Senate Speech “Drought”

13 May 2015

Senator O’SULLIVAN ( Queensland Nationals Whip in the Senate ): As I have done in the past, I intend to make my senators statement about the circumstances surrounding agriculture and primary production that, not just in my home state of Queensland but additionally in large tracts of western New South Wales, remain under the serious burden of drought. I have made contributions in this place over the last 18 months with the consistent theme that our Commonwealth government—and it does not really matter who is in the chair —needs to continually review and establish what is required for us to maintain a very strong agricultural and primary production sector at a time when this nation is witnessing a transition from a resource economy to a soft commodities economy. In the words of a colleague, it is an old economy returning. What we have seen, and I have spoken about it in this place, are the impacts of this once-in-100-years drought, along with—not to be political—the decision of the federal government that impinged upon the live export of cattle into Indonesia in 2011. And there were also things like the high dollar and the ongoing low farm gate profitability of many enterprises, particularly in the areas that are affected by drought—broadacre large-scale grass-fed cattle operations. Not only have these things impacted on the pastoralists and those family enterprises, but the insidious impacts of this collection of challenges have now made their way into the communities in those areas. About a quarter, if not a larger percentage, of my state is now destocked or has very light stocking rates. We all know that rain, if it were to come tomorrow, would be of little use and in fact could create greater concerns. If we have rain and frost in some of these areas, the last tiny bit of herbage that is there will be frozen off. The beneficial rains will come in the spring or summer, if God is willing. At the moment, not only do we have no pasture as a result of the drought but all of our surface waters are gone. I can report to the Senate that recently, on a trip to Longreach, I spent about the last 30 minutes of the flight, from probably south-east of Blackall through to Longreach, looking out of the window of the plane, and I was unable to see any evidence of surface water anywhere within the parameters of that view. So, these are very, very serious circumstances for those parts of my state and New South Wales and for the industries and sectors and now significantly the communities that support them. It is a matter of public record that I raised this issue in the joint party room of our coalition, asking colleagues around the country to consider what they might do if these circumstances presented in their electorates. For example, I asked what would happen if the biggest industry in their electorate had come to an end and it had no stock left on the shelves, had no employees and was under threat of defaulting on loans arrangements. What would they do? What if everybody in their electorate were in those circumstances? I asked what they would do when it impacted on other tertiary businesses in their electorate, such as their newsagents and their hotels and motels and a range of those sorts of businesses. Not that everyone in this place and the other place was not sympathetic, and not that they did not have some knowledge of the circumstances confronting these sectors and these communities and these regions, but I do think the presentation, along with contributions by other members of the House of Representatives and other senators, did resonate with many of the members of our government. And of course what happened in the ensuing five or six weeks was that our government responded, and part of what I wanted to do today was to recognise that response. It is not often that you can mobilise the interests of this parliament, measured in weeks. Typically these things are long haul, but I think everyone understood the critical nature of the challenge given that we did not have summer and spring rains in 2014-15, and many of these pastoralists are now years away from recovering. Even if there was rain this spring and summer, it would be late 2017 or early 2018 before we saw a cash flow return to these districts, and then of course that would have a flow-on effect in these communities. Accordingly, the Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, took a personal interest in this and, along with the Deputy PM and the agricultural minister and, I imagine, a number of other cabinet colleagues supporting them through the ERC process, developed a package of new money to allow us to pump $83 million into about 12 shires and to benefit the communities within those shires. The conditions of this funding have to do with the money being spent on local labour and supporting local contractors, and any goods and services are to be bought locally. For example, My thoughts are in what I wanted to say, and I apologise. The Longreach primary school—and Longreach is a very stable community—had a loss of students of about 33 per cent in the last 14 months. That meant that one-third of the students and their parents and carers and whoever makes up their family unit had migrated out of the community because they no longer had work, or circumstances presented that were directly relevant to this. So, this package—which is not the end of it but is an interim package —of $35 million for shovel-ready local infrastructure and employment projects is going to give a terrific boost. Additionally, the Prime Minister approved $25 million plus for projects to manage pest animals and weeds through the affected areas, because there has been an absolute explosion of the impact that feral dogs are having on weakened stock, and we have had a complete explosion of the kangaroo population. Despite what some of my colleagues in the Greens argue—that they are on the cusp of extinction—current figures show that the population in Queensland is about 36 million kangaroos, and they are eating any available herbage or grass that will be competed for by these drought-affected stock. Importantly, there was $20 million to expand existing social and community support programs. This is directly putting money in. It will increase. There will be another 10 counsellors also funded, with a $1.8 million additional rural financial counsellors fund. All in all, in the time I have left, I want to congratulate the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Agriculture. I know that initiatives like this are supported by colleagues opposite in the House of Representatives. Whilst there has been some criticism, generally I think initiatives such as this are well supported. I urge my colleagues throughout this parliament to continue to monitor the circumstances of our fellow Australians in these very difficult circumstances. We should, as and when possible, support each other in the development of initiatives that will respond to their circumstances. Thank you for the opportunity to speak.