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Prime Minister visits north Queensland to inspect the damage done by cyclone Larry and to announce relief measures.

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Wednesday 22 March 2006

Prime Minister visits north Queensland to inspect the damage done by cyclone Larry and to announce relief measures


MARK COLVIN: Today was the Prime Minister's chance to see first hand the destruction wrought by Cyclone Larry. 


After hearing the pleas for help from devastated communities and from farmers whose crops have been wiped out, John Howard promised them more support. 


He's announced a relief fund worth $1 million, there'll be tax-free grants to help local business rebuild and income support for affected farmers. 


Melanie Christiansen reports. 


MELANIE CHRISTIANSEN: Today was the Prime Minister's chance to see the devastation and to speak to those who are suffering. He arrived in Cairns this morning with the federal Opposition leader, the Trade Minister and the Queensland Premier. They drove south to Innisfail, along the way seeing some of the worst affected areas.  


In Innisfail itself, the Prime Minister was impressed with relief effort so far; thanking tired emergency services workers for their outstanding response. 


JOHN HOWARD: Well that is fantastic. Good on you. I think what you fellas and the police and the army have done has been absolutely marvellous. Absolutely terrific.  


MELANIE CHRISTIANSEN: But one local soon made it clear what he wanted to hear from John Howard. 


JOHN HOWARD: Hello there. 


LOCAL RESIDENT: How you going John? 


JOHN HOWARD: I'm well mate. 


LOCAL RESIDENT: Are you giving us a lot of money? 


JOHN HOWARD: Ah, well, I'm listening to you. 


LOCAL RESIDENT: All we need is heaps of money, eh? 


MELANIE CHRISTIANSEN: Others queuing for petrol today were running out of patience. 


VOX POP: We had over an hours wait - close to two hours, just to put $20 in the tank. That's all we had. 


MELANIE CHRISTIANSEN: The Prime Minister and the Premier are coming in at one o'clock - what's your message to them when they arrive? 


VOX POP: F-ing do something now.  


MELANIE CHRISTIANSEN: Canefarmers, whose crops were flattened by Cyclone Larry also had plea for the Prime Minister.  


Babinda grower John Sacchetti told Mr Howard more than two-thirds of the region's sugar crop has been destroyed and more Government support is needed. 


JOHN SACCHETTI: Thank you for coming in this difficult time.  


The area's devastated and no doubt we hope that there will be some packages put together - state and federal.  


This time, the canefarmers would like to see that assistance go direct to canefarmers and not put through different channels that the last sugar package was put through because that money didn't filter through to the canefarmers.  


MELANIE CHRISTIANSEN: And as he toured one of the region's flattened banana farms, the Prime Minister sought advice on how best the Government can help. 


JOHN HOWARD: The main thing we have to try and do is work out a way of helping you folks to get back on your feet as quickly as possible. So…  


BANANA FARMER 1: One of our biggest problems is the labour situation. It's very hard… 


JOHN HOWARD: It's very hard to get people. 


BANANA FARMER 1: We've got people that have stuck with us for years, you know, and we're sort of going to have to say, 'Well, see you later,' you know. 


BANANA FARMER 2: It's about 4,000, Prime Minister. 


BANANA FARMER 1: And you'll never see them again, because we can't compete with them. We can't compete with the wages in the mines.  


MELANIE CHRISTIANSEN: One issue the Prime Minister was quick to deal with - the suggestion that Australia would accept imported bananas from the Philippines to replace devastated local crops.  


JOHN HOWARD: If there's any thought in your mind that because there's a shortage we'll sort of lift the restrictions to try and fix it - no. We're not going to do that.  


MELANIE CHRISTIANSEN: And having said he was just there to listen, Mr Howard surprised some by announcing immediate financial support. 


JOHN HOWARD: Start off by saying that each of the two governments will be contributing $1 million towards the relief fund. That relief fund will of course attract tax deductibility, and it has already enjoyed very, very strong support from a number of large business organisations and we would welcome a continuation of that in the weeks ahead.  


I've also decided that the Federal Government will as a special income support measure, provide what is the equivalent of what's called the Newstart Allowance, but is what as commonly understood as the unemployment benefit to affected farmers and small businesses for a period of six months.  


This will be subject to an income test, but it will not be subject to the farm assets test and that will provide some ongoing assistance. It will apply to small business operators as well as to farmers. 


MELANIE CHRISTIANSEN: There'll also be tax-free grants of $10,000 to each affected farmer or small business as well as low interest loans of up to $200,000.  


The Prime Minister described it a comprehensive response to a very difficult situation. But he's indicated he's willing to consider even more assistance. 


JOHN HOWARD: I have been impressed with remarks that have been made to me today by local people about the concern that they might lose a lot of employees who don't have jobs and they'll go elsewhere - they'll go south or west or whatever, and they'll lose them. Now the Federal Government will have a look at whether there are perhaps some other things that we might do in that area. 


MARK COLVIN: The Prime Minister, ending that report from Melanie Christiansen.