ABC NEWS WA
WEDNESDAY, 29 JANUARY 2020
SUBJECT: Drought Communities Program
EMMA FIELD, JOURNALIST: Catherine we’re speaking today about the Drought Communities grants program, another round was announced yesterday. For the first time WA shires have been included, but there are a lot of drought-affected areas particularly in pastoral regions which have missed out. What do you make of the way the Government has divvied up this program this time around?
CATHERINE KING, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INFRASTRUCTURE, TRANSPORT AND REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT: Well, I think the way in which the Government has handled the Drought Communities Program and the extension program it announced prior to the last election really has lacked transparency. I think the decisions that they’ve been making about councils have been based on spurious rainfall data and agricultural workforce data that keeps shifting. What we saw, unfortunately, before the last election was the then Regional Services Minister, Senator McKenzie, making a decision about 14 councils, six of which, in fact, didn’t even meet that criteria, but they got the drought funding. And, you had the ridiculous circumstances in Victoria where you had Moyne Shire saying well look, we’ve been told we’ve got the money but we’re not in drought, and Moira Shire saying we are in drought but we’re not getting any money because we don’t have enough agricultural workers by you know, by five. So they’ve just not been transparent about it. It’s unclear to councils. So there’s no application process, councils can’t come forward and say, look, we want to dispute the data that you’ve got forward or this is, you know, the impact on us. There’s no discussion with councils about, you know, is this actually what’s happening on the ground, how will you use this money? It just seems to me that they’re just picking and choosing, and on the basis of criteria that is unclear to anyone other than someone either in the Minister’s office or the Minister’s office and the department.
FIELD: Yes, it has been a little unclear and that is certainly what WA councils have been asking over the last 24 hours. Something else that became clear yesterday when the Minister and Prime Minister announced this Drought Communities fund extension was that there was a review done by EY, were you aware this was taking place and it was done within a month, is that too quickly for something like this?
KING: Well, certainly when this first hit the media, Minister Littleproud said that he was going to review the program. And it was pretty clear that that was about, you know, spin over substance, and I think this EY report being done so quickly, doesn’t go to the substance of how these allocation decisions are being made? What’s the engagement with local councils over these decisions? What transparency is around the process? Then, even further to that, what’s the money actually been being used for? What we know is that councils that are eligible get a million dollars. Getting that money then is contingent on a whole lot of other things that they can then apply for. There’s a Building Better Regions Fund program, it’s about $200 million, only those councils that get have been declared for the million dollars, as my understanding, can now actually apply for that, whereas it used to be a much broader number of councils. There are other programs they then become eligible for, so it’s actually really important for drought-affected communities. But, there’s just a lack of clarity about that. It’s also a lack of clarity again about what’s actually the money’s being spent on. In essence, what it’s meant to do is help to stimulate the broader economy around agriculture. So, it might be that you want to look at other employment opportunities for people, and, again, we had cases come to us in council areas where the funding had been used to fund a toilet block at a cemetery. Now, that might have provided some local employment but there was no reporting on that. Did it actually have any local employment, were there local components in that building or not? And what’s the ongoing jobs of that? So, again, it just seems to me that they’ve not handled this well, and they’ve certainly not handled it from local government‘s perspective very well at all.
FIELD: Now the Federal Government has moved away from drought declarations by exceptional circumstances, which effectively drew a line in the sand, making declarations based on weather data for different shires. Yet we seem to be back at the same king of decision making with this grants scheme. Do you think drought support is being rolled out the right way or could improvements be made?
KING: It clearly is not being rolled out the right way. And you’re right, that whole notion around drought declaration, which was inconsistent across the country meant ridiculous circumstances where you had literally a road dividing whether a farmer or a pastoral property was in drought or not in drought, and that really did cause enormous difficulties. But, what we haven’t had from this government is a long term plan around how do we actually manage drought, what are the mitigation measures that we need to put in place, how do we look at developing proper long-term regional development plans for communities that are in drought, and, obviously, the issue around our changing climate has to be thought about when you starting to talk about drought. All of these things, it seems that the Federal Government has just been asleep at the wheel when it comes to drought funding, and obviously in the regional development space, where you want to try and help these economies, again, they’ve just been inconsistent in the way in which they have made decisions. And it’s that lack of transparency that means councils can’t plan, can’t rely on this money, because they don’t know whether they are going to be eligible or not.