Federal and State Agriculture Ministers have agreed to a new framework for providing assistance to farmers under an improved national drought strategy, although the details have yet to be finalised.
Agriculture Minister Ernie Bridge said Ministers meeting in Queensland late last week had considered the principles of a restructured Rural Adjustment Scheme and revamped income-smoothing mechanism as two key policy instruments in helping farmers manage risk and productivity growth.
Mr Bridge welcomed a number of proposals in the package, including measures to encourage drought preparedness and whole farm planning, further funding for education and training in farm business management, for landcare initiatives, and for research on issues such as climate forecasting and risk management.
"I was also pleased with the Federal Minister's commitment to provide additional assistance for farmers experiencing extreme downturn or prolonged drought," he said.
The meeting also considered changes to the present Income Equalisation Deposits (IED) scheme to make it more attractive to farmers.
The IED scheme provides incentives for farmers to save money in good years, so it can be drawn upon in more difficult times, but the scheme has not been well-used as many farmers find the existing terms unattractive.
"The IED scheme is an important initiative for the purpose of income-smoothing and creation of farm financial reserves, so it is essential we take action to improve its attractiveness," Mr Bridge said.
He said the Federal Minister had also signalled his intention to simplify the Rural Adjustment Scheme and shift its focus.
"Mr Crean indicated that RAS should operate more as a structural adjustment facility rather than a general support mechanism, with a sharper focus on sustainable long-term profitability at the farm level," the Minister said.
Discussion had focussed only on the key principles of a restructured RAS, and a meeting between RAS officers would be held shortly to hammer out the detail of the changes.
"Unfortunately, this has made it difficult to come back with any firm plans to discuss at the local level with farmer and industry representatives," Mr Bridge said.
"I stressed at the meeting, however, that State Ministers should have an opportunity to discuss the specifics of the policy with industry representatives before any final decision is made.
"It is important that the States and the Commonwealth now move swiftly to follow up the broad principles discussed at the meeting with a detailed plan of action, and that these are resolved in the current budget context."