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Start of a new era in drought support

The Rudd Government and Western Australian Government have today announced the start of a new era in drought support, with a 12 month trial of a new package of measures.

The new measures will be tested in a region covering half of Western Australia, from Karratha to Esperance, from 1 July 2010 to 30 June 2011.

The trial represents a dramatic shift in the way governments help farmers deal with the challenges of the future, from crisis management to risk management.

Under the old system, only farmers in the most debt received the most assistance while those who have made tough business decisions to stay out of debt were not recognised.

The old system creates uncertainty, which contributes to mental health issues and other pressures on rural and regional families and communities.

The new approach better supports farming families and helps prepare farm businesses to ensure the sector is resilient in the face of future challenges, including climate change.

For the first time, it recognises and addresses mental health issues in farming communities.

The trial will not affect farmers currently receiving income relief payments and interest rate subsidies under the old Exceptional Circumstances system.

The Australian and Western Australian governments will jointly run and fund the trial.

It is a major milestone in the Rudd Government’s commitment to deliver the biggest reforms to drought support in Australia in nearly two decades.

The new package of measures to be trialled in Western Australia includes:

- Farm Family Support – income support to help farmers meet basic household expenses
- Farm Social Support – stronger social support networks to meet the mental health, counselling and other social needs of farming families and communities
- Building Farm Businesses – grants of up to $60,000 to help farm businesses prepare for the impacts of drought, reduced water availability and a changing climate, and on-farm Landcare activities
- Farm Planning – support for farmers to undertake training to develop or update a strategic plan for their farm business with a focus on preparing for future challenges
- Stronger Rural Communities – grants to local government for activities that make rural communities more resilient during agricultural downturns
- Farm Exit Support – grants of up to $170,000 to support farmers who make the difficult decision to sell the farm business
- Beyond Farming – a new measure that puts current farmers in touch with former farmers to work through the opportunities outside of farming

Almost 6,000 farmers in the trial region are expected to be eligible for assistance under the package.

There are currently no Exceptional Circumstances declared areas in Western Australia.

To identify key weaknesses in the old system, the Government commissioned three reports looking at the social and economic impacts of drought and climatic projections.

The social panel’s report backed an overhaul of national drought policy, saying panel members were deeply concerned by the extent of distress in drought-affected communities.

The Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO found in their report that droughts are likely to happen more often and be more severe.

Nationally, the percentage of agricultural land covered by Exceptional Circumstances declarations has fallen from 55.9 per cent in May 2008 to 28.9 per cent in May 2010.

Current drought assistance measures will continue for farmers in these areas for as long as they are Exceptional Circumstances declared.

The National Rural Advisory Council will continue to reassess areas when current declarations come up for renewal or when fresh proposals are submitted by state governments.

The trial will be reviewed after 12 months to help develop a new national approach to drought reform.

by S. C.
06 may 2010, World News > Oceania