Highly-anticipated loans to drought hit farmers won't be available as quickly as expected, if at all.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said at the Kempsey Show on April 30 that the loans would be available in time for planting.
But now, farmers contacting the federal agency charged with delivering the loans have been told they are not yet available.
The Regional Investment Corporation was selected to provide the concessional loans for restocking and replanting. Their most attractive feature was a two year interest free period, to enable drought-hit farmers to buy seed after recent rainfall in many areas.
At Kempsey Mr Littleproud said farmers could draw on the loans in time for the crucial planting window for croppers, which kicks off by ANZAC day and closes for most varieties around the start of June.
"We are changing the mandate for the RIC to get it going straight away. They will be available now. The RIC will be charged with the responsibility of it getting it done," Mr Littleproud said.
However, farmers are being advised by the RIC that the loans are not available and would need to be approved by an incoming government, after the election on May 18.
Speaking today, Mr Littleproud said his previous comments were open to misinterpretation.
"What I meant to say was that work is occurring now. Should the Coalition win government, I will charge the RIC with creating this product urgently, given the planting window," he said.
RIC chief executive Bruce King said the RIC would not comment on any political policies during the election, while the government is in caretaker mode.
"Our current farm business loans, including the Drought Loan and the Farm Investment Loan can be used for replanting and restocking purposes.
"Farmers in need can borrow up to $2 million, and the first five years of the loan are interest only."
Labor agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said Labor had supported the government's drought funding and would consider doing the same in government, but questioned if the RIC had capacity to supply the loans in a timely manner.
"We haven given bipartisan support to these loans in opposition and we stand ready to support anything on offer, but this is not a ready offer," Mr Fitzgibbon said.
"But to date the RIC has only been able to process 10 per cent of its loan applications.
"Even if it got a mandate from a future minister it clearly doesn't have the capacity to process loans because it can't process any more than that the 10pc of applications."
The RIC has responded previously to Mr Fitzgibbon's criticism of its approval rate, arguing its a historical figure that doesn't reflect its current capacity.
"We've doubled the number of loan approvals between February and March alone thanks to the significant increase in assessors on the ground, and we continue to improve our processes and the customer experience," Mr King said last month.
Visit the RIC website: http://www.ric.gov.au or call 1800 875 675
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