The Abbott government says it won’t treat “mum and dad” farmers the same way as companies backed by multimillion-dollar corporations.
The opposition has accused the Abbott government of misleading drought-affected farmers after Treasurer Joe Hockey hosed down talk of a multibillion-dollar bailout package.
At the same time, Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce backed away from reports he wants his cabinet colleagues to approve $7 billion in taxpayer funds to buy out farm loans.
Mr Joyce, who toured drought-affected areas at the weekend, told farmers he supported their calls for a rural construction bank that would buy bad rural loans from the private sector at a discounted price.
The measure does not have the support of the National Farmers’ Federation, which also rejected calls for interest-rate subsidies.
Mr Joyce said the government would not treat “mum and dad” farmers the same way as companies backed by multi million-dollar corporations.
But he admitted he had a battle on his hands to convince his cabinet colleagues to provide more drought relief assistance.
“My colleagues are people who have a head and heart and understand that the vagaries of the climate are something that you can never fix,” he said.
Mr Hockey appeared lukewarm about granting more assistance when quizzed about reports of Mr Joyce’s plan.
The treasurer believes there is sufficient support through the exceptional circumstances relief payment and its replacement scheme from July 1.
He reminded farmers that Australia was a “tough country” and they needed to adjust to regular “swings and roundabouts” in agriculture.
The opposition said the government was sending a confused and chaotic message to drought-affected farmers.
“As the drought grows worse, farming families are understandably frustrated by the mixed messages and tin ears in Canberra,” agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said.
Farmers shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for more help, given the government’s “slap-down” to car maker Holden and fruit processor SPC Ardmona, Mr Fitzgibbon said.
Mr Hockey rejected the comparison, saying the government treated drought as a “complete natural disaster”.