An accountant who has been helping farming families apply for federal government drought aid has given a scathing assessment of the difficulty involved.
Wyn Trost’s office has been a pop-up food bank for struggling farmers and her desk a pile of dog-food bags, as she works pro bono.
She says dozens of people have come to her, desperate for help but finding the application process too hard.
“Some bureaucratic d***head in Sydney who thinks they know everything about farming has designed these forms without knowing anything about the country lifestyle,” Ms Trost said.
“It makes me so bloody wild.”
The former livestock producer said the government already had all the information it needed to check people’s eligibility for measures such as the Farm Household Allowance (FHA).
“Between the NLIS [National Livestock Identification System] database and ATO [Australian Taxation Office] records, they would know who’s a primary producer and who’s not; who’s registered for GST and who’s not,” she said.
“But no, they want to make it too hard …
“Even the younger farmers’ wives that work in an office have said you get to a question and that leads to somewhere else, you answer that and it leads somewhere else, and they’ve just gone ‘Stuff this’.
“It’s not easy.”
Ms Trost said she felt the government’s aim was to make drought assistance too hard to access so that, the next time a drought package was announced, low take-up rates would be used to justify less on offer.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud told Fairfax Media social security law meant people with complex tax set-ups such as farmers, who often had trusts, had to meet income and assets tests.
“To suggest the government does not want farmers to access the FHA payment is ridiculous and puerile – the government has boosted the payment itself and already cut the application form by a third,” he said.
“We’ve boosted the Rural Financial Counselling Service to cover increased demand for FHA and I urge farmers to have these drought angels help fill out [the form] – that’s what they’re there for and they’re free.”
A spokesperson for the Minister also said the forms had been restructured to allow an applicant to more quickly determine whether or not they were eligible.
A review of the FHA is also under way via consultations in all the Australian states, plus online, email and postal submissions.
Doing it for the farmers
Ms Trost lives in Toowoomba but has been visiting her ex-hometown of Tamworth, as well as other places in the wider region, to provide her services.
She started off with a day at AgQuip in August, followed by stints in Bingara and Quirindi.
When she’s in town, she works with Doing it for our Farmers, a grassroots group set up to take and distribute donated toiletries to families on the land.
The group has since secured temporary premises for a “supermarket without the checkout” for people affected by drought.
Founder Sue-Ellen Wilkin said Ms Trost “has been amazing”.
“She’s beautiful: she just sits there on the pile of dog food and works through the paperwork with these guys, or visits them on-farm or whatever,” Mrs Wilkin said.
She said that, for many people affected by the big dry, “the resilience has really taken a dive”.
“It’s very desperate times – the air of despair is quite thick,” she said.
“It’s the paperwork they have to plough through … it makes it too hard and then they give up.”
Ms Trost is shortly moving back to Tamworth and will continue to offer her help.
She hopes, but does not expect, that people will get back into good enough financial shape that they can reimburse her.
“If they’re in a position and can down the track, that would be wonderful for me – but I don’t want to see these poor bastards lose their farm.”
Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud has said the review was about getting “under the bonnet of the FHA and [having] a good look”.
The panel running the consultation process will make recommendations to the federal government in the first half of 2019.