Malcolm Turnbull Announces $190M In Emergency Drought Relief

"We will be with you all the way until it rains."

The federal government has announced an extra $190 million in immediate drought relief to help desperate farmers with bills and essentials as they endure a "shocking" dry. 

The package will allow farmers to access two additional cash payments of $6,000 through the Farm Household Allowance (FHA) scheme, as well as providing additional support for mental health and rural financial counselling services. 

Unveiling the package at a farm near the New South Wales town of Trangie on Sunday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull promised to do more to support the nation’s “innovative and resilient” farmers through one of the worst droughts of the past century.

The government, media and charity organisations are getting behind farmers faced with a crippling drought. Image: Emma Brancatisano

“We are the land of droughts and flooding rains ... Farmers are resilient; they plan for drought. They are good managers. But it can become really overwhelming,” Turnbull said.

About 98 percent of New South Wales farmers and 57 percent of Queensland farmers are now drought affected.

“This is the worst drought in New South Wales since the 1965 drought,” he said. “These are exceptional circumstances and it is important that we react and respond with what farmers need.”

Currently those farmers who are on the FHA scheme can access a welfare payment equivalent to the unemployment benefit, worth around $16,000 a year. The government's announcement will add an extra $12,000 for couples and $7,200 for single households. 

The first payment will be delivered on September 1, with the second to follow on March 1 next year.

Image: Getty Images.

“What this will do is provide additional cash in this coming year. It appears that we are going into a dry spring and a tough summer … we hope the forecasts are proven wrong but the prospects aren’t great at the moment,” the Prime Minister said.

It comes one week after a fresh injection tipped the New South Wales government's drought assistance over $1 billion.

The federal government’s drought response has now reached $576 million. 

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Changes to the Farm Household Allowance scheme

To date, the federal government has extended the limit for the FHA scheme from three to four years. But many have critiqued its arduous eligibility criteria which requires farmers to fill out both an income and assets test.

Following consultation with farming groups, Prime Minister Turnbull announced the assets cap will be extended from $2.6 million to $5 million, meaning more farmers -- who are notionally asset rich but cash poor -- will be able to apply.

“The reality is farmers who are providing the human capital for this massive industry are sitting on assets from which, in the drought, they can’t generate any income at all,” Turnbull said.

Government estimates suggest while about 9,000 farmers are receiving the payment,  about 19,000 who are potentially eligible have not applied. It is hoped an extra $5 million for Rural Financial Counsellors, who provide free services to farmers,  will help close the gap.

Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud again urged farmers not to self assess.

"The application time frames have come down from 25 to 18 days," he said.

"The reality is, the rural financial counselling service is where you should go first. Don't go to your accountant -- they look after you tax.

"Keep your chin up. When the rain comes, the good times will come back. But we need to get you through this. We will be with you all the way until it rains."

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More money for in-demand mental health services

Beyond financial struggles, farming families and communities are feeling the mental burden of an enduring drought.

"These are bleak times and a lot of people find it very hard to cope," Turnbull said on Sunday, announcing  an extra $11.4 million in mental health support initiatives.

"We need to remove the stigma and taboo in talking about mental health."

Additional funding will be poured into Primary Health Networks in drought-affected areas to cope with increased demand.

"We will also remove the requirement for those accessing counselling via Skype to have their first appointment in person," Turnbull said.

A culture of resilience sees farmers suffering in silence. a Image: Emma Brancatisano

Tele-health consultations have been found to be particularly effective among male farmers who feel less pressured to seek help via phone or a text message.

The government said Sunday's announcement is one phase of its "continuing and enduring response to the drought".

“This is a constant dynamic environment that farmers have to cope with, and what we are saying to (them) is that we are listening, we are with you, we feel the challenges you have and we are determined to keep supporting you," Turnbull said. 

Further long-term measures are being developed across government, with another phase expected “in the coming weeks”.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or rural helpline Virtual Psychologist on 1300 665 234 (or send a text message to 0488 807 266) 

For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

If you want to help Australian farmers in need, you can donate to a registered charity. Donate online to Rural Aid's Buy a Bale, Drought Angels or Lions' Need for Feed. You can also support farmers by buying Australian grown produce at your local supermarket.

Contact the author at ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au.