Election 'won't stall farm aid package'

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

Federal Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has rejected claims a deal with the State Government to deliver a $60 million concessional loans package to WA farmers cannot be finalised until after the election.

A spokeswoman for WA Agriculture Minister Ken Baston said last week that because the Federal Government had gone into caretaker mode there would be no movement on the package, announced in April, until after the election.

Mr Fitzgibbon said the Commonwealth was continuing to negotiate with WA and the Northern Territory to reach deals on the finance package, worth $420 million Australia-wide.

NSW announced it had finalised a deal last Tuesday, three days after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called the election.

Victoria and Queensland have also agreed to roll out the loans, but Mr Fitzgibbon admitted negotiations with WA and the NT had been more difficult because they did not have ready-made delivery agencies.

Commonwealth and WA officials held a one-hour teleconference last Wednesday and it was understood most of the key issues had been resolved.

Mr Fitzgibbon said the Commonwealth had agreed to pick up "most of the tab" for administration costs incurred by the State, believed to be about $5 million over the life of the loans.

"I hope the WA Government stays at the negotiating table so we can get this done," he said.

"If a deal can be struck before the election, I will be more than happy to talk to the Opposition to progress final sign-off in accordance with caretaker conventions."

A spokesman for shadow agriculture minister John Cobb said he had an open mind about clearing a deal for WA but would need to see details of any agreement.

Both Mr Fitzgibbon and Mr Cobb plan to visit WA during the election campaign.

It is believed WA and the Commonwealth have reached an in-principle agreement to offer cash-strapped farmers loans of up to $200,000 at an interest rate of 4.5 per cent. The loans would be targeted at viable farms able to repay the money over five years.

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