Queensland graziers struggling with the aftermath of devastating floods will be paying “a hell of a lot less” interest on loans under a plan to help them get back on their feet, Scott Morrison says.
The prime minister will be in Townsville on Mar. 1 to announce a range of measures to help farmers and local communities return to normality after the unprecedented floods.
People in rural and remote areas of flood-affected north Queensland are being given greater access to Commonwealth-backed concessional loans and mental health support.
Small businesses and not-for-profits will also be provided grants of up to $50,000 to rebuild, repair and replace stock, plant and equipment.
Up to 500,000 cattle are believed to have drowned in the widespread flood waters.
Earlier this month, Morrison met with graziers at Cloncurry and Julia Creek in north-west Queensland, whose herds had been wiped out.
“To see them washed away, lying in the dry mud, it’s just heartbreaking,” he said on March 1.
Morrison believes the north Queensland cattle industry can return to its former prosperity but stressed it won’t be easy.
“It’s going to take a lot of work to get there,” he told ABC Radio National.
“It’s going to require a business plan for each and every farm and station.”
A new livestock industry recovery agency, to be led by former NT chief minister Shane Stone, will help provide farmers funding to restock their herds and fix on-farm infrastructure like fences.
The rules around the government-owned Regional Investment Corporation will also be changed so it can offer drought-stricken farmers concessional loans.
Farmers will be able to refinance existing debt and access loans for restocking, using their stock as collateral.
The rate of interest they pay will vary by their situation but the prime minister is certain they’ll be getting a good deal.
“It’s going to be a hell of a lot lower than they’re paying now,” he said.
The government has also written to each of the large lenders engaged with flood-affected farmers, urging them to exercise restraint.
It has asked banks to not foreclose or force the sale of farms for three years, defer interest and principal repayments for three years where appropriate, and commit to lending for stock and herd replacement.
The government has also offered banks low-cost loans to pass on to eligible farmers.
More telehealth services will also be made available, providing care by video conference to people in flood-affected areas, with providers and patients given immediate access to health rebates for four months.
More than $100 million in immediate assistance has already been delivered to flood-affected communities in recent weeks, while the tax office has also taken steps to help those impacted.
But some graziers doubt whether taking loans from the bank will be helpful in the long-term
A week ago Rachael Anderson and her husband vowed to rebuild but are now considering selling one of their properties.
Their bank has offered to loan the Andersons whatever they need, but they have nothing to borrow against and risk digging themselves further into debt.
“It’s probably going to cost into the millions to replace not only the livestock that we’ve lost but also the infrastructure,” she said.
They have spent 12 years building up their breeding stock but the losses keep on coming.
She believes the loss of livestock across the 800 or so properties affected will total about 1.6 million, triple the estimated figures coming from local mayors.
“It’s going to be over a million head, they’re estimating it’s going to be 500,000 head but people are laughing at that figure and saying ‘Yeah, and the rest’,” she said.
“I don’t even know how they’re going to help us, because that is big numbers.”
Meanwhile, the bodies of herds hardened by years of drought but swiftly killed off by exposure during the flood is slow work, and the impact will be felt for years.
“It’s an ugly, ugly job, that’s for sure,” Julia Creek grazier Patrick Hick said.
“Plenty of people I know are quite rattled by the event and you know, they’re some pretty tough characters.”
Graziers say the animals that are left will struggle to breed in the next season because of stress, and that some areas won’t see feed because the topsoil was washed away.
Hick says some of his cattle are perched on a ridge surrounded by carcasses but are refusing to make the short walk to grass and water.
“They’ll stand up there and perish,” he said.