PRIME Minister Tony Abbott admitted his government couldn't work miracles, but said his $320 million drought assistance package was the government's way of recognising a "difficult situation" in regional Australia.
More than a week after his whirlwind tour of drought-affected NSW and Queensland, the Prime Minister, flanked by Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce, announced measures to assist farmers in dire situations.
Concessional loans, federal assistance for water infrastructure and additional funding for assistance in personal crisis were among the elements listed in the multi-million dollar scheme.
As part of the package drought concessional loans totalling $280 million will be allocated to give eligible farm businesses the resources to recover from the drought.
Farmers will be able to access income support criteria from March 3 instead of July 1.
In all, $12 million will be added to existing emergency water infrastructure schemes, including supplementing those in NSW and Queensland.
Pest management in drought-affected areas will benefit from $10 million in assistance and $10.7 million will help increase access to social and mental health services in communities affected by drought.
Describing the assistance as "significant and timely," Mr Abbott said the assistance would be available to "viable (farming) businesses."
He shrugged off perceptions that the extensive measures were a "super favourable social security regime for farmers"
"It's recognising a farmer in trouble is in a very difficult situation.
"If your farm is in dire drought, you can't sell, you can't borrow, you can’t leave, but you've got no money."
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, also the member for the drought-hit New England electorate ion NSW, said the federal government has acted with "the speed of 1000 gazelles" in putting together the assistance package.
He said more than 6000 agricultural businesses in his New England electorate could benefit from the federal government's announcement.
“This new package will assist impacted farm businesses and farm families to deal with immediate financial pressures and improve their capacity to recover when the rain finally comes,” he said.
“We are introducing measures to offer financial, social and mental health support."
EARLIER: from The Sydney Morning Herald
Prime Minister Tony Abbott will announce a drought relief package worth nearly $330 million, aimed at giving emergency help to farmers who have been without rain for more than a year.
Mr Abbott has promised to bring forward a financial assistance package for farmers in response to demands from Nationals MPs, led by Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, for urgent drought assistance.
The Farm Household Allowance, which hands farmers up to three years of fortnightly income assistance at the same level as the Newstart Allowance during droughts, was due to begin on July 1. But Mr Abbott moved to head off Nationals’ concerns amid a worsening drought in parts of NSW and Queensland.
Cabinet met on Tuesday night to sign off on the drought funding. It is understood the package consists of an extra $280 million in low-interest loans for farmers, along with more than $40 million of additional measures including health initiatives to alleviate depression and the risk of suicide.
Mr Abbott will release the details of the package on Wednesday.
The new funding comes just over a week after the Prime Minister and Mr Joyce toured the dustbowls of inland Queensland and NSW.
The politicians' visit coincided with a rare downpour – the largest in some parts since late 2012 – but as Mr Joyce pointed out, the burst of rain would have little immediate effect on farmers' incomes.
''I don't think any household will say well I’m not going to be able to get a wage cheque in to pay for the mortgage until it rains.''
Treasurer Joe Hockey has tried to impose a new edict on government spending, telling Australians they cannot expect the level of support they have grown accustomed to, but Mr Joyce has successfully argued that Mr Hockey’s “end of the age of entitlement” mantra should not apply to drought-affected farmers.
The Prime Minister has backed Mr Joyce, describing drought as a ''natural disaster'' and arguing that special circumstances require emergency relief, as governments provide in other times of crisis.
Mr Joyce said he believed most Australians would understand that drought-stricken farmers faced troubles of a different order to manufacturing workers who have recently been denied government assistance.
''I don't think any factory says, well, we’re not going to be able to sell anything until it rains,'' Mr Joyce said. ''I don't think any household will say well I’m not going to be able to get a wage cheque in to pay for the mortgage until it rains.''
Mr Joyce said the government was already talking to state agencies and he wanted to move ''as quickly as possible'' to get the low-interest loans flowing to farmers.
The Abbott government would also provide help to drought-affected farmers suffering from depression and other mental health problems, Mr Joyce confirmed.
''If you're under the pump and isolated you go into your room and stew,'' Mr Joyce said.
''Even last night I’ve been speaking to people who are basically extremely depressed and I tell you what it saps you.''
Opposition agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said Labor would ''hold [its] judgment'' until it saw the details of the drought package, but North Queensland MP Bob Katter said the $280 million figure was far too low and was going to make the Abbott government ''look pretty silly''.
The Bureau of Meteorology on Tuesday said a drier than normal autumn was expected for drought-hit central and western Queensland.
There was a 55 per cent chance of below-average rainfall for northern NSW, which is also struggling.