Outgoing Australian of the Year Lee Kernaghan has called on the Federal Government to be more flexible with drought assistance programs to prevent Australian farming families falling through the cracks.
Kernaghan, who spent 2008 visiting Australia’s worst hit drought regions and talking with farmers, industry and community representatives, rural aid organisations and rural financial and health counsellors, said one of the biggest issues facing farming families was insufficient notice given to moving regions off Exceptional Circumstances assistance.
“Areas or regions can get as little as two weeks notice that they are losing assistance and this is causing severe hardship and distress for many families,” he said.
Kernaghan said the message he received loud and clear in the bush was that assistance programs needed to allow for recovery, not just survival.
“Fair and reasonable notice of the withdrawal of Drought Assistance would give families time to prepare for the future and will save families and lives in the bush. It is vital that EC be extended for six or even twelve months to allow restocking, replanting and re-equipping the farm to be a going concern.”
While Kernaghan welcomed and supported the current Federal Government review into drought policy, he said action was needed urgently to save farming families.
“Losing Exceptional Circumstances support meant loss of not only Household Support which put food on the table but also the loss of a Health Care Card, Education Assistance and Interest Rate Subsidy.”
Kernaghan said Australia was built on the back-breaking hard work and ingenuity of Australia’s farmers with the Australian economy being carried for almost two centuries by the farming sector.
Despite the worst drought on record, Australia’s farm exports earned the country $27.6 billion in 2006/07 while agriculture supports the jobs of 1.6 million Australians in farming and related industries.
“Every Australian should ask himself or herself what kind of nation we would be and what kind of people we would become if our farmers disappear, as they are,” he said. “They have never given up on us so we should never give up on them.”
The 2009 Australian of the Year will be announced on 25 January 2009.