Communities are putting the federal government on notice over drought support.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s renewed push for drought relief has been widely welcomed, but there’s concern that the best bang for the public’s buck may missed in the flurry of new initiatives.
Local economic stimulus proposals have been overlooked as the federal government changes its support packages, while charities warn that the government’s sharp focus on farm support could be ignoring needs in the wider community.
A key example is the federal Drought Communities Program provides $1m each to 81 drought affected local governments. Councils are required to submit their proposals to government by July next year.
- $5 billion drought future-proofing fund
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Central Western Queensland Remote Area Planning and Development Board (RAPAD) chairman Rob Chandler urged the government to take the long view to community funding.
“The timelines are bad. A lot of these projects will come through a knee-jerk reaction and be poorly planned,” said Mr Chandler, who through RAPAD represents four outback councils.
Although new roads are expensive and require onerous planning, they deliver the best long term benefits to outback Queensland, Mr Chandler said.
“To build our workforce we need projects that are run over four or five years. Don’t just throw a heap of cash at us overnight.
“There's one infrastructure investment that government already puts a lot of money into, which not only enhances local tourism, and income for rural landholders, but creates local construction jobs, and that’s roads.”
The guidelines for project proposals remain unclear according to staff at several councils.
In October Moree Plains Shire Council, in North West NSW, sought the Drought Communities funding for a local economic stimulus initiative.
It proposed an initiative inspired by the Why Leave Town campaign, where the $1m would be distributed to rural ratepayers via a gift card which can only be spent at eligible local businesses.
Initially the Council was told its proposal was eligible for consideration, but it was ultimately rejected.
The rejection followed the announcement by Mr Morrison of a $31m initiative to distribute $3000 in vouchers via charities to farm households in drought impacted council areas, to pay for food, bills and other necessities.
Moree Shire was disappointed its proposal was rejected, as the gift card would have distributed money across the community and may have benefited struggling small businesses before the crucial Christmas period.
Country Women’s Association national president Tanya Cameron said drought programs should incorporate a broad community focus.
“There are lots of people in rural communities that need support. When agriculture suffers, everyone struggles,” Mrs Cameron said.
“There’s anecdotal evidence that turnover for some of the businesses around Walgett, for example, is down 70 per cent on the previous year.
“Drought support should be targeted to keep people in town. Once they leave they rarely come back.
“If someone loses job in mechanics, you don’t just lose them. Their wife leaves, she could be a teacher, and then their kids leave school.”
Australian Council of Social Service chief executive Cassandra Goldie said people in regional towns struggle with “woefully inadequate support” and encouraged government to fund local business initiatives.
“We need to allow local businesses to develop their own approach to boost employment opportunities,” Ms Goldie said.
“Too often we see the funds go to short term investments.”
Ms Goldie said government future drought spending should incorporate the government’s guidelines on foreign aid spending and incorporate initiatives that are led by women.
“We have got to ensure gender equality in the decision making process and ensure there are women-led initiatives.
“They tend to favour whole-of-community schemes, rather than focus on programs for individual businesses.”
Ms Goldie said the “case was clear” for a $75 a week increase to the Newstart income support allowance to support regional residents.