Australia

Farmers hopeful Bush Summit provides better understanding of regional Australia's needs

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison has dismissed suggestions the Future Drought Fund will take money away from infrastructure.

It hasn't rained in the tiny New South Wales town of Collie for three years. The small community's once green fields have faded to brown and deep cracks mark the dusty ground

It's the harsh reality for many farmers, including grain farmer Andrew Freeth. 

"We live with variability in this part of the world but we're starting to get at the limits of what we prepared for at this point, so we're really just trying to hold on and make sure we're ready to go when the seasons turn around," he said.

Grain farmer Andrew Freeth on his Collie property.
Grain farmer Andrew Freeth's Collie property hasn't received rain in three years.
SBS News

The 35-year-old has witnessed it all from flooding rains to devastating drought.

"In 2016 we actually lost some crop from being too wet... and really it's dried up since," he said.

"2017-18-19 have been well below or close to some of the driest years we've had, particularly form a winter perspective." 

Mr Freeth is one of many farmers around the country hoping politicians gain a better understanding of the needs of rural and regional Australia.

Bush summit: what did they say? 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison today addressed a bush summit in Dubbo, insisting a $3.9 billion drought-proofing kitty won't affect the national rollout of roads and rail lines.

It comes after Labor urged the government to find another source for the cash.

The prime minister hit back at Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, who says the $100 million-a-year Future Drought Fund should not be fuelled by money originally allocated for infrastructure.

Mr Morrison said no project within the government's infrastructure plan would be affected when the Building Australia Fund is repurposed for future drought projects.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison leaves after a press conference at the Royal Doctors Flying Service airport hanger in Dubbo, 390km north west of Sydney, Thursday, July 18, 2019. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Prime Minister Scott Morrison leaves after a press conference at the Royal Doctors Flying Service airport hanger in Dubbo, 390km north west of Sydney.
AAP

He said no pavement, dam or railway sleeper would miss out if the Future Drought Fund went ahead.

"Any suggestion by Anthony Albanese that is the case is just rank misrepresentation. He is constantly looking for excuses to oppose things," the prime minister told reporters in Dubbo on Thursday.

Mr Albanese said he didn't want to see money for drought come at the expense of infrastructure funds to help regional and rural communities.

"I say to the government: don't play politics with this. It is too important. Just stop it," he told a bush summit, organised by The Daily Telegraph.

"Provide the funding - with appropriations, as you should - and we'll back it."

Leader of the Opposition Anthony Albanese at the Daily Telegraph Bush Summit 2019 in Dubbo, 390km north west of Sydney, Thursday, July 18, 2019. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Leader of the Opposition Anthony Albanese at the Daily Telegraph Bush Summit 2019 in Dubbo, 390km north west of Sydney.
AAP

The Future Drought Fund legislation will be on the government's agenda when parliament resumes next week, along with laws to make inciting farm invasions illegal, following several incidents involving vegan activists.

"Those laws have been introduced to criminalise these actions of these cowardly keyboard warriors who incite crimes," Mr Morrison told the summit.

The prime minister pledged to set up a new House of Representatives select committee, chaired by SA Liberal MP Tony Pasin, to look at success stories in regional Australia.

He said $500,000 a year would also be given to Soils For Life, a not-for-profit program working on agricultural land management.

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Drought Relief: The Feed
Drought Relief: The Feed

Former governor-general Michael Jeffery will be recalled as national soils advocate to drive the program.

As he addressed the summit, Mr Morrison restated the government's policy to support Australian agriculture becoming a $100 billion industry by 2030.

He also wanted to focus on measures like making the Farm Household Assistance payment available to farmers for four in every 10 years.

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Watch: The Prime Minister says drought fund won't rob infrastructure.
Watch: The Prime Minister says drought fund won't rob infrastructure.

Farmers like Mr Freeth have the silos and the ambition to export grain to new markets, like the European Union and Britain. 

 All he needs is water to make it grow.

"It can be difficult when you live on farm and you’re surrounded by dry paddocks, hungry livestock It’s partly the mental battle to stay positive and fresh and make good decisions," he said.

Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce at the Daily Telegraph Bush Summit 2019 in Dubbo, 390km north west of Sydney, Thursday, July 18, 2019. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce at the Daily Telegraph Bush Summit 2019 in Dubbo.
AAP

Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce used a question and answer session to make an impassioned plea to build the long-mooted Bradfield irrigation scheme.

"We have to have some vision," he said.

He also had a crack at The Daily Telegraph for not being as parochial as News Corp stablemate the Adelaide Advertiser in defending irrigators.

Telegraph cartoonist and event MC Warren Brown defended his employer, dismissing Mr Joyce's intervention.

"I do appreciate that but it didn't sort of go anywhere," he said.

The pain of the drought is being felt well beyond farms like Mr Freeth who told SBS News communities like his needed a hand up - not necessarily a handout.

"Come out and visit, spend some money, and talk to us," he said.

"I think one of the biggest things is just to know and understand and not forget about us."

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