Libs' economic dries urged to show heart in drought

TREASURER Joe Hockey and economic dries in the Liberal Party look set to face a growing push from The Nationals for more assistance to farmers and cattle producers hurting from the drought.

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce on the weekend addressed farmers in south-west Queensland, urging the Cabinet to endorse a massive bail-out for primary producers.

The renewed debate over drought assistance comes only days after the Cabinet knocked back an appeal from SPC Ardmona for a $25 million grant to keep operating in Shepparton, Victoria.

But while Mr Hockey on Monday said there was nothing additional on the table to support primary producers, he said "let's see how it pans out".

His comments follow recent statements that it was now the "end of the age of entitlement" for business, despite senior Nationals arguing manufacturing subsidies are fundamentally different to drought assistance.

The key issues for the Coalition's minor partner will be a big part of the agenda for a party room meeting in Bundaberg this Thursday, as the party figures out how best to support producers.

Maranoa MP Bruce Scott, who represents one of the largest electorates in the country, said his biggest concerns were the mental health of farming families, support to send remote students to school, and the definitions in the current drought policy.

He said the situation in western Queensland was "very, very bleak" with some cattle producers struggling for more than 18 months with falling cattle prices, rising feed and freight costs and a lack of rain.

"One of the concerns is in the existing definition of 'viable' - some of these producers have sold all their livestock because of the drought," he said.

"But because they've been forced to do that, their business is no longer seen as viable, as they can't demonstrate an ongoing income. So they can't access the drought funding, and the banks are tightening their grip.

"Demonstrating viability under these circumstances is practically impossible, and there's no one solution - people are mentally, emotionally exhausted, and we've gone into February now without rain."

Mr Scott said a further impact was the average cost of sending children to school hitting about $26,000 for boarding, with government assistance only meeting 50% of that cost in some situations.

Despite concerns city-based MPs in the Coalition were not listening, Mr Scott said he believing there would be a debate about it, given the agriculture as a "key pillar" in both state and federal government's election promises.

"We need to tell these people that they are not alone, we're listening and it's a commonwealth and state responsibility," he said.

Capricornia MP Michelle Landry, who represents a more coastal electorate, said it was still hurting inland from Mackay.

She said a lack of rain and available water had meant some producers were unable to truck cattle to saleyards, due to the weak conditions of the beasts.

Flynn MP Ken O'Dowd said it was desperate more widely across central Queensland, and while coastal areas had patchy rain last week, the situation was much worse inland.

Backing changes to drought assistance, Mr O'Dowd said cattle and land prices remained subdued, and despite concerns the Cabinet would not back Mr Joyce's proposal, he remained confident.

"I'll be supporting Barnaby, and while the Cabinet didn't support SPCA, I think that's support for companies - this is a different case, where we need to support individuals," he said.

"We need wider support within the Coalition, so that's going to be the challenge, but when you knock back one industry, it's going to be hard to make a case for another."



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