ANZ Bank will stop forcing drought-stricken farmers from their land in hard-hit parts of Queensland and northern NSW for the next year.
The chief executive of ANZ’s Australian arm, Phil Chronican, told The Australian he was imposing an immediate moratorium on all forced farm foreclosures in drought-affected west and north Queensland and northern NSW until January 2016 to address the current farm debt crisis rocking northern Australia.
Moving to stem a tide of bad publicity, Mr Chronican said the bank wanted to be on “front foot” to waylay community anger at so many farmers being forced off their farms by the banks.
“We’ve been aware there are areas of extreme stress that have had this extended drought,” Mr Chronican said.
“It’s a relatively small part of the country but with growing public concern over these (farm foreclosures), we wanted to be on the front foot to defuse concerns…”
Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce yesterday issued an ultimatum to the major banks, telling them to stop throwing drought-stricken farmers off their properties or risk government intervention.
He called on the banks to be “fair, decent and patient” with north Australian farmers unable to pay their debts, and to “wait for the rain” instead of forcibly evicting them from their homes. “They must sort out this problem (of the mounting toll of farm foreclosures) or we will,” an angry Mr Joyce told The Australian last night. “We can (intervene), and we will if we have to.”
The ANZ chief executive said his bank lent $30 billion to the rural, fishing and forestry sector nationwide.
Of these loans, a “small” 2.5 per cent or $650 million of debt was judged as “under financial stress” by the ANZ, in mid-September this year.
The ANZ also committed today not to increase mortgage interest rates on loans made to any drought-affected farmers for the next year.
It will ban the common practice of hiking interest rates up to 12 per cent and beyond when loans are reclassed by the bank as at-risk.
In cases of extreme stress, interest rate “relief” or easing will also be offered by the ANZ to existing loan customers in mediation talks with the banks, or who are struggling to repay their debts.
The unexpected moves by the ANZ follow national outrage at the large number of drought-stricken farm families being pushed off their farms as the three-year drought continues across 80 per cent of Queensland.
Mr Chronican said he hoped other banks would follow suit with an immediate moratorium.
He also wants the government to start talking about longer term ways to help farmers leave unviable properties with greater dignity.
A debt crisis rally at Winton in outback northwest Queensland was told last week of 46 farmers pushed from their land by the banks in the Longreach region in the past six months and 40 more farms for sale in the Gulf.
ANZ Bank has been at the forefront of public anger at farm foreclosures, after The Australian told of the distressing case of Charlie Phillott, 80, pushed from his home of 54 years, Carisbrooke station, near Winton, in March by the ANZ.
Other measures promised by the ANZ today to help desperate farmers include financial assistance to support farmers choosing to relocate off their land when debts turn bad, and increased funding for financial counselling focussed on towns hardest hit by drought.
“We always hope it will rain and farmers are hoping for it too, but we knew we had to do something now to take some of the community pressure away,” Mr Chronican said.
“I’d like to see other major lenders in the sector do similar things, but we also need to think in a broader context — and this will mean governments — about how do we enable people in an unviable situation on land that will never be productive, to make an honourable move off their farms?”Author: Sue Neales
Source: The Australian