governments aren’t adding unnecessary layers of bureaucracy or delays, to the delivery of drought support funding.
We’ve demonstrated our capacity to act and listen on this issue in the recent past by implementing the Regional Investment Corporation to enhance the delivery of drought support concessional loans through a single federal agency.
The $4 billion Corporation to be established at Orange in central western NSW will also administer funding for water infrastructure projects such as building dams to provide more water for agricultural communities to deliver greater economic opportunity and grow our regions; not just crops and livestock.
Other existing support programs include; investments into researching new technologies like crops that can grow better in dry conditions or improving water use and livestock genetics; and tools to assist the Bureau of Meteorology with enhanced long-term weather forecasting.
Drought is a harsh reality of agriculture and dealing with its intense complexities requires practical consideration to ensure the government’s response is responsible and well-targeted.
That attitude and desire for current knowledge underscored this week’s listening tour.
Everywhere we went farmers and community representatives like local mayors showed genuine gratitude for taking the time out to visit them on their turf to hear their concerns first hand, rather than trying to shape policy from an ivory tower in Canberra.
Our plan is to now assess some of their suggested ideas and consider potential relief measures above and beyond what’s already in place, adding to its flexibility and outcomes.
We’ve shown our capacity to act and listen in the past on drought assistance, above and beyond these ongoing programs, through delivering funding for projects like building cluster fences to protect farmers’ livestock from savage losses caused by wild dog attacks.
This recent initiative was praised by many farmers and locals during the drought tour as an example of this government acknowledging an issue existed and then acting on it swiftly to find a solution that’s now, just a couple of years down the track, is helping to turnaround the sheep industry and protect farmers’ livelihoods.
While the building of cluster fences was praised, other ideas were put forward like; extending the Farm Household Allowance limit; cutting more red tape around support programs; and ways of delivering feed stock to drought regions more swiftly and cost-effectively at times of greatest need.
These suggestions will now ultimately be considered by cabinet.
Other parts of Australia including in Western Australia and Victoria are also facing prolonged dry spells and this trip will also help inform any added response to their particular needs, if any additional measures are needed.
While on the tour, the Government’s $20 million investment towards rural financial counselling services was announced, to ensure we maintain human capital by talking to our farmers and their families, about their unique financial circumstances, to help guide them through this tough time and to build greater resilience within their businesses.
The Turnbull Government also announced we would provide $2 million over two years to support mental health counselling programs in regional Australia including for farmers, mining workers and Indigenous Australians.
Like the PM and others, I’m proud to serve within a government that is ready, willing and able to listen and act in support of our regional communities, when they need it most.
Some may criticise from a distance and suggest the Australian Government has just awoken to the perils and necessities of drought.
But in reality, our concern and support for Australian farmers and agriculture has never evaporated and never will.
Like the mulga, government assistance is already readily available when it’s needed, including Farm Household Allowance, but we’re not pretending it’s a silver bullet.
We can always do it better and we must which is why learning more by listening about the current challenges and needs of communities facing drought is an invaluable firsthand experience to shape better outcomes for everyone.