Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce in action on farm responding to the dairy crisis in Victoria this week.GOVERNMENTS, banks, major retailers, independent parliamentary members and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull have moved to back struggling dairy farmers caught up by milk processors suddenly downgrading farm-gate prices.

Today in Tasmania on the federal election campaign trail, Mr Turnbull said Australian dairy farmers were doing it “very, very tough” following the “enormous” price drop last month; initially by Murray Goulburn and then Fonterra.

He said that profit downgrade was unanticipated by dairy farmers and had “hit them very hard” but stressed the government was “very, very conscious of how tough they’re doing”.

Mr Turnbull said Farm Household Assistance was now available to dairy farmers affected by the sudden change of circumstances and the ASIC and the ACCC were investigating the conduct associated with the issue.

“They’re investigating Murray Goulburn’s dramatic change in the price being offered,” he said of the corporate and competition regulators.

“At the same time because we are in caretaker (government), we are consulting with the Labor Party, with a view to making further assistance available to dairy farmers.”

Last week Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon demanded banks offer support to dairy farmers hit by reduced profits late in the season in southern Australia and many who are also dealing with drought conditions.

Today, the major banks declared they’d delivered several assistance packages including measures to assist producers with easing debt repayments.

Major retailers Coles and Woolworths have also offered support while varied assistance measures have also been suggested by independent members of parliament including SA Senator Nick Xenophon.

Senator Xenophon has demanded the government buy milk powder to be used as foreign aid, introduce an emergency temporary milk levy to ensure farmers can return to sustainability and introduce measures to prevent farm foreclosures.

He also called for a high-level urgent independent inquiry to examine the dairy sector’s “systemic problems” and devise a long-term plan to restore prosperity.

Mr Turnbull said his government understood the “very harsh” impact of the dramatic price reduction on dairy farmers and empathised with the hardship farmers are going through.

He said measures were being put in place to “enable them to get through this” but stressed long term milk demand globally was very strong.

“There are some particular circumstances that occurred in the market that gave rise to this dramatic drop in price but long term the dairy industry is a strong one and long term the prospects are good and we will ensure that the dairy farmers are given all the support we can give them to get through this very difficult patch,” he said.

Deputy Prime Minister and Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce met with dairy industry representatives and farmers caught up in the crisis while touring northern Victoria this week.

Last night he issued a statement saying he had closely monitored developments following the price cuts and believed dairy farmers “deserve all our support”.

Mr Joyce said farmers had acknowledged the Coalition’s work to support them in recent weeks and that he was also presented with several new ideas on support measures.

He said the suggestions included changes to concessional loans, additional rural financial counselling support and fast-tracked Farm Household Allowance assessment process.

“With over half of Australia’s 6100 dairy farmers directly impacted by Murray Goulburn and Fonterra’s decisions it is clear that this will have a significant impact not only on their suppliers but also on the confidence of dairy farmers supplying other processors,” he said.

“Caretaker provisions prevent me from acting unilaterally and therefore I am unable to announce further support measures at this time.

“It is my intention to consult with the Opposition on the support package within days – I ask my Opposition counterpart to work quickly with me in a bipartisan way to finalise the support package.”

But Mr Fitzgibbon said while Mr Joyce had indicated he would consult with Labor as the alternative government, “we are yet to receive any contact from him”.

He said more than three weeks after the crisis first hit, farmers were becoming “increasingly impatient with the Turnbull government’s failure to adequately respond”.

“Labor remains ready to support any appropriate response to the crisis but dairy farmers can’t wait any longer,” he said.

“Labor is preparing our own response; but in the hope of providing a package prior to July 2, we are willing to work with Barnaby Joyce if he is indeed serious about a bipartisan approach.”

Today, ANZ Regional Business Banking General Manager Christine Linden said falling farm-gate dairy prices were putting “significant stress” on some dairy producers but the macro fundamentals in the medium and longer-term of the industry remained strong.

“We know many of our customers are doing it tough at the moment,” she said.

“We’re encouraging our dairy customers to get in touch with us so we can provide support and work with them on the best possible solutions to meet their needs.

“Every farm has a different cost structure and unique characteristics.

“We’re committed to working with each customer to respond to the current challenges so they can take advantage of the long-term benefits of the dairy industry.”

ANZ’s assistant package offered to suspend repayments on loans, including credit cards, for up to three months – which may include interest capitalisation.

It has also offered to; waive fees associated with restructuring business loans considered necessary due to milk price impacts; provide temporary adjustments to lending limits, including credit cards to assist with unexpected costs and reduced income; provide early access to term deposits without incurring any fees for impacted customers; and provide access to hardship support services.

Commonwealth Bank Regional and Agribusiness Banking Executive General Manager, Geoff Wearne also announced support for dairy farming customers hit hard by the current pricing issues.

“We know this is a very tough time for those affected and we are concerned for their welfare,” he said.

“We have already started to contact our customers to let them know that we are here to listen and help them through this difficult time.”

Commonwealth Bank said it would provide support on a case by case basis for cash management: allowing withdrawal of fixed term deposits before maturity without charges.

Other support measures included; a business loan or mortgage repayment holiday; extending the business or mortgage loan term agreement; and waiving fees and charges.

A spokesperson for NAB said the banks was also taking a case by case approach to the issue and providing support around short-term working capital requirements where required.

“Our bankers on the ground are making contact with their clients to discuss the current situation,” the spokesperson said.

“We must continue to support not only at a farm level but also downstream to small businesses that support the dairy industry.”

Westpac Regional General Manager, Agribusiness, Roddy Brown, said his bank was committed to supporting farming customers through difficulties and had a long history of offering that support.

“We work with our customers on a case by case basis to tailor this support to meet their individual circumstances,” he said.

“Westpac offers assistance to customers currently impacted by lower dairy milk prices, as well as more generally to farmers facing difficulty due to adverse weather conditions such as drought,” he said.

Westpac’s hardship assistance includes; restructuring existing loans free of the usual establishment fees; deferring interest payments on a case by case basis; offering additional finance to help cover cash flow shortages; freezing risk margins for primary producers who receive interest rate subsidies through government assistance schemes; deferring upcoming credit card payments; increasing emergency credit card limits; waiving early termination fees for customers who wish to access their term deposits; and suspending home loan repayments for our home loan customers.

Today, the Victorian Labor government announced a $1.5 million assistance package to support affected farmers which included $940,000 for extra counselling services and additional funding to Lifeline to deliver information, advice and support and other community and metal health support measures.

The Andrews government has also convened a Dairy Industry Taskforce to address how farming communities can be supported by proactive measures led by industry that’s due to report soon.

Premier Daniel Andrews said, “We’re putting farmers and their families first by providing them with the support they need to look after themselves – and each other”.

Agriculture Minister Jaala Pulford said, “The dairy industry is reeling and farmers need our support now more than ever”.

Senator Xenophon was joined at an announcement today on his support program by NXT Barker candidate James Stacey who – until recently – was a dairy farmer for 20 years.

Senator Xenophon demanded changes to competition and corporate governmental laws, to protect dairy farmers from market power abuse and unconscionable behaviour.

He said in particular the retrospective cutting of milk payments should be on the agenda.

Senator Xenophon said the dairy industry’s “perfect storm” had caused market failure due to a combination of factors including; Coles instigated milk price wars; drought; a glut of milk in the international market; corporate governance issues at Murray Goulburn; and Fonterra’s enormous market power.

“If we don’t act now, the dairy industry with its 6000 farmers will shrink to a level from which it may never recover -and then we could be relying on long-life milk from other countries that have been smarter than us in ensuring a viable dairy sector,” he said.

Tasmanian Independent Senator Jacqui Lambie called for a 50c per litre milk levy and arranged legal advice from class action experts for the State’s dairy farms warning they would be sold off to foreigners, bankrupted or shut down if no action was taken by government, in response to the crisis.

Independent Member for Indi, Cathy McGowan said she was disappointed dairy farmers hadn’t yet received significant federal government assistance in response to the dairy crisis.

“During flood or fire, Government provides immediate support for farming families,” she said.

“There needs to be financial assistance available now for services to help farmers get through this crisis.

“We need people in cars and boots on the ground to deal with this crisis.”

Independent Queensland MP Bob Katter called for an “aggressive” arbitrated milk price through legislated bargaining power for dairy farmers.

But he said the 20c per litre fighting fund levy announced by Coles earlier this week was “pure hypocrisy”.

“It wasn’t in the too distant past the big supermarket operators did a ‘race-to-the-bottom-auction’ that drove the price of farmers’ milk down and made every single dairy farmer in Australia work at a loss,” he said.

“For these people now to be offering a 20c a litre farmer’s fight fund…it would make any person sick.”

Coles has been criticised for selling milk at $1 per litre since 2011 but has this week moved to set up a $1m sustainable dairy industry fund, to administer the 20c initiative.

Mr Joyce said Coles should be commended for offering another 20c per litre on milk and he’d also encouraged Aldi and Woolworths to consider their pricing positions.

“They followed each other down to $1 per litre milk – let’s see if they can follow each other out so we can get to a more sustainable price,” he said.

Woolworths has said it believed selling home branded milk for $1 per litre was unsustainable for the fairy industry and not good for dairy farmers.

A Woolworths spokesperson said just 3.5pc of the raw milk produced in Australia went into its own brand milk products and purchased its Select milk product from processors, not direct from farmers, meaning they had no control over farm gate prices.

“We have recently put in place long-term contracts to offer farmers and processors certainty to invest in their businesses,” the spokesperson said.

But the spokesperson said Woolworths Farmers’ Own milk product was negotiated directly with farmers to provide white milk products.

“The relationship gives the farmers end-to-end transparency from shed to shelf, a longer term contract and a closer relationship with their customers,” the spokesperson said.

“We know that customers want farmers to get a fair price for their product and the direct relationship between Woolworths and Farmers’ Own dairy farmers is delivering that.”

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