Rural Weekly Op-Ed – “Act tough on tough times”

21 April 2015

There’s an old story about a farmer who is asked about how he continues to cope during hard times.

With a knowing, wry grin he simply replies that he can cope with drought, fire, flood and falling farm gate prices – he just can’t cope with them all in the same season.

This drought is among a terrible string of events that have constantly tested the mettle of our rural sector over the past few years.

What began with the 2011 live export ban and was followed by flood, fire, the cattle price collapse and drought, all seems like the same season for the simple reason that one problem has quickly followed the next.

It is a crying sin to have a man worried into a premature old age and for his family to slave away on the farm or small business, only to have little to show for it at the end of the day.

This drought has pushed people to such limits.

But diversity draws people together, as they say, and I know our rural communities are united as we confront these almost unprecedented hard times.

I have spent much of my first year in the Senate travelling around the state and speaking about the fundamental issues confronting the rural sector – farm gate profitability, rural debt loads, telecommunications, infrastructure and drought.

The more I speak to people, the more it is apparent that this drought, on a scale perhaps not seen before, has moved from the paddocks to the town streets during these past three years.

There are reports that the number of empty houses in Longreach has now reached at least 200 (compared to only a handful 12 months ago) and councils across the state are now being forced to review the number of staff they can afford to employ over the coming financial year.

The Federal Government is taking action – an economic stimulus package is being formulated.

This follows a speech I made to the joint Coalition party room about a month ago.

But I have also written to the Prime Minister in the weeks since telling him in no uncertain terms that the Federal Government response must be swift. It must be a here and now solution.

I believe our nation has a responsibility to protect the dignity of impacted communities because their economic contribution is so important to the wealth of the nation during good seasonal years.

For example, in 2010-11, Central Queensland produced in gross value about $1.2 billion in agricultural production, representing 13 per cent of Queensland’s total. Few suburbs in Brisbane could boast such an output.

Next week I will again travel to the Central West to meet with people from all walks of life – graziers, transport operators, small business owners, teachers etc.

I have spoken in these regions several times since becoming a Senator last year.

Each time I leave armed with a little bit more information that I can take to Canberra to push the case for these regions.

Droughts usually end with a bang, not a whimper. When the last drought broke a decade ago, many regions recorded several months’ average rainfall in just a few days.

But in the meantime, we need to keep our rural communities strong.

Trips like mine to the Central West next week are about listening to people on the ground and showing that, at least to some of us in Canberra, you are far from forgotten.