Thursday, 4 February 2016
Tonight I rise on this occasion to inform the parliament about the dreadful drought that has hit rural Australia, particularly in areas across my state of Queensland. People should not take too much from this but we have seen on the news that, in the last 24 hours, there has been some relief of the drought conditions, particularly around places like Urandangi and Dajarra. But it remains the case that that area has been in awful drought for over three years now and, while some rain provides some relief, it does not resolve all of the issues that drought brings.
People in these communities have suffered from floods, to drought, and now floods again. We only have to go back a short while to recall the floods right across Queensland. Cyclone Yasi that followed those floods and since then there has been a very long dry spell. At that time the water came quickly and has left a path of devastation and has done that again. Queensland does tend to be a state where you have extremes. Our thoughts are with those loved ones who are missing and those who will spend the next few days and weeks salvaging their belongings and starting again in spite of the harsh conditions that they face.
Despite this rain, much of the state remains in drought. Drought is nothing new to Queenslanders, but this has been one of the worst in recorded history, stretching into its third year. The Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries declared drought in 36 council areas, with an additional five part-council areas and 40 individual properties added to the list. This represents over 80 per cent of the state. To put that in context, this is an area over five times the size of Great Britain.
The Queensland government has commissioned the Rural Debt and Drought Taskforce to consult with Queensland farmers and drought affected communities and to produce recommendations for a response to this issue. I commend them in their valuable work. Some of the personal stories that came out of these consultations have, quite frankly, been heart-wrenching. People have driven for hours to attend the meetings and tell policymakers just how bad the situation is. In Ayr, the task force met with some 40 farmers. Some broke down in tears while speaking of the effects the drought was having on their families and their livelihoods. The values of their properties have been reduced by up to 30 per cent, which has follow on effects that I will briefly discuss shortly.
The stories from other forums have been similar to those heard by the task force in Ayr. In Dalby, Kevin Hoff told the task force that he was receiving $121 a fortnight in farm assistance. When going to buy a modest $38 worth of groceries to feed his family for the week, he was told that he did not have enough money. At a time when globally, interest rates are at record lows, Kevin's bank informed him that his interest rates were going to be raised to over 16 per cent. He received a foreclosure notice just before Christmas. Many farmers have received similar letters from their financial institutions and are now falling further and further behind in their repayments. Others told the task force that each year they cannot produce a crop, more and more of them will be forced off their farms or face that prospect. Some of these farms have been in the families for many generations, and the distress caused by this occurrence is clear.
The data so far is supporting the stories that these farmers have told. A research economist with the Rural Drought and Debt Taskforce, Ben Reece, has calculated that rural debt in Australia has climbed to $60 billion dollars. AgForce, a peak organisation that lobbies on behalf of primary producers, surveyed their membership and found two-thirds of them felt that this is the worst drought they had ever experienced from a financial point of view—with 11 per cent saying that their debt had more than doubled since the drought began.
Banks have made large debt-to-equity loans to farmers who, as a result of the GFC and the drought, now find that they are insolvent due to the falling value of their land and the higher interest rates banks are demanding to recoup the equity gap. On top of this, many banks have placed confidentiality clauses into the loans so that the task force cannot even be fully informed of just how widespread this problem is. The behaviour of some of these banks is truly disheartening. I would hope all of us in this place could call upon the banks to review their policies and processes to ensure these people are given a fair go when times are tough; that their plight is not compounded by our country's trusted financial institutions; and that they are not making it hard while these people are trying to work through some very difficult circumstances.
Australia exports about 70 per cent of the food we produce. We are helping to feed many overseas but, if we keep losing farms and farmers, eventually we will find that it becomes not a chosen profession by those who spend a significant amount of their time, energy and money creating wealth in food.
Those living in regional towns have not been spared the damage from the drought. With the local farmers unable to generate an income, they are unable to buy the goods and services that are provided by these towns. Local shops have felt the brunt of this as well. So in these areas where drought is prevalent and has been prevalent for a number of years, the community effects are spread wide and far.
The town of Quilpie has had to commence a kangaroo cull as the starving animals come closer and closer to town looking for green pick and water. Trucks have been known to hit them on the main street as they pass through town during the night. All of this adds up to a pretty bleak picture for those who are living in the town, who rely on the town for its services and who also support the town with their purchases.
I would like to take this opportunity to commend the generosity and tireless work done by the Burrumbuttock Hay Runners. These men and women with 120 trucks delivered 5,000 bales of hay from Darlington Point, New South Wales, to Western Queensland—a journey of 1,800 kilometres. The hay, fuel and time were all donated by people who just wanted to help. It was the tenth time that this event had been organised and, as a Queenslander, I say to them, 'Thank you for the work that you do'.
Without rain, however, those living in rural and remote Queensland are going to need more than hay to survive. What we do need is for the task force to spend its time and energy looking for solutions to assist rural communities, which do not generally ask for much. Generally rural communities get on with life, get on despite the hardships; they endure some pretty tough times. However, in this instance it is cognisant for the task force to take an interest, to look into it rather than wait for the rural people to put their hands up. These are very proud people. What the federal government ought to be doing is working with the task force; the agriculture minister ought to spend a bit of time with the task force to investigate ways to assist and provide measures to help those drought affected people in Queensland through a very difficult time. And, by and large, also keep a pretty close and watchful eye on the banks and the practices that they are now undertaking in rural Australia.
What we want to be able to do is find a pathway forward for them through these difficult times of drought in Queensland. The longer I live, the more droughts I see and the more floods I see that follow them, so there is likely to be good news at some point in the future for rural communities, but to be able to sustain them they do need the opportunity of being there, being viable and having the ability to recover after a sustained drought such as this. In that instance, we do need to spend a little bit more time with the federal government talking to the Queensland government and talking to the task force to see what can be done.