VICTORIAN and New South Wales farmer bodies have urged state government authorities to minimise red tape associated with $75,000 bushfire relief grants and other assistance announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday.
Mr Morrison yesterday announced an initial $100 million in emergency bushfire funding for farm, fish and forestry businesses in fire-affected regions, including the $75,000 grants, off-farm income exemptions and $15 million to fund 60 additional rural financial counsellors and support workers.
Mr Morrison said the funding will be administered by each state government.
“We will do whatever it takes to support those communities and businesses hit by these fires, and if we need to do more, we will.
“I need to stress this is an uncapped program so if demand for support goes above $100 million, money will continue to flow,” Mr Morrison said.
NSW Farmers, the Victorian Farmers Federation Livestock Group and the National Farmers Federation have welcomed the $75,000 grants to begin the recovery and the exemption of annual off-farm income up to $100,000 per person from grant eligibility.
However, NSW Farmers president James Jackson said the association will work to ensure the delivery of these grants is not held up by red tape and paperwork. And VFF Livestock Group president Leonard Vallance queried the value of the assistance if it “drowned” farmers in red tape.
Mr Jackson said the $75,000 grants would help the recovery process and kick-start the recovery for many in the south-east of the state and Mr Vallance said they were better than nothing.
“But it’s a matter of how much red tape is around it and targeted money is good; if it is for very specific things that makes the paperwork easy,” Mr Vallance said.
“If say Bill at Corryong got his cattle yards burnt he could put $75,000 towards a set of yards and if there woolshed is burnt down they could put it toward that.
“But if the farmer has got to sit down and fill out paperwork for a week before he gets the grant or they go too broad in what it can be used for ….
“Any money is good, but if the bureaucracy is going to drown the farmer….”
But for farmers who have lost everything – and Mr Vallance said possibly up to 20 Victorian farmers are in that category – there would be a need for more assistance. He said assessments of damage by authorities such as Agriculture Victoria and insurance agencies would play a key role in managing assistance.
$75,000 grants need to be available now
Mr Jackson said in many cases he had come across, the $75,000 grants will not be enough to get farmers who have lost their house, livestock and buildings back on their feet.
“But it is a welcome relief package that will assist farmers in the coming weeks.
“It does need to be made available now, so beef and dairy operations can get fences up and fodder in and fruit growers can begin the recovery process for their orchards,” he said.
“I would like to acknowledge that the NSW Department of Primary Industries and Local Land Services have done a good job in helping distribute donated fodder and other emergency measures.
Mr Jackson said there will be a need for additional help such as finance assistance.
“These fires have wreaked havoc on many farming operations in north-east and southern NSW and compounded the impact of an unprecedented drought.
“There will be long term impacts, so the Federal government needs to broaden the eligibility of the drought assistance loan schemes so farmers on the north and south coast can apply,” he said.
“Both the federal and state governments should also look at more relief on fixed costs such as local government rates.”
Mr Jackson said in coming weeks and months the true cost of these fires, that are still burning, will become apparent.
“This cost will be emotional, physical and social as well as economic.
“This is evident in the north coast region, where bushfires caused significant damage to farms in November and December,” he said.
“The real cost impact is emerging in that area, with farmers now weeks into the recovery phase.”
Mr Jackson said the generosity of Australians in response to the bushfires that have been raging since September last year has been inspiring and overwhelming.
“This support will continue to be valued by primary producers in affected areas.
“Farmers have lost stock, sheds, fencing, operating plant and many have seen precious hay and feed consumed by the flames,” he said.
“Perishable foods, milk and oysters have not made it to market – dairy farmers have discarded milk, oysters have been tainted by a build-up of saline water, grapes have been tainted by smoke, and fruit trees have been burnt.”
Mr Jackson said the commitment to employ an additional 60 rural financial councillors will also be appreciated as farmers and their families rebuild their businesses to grow the highest quality food and fibre for international and domestic consumers.
Government listened to NFF advice
NFF president Fiona Simson said the federation appreciated the Federal Government listening to its advice for an immediate cash injection for bushfire-affected farmers. The NFF also welcomed funding for 60 additional rural financial counsellors and support workers.
Ms Simson said, in its advice to Government, the NFF referenced the success of the $75,000 immediate cash grants administered to flood-affected north Queensland cattle producers early in 2019.
“These grants assisted producers to carry out the immediate works needed to clean-up and help with the investment required to restore productivity.
“We are of the strong belief that the same assistance will be of great benefit to fire-affected farmers in Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales.”
Ms Simson said the NFF also made recommendations about the medium and long-term requirements including assistance to re-establish herds, pastures and critical infrastructure and the opportunity to better prepare farms for fire into the future.
Ms Simson said the NFF was also pleased the grants will not be limited to farmers’ who have had their property of residence impacted.
“Many farmers have had properties affected that adjoin national parks and bushland and are not necessarily connected to the primary place of operation but are still an important part of their business.
“We also welcome the exemption of off-farm income of up to $100,000 per person and look forward to receiving more information about eligibility.”
She said the grants would have the positive flow-on effect of helping our regional and rural communities, whose economies are set to suffer for a long time to come as a result of the bushfire disaster.”
The NFF participated in the government-convened small business bushfire roundtable yesterday and will join the agriculture-specific bushfire roundtable on Thursday and the peak industry body bushfire roundtable on Friday.
The Federal Government has also allocated $50 million from its $2 billion bushfire recovery fund to assist charities with providing immediate support to local communities, including $40 million for food and fuel vouchers and $10 million for financial counselling. The government has also committed $50 million to aid wildlife affected by the bushfires.
For more information on the Emergency Bushfire Response in Primary Industries Grants Program please contact 1800 900 090.