18 October 2011
THE Federal Government says it expects all eligible farmers who applied for exit grants will get their money, although it won’t guarantee it.
The Government set aside $14 million for the 2011-12 financial year to pay people out of the farming industry, but announced just two months into the year that the funds had been overcommitted.
It closed the program early, blaming unprecedented demand and prompting the Opposition to accuse the Government of dudding farmers.
Even the National Farmers’ Federation sought an assurance from the Government that it would deliver the funds as promised to those farmers who sold up in good faith.
The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry’s Tom Aldred told a Senate estimates hearing yesterday the Government hoped to fulfil all eligible claims.
“That’s our expectation and estimation,” he said.
“We can’t be definitive, but that’s our estimation.”
Under the scheme, struggling farmers were to receive up to $150,000 after selling their properties as well as relocation and retraining grants worth $10,000 each.
Another department official, Andrew McDonald, earlier told the committee that the program’s funds ran out because of a mix of unforeseen factors, including the lapsing of more than 26 exceptional circumstances declarations.
“In hindsight, there was a convergence of events that happened which produced an unprecedented surge,” Mr McDonald said.
“There’s a story there that we did not see at the time.”
Applications jumped from 21 in March to as many as 62 in June, while the approval rating of claims also went up from about 55 to 75 per cent.
Opposition senators used the hearing to criticise the Government and the department for not keeping farmers well enough informed.
Nationals senator John Williams said one man auctioned his property on June 26, only to read later through an update on the department’s website that sales needed to be settled, not sold, before the due date to be eligible.
The party’s Fiona Nash also accused Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig of reneging on a promise to sit down with constituents from senator Bridget McKenzie’s Victorian electorate, but Senator Ludwig said the invitation had been misconstrued.
“What I said was, if there are individual cases, then Senator McKenzie can bring them up to my office and we can have – not I – we can have a look at what those circumstances may be in at that particular time,” he told the hearing.
“None of that is about bringing people, making an appointment.”