Senate debates

Wednesday, 5 March 2014


Regional Queensland

7:12 pm

Photo of Joe LudwigJoe Ludwig (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Can I say that I wish to associate myself with the remarks of Senator Ruston about the Whyalla Wig Library. It is certainly a very important initiative for Whyalla and I congratulate them on it.

I rise tonight to speak about regional visits that I have recently undertaken across Queensland. Over the past months I have had the opportunity of travelling across the state, visiting regional communities, and engaging with local chambers of commerce, local governments and local industries. These visits across the state help provide me with insight as I continue to engage with the constituents of Queensland, to see their issues firsthand and to provide support or bring attention to particular matters.

This evening I want to take the opportunity of providing an insight to the Senate on some of these visits to Queensland, including to St George, Goondiwindi and Cairns. About three weeks ago, I looked at the drought conditions across western Queensland and in St George. It was plain then that local farmers were under pressure. I had the opportunity to speak directly to affected local residents and small-business owners about the challenges that they are facing as a result of the ongoing drought in regional Queensland. What is often forgotten is that this particular part of Queensland has been in a constant state of natural climate variability, and often disaster, for more than a decade. The 2011 floods were seen as the end point of the decade-long drought that had ravaged Queensland's regional communities. The severe floods brought with them destruction and further loss of income for farmers and small businesses. What these flooding events did not do was bring an end to the cycle of dry and wet spells. Reports that I had the opportunity of listening to in St George confirmed that it had not received solid rain since the floods of 2012—that is almost two years without a good season for farmers, off the back of two seasons of floods. The impact on the community is severe and is continuing to be felt by almost all aspects of the local community. Something needs to be done to help these small communities, in particular, to build resilience and recover from these devastating circumstances. The people I had an opportunity to speak with do not want to rely on handouts; they do not want to rely on the government constantly. What they want is to have enough resilience to overcome severe weather events on their own. That is why the government needs to look at long-term solutions to provide certainty to these communities.

The former government put in place the foundations of these long-term reforms by signing a national partnership agreement on drought support with every state and territory. This was a two-way deal with the states; the Commonwealth would provide household payments, and the states would present detailed in-drought support packages. This would work in conjunction with short-term relief for financially struggling producers with the low-interest farm finance loans scheme. After signing that agreement, the Australian government's job was to cajole, encourage and remind the states of their side of the bargain, and to extract firm management plans and commitments to help struggling farmers.

Unfortunately, almost six months into the life of the Abbott government, Minister Joyce appears to have sat on his hands and has not progressed true drought reform and assistance across the states and territories. The signals he has sent so far to rural Australia have been mixed at best. He has said no to investment through the GrainCorp decision; he has sat on his hands in managing the drought conditions; and when he finally was brought kicking and screaming into action, his only solution was to expand the debt package we had put in place while in government. To say that this minister is stuck in the mud is an understatement, and it is being reflected in the regions, including his old town of St George.

I would like to acknowledge the Mayor of the Balonne Shire Council, Councillor Donna Stewart, for giving me a briefing on the situation in the shire and for all the work she has done in standing up for her local community. I also had a productive meeting with members of the local chamber of commerce. The impact on the 300 or so small businesses in the region is substantial, given the duration of the drought in this region. Some of the ideas that came out of the meeting were the expansion of rural financial counselling services to provide advice and support to businesses in the community. I expanded that service in government, and it now needs to develop to suit the needs of the present time. This should also include support for mental health and social services. I understand the present government is pursuing some of that work, and I would encourage them to look at this area even further.

I have also had the opportunity to meet with the Border Rivers Chamber of Commerce in Goondiwindi. We had a good discussion about the challenges and opportunities in that region, and it was particularly pleasing to hear how the positive impact of tourism was helping Goondiwindi. The fact that Gundy is a major stop for people travelling between New South Wales and Queensland, especially the caravanning community, does provide much-needed input and revenue for the town.

I had a meeting with Goondiwindi Regional Council Mayor, Councillor Graeme Scheu, and the CEO, Carl Manton, to talk about some of the plans for opening up the area to more economic development, as well as its recovery post-floods. And I had the opportunity to visit a GrainCorp facility in town and to talk to workers and management about the great work they are doing to expand its operations, thereby supporting local jobs in the region. Seeing that facility firsthand was again a reminder of the importance of boosting investment in our agricultural businesses and the failure of the Abbott government to stand up for investment in our regions.

One of the regional visits I had the opportunity to undertake was to Cairns—the farthest major city from Brisbane. But, again, it is about growth in those economic regions; it is about talking to the regions about the potential role tourism and other industries can play. Cairns mayor Bob Manning and I spoke about the development opportunities with the Aquis project at Yorkeys Knob and what that could mean for the local communities in terms of jobs and tourist opportunities. It is a huge project that is still in its infancy and sounds very exciting for Cairns. There are many planning and environmental issues that need to be taken into account, which I understand is in the hands of the state government at the moment, and I would encourage them to continue to work with the local community to find solutions.

There is a sense of excitement in the community about this project and the potential benefits it could bring to the regional economy. Of course, the coming meeting of G20 finance ministers and central bank governors in Cairns will continue to showcase the north to the world. Senator McLucas and the Queensland state member for Mulgrave, Curtis Pitt, found time to meet with me and discuss the impact of the Newman government's cuts in this area. They have cut deep and hard in regional communities. The Abbott government's 'Commission of Cuts' is the last thing this community needs after a slow recovery in its tourism sector, but still the axe looms over Cairns—as it does over many parts of Queensland. Unemployment continues to be an issue in Cairns, particularly youth unemployment, which was further exacerbated by the Newman government's sacking of more than 14,000 workers. And of course this does not include the countless jobs lost in the NGO sector after having their funding and programs cut as well. But when you talk to residents and local Labor Party branch members in the region you hear firsthand the hard impacts these cuts are having on the community. They raise a number of concerns, including what a GP tax on Medicare would do to the cost of living in some of these regions.

In conclusion, throughout these visits through different parts of Queensland there is a common theme emerging. People are seeing a different government and different policies to the ones they were promised. This is true in relation to both the Newman and the Abbott governments. The severe cuts to services and programs by the Newman government have been widely canvassed, but the Abbott government's ineptitude has taken a little while to become clear. It is incredible that it has taken the Abbott government more than five months to say anything or produce a policy of any sort to support our farmers and their communities that have been affected by the drought.