(Australian Associated Press)
Drought-affected farmers are facing a “make-or-break” crossroad as the federal government tries to boost local economies and families battling the crippling dry spell.
An extra 52 local councils will get up to $1 million each from a $47 million program aimed at putting money into communities through local projects.
A further $10 million has been added to a program to help with non-government school fees in NSW, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia.
National Farmers’ Federation president and NSW farmer Fiona Simson said producers were approaching a make-or-break time for getting moisture into soils before winter crop planting.
“It’s really taking its toll,” she told reporters in Blayney.
“It’s getting harder and harder and harder for people to meet their expenses, to meet their commitments. It’s starting to really cripple families and businesses and communities.”
She said farmers were looking at cash flow and supporting jobs with one eye to what will happen when the drought breaks.
Tuesday was the first meeting of the drought and flood advisory board of the National Drought and North Queensland Flood Response and Recovery Agency.
After a period of intense focus on bushfires burning across regional Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison insisted drought-hit communities remained a priority.
“You have not left our thoughts and our plans and our responses for a second,” he said.
He said recent rain was pleasing but not enough to end the dry spell which has dragged on for years in some areas.
“We need drought-drenching rains and they have not yet come,” Mr Morrison said.
The latest announcement involves giving $500,000 to councils of fewer than 1000 people and $1 million to larger councils, with the program extending to WA and the NT for the first time.
The funding is to support tourism projects and new infrastructure.
Moira Shire, in northern Victoria, has finally been given money after being teased as it sat on the edge of the government’s criteria.
Drought Minister David Littleproud said there needed to be a “line in the sand” on drought programs but the government had lowered the threshold for councils to be included.
“It is ultimately about stimulating the communities that are doing it the hardest from the drought,” he said.
He also defended the Regional Investment Corporation, a government bank which has come under fire for slow response times on approving drought loans.
The processing time is 65 working days.
“But there’s an aspiration to bring that down further,” Mr Littleproud said.
The Nationals frontbencher also flagged action on an election promise to create “agri-starter” concessional loans of up to $2 million to help young people buy their first farm.
“Despite all the doom and gloom, and the talk that the bush is buggered, it’s not. It’s going to rain and we’re going to make a quid,” he said.
“When we do, we want our young people to get in.”