OPINION: The government is hollowing out the bush

There is a great opportunity for Prime Minister Scott Morrison to become a statesman and bring some relief to farmers. They need to rebuild communities relying on them.
There is a great opportunity for Prime Minister Scott Morrison to become a statesman and bring some relief to farmers. They need to rebuild communities relying on them.

PRIME Minister Scott Morrison attending a drought panel in Dubbo on July 18 is an opportunity to tell him farmers are running out of cash during this historically unprecedented drought. He must be told no-one wants to live in rural Australia stripped of farmers, schools, bus runs and service businesses because government policy killed it.

Economic rationalists are no doubt correct that rural Australia could survive with a reduced number of family farms, but who would you want to live in such a place?

Hollowing out rural communities makes them unviable.

Australia is losing its family farms at an alarming rate, with our numbers down to 86,000 from 157,000 in 2011. I've seen the hollowing out of communities on two occasions, firstly with my kids going to the Kingstown school, west of Armidale where there was a thriving community that is now mostly owned by two major players including Gina Rinehart. Secondly my current community of Wallangra has lost nine families in recent years to buy outs by Macquarie bank, Hong Kong, South African-based interests and large family mega farms. Farmers can manage drought as part of risk management, but we now have parts of the state breaking all known records. The current drought could cause an exponential increase in the rate of loss if the federal government does not change its approach now targeted predominantly at the top 10 per cent of farmers who have gross annual receipts of $500,000 plus per year.

The government's agenda is controlled by treasury and the productivity commission, which say "we can't give farmers subsidies". Australian farmers get about a 5pc subsidy, the third lowest in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development basket lead by Norway on 35pc. Considering 63pc of all our production is exported competing against those heavily subsidised countries it is not a bad effort. The government directly invested $15 billion dollars in non-farm industry assistance in 2015/16.

I have toured Australia looking at impacts of drought on farmers and rural communities and I don't think I have seen so many farmers at their wits end as now. Where is the farm lobby I hear you ask? I can only presume they have been captured by the get big or get out mantra.

If the government does not want large numbers of farmers exiting the industry it needs to inject some cash, to allow farmers to get through what is an unprecedented drought. Many farmers sold livestock to their core breeders last year, but are finding this year their cash flow is not allowing them to retain even those. Grain farmers in some areas have now missed four crops. Current assistance is not hitting the mark, with the vast majority of farmers unable to get any federal help and the mental health Implications horrendous. Most farmers are prepared for a year of drought, but two or more without a break in sight means people need cash.

- MAL PETERS