24 Feb 2017

NZ farmers in Australia forced to rely on charity

8:01 am on 24 February 2017

Scores of New Zealand dairy farmers in Australia are relying on food parcels because they are blocked from getting any government support.

Their Australian counterparts have been eligible for an $A500-a-week household allowance and concessionary loans since milk price cuts jeopardised many farms last year.

Farmland in Echuca, Victoria, Australia.

Farmland in Victoria (file). New Zealanders say they are being made to feel like second-class citizens in Australia. Photo: AFP / Elke Meitzel / Cultura Creative

Among those getting charitable support is Sharyn Collins, who farms in the district Moira.

Her partner, Darren, slipped and fractured 11 vertebrae while milking his neighbour's cows to make ends meet.

Ms Collins then lost her off-farm job at the Livestock Improvement company when the farming squeeze put five staff out of work.

She went to Centrelink, Australia's equivalent of Work and Income, but said she was told they could not do anything because the couple were from New Zealand.

About 100 farmers in the small district, including Australians, needed help when the Barooga Lions Club began offering support.

Club president, expat Lynda Ryder, said it was getting worse this year - and it was clear who was in the most strife.

"Probably the majority of farmers that we're helping at the moment are the Kiwis, because they're not eligible for any of the government assistance.

"They pay taxes, they pay dairy levies, they pay exactly the same as Australian farmers yet they're not eligible for any of this."

Australia's key dairying state is bearing the brunt of low milk prices.

Farm revenue fell 13 percent last year and another 5 percent this year and the country's milk production is heading towards a low point not seen in two decades.

The Federal Government has set aside $A250 million for cheap loans this year but does not extend these, or household allowances, to non-Australians.

Jenni Clark, an Australian who lost her farm during a drought, set up the Northern Victoria Farmer Relief Drive and has become a vocal supporter of New Zealanders. She wrote to then-Prime Minister John Key and the Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy last November asking them to intervene but received no reply.

"Farmers who are not Australian citizens are not eligible for any benefits at all unless they were here before 2001 and meet certain criteria. This has put several hundred dairy farmers across Victoria in a position where they are relying on community support groups to get food on the table and basic bills paid," she said in the letter.

The affected farmers were not looking for welfare on a long term basis, "just the right to access a hardship payment of some description to allow them to stay on their farms."

Ms Clark said having received no reply from the New Zealand government seemed to be letting down their citizens. RNZ has asked Prime Minister's office for comment.

Citizenship changes

Farmers would be eligible for the allowance and cheap loans if they were citizens.

Under Australia's new pathway to citizenship that begins in July, farmers would qualify if they earned at least $A53,000 a year.

Vikki Lequesne, a New Zealand farmer in Strathmerton, northern Victoria, said she doesn't earn enough to qualify.

Ms Lequesne and husband Bruce moved from Taranaki to northern Victoria 10 years ago to milk 250 cows and aimed to forge a business.

Now, when her neighbours can get state welfare, she feels "like a second-class citizen".

"We are massively reliant on the Lions Club and I could not praise them enough," she said.

"They've come into our farm just before Christmas, very kindly dropped off a food parcel which we actually gave to our young farm worker because we've had to reduce his hours quite dramatically. And I said to him you know, you need to apply for citizenship, and he said, it's just too hard."

Recently, the Lions arranged a truck and trailer of hay to be delivered, out of the blue, to Sharyn Collins' farm.

In return, she did a huge bout of baking for the club to give to truckies carting donated hay north to drought-hit Queensland farmers.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs