BUREAUCRATIC frustrations are hindering the timely delivery of government financial assistance to cash-strapped farmers impacted by the dairy industry’s farm-gate pricing crisis.
Victorian Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie heard strong criticisms during roundtable meetings held throughout her home state this week, aimed at gathering grass-roots feedback on the government’s dairy support programs.
The Coalition government’s $579 million dairy assistance package includes concessional loans, to support producers impacted by a sudden reduction in farm-gate milk prices following Murray Goulburn’s late season profit re-forecast in April.
Senator McKenzie spoke to Fairfax Agricultural Media about issues raised at the first two meetings held at Tangambalanga in north-eastern Victoria on Monday and Congupna in the Goulburn Valley region on Tuesday.
About 80 farmers attended both forums in total along with 20 representatives from farm industry groups or government agencies.
Roundtables will also be held tomorrow (Thursday) at Morwell in the Latrobe Valley in eastern Victoria and Friday at Camperdown in southwestern Victoria.
Feedback will be used to help shape recommendations for improvements in the delivery of support measures for Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce to consider.
Centrelink suffered harsh criticisms from emotional and frustrated farmers during the first meeting at Tangambalanga which was also attended by representatives from the departments of Human Services and Agriculture.
Senator McKenzie said the Farm Household Assistance application process was “incredibly frustrating” for dairy farmers impacted by the crisis and needing the Centrelink support which offers a single rate of $528.70 per fortnight and $477.40 per person, for couples.
She said there had been consistent stories across the board about frustrations with missing documentation and farmers struggling with using complex ICT (information and communications technology) systems.
“There’s a whole lot of issues with how Centrelink has been dealing with processing these applications that has been incredibly frustrating and I fully sympathise,” she said.
“What we’ve been able to do, and what’s been great about the dairy roundtables, is that we’ve taken those responsible for that area of the program’s implementation, out into the community, so they can hear first-hand of some of the issues and I’ve been very, very pleased by their responsiveness.”
Senator McKenzie said the amount of paperwork required in the application process coupled with the complexity of peoples’ business arrangements, were core complaints.
She said farmers needed to gather a variety of different documents together which they may never have had to assemble before, in the one place.
Those documents must then be uploaded online, taken into a Centrelink office or posted into the agency for processing, she said.
Senator McKenzie said challenges also existed with Centrelink’s follow-up, given persistent dairy farmers had phoned the agency only to discover their applications had stalled due to missing documents.
“There are some ways that Centrelink itself can improve its internal processes which have been identified and I have to say I’ve been quite pleased with how swiftly the officers have acted on it,” she said.
“What we’ve worked out is many farmers may have never interacted with the social security system before in their lives and I said it yesterday, we’re trying to fit square pegs into round holes.”
Senator McKenzie said dairy farmers told the Congupna forum on Tuesday that Centrelink officers were being helpful but it was “very frustrating” for them, as small business owners, to explain their situation repeatedly, and to different people over the recent four month period, in applying for support.
“That can be very frustrating for small business owners who are used to a different approach but it has also been a learning experience for Centrelink,” she said.
The federal government’s dairy assistance package was handed down in late May and included $2m in funding to implement a new milk pricing index to increase transparency for producers.
Senator McKenzie said there had been no mention of the milk pricing index at the roundtable meetings but Tuesday’s forum expressed concerns about Fonterra’s behaviour, in the crisis.
She said Fonterra’s decision to reduce farm-gate prices on the back of Murray Goulburn’s original decision was “highly criticised” at the meeting.
A lot of interest was also expressed in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s inquiry into the dairy industry’s broader structural issues and the nature of contractual issues between suppliers and processors, she said.
Senator McKenzie said questions were also raised about NZ citizens not being eligible for the Farm Household Allowance due to being non-Australian citizens.
But she said the assistance program was available for three-years and provided other added benefits for impacted dairy farmers, including participation in a three-year financial planning process.
Senator McKenzie said that planning process looked at setting financial goals, examining the farm business to measure whether it’s sustainable and asking if the farmers needed to leave the industry, how can that be done securely.
Or, she said, if they wanted to stay in the industry, the planning process also looked at how to achieve that goal and ensure the farm business was sustainable, going forward.
“They’re the really important long-term conversations and plans that need to be put in place by farming businesses and farm families,” she said.
The government’s dairy crisis assistance package also contained $900,000 for nine additional Rural Financial Counsellors in Victoria, Tasmania, SA and NSW.
Senator McKenzie said she was in “constant contact” with Mr Joyce but a report would be produced at the end of the roundtables analysing “broader themes” collected across the region for his consideration.
She said after Monday’s roundtable she received a report from the Department of Human Services which showed they followed-up on each individual complaint expressed at the forum.
“They’re as keen as we are to fix the issues because everyone wants the policy initiative to be achieved which is; everyone who needs this Farm Household Assistance is able to receive it in a timely manner,” she said.
Senator McKenzie said news of the dairy farmers’ bureaucratic frustrations hadn’t come as a shock but stressed many were already receiving financial assistance.
“I’ve been hearing about this for a couple of months from dairy farmers across regional Victoria (but) bear in mind we have had over 300 families receiving the assistance, so it is being rolled out and most people aren’t having these difficulties,” she said.
The story Frustrated dairy farmers vent at Centrelink delays first appeared on Farm Online.