Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was “stepping up” his drought response to meet the increasing needs of regional communities as the drought worsened.
“This is money into the pockets of all those farmers and graziers who know they have a future but are currently struggling to keep their operations running as the crippling effects of this drought continue to bite,” he said.
“There is no silver bullet to this drought. Each time we introduce further help we listen, we learn and we adjust our response because we know each community has different needs and priorities that need the resources and co-operation of every level of government.”
The South Australian desalination plant is expected to produce 40 gigalitres of water by June 30, with the remainder in the following 12 months. The federal government will pay for the operation of the plant at an estimated cost of $88.4 million.
If South Australia decides in April the plant cannot produce the remaining 60 gigalitres, the government will consider as a contingency taking water out of the Snowy Hydro scheme to offer farmers.
South Australian Premier Steven Marshall said it was a time of national urgency and his state would stand with farmers when they needed it most.
“South Australia survived some of the most extreme effects of the Millennium Drought and fully understands the terrible impacts that drought has on farmers, families, regional communities and the nation,” Mr Marshall said. “We are prepared to provide support but we will not jeopardise our own water security or do anything that increases costs to South Australians.”
The measures are part of a bush stimulus package unveiled on Thursday, which also included $1 billion in concessional loans for small businesses and $300 million for community infrastructure projects. Drought-stricken farmers will also be given access to concessional loans with a two-year interest-free period to help restructure crippling debt as the government increases support for families to manage and recover from years of low rainfall by improving their current loan settings.
Federal Drought Minister David Littleproud defended the extension of the loan scheme, saying it would not give debt-stricken farmers false hope.
“There’s a viability test – simply you have to be able to prove in a normal year, when it rains and under normal circumstances, you can repay that debt under your business model,” he said. “We’re not going to put people in debt who can’t afford it.”
There is no silver bullet to this drought.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison
Labor has taken aim at the government over the eligibility criteria for regional councils, with opposition regional development spokeswoman Catherine King saying it had offered to work with the government in a bipartisan manner to support farmers and rural communities.
“The lack of transparency, lack of oversight and lack of detail in today’s announcement is disappointing for all Australians, but particularly those in regional Australia,” Ms King said.
Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra