PM Tony Abbott has promised a drought aid package while visiting a Bourke property to survey the drought conditions – in the rain.
A drought aid package including debt relief, income support and extra social services will be unveiled when federal parliament resumes in a week.
Cabinet is expected to sign off on the plan on February 24, informed by the visit of Prime Minister Tony Abbott to drought-hit areas.
The heavens opened just 10 minutes after Mr Abbott arrived at a cattle-feeding point on Jandra – the 40,000ha family farm owned by Phil and Di Ridge outside Bourke in western NSW.
“It’s very important to see and feel how you guys live,” Mr Abbott said, having given up a seat in an air-conditioned four-wheel drive.
Mr Abbott later told a community gathering at a woolshed, as the rain drummed on the tin roof, that the government’s response to the drought would cover three areas: income, finance and social support.
“It will be fair and responsible,” he said.
Sheep and cattle farmer Mr Ridge said if the government did not address rural debt, estimated at $70 billion and rising, then “Australian rural industry has had it”.
He said more funding for weed and pest animal control as well as education allowances would ease the burden.
“We need money to fight a drought,” he said.
“We just can’t get ahead.”
The farm received only 120mm of rain in 2013 and Sunday’s rain during the PM’s visit was the first for the year.
A typical year brings 350mm of rain.
Seventy per cent of Queensland and more than half of NSW is in drought.
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said he believed people in city areas would back a “significant” government support package.
Mr Abbott told Longreach locals at the Stockman’s Hall of Fame that he believed drought support was more akin to “natural disaster” relief than industry assistance.
The government has in recent times rejected funds for Holden and SPC Ardmona, despite Mr Abbott after the election declaring Australia was “open for business”.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Labor would back appropriate measures for farmers and rural communities.
“We are certainly ‘open for business’ when it comes to assisting our farmers,” Mr Shorten said.
Mr Abbott was bombarded with ideas on how to address the drought. They included a rural “future fund” and support for the kangaroo meat industry.
Queensland Agriculture Minister John McVeigh told AAP any initial reforms should include reviewed criteria for farm finance support and welfare changes to keep workers on-farm.
“Now is the time to rewrite drought policy, once and for all,” he said.