Rural counsellor concern

The West Australian
Joel Fitzgibbon
Camera IconJoel Fitzgibbon Credit: The West Australian

Concern is growing that the Rural Financial Counsellors program may be axed, following a Federal Government decision to review it.

The RFCS Program provides grants to state andregional organisations to provide free rural financial counselling to primary producers, fishers and small rural businesses who are suffering financial hardship and who have no alternative sources of impartial support.

There are currently 14service providers employing more than 110rural financial counsellors across the country.

Agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce announced a review of the program by the National Rural Advisory Council, which is due to report back to the minister by September 30.

Opposition agriculture minister Joel Fitzgibbon has accused the Government of choosing the worst possible time to be placing doubt over the program.

"This follows the Government's failure to deliver on a key aspect of its drought relief package," he said.

"In recognition of the drought and other market issues facing the farm sector, as Minister I announced in July last year 17 additional full-time counselors.

"And this was gratefully welcomed by farmers and rural communities around Australia.

"The review certainly was not talked about prior to the election and will be a surprise to farmers and rural communities more generally adding to the uncertainty that the Government may adopt the recommendation by the Commission of Audit, that rural financial counsellors be abolished."

Mr Fitzgibbon also said the review of the program will be another surprise for State governments.

"The States partner with the Commonwealth to deliver these important services," he said.

"Barnaby Joyce suggests he can do nothing in agriculture until the completion of his White Paper yet when it comes to threats and cuts, there appears to be no need for delay.

"The review of the Rural Counselling program at this time is cruel and insensitive and follows a range of new taxes and cuts which will particularly hit rural communities."

But Mr Joyce has defended the review saying a review into the program was well overdue.

"I had asked the National Rural Advisory Committee to conduct a business as usual review into the Rural Financial Counselling Service given that the last review was done 10 years ago," Mr Joyce said.

He said that the purpose of the review was to improve it to better meet the needs of farmers and rural communitiesthat relied on the RFCS.

"Any suggestion otherwise was mischief-making."

WAFarmers president Dale Park said it was always a concern when a program that was used so widely by farmers was under review.

But Mr Park also said he was confident the review would find the program could "stand on its own merits".

"This program provides a lot of support to our farmers and I am confident this will be found to be the case over the course of the review," he said.

"The other alternative would be for Centrelink to administer this type of service for farmers, which had been discussed previously.

"That would be a nightmare in my opinion."

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