Make FHA process simpler, say Gippsland producers, counsellors

There've been changes to the Farm Household Allowance


Simplify FHA application process, say Gippslanders.

FARM CONCERNS: Gippsland Nationals MP Darren Chester says he's aware of issues, around farm household allowance applications.

FARM CONCERNS: Gippsland Nationals MP Darren Chester says he's aware of issues, around farm household allowance applications.

Changes to the Farm Household Allowance, in this week's Federal Budget, have been welcomed in Gippsland - but concerns remain the application process is still too complicated.

Rural Financial Counselling Service Victoria - Gippsland executive officer Kylie Holmes welcomed the provision to allow farmers to discount, or exempt, the sale of livestock from the income test.

The money from the sale must be invested in a Farm Management Deposit.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said this would ensure farmers who were destocking would be able to retain access to income support and make long term plans, for their future.

Read more: Strong winds strip drought stricken Central Gippsland paddocks bare

Ms Holmes said it was good to see the Government had acknowledged it as an emerging issue for FHA eligibility.

But she said Gippsland was one of may financial counselling services, around the country, still waiting for the results of the FHA review.

"It's not about expanding eligibility; it's about making the process simpler," Ms Holmes said.

The Government announced a review of the FHA in July, last year after the program had been in operation for more than four years.

Complicated process

Ms Holmes said the application process was complicated and could sometimes be time-consuming.

It was also difficult for older farmers, who did not have good computer skills or primary producers with poor internet connectivity.

Farmers with complex company structures or trusts could find also find it hard to fill out the form.

But she said farmers, with less complicated business structures, could get approval quickly. 

"There are times when we have put in applications through Centrelink, and they've been approved in two weeks," Ms Holmes said.

Ms Holmes said the service currently had 280 clients on its books, with up to 70per cent who were in the process of going through an application or receiving FHA.

"We help our clients make business decisions around adjustment and change, both in times of disasters and crisis, as well as the good times," Ms Holmes said.

"It's about the planning we can help our clients with now, that can help them in the future.

"There will be another drought, and the real value of what we do is not form filling, it's about making better business decisions."

And Gippsland Victorian Farmers Federation councillor Angus Zilm said he'd like to see rural financial counsellors given the authority to approve applications.

Mr Zilm, an agribusiness banker and livestock producer, said he'd come across many instances where farmers were not aware of the FHA.

"There were others that when we started looking at what was involved, it just became overwhelming for them," Mr Zilm said.

There were others that when we started looking at what was involved, it just became overwhelming for them. - Angus Zilm, Sale livestock producer

"But farming is not so straightforward, in that a+b=c, in terms of who should get money and who shouldn't.

"RFCS counsellors are trained up in this space, and they should have the authority to set up and approve the allowance, rather than having to go through Centrelink."

Many farmers had assets in different entities to the farm.

"It's around asset protection, or succession, not around dodging or minimising tax."

Mr Zilm said he'd like to see the FHA promoted better, the forms simplified, and the approval taken out of the hands of Centrelink.

More funding for the Gippsland RFCS would help farmers who were thinking about self-assessing not to do so and instead reach out for support.

"Many people are very humble, and they are the those whom we need to speak to, to encourage them to look for assistance.

"It's the humble ones, the quiet ones; we are all concerned about - they are the ones who self assess."

Don't self assess

Gippsland Nationals MP Darren Chester acknowledged there were issues with FHA, but said it was essential families were guided by advisors from the RFCS when it came to applying for assistance.

"Some farmers read the guidelines for assistance programs and quickly rule themselves ineligible, when in fact they would qualify for the help on offer," Mr Chester said.

He said he had raised concerns about eligibility for farmers, who received an off-farm income.

"It's a consistent message I've received from farmers in Gippsland that many people need to work off-farm to establish their business, but then they find it very difficult to receive any government assistance," Mr Chester said.

"It is particularly difficult for young farmers starting, who are the future of the industry.

"They need the certainty off-farm income to secure loans and invest in their farms."

He said Mr Littleproud was well aware of the concerns and he was hopeful changes could be made to reduce red tape and relax some of the eligibility criteria.

Knocked back

Scott Langley, Glengarry, has a livestock and cropping operation and said he had been knocked back for FHA, as he'd been told he earned too much off-farm income. 

"It doesn't sit well with the situation we are in, as we pour all our money back into the farm," Mr Langley said.

"Everything I have done off-farm has been farm related, as the drought has had a significant impact on farm income."

He said his work as both a hay contractor and a stock agent had been affected by the drought.

Mr Langley said he asked his accountant for help filling out the form, but it meant taking time off the farm he couldn't afford.

"I think the government has to ask itself, what it wants out of agriculture," he said.

"If it wants multi-nationals and big corporate farms, that's what's going to happen, as these droughts will just gobble young farmers up."

He said he continued to improve his property, by bringing in contractors to fertilise his paddocks, and employ staff.

"I don't want a cash hand out; it's more the fixed costs, like rates, which are going to kill us."

A Stratford dairy farmer, who declined to be named, said she had been successful in getting FHA, but it took between 20 and 30 hours to fill in the form.

She said it wasn't as difficult, as she applied just after the end of the financial year and her documentation was up to date.

"In saying that, you have to provide rates notices, land details, including the section and plot, you have to go through maps and fill out where your farm is," she said.

It appeared many of the questions were repetitious.

"They just ask the same questions, in a different way."


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