The ongoing call for town businesses to be included in drought relief schemes, such as via freight relief and electricity subsidies, was made loud and clear at the Cloncurry drought forum.
While the terms of reference for the state government’s review into managing drought was largely confined to assistance measures for primary producers, Cloncurry attendees insisted that the communities that sustain grazing businesses needed to be incorporated into relief schemes.
“Where will we do business after a drought if there’s no town left,” Flinders Shire councillor, Bill Bode asked. “Town businesses should be getting the same subsidies as graziers.”
His words were reiterated by AgForce northern and western regional manager, Vol Norris, who said that as well as leasehold land rental relief for landholders and infrastructure funding to bring jobs, making assistance available for people in towns was the big ticket item he was hearing was needed.
The theory behind most current relief schemes, directed at primary producers, is that cash made available to them will be spent in local communities, thereby bolstering economies that way.
This wasn’t enough, according to Mr Norris, who said help for town businesses would be helpful for regional economies in the long term.
“We are talking about things like waivers for freight costs and subsidies for freight costs.”
Review panellist, Ruth Wade, said that coming from a small town bakery background, she well understood the escalating freight costs businesses were subject to.
“It’s a very shallow victory if all the things that make living in an area have disappeared,” she said.
Related: Lessons of a five-year drought
Mr Norris said decision-makers who lived elsewhere often didn’t understand the connected nature between town and country in the bush, and making assistance available for town businesses would help emphasise that.
Fellow review manager, Charles Burke, said land rental and local government rate payments had been raised elsewhere as big expenses that drought-stricken businesses were struggling with, saying it was a difficult one to manage.
Ms Wade added no-one wanted to starve what was often a town’s biggest employer but wondered if there could be a moratorium.
She also said that care was needed not to just defer costs and make the resulting payment too big to handle.
To Cloncurry businessman, Keith Douglas’s acknowledgement that local governments couldn’t afford not to gather rates and question on whether there was scope for the government to help with a reduction, Mr Burke suggested each level of government would point the finger at the other as the one responsible for that.
“We’ve heard it before – they’ll each say it’s up to the local authority to provide relief – but it doesn’t mean we can’t suggest they find another model,” he said.
Mr Norris said there was no better time to push for it, with both state and federal governments conducting reviews into drought assistance.
The idea of a HECS-style way of paying for utility and rental charges while in drought and recovery, whereby people would have to be back in profit mode before they started repayments, was raised by Uniting Church Frontier Services David Ellis.