A charity worker has broken down as she recounted the suffering of Australia’s drought-stricken farmers.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull consoled Edwina Robertson on Sunday in the New South Wales town of Trangie, near Dubbo, as he announced drought relief for those struggling in the dry conditions.
“It’s worse than anything you are seeing in the media, it’s far worse,” Ms Robertson told the Prime Minister.
“It’s dire. I worry every day when I go to visit farming families that it’s going to be hours too late. It’s literally that bad.”
The federal government on Sunday announced a $190 million relief package for struggling farmers, with about 99 per cent of NSW and more than 58 per cent of Queensland officially in drought.
Couples will get up to $12,000 as part of the Farm Household Allowance (FHA), while singles will get up to $7200.
Eligible farmers will receive the first payment on September 1, with another round of funding on March 1.
It will be on top of a fortnightly payment, totalling about $16,000 a year, already paid to struggling farmers.
The means test will be lifted, with the net asset threshold lifted from $2.6 million to $5 million.
That will allow about 8000 more farmers to access the support.
The government in June also extended the FHA payment from three to four years.
You put the food on our tables, the fibre that goes on our backs and we have your back,” Mr Turnbull said.
The package takes the government’s drought relief funding to $576 million, with more announcements expected in coming weeks.
“We can’t make it rain. But we can ensure that farming families and their communities get all the support they need to get through the drought, recover and get back on their feet,” a government statement said.
An extra $5 million will boost the Rural Financial Counselling Service, as Mr Turnbull urged people to use the service to check they are eligible for the FHA.
It is estimated about 19,000 producers who qualify for the payment are yet to apply.
“Don’t get half-baked advice from someone over the fence or from an accountant that might not know about it,” Mr Turnbull said.
“Talk to people that know. They have the expertise and can tell you swiftly whether you qualify and guide you through the process.”
The application process has come under fire, with arduous forms and requirements turning some farmers away from seeking support.
The application time had been cut from 25 days to 18, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said.
Mental health support
The package includes $11.4 million in mental health initiatives, to help farmers cope with what Mr Turnbull described as “bleak times”.
Instead of three out of 10 Medicare-supported psychological consultations needing to be in person, rural people can now access all of them over the phone or through Skype.
Mr Turnbull said the need to travel to appointments was a barrier for people in rural areas.
“A lot of people don’t want to go into town. They don’t have the time to go into town. They’re shy about doing so.”
Drought-affected communities will be able to apply for grants up to $1 million to run mental health programs tailored to their needs.
Communities are expected to receive between $200,000 and $300,000 each.
Primary health networks will also get some of the money to help them cope with increasing demand for mental health services.
Youth mental health organisation ReachOut will be funded to visit drought-affected communities to make young people more aware of their e-counselling services.
Rural advocacy group AgForce Queensland president Grant Maudsley said the prolonged drought was having an enormous financial, emotional and environmental toll on communities.
“Parts of western and southern Queensland have been in drought for more than six years, which has overwhelmed even the best efforts of producers to prepare.”
The National Farmers Federation said the package would provide “significant relief from the hardship”.
The announcement was welcomed by federal and Queensland Labor, as well as the Queensland Liberal National Party opposition.
Distressed readers should contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.
Farmer Assistance Hotline: 132 316