OPINION

Drought help doesn't need added red tape

DRY TIMES: The government has added another level of bureaucracy with its drought-funding programs.
DRY TIMES: The government has added another level of bureaucracy with its drought-funding programs.

What is it with government and piling on layers of bureaucracy? Back at the beginning of October, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a drought funding package that - pretty much for the first time - promised some cash support for drought-affected farmers.

It sounded great in theory, but as is often the case, the devil was in the detail.

Mr Morrison announced the cash help without having first set up a mechanism for paying it out. Nearly two months later and we have a system in place that is being administered by St Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army, which both had to scramble to set up the administration to cope with the expected influx of applications.

Now, both Vinnies and the Salvos are reputable charities and well-versed in coping with applications for help, so it's likely the process will now tick along smoothly, but the whole thing still feels ham-fisted.

It feels almost cruel that these cash payments - which were designed to get food on the table and bills paid - were announced and gave struggling households some hope, only to then dash that hope by leaving families hanging for weeks.

At the same time as it is lauding its drought assistance, the government has decided not to help the Country Women's Association, which was already running a successful program of handing out cash payments of up to $3000 to drought-stricken families.

In the last year, the CWA nationally has handed out an estimated $30 million in help. Most has come from donations, although there has been a little government money.

A total of $5 million was given to the CWA in the 2019-20 federal budget, but instead of lasting the projected year, it was spent in just six months.

The CWA had wanted an extra $5 million from the federal government. Hardly a huge amount.

After ignoring the CWA's call for nearly two months, Drought Minister David Littleproud finally got around to sending them a letter saying they had done an awesome job, but they were out of luck and wouldn't be getting any extra money.

I've spoken to Danica Leys - the chief executive officer of the CWA in NSW - twice in the past few weeks about this issue. She pointed out that every penny given to the CWA is passed on to the people who need it.

Additionally, many of the CWA members are currently living this drought. They are right there, in the communities, and know exactly what's going on.

Often, these members are the friends and neighbours who will finally be able to persuade a struggling farming family to accept help.

The organisation's national president Tanya Cameron told the ABC that the CWA payment was often the only funding people were able to access because they don't qualify for other drought assistance.

She pointed out that every penny given to the CWA is passed on to the people who need it. Additionally, many of the CWA members are currently living this drought. They are right there, in the communities, and know exactly what's going on.

As you would image, the formidable CWA is not going to give up.

Instead, grassroots members will continue to raise money and donations from the private sector will become more important than ever.

Yet instead of helping to bolster work that it acknowledges as good, the government has chosen to pour money into establishing more bureaucracy and red tape that will cost money to administer.

Governments are not known for being cost-effective.

I'll bet if the government had just given funding to the CWA and to Vinnies and the Salvos, a lot more of that money would have ended up where it needed to be: In the hands of struggling rural people who just need some help to pay those everyday expenses that won't stop in the dry conditions.

There has already been a delay of almost two months as the bureaucracy was put in place and caveats slapped on who is eligible.

I understand the need to have some guidelines in place to stop people potentially rorting the system, but government systems are simply not nimble and intuitive enough to do the job needed here. The public system is too far removed from the process.

I'd hate to think this is a process that would be on the list next time the government decides to have a "red tape repeal day".