Farmers strangled by red tape over drought relief
The state's agriculture minister is pushing to streamline drought assistance for struggling farmers currently forced to make separate applications for state and federal support.
The cumbersome application process - which can involve hours of paperwork for Commonwealth help programs and even trips to Centrelink - is even tempting some time-poor farmers to turn their backs on assistance altogether.
The Daily Telegraph can reveal Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall has made a formal offer to the Commonwealth to take charge of setting up a "one-stop shop" for drought support through the NSW Rural Assistance Authority.
It comes as the entire state cabinet yesterday (Sunday) descended on the farming town of Bourke in the state's northwest as part of a three-day trip aimed at giving ministers a better understanding of the battle for survival in the bush.
It will also give residents in the former Nationals electorate - which was controversially lost to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers at the NSW election in March - an opportunity to speak their mind directly to leaders about issues such as the drought and water security.
Mr Marshall said many farmers are under "enormous pressure" on their properties and do not have the time nor energy to fill out two lots of paperwork.
"The farmers don't care if the state government paid for that or the federal government - they just want the support and they don't want to have to sit on the phone for hours," he said.
"If they qualify for NSW government support then they should automatically apply for federal government support and vice versa."
"These are the people that we need to be helping but when you make the system too hard then the people that need it don't get it."
Scott Mudford, 31, helps run a sheep and grain farm northwest of Dubbo and has spent $3 million over the last three years "just trying to keep everything alive" during the drought.
"You've got to do 50 per cent more work for no pay so the workload has dramatically increased," he said.
"The stress is a lot higher and you're feeding them (the sheep) more than what they're worth so you can't get a return on that."
The family have applied for state and federal support schemes - including transport subsidies and a drought assistance loan - but say the lengthy process takes them away from important work on the farm.
Mr Mudford's mother Pam, 54, has spent the last week filling out an application for the federal government's Regional Investment Corporation loan, which she has to supply 250 pages of documentation for.
"There'd be so many people that would say, this is too hard, let's just leave the farm," she said.
"Having streamlined assistance would be fantastic - it will just cut out that continuous saying the same thing over and over again."
Mr Marshall plans to discuss the issue at a special agriculture ministers' meeting - which will also be attended by Federal Drought Minister David Littleproud - in the northwest town of Moree on December 10.
The NSW government has an almost $2 billion drought support package which includes zero-interest loans, fee waivers, subsidies and various rebates.
New applicants can apply online for drought assistance in under an hour as part of a streamlined process while existing applicants were invited to reapply over email for the first time this year, which only required them to click a button.
The state cabinet - which flew into Dubbo yesterday - made a pit stop in the rural village of Nevertire on their way to Bourke.
There ministers bought Christmas gifts from regional retailers as part of the state government's #BuyRegional campaign, which launched last month and aims to direct urban dollars towards drought-stricken communities.
But Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Deputy Premier John Barilaro were busy at a country mayors' event and joined the cabinet in Bourke late yesterday.
Mr Barilaro said more than 225 regional businesses are now featured on the state government's Buy Regional website, which showcases gifts such as wine, fashion, food and art from across the state.
"Business owners listed on Buy Regional are telling us they are overwhelmed with the personal and corporate sales orders … even in Uralla, networks of businesses are coming together to pack gifts and send them to Sydney," he said.
Australia Post data for the beginning of November reveals some outlets are sending 30 per cent more parcels than their daily average - the equivalent of 60-70 extra parcels each day.
Ms Berejiklian and ministers will meet with members of the community and emergency services volunteers today in Bourke before a cabinet meeting in the afternoon.
Barwon MP Roy Butler said he hoped ministers will recognise farmers and communities are "absolutely on their knees needing help".
However, he said what they need is cash rather than more loans.
"Loans only benefit people who are in the black … assistance in these communities needs to be cash-based," he said.
COUNTRY CUPS OF KINDNESS
Bush retailers are uniting to help support each other as the worst drought in living memory takes it tolls on small regional towns.
Larger civic centres like Orange and Dubbo are fundraising for other smaller retailers in other drought-hit towns.
Orange retailer Pip Brett, 36, said she felt obliged to help smaller communities in western parts of NSW.
"We have organised some donations but wanted to give something other than money. My mum Kezz Brett is an artist and we sold off one of her paintings for about $2500 - this went towards paying for coffees for farmers who go to cafes in Walgett and Trangie. It works two ways, we're helping people get out of their homes and into town for a coffee which also helps the cafe or shops by having people around."
Buy a $2 IGA Drought Appeal gift token at your local IGA to show your support for Drought Angels and Vinnies' work with Aussies impacted by drought.